This year’s General Assembly session was noteworthy as much for the bills that did not pass as for the ones that did. On the final night of the session, as exhausted lobbyists worked the rope lines one last time talking to lawmakers, major legislation involving water rights, abortion, and gun carry laws failed to reach final passage.
The biggest environmental battle of the session involved the Flint River, a major source of water in Southwest Georgia, particularly for farmers who need the water for crop irrigation.
Sen. Ross Tolleson (R-Perry) introduced SB 213 to update the Flint River drought protection act that was implemented more than a decade ago. SB 213 would have allowed the state to invest in augmentation projects where extra water is pumped into underground aquifers that would later be released back into the Flint River during a drought period to increase downstream flows.
Critics of the bill protested that augmentation would contaminate the aquifers. They also argued that SB 213 would give the state or a private company ownership of the stored water and threaten the rights of downstream residents by prohibiting them from withdrawing any of those augmented water flows.
There was a furious lobbying effort between business groups who saw the bill as a way to secure more water for metro Atlanta developers and businesses. Environmental organizations lobbied just as strongly against it.
Shortly before midnight Thursday, as the House was preparing to wind down the session, Speaker David Ralston said: “We have one more matter to consider from the rules calendar, a bill that has been postponed.” Ralston, who appeared to be dead serious, asked House Clerk Robbie Rivers to read SB 213, presumably as a prelude to a floor vote. Ralston then smiled and said, “Just kidding.” The Flint River was safe for another year.
An attempt by ultraconservative members of the Georgia Senate to restrict abortions was itself terminated on the final day. The Senate took a routine bill involving the Georgia World Congress Center Authority’s flex benefits plan and amended it to prohibit the use of state tax funds to pay for abortions through the State Health Benefits Plan, which provides health insurance for teachers and state employees. The bill had to go back to the House for agreement, but Ralston never called it up for a vote and the bill died. Gov. Nathan Deal has indicated he may issue an executive order that would prohibit the State Health Benefits Plan from covering abortion procedures.
SB 101 was a controversial measure to legalize the carrying of firearms in more public places and to allow persons treated for mental illness to obtain a gun license. The House version of SB 101 would have allowed license holders to carry firearms in courthouses, government buildings, bars, college campuses, K-12 schools and churches. This was favored by the state organization Georgia Carry. The Senate passed a more cautious version that was supported by the NRA.
Rep. Alan Powell (R-Hartwell), whose Public Safety Committee crafted a bill combining elements of the House and Senate gun bills, told his colleagues that the bill was dead and blamed the measure’s defeat on the Senate leadership and the Board of Regents.
“Everybody knows that there was one issue, and that was the campus carrying provision,” Powell said. “We were fighting uphill; the fourth branch of government was fighting against us. The Board of Regents has been opposed from Day One and yes, they’re the fourth branch of government.”
Chancellor Hank Huckaby and the Board of Regents strongly opposed the proposal to allow guns on college campuses. The University System’s lobbying team worked quietly but effectively to holster that particular provision. Huckaby also had the governor’s ear on the campus carry issue as well as assistance from the Senate negotiators who kept watering down the campus carry provision until the House gave up on getting a bill.
This is an issue that will keep coming up in future legislative sessions, of course.
“When you come back next year, you may very well have an opportunity to deal with this again,” Powell said in that final speech. “I want to say what a great session it’s been and all I can say is, take your pistol.”