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Our Views: Crossing over into sanity
State legislators get serious, pass bills on education, ethics that are welcomed
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson

Lawmakers in the General Assembly worked a busy day Thursday to keep their proposals alive on Crossover Day, the deadline when a bill must pass one chamber to make it into law.

And in what has been a workmanlike, mostly productive session, lawmakers did just that, passing some key bills well before the clock struck midnight.

This is a new and welcome trend. Like others, we criticize when legislators fail to address key problems and instead fill the 40-day session with nonsense bills aimed to curry favor with special interests and stir up voters.

But something has changed, for the better. Many of the grandstanders have faded away, leaving grown-ups in charge. Where we once had a governor and speaker who were barely speaking, we now have cooperation between branches. Where once a Senate coup aimed to undercut the lieutenant governor, now leaders are on the same page.

Georgia Republicans, it seems, have learned how to govern. It took a few years, perhaps understandable considering they spent some 130 years out of power. But they mostly have worked out the kinks and found a way to address issues in a pragmatic, effective way.

Some credit goes to a governor, Nathan Deal, more intent on fixing problems than padding his resume. Unlike his predecessor, he has remained engaged with the legislature and created a working relationship that is getting things done.

The jury’s still out on some issues — a state budget still must be passed — but some of the legislation that came out of Crossover Day made sense ... at least when lawmakers weren’t preoccupied with firearms.

The most positive moves came in education, a welcome focus considering the state’s ongoing challenges in that key area. One would lower the grade-point standard for students seeking HOPE grants for technical college. The minimum GPA was raised to 3.0 two years ago when HOPE funds were dwindling, and as a result, tech college enrollment slipped. With lottery revenues rising, the House restored the 2.0 standard for HOPE grants. It should easily pass the Senate and be signed by Deal.

This is a positive step for students who don’t excel in traditional classroom settings but can benefit from a technical college education. In recent years, public high schools strayed from their goal of putting students on a successful career path and focused chiefly on preparation for college. But college isn’t for everyone, and while we clearly need teachers, scientists and engineers, our diverse economy also needs electricians, plumbers and mechanics to run properly.

Giving students more inclined toward those careers the financial boost they need makes sense all around; it guides them toward a career-focused education, should boost technical school enrollment and gives the state’s expanding manufacturing base a ready workforce when they graduate.

Another plan would boost the HOPE’s coffers by allowing the state lottery to manage video poker machines, a popular gambling outlet that often goes unregulated. Three cherries to that; anything that expands scholarship funds to more Georgia students is a winner.

The Senate also took a needed step by tightening rules on tax credits for charter schools. Loopholes were closed that ensure such help goes to those who need it most.

And we also welcome the legislature’s first legitimate attempt to create an ethics standard for lawmakers and lobbyists. The House bill that would ban gifts for individual lawmakers is a good first step, and while some holes remain in the plan (lobbyists still can provide trips in some cases, and wine and dine entire committees), it’s clear the speaker and other leaders were paying attention when Georgia voters overwhelmingly approved such limits in a nonbinding referendum last year.

Now the two chambers need to work out the differences in their ethics plans (the Senate proposal would cap gifts at $100). They should find common ground to work out a bill that allows private Georgians and legitimate lobbyists to bend the ears of lawmakers without it becoming a big private party or a “ticket tree” filling stadium luxury suites with our elected employees.

But then there was the whole gun thing. As we’ve said, passing stronger gun control laws likely will have little effect on stopping random acts of violence; those bent on mayhem are going to find weapons, and limiting access to law-abiding citizens won’t stop that. Fully enforcing the laws already in place should suffice and remain in compliance with the Second Amendment.

But the House bill that would allow school administrators to arm employees, give bars and churches discretion to allow patrons to pack heat and loosen restrictions on those seeking treatment for mental illness or substance abuse is an overreaction in the other direction.

It seems lawmakers were more intent on sending a message to the federal government than making society safer. That said, it probably is just that and will have little effect; it’s hard to imagine many school principals passing out Uzis.

All told, the legislature is close to wrapping up the kind of session we’ve been asking for: Stick to business, address problems wisely, spend money like it’s your own and behave yourself.

It never was too much to ask, and for a change, the results are encouraging. Now let’s see what the next 10 days bring.

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