ATLANTA — Lawmakers began talks about the ongoing opioid crisis this week at the Georgia Capitol as lawmakers passed the quarter mark of the 40-day working session.
Here’s a look at some of the major activity, major goals in proposed legislation and what’s coming up when lawmakers return to the Capitol on Tuesday:
Highlights of the week
The state Senate approved bills Thursday extending a tax on hospitals that allows the state to draw $600 million in federal support for the Medicaid program and allow craft breweries to sell beer for the first time. The measures now go to the House, where there is broad support for both proposals.
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Two contentious bills from Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Marietta, received initial approval from House panels. Ehrhart wants to ban state funding for research and scholarships to private colleges that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities. No schools in the state have announced plans to adopt the unofficial “sanctuary campus” label. He’s also proposed limiting colleges’ investigation of sexual violence, instead requiring employees to pass information to law enforcement agencies. Organizations that support victims of sexual assault are opposing the measure.
Legislation aimed at chronically low-performing schools is still in the works after voters rejected Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed constitutional amendment allowing the state to take over such schools. Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, said this week that House Republicans have met with staff for Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle about the bill and hope to introduce it soon.
Both the House and Senate are seeking changes to a state law that allows people with certain diseases to possess cannabis oil. They just don’t agree on the details.
Lawmakers in 2015 passed a bill that legalized the possession of medical cannabis to people with certain medical conditions. But Georgia law doesn’t allow production of the oil, and patients complained that getting it from other states is both expensive and risky.
Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, hopes to expand the list of qualifying conditions that allow patients to legally access medical cannabis. Peake’s bill would include post-traumatic stress disorder, AIDS, HIV, chronic pain, and autism and would also remove some restrictions on patients with cancer, multiple sclerosis, and Lou Gehrig’s disease.
State Senate members are pushing to reduce the level of THC permissible in cannabis oil from 5 percent to 3 percent.
Opioid addiction response
Georgia is not exempt from the opioid drugs crisis sweeping the nation. Legislators are taking aim at the epidemic through a series of bills that target both the users and providers of the addictive drugs.
Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, is sponsoring a bill that expands the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which aims to prevent doctor hopping and weed out physicians who are overprescribing. The bill also makes permanent an emergency order issued by Gov. Nathan Deal last year that legalized over-the-counter sale of the overdose reversal drug naloxone.
Two other bills address the rising rate of fentanyl abuse. The synthetic opioid is relatively easy to manufacture and can have various chemical structures. Lawmakers want to add new language to existing laws to help law enforcement and prosecutors keep up with the various versions of fentanyl.
Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, introduced a bill that would regulate the 70 methadone clinics already operating in the state. According to federal records, Georgia has more of these clinics than any other state in the south including neighboring Florida, which has twice the population.
Education tax credits and vouchers
Republicans in both chambers want to boost the total amount of tax credits to people donating to nonprofit scholarship providers. The money gets passed on to students at private schools.
The Georgia Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a lawsuit challenging the program. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that the program allows tax dollars to be used for private religious schools. The court hasn’t ruled yet.
Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, wants to lift the $58 million statewide cap on the credits to $180 million by 2022, with gradual increases each year before that. Another proposal from Rep. Sam Teasley, R-Marietta, raises the cap to $150 million starting in 2018, with annual increases of $7.5 million.
A bill from Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Atlanta, would require the state to contribute to an untaxed account for students attending private schools to use for tuition at qualified private schools, online programs and other education costs. The amount is roughly equal to per student spending through the state’s complex funding formula. Teacher organizations and other education groups have opposed similar voucher programs in the past.
On the agenda
Lawmakers return to the Capitol on Tuesday. Votes include a bill requiring fire departments to provide a supplemental insurance policy to cover fire fighters diagnosed with specific types of cancer.
House hearings on the governor’s proposed $49.3 billion budget for the coming fiscal year ramp up starting Monday, while the state Senate focuses on an additional $600 million proposed for this year’s spending plan including $5 million for south Georgia communities hit hard by tornadoes in January. The House approved that plan last month.