This Week Under the Gold Dome: Sine Die Draws Near

The pace at the Gold Dome picked up last week as the end of the 2015 Session nears. Dozens of bills worked their way towards the end of the legislative process including legislation impacting our schools, the civil rights of Georgians, our environment, and our beer.

House Approves Opportunity School District, Decision Will Go To Voters In 2016

On Wednesday, the House voted 121-47 to approve a constitutional amendment creating a separate school district exclusive to schools with poor test scores. Last week, we discussed why this legislation was not the best course of action to address the needs of primarily minority students and students in poverty.

We noted that the establishment of a state-run school district would remove accountability from local officials and limit the impact parents can have on schools in their community. The plan also uses an accountability model, the College and Career Readiness Performance Index, that is still being tweaked and provides only a snapshot of all the activities happening in our schools. Lastly, the enabling legislation requires that the state-run school district be funded by withholding 3 percent of funding from the schools it takes over. These schools have already endured over a decade of cuts.

With the passage of Senate Resolution 287 and its enabling legislation, Senate Bill 133, voters will have the last word on the creation of a new statewide school district. The question will appear as a referendum during the 2016 General Election next November.

House Committee Tables Religious Freedom Restoration Act Amidst National Criticism

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee tabled Senate Bill 129, legislation billed as a protection of religious rights of Georgians. After passage in the Senate, the bill was assigned to the Judiciary committee and subjected to intense debate about its specifics. The breaking point for the proposal came when the committee adopted an amendment that would protect against “discrimination on any ground prohibited by federal, state or local law.” The sponsor of the bill, Senator Josh McKoon, said that the amendment “negates the purpose of the bill.” Another committee hearing to reconsider the amendment was cancelled Sunday, likely ending the proposal’s chance for this legislative session.

Criticism of the legislation has focused on the potential for the proposal to legalize discrimination on the basis of religious conviction. Opponents of the bill argue that enactment would allow business to refuse services to certain consumers, such as the refusal to provide a wedding cake or wedding photography to same-sex couples. LGBT-rights groups point out that the inclusion of an anti-discrimination amendment or the establishment of sexual orientation as a protected class under state law would alleviate some concerns surrounding the bill.

Proponents of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act cite the need to enact state law that protects the freedom of Georgians to exercise their religious beliefs. They note that the intent of the legislation is not to legalize discrimination.

Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed similar protections for religious expression into law for the Hoosier state last week. When asked on ABC’s This Week if the law allows a Christian bakery to refuse service to a same-sex couple, he responded by criticizing the media’s coverage of the law and the criticism of his state.

House Rejects Proposal Prohibiting Cities From Banning Plastic Bags

In a proposal inviting too many double-negatives, the House rejected legislation that would prohibit local governments from banning plastic bags. The result is the protection of existing local control.

Because of environmental concerns, including the concerns over chemicals used in the production of non-biodegradable plastic bags, local officials here in Athens have discussed a fee on the bags to discourage their use. Senate Bill 139 would have prevented the county from implementing such an ordinance.

House Adopts Watered Down Version of Beer Jobs Bill

Lastly, the House adopted Senate Bill 63 that would relax current regulations on breweries like Terrapin and Creature Comforts in Athens. The legislation would allow for the direct sale of up to a six-pack of beer to patrons who pay a fee to tour a brewery. The debate over the legislation is far from over as the Senate adopted a bill with significant differences from the House version.

Earlier during session, we discussed the challenges facing smaller breweries that are created by the current system of regulations. We’ll keep you updated as this and other proposals move towards the finish line.

This week will be the final week of the 2015 Session. The House will convene for Day 39 on Tuesday and Day 40 on Thursday. As always, the workload before the House will increase dramatically over the final week with session on Thursday likely lasting late into the evening. We’ll provide an update on the major questions still facing the legislature at week’s end.

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