ATLANTA (AP) - 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 for the year. 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 approved legislation that would require people seeking food stamps to earn their GED, pursue technical education, attend self-development classes or enroll in adult literacy classes to receive benefits. 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 exempt: 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 expected to cost $772 million.
People seeking welfare benefits would have to pass a drug test, under separate bills adopted by House and Senate lawmakers. If money was available, the House version would also 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 indefinitely stopped. Supporters said the bill would make sure addicts are not using state money to buy drugs and encourage drug-addicted parents to seek help.
"We've done a good thing in carrying out our responsibility of making sure that the dollars of this state are being spent in the manner they are intended to," said Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City.
Rep. Rashad Taylor, D-Atlanta, said the legislation was based on an unproven premise and added that testing could cost the state money.
"This bill is not about children - this bill is about a stereotype," Taylor said. "There's some idea out there that just because you're poor that you're going to be strung out on drugs."
The Senate's women Democrats balked at a pair of bills they said were unnecessary and disrespectful.
In a dramatic vote, the Senate approved legislation that would ban abortion coverage under the state employees' health care plan. All seven of the chamber's Democratic women made statements opposing the bill before locking arms in the Senate well and leaving the chamber upon passage of the vote.
"We felt that it was necessary to stand with all female state employees to let them know we were with them in these difficult times - the times of not having raises in the last seven years of even the cost of living, with their portion of the health plan continuing to go up, us sitting down and saying we're going to cherry pick from the health plan a possibly needed procedure," Sen. Horacena Tate, D-Atlanta, said after the vote.
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. 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.
The legislation was filed in response to a recent Obama administration decision that seeks to guarantee employees of religion-affiliated institutions reproductive health coverage, which would include contraception.
Assisted suicide would become illegal under a bill that House lawmakers passed in response to a state Supreme Court ruling this year that struck down a 1994 law banning people from publicly advertising suicide. The law was adopted by lawmakers hoping to prevent right-to-die supporters from offering their services in the state. That ruling meant that four members of the Final Exit Network who were charged with helping a 58-year-old cancer patient die won't have to stand trial.
Under the proposal, assisting in a suicide would be a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
"This is an issue that we as a state cannot ignore," said Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth.
The House voted unanimously to approve a bill that would strengthen the visitation rights for grandparents whose grandchildren are involved in divorce or custody cases. The legislation sponsored by Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, would encourage judges to provide for visits between grandparents and children, especially when the grandparents have financially supported a child for a year or regularly visited with them.
State spending would rise to roughly $19.2 billion under a Republican-sponsored spending plan adopted by House lawmakers that's now headed to the state Senate. While it largely follows a spending plan from GOP Gov. Nathan Deal, the House plan trimmed $5 million to improve parking facilities at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta and $10 million for the College Football Hall of Fame. Instead, that money would be redirected to a project at Valdosta State University. Rep. Terry England, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the repurposed bond money had been approved in previous years but was never used. He said the decision could be reconsidered if the College Football Hall of Fame moves forward.
The budget would also fund a new Tax Court that specializing in resolving tax disputes.
Still on the agenda after more than 12 hours of debate and action was a proposal that would expand the state's special needs voucher to include military families and children in foster care.
The Senate could consider on Wednesday whether to approve a change to Georgia's constitution so the state could create more charter schools, although that measure has already been approved by House lawmakers and is exempt from the 30-day deadline.
If that amendment is passed by lawmakers, it would have to be approved by Georgia residents in a November referendum.