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Transit overhaul a top issue for state legislators
Wednesday deadline looms for many bills
Georgia state seal W

ATLANTA — Wednesday marks a key deadline for Georgia lawmakers, since bills need pass at least one chamber by then to remain alive for the session, which ends in late March.

There are ways around the looming deadline, but legislators try to pass as many bills as possible and are expected to work late into the night.

Here is a look at some of the top issues that could come up by Wednesday:

Metro Atlanta transit

The House and Senate Transportation Committees on Thursday both advanced similar proposals that would establish a regional transit authority, called the ATL, aimed at improving metro Atlanta's commuting infrastructure.

Each measure is expected to see a vote before their respective chambers early next week.

Under the House version, the ATL would be responsible for creating a plan to tackle the region's mounting transit concerns and would have the authority to approve access to new sources of funding.

The sponsor of the House bill, chairman of the House Transportation Committee Kevin Tanner, a Dawsonville Republican, said the House and Senate transit groups have been in consultation, but substantial differences remain between the two chambers' bills.

Under both plans, existing providers — including MARTA — would maintain some operational autonomy, but the entire system would be rebranded ATL by 2023.

Hidden predators

Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, is trying to convince his colleagues to expand the number of years that childhood sexual assault victims can wait before suing those who had preyed on them.

Currently, the state's Hidden Predator Act gives victims until the age of 23 to file a lawsuit. Spencer's proposal, which is awaiting a hearing in front of a House committee, seeks to expand the civil statute of limitations by 15 years, giving victims the ability to sue for damages until they turn 38.

Proponents argue that it could take decades before a victim to be ready to confront his or her abuser.

Spencer's bill would also expand those who could be targeted in lawsuits to include organizations, businesses and churches accused of ignoring reports of abuse.

Spencer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that lobbyists for organizations including the Boy Scouts of America have been working behind the scenes to try to stifle the measure, fearful that they will be held liable for abuse that took place years ago.

In a statement, the Boy Scouts told the newspaper that they support parts of the proposal, but think some elements "would hinder the ability of youth-serving organizations to protect the children they serve."

Bail overhaul

The clock is ticking for legislators to take up the final pieces of Gov. Nathan Deal's years-long initiative to overhaul the state's criminal justice system by keeping fewer nonviolent offenders behind bars.

Included among his latest criminal justice package is a proposal that would give judges more leeway in forgoing cash bail for low-income offenders held for nonviolent offenses and more opportunities to impose community service rather than fines.

That measure was recommended for passage by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, despite the criticism it received from one sheriff, who, in an email, said Deal had done more for perpetrators of crime than "Lucifer and his demons combined." It is scheduled to receive a vote on the Senate floor on Monday.

Distracted driving

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to have Georgia become the 16th state in the nation to outlaw drivers from holding their phones while driving.

Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, says drivers have become all too used to checking Instagram or texting friends while they are behind the wheel.

The proliferation of smartphones has led the state to experience a spike in both fatal crashes and auto insurance premiums, he said.

Georgia already has a law against distracted drivers, but authorities say enforcement is hindered by their inability to determine whether a driver is texting or dialing their phone, which is currently legal.

Carson's proposal passed a House committee Wednesday and is awaiting debate on the House floor.

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