published Thursday, March 7th, 2013

Georgia lawmakers vote on guns, HOPE amid key deadline

ATLANTA — People with a driver’s license could carry guns in bars, churches and college campuses under legislation given initial approval Thursday by Georgia lawmakers just ahead of a critical deadline.

The frantic day of voting came on what state lawmakers call “Crossover Day,” the 30th day of Georgia’s annual 40-day legislative session. Under internal rules, any bills not approved by at least one chamber of the General Assembly by Thursday were at risk of failing for the year. There are some exceptions to the rule.

House Republicans voted 117-56 to approve legislation expanding the places where people can carry guns. The legislation now heads to the state Senate. Under the plan, school administrators could arm their employees, a move that Republican backers say would deter attacks on school. It would also allow people who have received voluntary inpatient care at a mental hospital or substance center to receive a license to carry a weapon. Right now, judges have discretion over whether to issue licenses to those applicants.

Judges would be required to check whether applicants have received involuntary treatment and could refuse to issue licenses in those cases.

“... Until our government can unconditionally ensure our safety, I will fight for your right and my right to protect ourselves and our family,” said Rep. Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, the House majority leader. “And as long as bad guys have guns, I’ll fight for good guys to have guns.”

Democrats urged lawmakers to reject the bill, referring to recent massacres in Colorado and Connecticut.

“I have a hard time understanding why we are responding to a series of tragedies by expanding the likelihood of danger,” said Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates. “....Carrying a gun makes one more likely to be shot. Policy should be based on facts, not on rhetoric or assumption.”

Among education bills, House lawmakers voted to lower grade requirements for those seeking HOPE grants to attend the state’s technical colleges. Two years ago, state lawmakers raised the grade point average to 3.0 to address what was then a decline in lottery revenues that fund the HOPE program. Since then, the technical college system has seen a notable decline in enrollment as students lost access to the grants.

The plan passed Thursday would return the qualifying grade point average to 2.0. The bill now heads to the Senate and is likely to pass since it has bipartisan support and the backing of legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Nathan Deal.

Supporters say an increase in lottery revenues allows for the change and the move could benefit several thousand students at an estimated cost of $5 million to $8 million annually.

“This is designed to help the people of our state, many of whom are returning back to school to get the job skills they need during these tough economic times,” said Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta.

Senate lawmakers took up changes to a tax credit program that provides scholarships for children to attend private schools. The changes, which passed unanimously, include a reporting requirement on the average household income of recipients and a requirement that eligible students must have attended public school for at least six weeks with a few exceptions.

Under the program created a few years ago, people can receive state tax credits by giving nonprofit scholarship providers donations of up to $1,000 for individuals and up to $2,500 for married couples.

The Southern Education Foundation had raised concerns that donors may have been allowed to earmark donations, although supporters had argued that was prohibited under the law. The Senate bill would add language specifically prohibiting that.

The bill would keep the current $50 million cap on the program, although the existing law allows for cost-of-living adjustments. A bill in the Georgia House that would increase the cap and provide for an expansion of the program has stalled.

Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, said he does not support the program but worked to make key changes to improve the existing law.

“It is an improvement, but it does not do everything we need it to do,” Carter said.

The bill moves to the House for consideration.

In other bills, the Senate approved a proposal that would require nurses to report alleged professional violations by their colleagues. The bill also requires nursing agencies and health care entities that employ nurses to report to the state anytime a nurse is fired or resigns for disciplinary reasons.

The rules are intended to strengthen enforcement of nursing standards by the state’s two primary nursing boards. They are the Georgia Board of Nursing and the Georgia Board of Examiners of Licensed Practical Nurses.

The bill passed without opposition and now heads to the House.

The Senate also voted to ban Georgia law enforcement agencies from setting minimum waiting periods before they will act on a reported missing person case.

The bill clarifies the statewide alert system can be used for a person whose medical conditions could explain their disappearance. The measure passed without opposition and now goes to the House.

The new law would be named for Stacey Nicole English, an Atlanta woman who suffered from mental illness when she disappeared in December 2011. Her body was found weeks later, and an autopsy showed she died from exposure to the cold.

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