ATLANTA — The clock is running out on the Georgia legislative session, with representatives and senators yet to agree on a state budget, changes to gun regulations and an overhaul of lobbying rules.
The nastiest fight revolves around lobbyists and how much they can spend trying to influence state government. Georgia currently has no cap on what lobbyists can spend, as long as they publicly disclose their activity.
The Senate passed its version of spending limits Friday without opposition, and several senators mocked House Speaker David Ralston's effort on House Bill 142 as insufficient.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle chided the House after the Senate vote, telling senators the House can't take up the issue again until next week "because they've already gone home. Looks like they got a little frightened."
Ralston returned the sentiment after the vote, repeating his claim that the Senate is engaging in "hypocrisy" and "gimmicks."
The two sides have until next Thursday to settle on a final version. "Conference committees" with members from both chambers craft a compromise version. Both chambers must approve the same draft for any bill to pass. Any bills that haven't passed by final adjournment are dead for the year.
Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, says he wants an outright ban on lobbying gifts, though his version has several exceptions.
The speaker would still allow gifts — with no cap — when lobbyists spend on entire committees, subcommittees and legislative caucuses. And he'd allow travel for official duties, except airline costs.
The Senate plan would, generally speaking, limit lobbyists to spending $100 at a time trying to influence state officials. A parade of senators crowed that they also were eliminating Ralston's list of exceptions.
The Senate version, however, doesn't attach any time period to the $100 limit, meaning a lobbyist could, theoretically, spend $100 several times a day on the same lawmakers or other official. And, Ralston points out, senators added their own broad exception: unlimited spending on "events," without defining just what that is.
"The Senate bill is a cap that's not a cap and a ban that's not a ban," the speaker said.
Legislative leaders said a conference committee began work on the state operating budget within hours of the Senate passing its version Friday afternoon. Ralston and Senate budget chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, said the chambers aren't that far apart. The Senate adopted its proposal Friday.
Both chambers propose spending almost $41 billion in state and federal money during the fiscal year that begins July 1. And both versions are fundamentally similar to Gov. Nathan Deal's proposed budget.
Each house approved cuts to most state agencies. But they also endorsed Deal's proposals to spend more to extend the pre-kindergarten calendar from 170 days to 180 days and to add money to HOPE grants for technical college. Both versions add enough money to K-12 education to cover enrollment growth and increases in teacher health insurance.
The House version rejected Deal's recommendation to cut payments to health care providers treating Medicaid recipients. The Senate scaled back Deal's cut, but didn't eliminate it. Instead, they direct new money to charter schools.
On guns, the House voted 116-66 on Friday to support a proposal that would allow some mentally ill people to legally carry a firearm. The legislation, backed by a group called GeorgiaCarry.org, would permit probate court judges to issue such a license to people who have received voluntary, in-patient treatment for mental health or substance abuse issues in the last five years. Right now, judges can deny permits to those people.
It would also allow school districts to arm their employees, a Republican-backed response to a massacre at a Connecticut elementary school. Other provisions would allow students with a license to carry a gun to take their firearms on parts of public colleges and universities, though not student house or athletic events. College leaders have objected to that plan.
"The gun-free zones that we see today give our citizens a false sense of security," said Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula. "We all know that criminals who want to harm law-abiding citizens ... they carry their guns regardless of what our state law says. They don't walk into a mall and say, 'Can I carry a gun?'"
By contrast, the state Senate earlier approved less-sweeping changes. Their original legislation, backed by the National Rifle Association, would have required that Georgia recognize licenses to carry a weapon issued by other states. It would have banned local governments from forbidding residents to own guns.