Georgia lawmakers leave town with betting, vouchers, medical cannabis undone

The final day of the Georgia legislative session comes with many traditions, like throwing fistfuls of paper, wearing seersucker suits in early spring and, in recent years, failing to pass a bill to allow for medical cannabis.

Sine Die, pronounced “see-nay dee-ay” in Latin but “Sigh-nee Die” in Georgia, typically sees lawmakers scramble to get their favorite bills past the finish line before the 40-day session expires.

The legislature’s only constitutionally required job is to pass the state’s budget. This year, the House and Senate approved a $32.4 billion spending plan.

Here’s a look at what other legislation made the cut — and what didn’t — in the last 24 hours of this year’s convening of lawmakers under the Gold Dome in Atlanta.

VOUCHERS

Fans of school vouchers were hoping this would be the year Georgia would finally expand its nascent program to use millions in state taxpayer money for private school tuition.

Supporters say the plan would allow parents the choice to take their children out of poorly performing public schools. Opponents call the plans a trick to siphon money from public education to less accountable private schools.

The plan got further along in the process than any other voucher plan in recent years, passing the Senate on a party line vote, but it failed in the House, where a handful of Republicans joined nearly all Democrats to scuttle the bill.

MENTAL HEALTH

A closely watched mental health bill stalled this year after getting caught up in the end-of-session politics between the legislature’s two chambers, though the Senate did end up passing a small portion of the measure before the clock ran out. That bill remains alive for next year, and proponents vowed to continue working on it.

“I’m disappointed, again, that the value that we saw in the mental health legislation was not shared in the Senate,” House Speaker Jon Burns of Newington told reporters after the final gavel. “It was not able to be moved forward. So we’ll continue to work together. We’ll continue to work with all the senators, not just the lieutenant governor, to ensure they see the value in the propositions we put forward that impact every family in this state.”

CRIME

Lawmakers late Wednesday sent Gov. Brian Kemp a law-and-order bill that stiffens prison sentences for street gang offenses.

Sen. Bo Hatchett’s anti-gang bill imposes a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for street gang offenses and a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for recruiting minors, meaning those convicted will not be eligible for reduced time. Hatchett is a Republican from Cornelia.

Sen. Randy Robertson’s Senate Bill 63 would have added more than 30 criminal charges to the list of offenses that require a person arrested to put up a cash bail or property as collateral in order to be released from jail. Robertson is a Republican for Cataula.

Democrats said the bills could result in harsh sentences for people convicted of minor crimes, reversing years of progress in criminal justice reform.

CANNABIS

A planned fix for Georgia’s medical cannabis distribution fizzled in the Senate after senators were affronted at a 50-plus page bill that the House sent to their desks.

Parts of the bill were aimed at allowing the secretary of agriculture’s office to grant more licenses to produce low-THC oil for patients on a registry with serious illnesses. It would also abolish the state Medical Cannabis Commission and provide new regulations on hemp products.

Athens Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert said it would be impossible for lawmakers to know what was in the bill.

“We are known as a deliberative body,” he said. “This is making a mockery of deliberations. You will remember back before Crossover Day, parts of this bill were on our floor, the hemp bill, and it was such a disaster, it ended up being reconsidered, being tabled, never got out of this chamber. This has been on our desk literally maybe two minutes before it was called up, three minutes, I haven’t had a chance to even read it.”

Crossover Day, which this year was March 6, is the legislature’s self-imposed deadline for a bill to get a vote in at least one chamber.

SPORTS BETTING CRAPS OUT

The 2023 legislative session ended just past midnight without the Senate considering a bill legalizing sports betting.

Lawmakers wagered political capitol on several failed attempts this session to open up the state to letting adults bet on sporting events. The last attempt, House Bill 237, never reached a full Senate vote.

A variety of sports betting bills failed to make it out of either chamber, from online wagering to voting on-site at licensed locations and other events via kiosks to a push to open up several horse race tracks.

The final gambit steered by Republican Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and Economic Development and Tourism Committee Chairman Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, was to tack sports betting onto a bill sponsored by Lyons Republican Rep. Leesa Hagan, who intended to get the Southeast Georgia city’s 31-year-old soapbox derby declared the state’s official version of the homespun event.

A hijacked HB 237 called for the Georgia Lottery Corp. to have oversight over sports betting and for the revenue to be used for the same purpose as the state lottery’s Hope collegiate scholarship and Pre-K programs.

Legislators ban direct donations to local election offices

In a vote 31-21, Republicans passed Senate Bill 222, which prohibits nonprofits and outside organizations from donating directly to city and county election offices. The COVID-19 outbreak disrupted the 2020 election cycle, resulting in millions pouring from foundations and other organizations to support local elections in Georgia.

Republican Sen. Max Burns of Sylvania dismissed Democratic legislators’ accusations that the bill penalizes mainly urban and Democratic-majority counties that were able to use donations in 2020 to recruit election staff, purchase equipment and keep more polling sites open.

Burns said the bill is meant to close a loophole in the law that allowed county commissions to receive campaign donations directly. As a result of his bill, private donations can be funneled through a State Election Board, which will decide how the funds are allocated for city and county elections in a more equitable system, he said.

Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat, said the new provision will make it harder for county election offices facing budget constraints and saddled by the state with unfunded mandates because of the GOP-led election law overhaul in 2021.

The final version of the bill no longer requires DeKalb County to return $2 million in donations received this year as part of a nationwide collaboration with election officials and experts.

Read more at GeorgiaRecorder.com.

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