published Sunday, April 17th, 2011

Alcohol, water bills among key legislation


by Andy Johns

After the General Assembly wrapped up its 40-day session Thursday, several landmark pieces of legislation that could affect North Georgia are on the way to the governor’s desk.

Gov. Nathan Deal’s pen is the last requirement for proposals that could shape the way the state shares its water, influence how people are jailed, change the way businesses hire immigrants and decide whether local governments can allow alcohol to be sold on Sunday.

But while many lawmakers are proud to talk about the bills that made it through, several said they were disappointed about the session’s biggest failure — not moving forward on tax reform.

“We’ve gone back to the drawing board,” said Rep. Roger Williams, R-Dalton.

House members had hoped to take action on the tax overhaul during the session, but Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, took the reform bill off the table when the underlying figures supporting the bill were called into question. The bill would have changed the tax code to add taxes on some services and products while scaling back the personal income tax rate.

“I think it’s something that we wanted bad,” said Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, who represents Pickens, Gordon and Bartow counties. “We just can’t move until we’ve got numbers we can rely on.”

Legislators didn’t even touch redistricting, which many had said would be the biggest battle of the year, choosing instead to redraw the district lines at a special session this summer.

Williams and others suggest that tax reform could be revived then but, for the most part, only the bills passed during the session will see the light of day this year.

CRIME AND COURTS

Lawmakers passed several bills that affect the criminal justice system, including a bill supported by Deal to study how nonviolent drug offenders can be sentenced.

“This could very well be the most important legislation I’ve ever been involved in,” said Rep. Jay Neal, R-LaFayette, who sponsored the bill.

Neal’s House Bill 265 sets up a council to conduct a yearlong study on how to fix an overcrowded prison system and establish more specific courts for nonviolent offenders.

“That’s a direction we need to go in,” said Conasauga Judicial Circuit District Attorney Kermit McManus. “But it’s going to be difficult for some people to buy into.”

The Conasauga Circuit runs one of the few drug courts in the state, a program McManus said has curbed repeat offenders.

Neal received a “Compassionate Conservative” award from left-leaning Creative Loafing magazine in Atlanta for his work on the bill.

Other legislation could help cut down on the abuse of prescription drugs and restrict where cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine — a prime ingredient in methamphetamine — can be sold.

After weeks of debate, a bill that would set up an electronic prescription monitoring program passed on the last day of the session. Law enforcement and bill backers said the program will help regulate people who doctor shop to get prescriptions and also doctors who prescribe painkillers loosely.

Some law enforcement authorities argue prescription drug abuse is becoming the worst drug problem in the state.

While the bill will be tougher than Tennessee’s law and require that police have a search warrant to look at a patient’s electronic prescription record, the program still will be helpful, said Rick Allen, director of the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency.

Another bill would ban a synthetic hallucinogen disguised as bath salts and also mandate that cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine be sold only in pharmacies.

Most of the pseudoephedrine used in meth labs in North Georgia already comes from pharmacies, but the bill could eliminate about 5 percent of meth labs, said Pat Doyle, deputy commander of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force.

“Those are important issues, since we’ve kind of been noted as the meth capital of Georgia,” Williams said.

WATER, ENERGY and JOBS

The Republican-dominated legislature, led by Northwest Georgia lawmakers, also set out this session to secure water resources for the state and to lower the cost of energy for businesses, particularly carpet manufacturers around Dalton and Calhoun.

Williams sponsored a bill that would have removed the sales tax on electric bills for manufacturers, which he and others said would have helped create jobs. The bill did not come up for a vote, and Williams said he is hopeful the energy tax will be repealed in the tax reform bill this summer.

Jasperse said the bill was particularly important in Northwest Georgia because mining and carpet, two of the region’s signature industries, are very energy dependent. By cutting companies’ utility costs, the firms could, in theory, invest more in employees or new plants.

“You want to see people with more money in their pockets,” he said.

The legislature also dived into water issues, passing bills restricting transfers of water from one water basin to another, opening a study on pumping water out of the Tennessee River basin and paving the way for public-private partnerships to build reservoirs to store and sell water.

Jasperse said the reservoir partnership law was a big one because it could help “water poor” areas such as Pickens County build reservoirs through private funding sources rather than governments issuing bonds or hiking taxes. He said the bill could draw investors or entrepreneurs to some of Northwest Georgia’s flooded quarries.

“I think that’s where we’re going,” he said.

In another bill, spearheaded by Williams and Rep. Tom Dickson, R-Cohutta, legislators tried to change the rules on businesses advertising “wholesale prices,” something many carpet dealers do on billboards along Interstate 75.

Last fall, several dealers received notices from the Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection telling them to stop calling themselves wholesalers or face legal action. Current regulations define wholesale as selling to someone for resale, as opposed to the end consumer.

A bill was introduced but didn’t make it through the House. Williams said he and other legislators plan to meet with business owners and the consumer protection office to try to work out a solution later this year.

IMMIGRATION

The immigration bill would require some businesses to check their employees’ immigration status with the federal E-Verify system. The bill also would give state and local police more authority with immigration enforcement.

With a large immigrant population in Whitfield County, the bill is especially important in Northwest Georgia, said Dickson, who voted in favor of it.

“What is important to the people in our communities determines what we’re going to work for in session and certainly illegal immigration is important to many, many people in the three counties I represent,” said Dickson, who represents parts of Catoosa, Whitfield and Murray.

The bill passed late Thursday, but Dickson said that didn’t mean it had been out of sight, out of mind.

“It’s not like they wrote the bill in January and it sat there until the last day of the session when we voted on it,” he said. “It was changing, sometimes daily, sometimes weekly.”

SUNDAY SALES

If signed into law, the historic Sunday sales bill will put Georgia among 47 other states that allow local residents to vote on whether their city or county will permit alcohol sales at stores on Sundays.

The local House members, who often vote along the same lines, were split 4-4 on the topic with Williams being a loud proponent.

“This bill is only a vehicle. It does nothing until acted on as a referendum,” he said. “You’re letting your people vote on it; it’s not about whether you drink.”

Some city officials, including in Dalton, already have said the vote will be on the ballot as soon as possible once Deal signs it.

But Jasperse and Rep. Barbara Massey Reece, D-Menlo, said they voted against it because their constituents have a “respect for Sunday.”

“I think it comes back to your religious beliefs,” said Reece.

Jasperse agreed.

“I think you have to look at where you’re from and see what your people say they want,” Jasperse said. “It’s not anti-business; it’s just one of these cultural pride things.”

about Andy Johns...

Andy began working at the Times Free Press in July 2008 as a general assignment reporter before focusing on Northwest Georgia and Georgia politics in May of 2009. Before coming to the Times Free Press, Andy worked for the Anniston Star, the Rome News Tribune and the Campus Carrier at Berry College, where he graduated with a communications degree in 2006. He is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Tennessee ...

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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