published Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Georgia: Bill would allow voters to decide alcohol issue

ATLANTA — In a battle of morality versus modernism, the state Senate signed off on a bill that would allow local governments to ask voters whether to allow the sale of alcohol at grocery and liquor stores on Sundays.

The Senate voted 32-22 in favor of the measure, which languished in committee for weeks before finally making it to the floor on Wednesday — the crossover day deadline by which bills must pass at least one legislative chamber to have a shot at becoming law. Lawmakers faced a marathon session with the Senate and the House plowing through nearly 100 bills before heading home.

The House is set to take up the Senate bill in committee on Monday and it's expected to pass.

Supporters have pushed for years for Sunday sales in Georgia. It is one of just three states that ban stores from selling alcohol on the Sabbath. The effort has faced fierce resistance from religious groups and a veto threat from former Gov. Sonny Perdue. New Gov. Nathan Deal has said he supports Sunday sales as long as communities can decide whether to allow them.

On Wednesday, impassioned arguments ranged from local control for Georgia communities to preserving the Sabbath and saving lives.

"This is not an easy day," said Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who voted against the measure. "There are core principles that are really at war with each other in this legislation."

Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, was among several senators who supported a local vote despite opposing Sunday alcohol sales.

"If it passes and it was on the ballot in Chickamauga ... I would vote against it," Mullis said. "But I am for local control. I can't keep saying that if I don't support this bill. The best defense is to have a good offense. The only way we do that in rural Georgia is to have local control."

Religious groups pressured lawmakers to kill the bill in the General Assembly before it hit Georgia communities. Georgia Christian Coalition President Jerry Luquire said the fight now shifts to about 320 counties and municipalities across the state.

"I just think the lobbyists had more money than we had," Luquire said after the vote. "They were using the local control as a smoke screen to do what they were being told to do. We did not have that kind of influence. Maybe we will at the local level."

As senators clashed in the chamber, the hallway outside the Senate was clogged with lobbyists watching the debate on a television feed.

Lawmakers Wednesday night were scrambling to complete their work on dozens of other bills.

—The Senate had another contentious battle over a bill that would allow a woman to sue her abortion provider if she was not properly informed prior to the procedure. The legislation passed 36-16 after more than 90 minutes of debate. Republican Sen. Barry Loudermilk says the bill doesn't restrict abortions but simply ensures that a provider complies with state law, which includes such requirements as providing a pregnant woman with an image of an ultrasound or letting her hear the fetus' heartbeat. Opponents to the bill say it creates unnecessary obstacles for women seeking a legal health care procedure.

—By a 41-11 tally, the Senate approved legislation that would let the owners or members of a church decide whether they want to allow weapons on their campus or in their place of worship. The proposal passed with four amendments, including two which would allow gun owners with permits to have a concealed weapon in authorized county or municipal government buildings. That would include elected officials. Republican Sen. Frank Ginn of Danielsville says elected officials "are now confronted daily with violence" and have a right to defend themselves.

— The House signed off on a pair of tax breaks for two of Georgia's leading businesses.

Following an hour of debate, the House voted 113-62 to continue an exemption on jet fuel for Delta Air Lines. Democrats argued the profitable company doesn't need a giveaway, especially as the state struggles to balance its budget. Supporters say the state must work to keep Delta and its 27,000 jobs based in Georgia. The bill caps the exemption at $20 million for fiscal year 2012 and $10 million for fiscal year 2011. Delta's current tax break had been set to expire.

The House also extended another tax break benefiting Savannah, Ga.-based Gulfstream Aerospace. A fiscal note attached to the bill says it will cost the state $4.2 million in lost tax revenue in 2012. It extends until 2013 the tax break on the sale of aircraft parts repaired or maintained in Georgia. The measure passed 128-42.

—By a 122-48 vote, the House voted to remove distance restrictions on hunters in South Georgia who lay bait for deer and feral hogs. Currently, hunters can lay bait for deer and hogs but may only hunt them from 200 yards away. Supporters said the change was sought by hunters in the southern part of the state but opponents labeled such hunting unsportsmanlike and unethical.

— House lawmakers also moved to create a 10-member commission to study overhauling Georgia's tough sentencing laws and also to authorize the secretary of state to set the date for Georgia's presidential primary before the second Tuesday in June.

— The Senate, meanwhile, moved to broaden the collection of DNA, approving it 39-13 to require law enforcement to take samples from suspects arrested on felony charge. Samples would be collected after a judge has determined there is probable cause that the suspect is guilty of the crime. If the suspect is found not guilty, the state would be required to get rid of the DNA.

—The Senate also voted 36-14 to prohibit teachers' seniority from determining whether or not they are laid off from Georgia school districts. Under the proposal from state Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams, length of service could no longer be a primary or determining factor in cutting school staff, although it could be among the criteria for making such decisions. School districts in violation of the law would lose some state funding.

— The Senate tabled a bill that would have expanded Georgia's school voucher program to include military families and foster care children, the second time the measure has failed in as many years.

—The House delivered a rebuke to President Barack Obama and his federal health reform law, voting 108-63 to allow Georgia to create alliances with other states on health care. Compact bills have been popping up in several states, pushed by tea party groups as part of a national states' rights push. Democrats argued the bill was about politics not health care. They said supporters were simply trying to snub President Barack Obama and his federal health reform law. The House sent another bill that would have set up health exchanges back to the Rules Committee, scuttling its chances of passing this session. The exchanges are required by the federal health law.

—The House also disappointed environmentalists adopting a bill that allows lawn trimmings to be placed in local landfills. The measure also renews a $1 tire cleanup fee for three more years but failed to guarantee that the money raised will be used to clean up tire dumps as it was originally intended.

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