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March 27, 2013

Ga. lawmakers face divide over firearms, lobbying

ATLANTA — There were plenty of votes Tuesday, but the important decisions on lobbying rules and firearms were being discussed privately by small groups of Georgia lawmakers trying to strike a bargain.

It largely happens out of sight until the agreements are unveiled — sometimes with just minutes to spare — for a floor vote. The tempo of those talks has picked up because any bills not adopted by Thursday, the end of the General Assembly’s annual 40-day legislative session, automatically fail for the year.

Republicans in the House and Senate have for days played a back-and-forth political game over a plan to limit lobbyist spending on state lawmakers.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, earlier filed legislation that would ban lobbyists from spending on individual lawmakers, though it leaves exceptions that would allow lobbyist spending on committee, caucuses, delegations and travel. It would also require more people, including some volunteers, to register as lobbyists and publicly report their spending.

A six-man negotiating team from the House and Senate sought to work out differences Tuesday.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” said one of the negotiators, Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, who emphasized the word “will.”

Senate lawmakers have pushed back with their own version, proposing a $100 cap on lobbyist spending and allowing for fewer exceptions than the House measure. In another conflict, the Senate has criticized House leaders for seeking to require that people working as volunteers register as lobbyists if they work more than five days annually at the Statehouse trying to influence officials.

“My plans are to come up with a plan we can all live with,” said Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, part of the Senate negotiating team.

Tea party and other conservative groups are supporting the Senate plan. Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus, a leading proponent of capping lobbyist spending, called the House’s proposed registration rules “outrageous.”

“We would take the folks that are willing to spend their time and money to come down here and just say, ‘I want a word with my elected official,’ to make it as hostile and difficult as possible for those people to participate in the process is wrong,” McKoon said during a news conference held with tea party and other conservative groups.

McKoon also called on the conference committee to discuss the matter in an open hearing. He is not part of the conference committee.

“This should not be a deal that’s done under the cover of darkness that we get a conference report on eleven o’clock on a Thursday night and are asked to vote for something on this,” McKoon said. “...It’s just wrong.”

Republican leaders were also trying to resolve conflicting versions of firearms legislation. The Senate has adopted legislation backed by the National Rifle Association that would require Georgia to recognize permits to carry firearms issued by other states.

By comparison, legislation backed by top-ranking House Republicans would go farther, allowing some people who sought treatment for mental illness to get a permit to carry a gun. The House plan would also allow students with a license to carry a firearm to take their weapons onto parts of college campuses, a provision opposed by the heads of Georgia’s public colleges and universities.

Rep. John Meadows, a senior Republican, said he would not compromise by striking the language allowing guns on campuses.

“That’s not acceptable,” said Meadows, who accused college officials of failing to provide House lawmakers with alternative suggestions.

Good luck trying to find that conference committee. It has not announced any of its meetings.

“You just have to catch us on the fly right now,” said Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, a member.

As negotiators met, state lawmakers continued voting on a host of last-minute bills. House lawmakers approved a resolution seeking to adjust a misplaced border with Tennessee so Georgia can secure water from the Tennessee River.

House lawmakers voted to make the names of companies supplying execution drugs a “confidential state secret.” The Senate passed the bill Friday after adding language to prevent public disclosure of any records that reveal the name and contact information of any person or entity who participates in an execution. That includes any company that “manufactures, supplies, compounds, or prescribes the drugs.”

The Senate also debated a package of bills affecting Fulton County, which is solidly Democratic and majority non-white. But white Republicans have taken advantage of redrawn district lines to gain control over the county’s delegation in the Georgia General Assembly. Now, several Republican-backed bills specific to the metro Atlanta county have crossed or are nearing the finish line this legislative session, over objections from some Democrats.

One provision would double the country’s homestead property tax exemption, while another would redraw more Republican-friendly district lines of the local county offices. A third proposal would let Republican Gov. Nathan Deal appoint the county’s next chief magistrate judge. Republicans said the measures will improve Fulton government, while Democrats accused the GOP of making a power play.


AP reporters Bill Barrow and Christina A. Cassidy contributed to this report. Follow Ray Henry on Twitter:


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