published Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Georgia lawmakers pass deadline to move bills

Speaker of the Georgia House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, right, talks with Chairman of the House Rules Committee Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, during session at the state Capitol on Wednesday in Atlanta.
Speaker of the Georgia House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, right, talks with Chairman of the House Rules Committee Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, during session at the state Capitol on Wednesday in Atlanta.
Photo by Associated Press.

ATLANTA — Lawmakers approved a flood of legislation Wednesday ahead of a deadline to pass bills or see them fail, including provisions that would exempt religious employers from paying for birth control and requirements that people getting government assistance pass drug tests and get career training.

Social issues -- which likely will be popular on the campaign trail when members of the GOP-controlled Legislature return to their districts later this spring -- shared the spotlight with priorities like the state budget.

Republicans and Democrats in both chambers sparred over a packed calendar, with both chambers scheduled to consider more than 60 bills and resolutions on the marathon 30th day of the General Assembly's 40-day session.

Known as Crossover Day, it is the deadline for lawmakers to get their bills approved by at least one chamber in the Legislature or risk those bills falling off the agenda. There are some notable exceptions, including bills that would change the state's tax structure and overhaul its criminal justice system in an attempt to save money.

The Georgia Senate passed legislation that would require food stamp recipients to earn their GED, pursue technical education, attend self-development classes or enroll in adult literacy classes. Sen. William Ligon, the bill's sponsor, said the legislation is intended to help underemployed Georgians get the professional development training they need to better themselves. Opponents slammed the proposal as an onerous burden on an already strained population.

If passed, the law would not apply to: People under 16 or over 59; the mentally or physically disabled; caretakers of dependent children or adults; people who work at least 30 hours a week; students; participants in alcohol or drug rehabilitation programs or people receiving unemployment benefits. The Department of Human Services would first create a five-county pilot program before taking the initiative statewide.

The Department of Audits and Accounts estimates the pilot program cost at $23 million, with statewide implementation to cost $772 million.

People seeking welfare benefits would have to pass a drug test, under a bill adopted by House lawmakers. If money was available, the bill also would require that welfare recipients pass at least one random drug test every two years. Those who fail the tests would see their benefits suspended or stopped.

Also in the Senate, a proposal giving an exemption for providing birth control to health care providers with a religious affiliation passed by a vote of 38-15, with objection from Senate Democrats, including several women senators. Similar bills filed recently in Idaho, Missouri and Arizona echo a separate proposal in the U.S. Congress that would exempt insurance plans from the contraception requirement if they have moral objections.

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