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Georgia legislature opens 2016 session
Lawmakers expected to focus on education, gambling, religious freedom this year
W Georgia General Assem Heal
State Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, right, talks with Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Albany, on the House floor during the first day of the legislative session Monday. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA - Georgia lawmakers opened the legislative session Monday at the Capitol in Atlanta, with most action taking place outside the House and Senate chambers. Opening day of the session is typically dominated by ceremony, and the 2016 kickoff was no exception, including a visit from Betty Cantrell, the Georgian named "Miss America" for 2016.

Lawmakers are expected to focus on education, proposed constitutional amendments expanding gambling and contentious bills regarding religious freedom during the session.

Here's a look at Monday's action and a preview of the week ahead:

Aggressive schedule

House and Senate leaders hope to adjourn for the year by March 24, letting members return to their districts early and focus on re-election campaigns. Georgia's campaign finance law prevents lawmakers from raising or accepting campaign donations during the session, motivation to wrap up the year quickly.

House and Senate members approved a schedule Monday for the General Assembly's first 13 working days.

Lawmakers meet for 40 working days each year, starting on the second Monday in January. Days that the House and Senate don't meet don't count toward that total, but budget and other committee hearings can be held on those days.

Georgia's General Assembly operates on a biennial schedule, meaning all bills approved by one chamber but not voted on by the other before the 2015 session ended remain alive. Lawmakers also can introduce new proposals.

Medical marijuana

Rep. Allen Peake's bill allowing state-licensed medical marijuana manufacturers to operate in the state got a strong show of support from House members on Monday. By mid-afternoon, Peake's bill had 85 signatures out of 180 House members, including two powerful Republican committee chairmen, Rep. John Meadows and Rep. Terry England.

Meadows chairs the House Rules committee, responsible for determining which bills will be voted on by the chamber each day. England chairs the House Appropriations committee, working with his Senate counterpart to develop a budget proposal and get it through the legislature by Day 40. House Speaker Davis Ralston told reporters last week that he supports Peake's bill.

State law, thanks to changes approved by lawmakers in 2015, allows people with certain medical conditions and a doctor's permission to possess medical cannabis oil. But the product can't legally be manufactured in Georgia, and it's also risky to transport it from states where production is legal.

Peake's proposal would allow between two and six medical-cannabis manufacturers to be licensed by the state and serve people with certain medical conditions. It also expands the list of conditions currently allowed to possess the products.

Deal's agenda

Gov. Nathan Deal has said he plans to focus on education during the second year of his final four-year term in office. He hasn't discussed specific priorities yet, but that will change this week. Deal, a Republican, joins other top officials Tuesday morning at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce's annual "Eggs & Issues" breakfast and has scheduled a news conference on transportation for later in the day.

The governor is also set to deliver his State of the State address on Wednesday at the Capitol, his first opportunity to address all lawmakers about his budget proposal and other priorities.

Deal convened a commission that began meeting last year to examine the state's education system including how the state funds school, teacher pay and charter schools. Linking teacher pay to students' performance was among dozens of recommendations by the panel, quickly sparking opposition from teachers' organizations in the state and questions from top lawmakers including House Speaker David Ralston.

Gay marriage

A bill pitting religious conservatives against the state's business community and gay rights organizations remains in a House committee, where it stalled last year when supporters objected to the addition of anti-discrimination language.

The proposed "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" would forbid government from infringing on a person's religious beliefs unless the government can prove a compelling interest. It would cover individuals, closely held companies such as Hobby Lobby and religious organizations.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling last summer that effectively legalized gay marriage nationwide. Two Georgia bills in response to that ruling are expected to surface within the first two weeks of the legislative session.

Rep. Kevin Tanner, R- is working with House Speaker David Ralston's office on a bill known as the "Pastor Protection Act." Ralston told reporters last week that the bill ensures religious officials aren't required to perform wedding ceremonies that conflict with their religious views. The bill also would cover religious properties.

Tanner said he's hoping to introduce the bill this week.

State Sen. Greg Kirk, a Republican from Americus and former Southern Baptist preacher, said he's still working on a bill protecting government employees who object to same-sex marriage. Kirk said he plans to introduce the bill early this session, as soon as this week or next week.



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