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Capitol notes for Feb. 28-March 4
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The Georgia House passed a bill that aims to crack down on illegal immigration in the state and contains some provisions similar to a tough law enacted in Arizona last year.

The bill sponsored by Rep. Matt Ramsey, a Peachtree City Republican, passed the House by a largely partisan vote of 113-56.

One provision would allow law officers to verify the immigration status of criminal suspects and another penalizes people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants, provisions also in Arizona's new law. Georgia's bill also would require employers to verify the immigration status of new hires and would make it a felony to "willfully and fraudulently" present false documentation when applying for a job. That felony would carry a maximum penalty of up to 15 years in jail and up to a $250,000 fine.

Those who opposed the bill stressed that they do not support illegal immigration, but said it is a federal problem. They said the bill could lead to racial profiling and could damage the state's economy and reputation.


- A Republican bill to overhaul the state's HOPE scholarship continued to sail through the state Legislature, with some Democrats complaining that they're aren't being allowed to have input. The Senate Higher Education Committee approved the legislation 5-2 on a party-line vote Friday. The measure is expected to face a vote by the full Senate next week.

- The Georgia House has unanimously approved legislation to prohibit state insurance commissioners from granting themselves insurance licenses without passing mandatory tests. The measure came after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that outgoing Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine awarded himself several licenses the day before he left office in January.

- A year after Georgia lawmakers passed a sweeping gun rights expansion that allowed permit-holders to carry guns into some bars and more parking lots, the Legislature is considering new changes that would allow them to carry their weapons into churches and make it easier for them to renew their licenses. A proposal unveiled Thursday would allow licensed gun owners to carry their weapons into churches, synagogues and other houses of worship with the approval of the congregation. It would also allow them to keep their weapons in locked boxes within school parking lots and safety zones.

- Georgia attorney general Sam Olens says letting voters decide whether to allow Sunday alcohol sales in their communities is not unconstitutional. In a letter to Sen. Barry Loudermilk and Rep. Roger Williams, Olens wrote, "While I take no policy position on the proposed legislation, it seems that legislation could legally be enacted by the General Assembly to provide for local government to authorize certain sales on Sunday" as long as the legislation didn't conflict with state law. Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ochlocknee, sponsor of the Senate bill, said Thursday that he now considers the matter cleared up.

- The Senate has approved legislation that would require 6- and 7-year-olds to use booster car seats. Currently, the law applies to children under age 6. The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 38-13. Children over 4 feet, 9 inches tall or over 40 pounds are exempt. Critics derided the legislation as a "nanny bill," saying the state shouldn't tell parents how to raise children. A similar bill passed last week in the House. A final version must be approved before the bill becomes law.

- Georgia highway workers and their families are one step closer to getting money from the state if they are injured or killed while on duty. The state House passed a bill 165-0 on Thursday that would include highway workers in the list of public servants who get indemnification pay. The list already includes police officers, firefighters, emergency workers and prison guards. The worker or their family will get $35,000 for partial permanent disability, $75,000 for total permanent disability and $100,000 for death or brain damage. The bill comes after HERO truck operator Spencer Pass of Jonesboro was killed in January helping a motorist on Interstate 85.

- The Senate has approved a bill that would get rid of early voting, but add another week for advance voting. The measure was passed by a vote of 35-17 along party lines. Several Senate Democrats opposed the bill, which they say could make ballot access more difficult, especially for minority voters. Republican Sen. Joshua McKoon of Columbus, the bill's sponsor, says early voting has been underused and costly for local elections officials. Under the proposal, voters would be able to cast an in-person, no-excuse early vote during a 14-day period that includes two Saturdays.

- Some lawmakers are criticizing a proposal that would require presidential candidates to provide proof that they were born in the United States before gaining access to the ballot. Rep. Mark Hatfield said the proposal settles a long-standing issue while enforcing the U.S. Constitution. Hatfield, a Republican attorney from Waycross, said he doesn't know whether President Barack Obama is eligible to serve as president - a contention held by so-called "birthers." Whether the bill will see a House vote is unclear, as House Speaker David Ralston said his focus is on issues including job growth and the economy.

- A House panel has approved legislation that could pave the way for pari-mutuel betting on horse racing in Georgia. The constitutional amendment would allow voters in local communities to decide whether to allow gambling on horse racing. The measure from state Rep. Harry Geisinger, of Roswell, would allow the betting proceeds to be used to pay for college scholarships, pre-K programs or trauma care. The bill cleared the House Regulated Industries Committee on Wednesday and now heads to the House Rules Committee, which will decide if it makes it a House vote. It would need a two-thirds supermajority.

- A bill that makes it easier to prosecute human traffickers and keeps them in prison longer if convicted has cleared the Georgia House. The measure would increase minimum sentencing from 1 year to 10 years and adds a fine of up to $100,000 for a conviction. If the victim is a minor, the trafficker would face no less than 25 years in prison. The bill passed 168-1.

- The Senate has approved a proposal that would allow local governments to contract with private firms to fund water infrastructure projects. The Senate voted 49-1 in favor of the bill. Sen. Ross Tolleson, the bill's sponsor and chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, says it offers another financing tool and emphasizes local control. Governments and water authorities can already borrow money to build reservoirs and fund other projects, but Tolleson says it may be cheaper for some communities if a private investor can pay cash up front or has access to cheaper financing.

- The Senate has approved a bill that would allow students in charter and virtual schools to participate in extracurricular activities at public schools when those activities are not available at their school. The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 39-9. Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, the bill's sponsor, says the proposal would stop punishing children and end an unfair practice.

- The Senate has again voted unanimously in support of a bill that would create a zero-based budget system in Georgia. The Senate voted 51-0 in favor of the proposal, which would require certain state agencies to justify their expenditures each year. Under the current system, department heads are only required to justify budget increases. If approved, the new system would take effect in January 2013.

- A bill that would allow voters to decide whether to merge the Macon and Bibb County governments has won approval in the Georgia House despite the opposition of some members of the local delegation. The bill sponsored by Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, was approved by a 149-9. Peake's bill would create a nine-member county commission and would put Macon in one tax district and the rest of the county in a separate district. A mayor would be elected at large.


"We know this is about Barack Obama," - Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, in response to Rep. Mark Hatfield's legislation requiring presidential candidates to prove their natural-born citizenship before gaining access to the Georgia ballot.


16 days remain in the 40-day legislative session.


The Senate is expected to vote on legislation making cuts to the HOPE scholarship program. The House is expected to take up the fiscal year 2012 budget.


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