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Sunday alcohol sales bill revived
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ATLANTA - Sunday alcohol sales roared back to life at the state Capitol on Monday as the bill's sponsor said he sees fresh support for the measure, now set for a key test in the Senate Rules Committee.

The legislation had been dormant for weeks after Senate Republicans - facing pressure from religious groups - said they didn't have the votes to push it forward.

It would allow local governments to let voters decide through ballot referendum if they want to permit the Sunday sale of alcohol in stores. Georgia is one of just three states that bans the practice.

Word of the apparent revival of Sunday sales came as Georgia lawmakers plowed through dozens of bills as a "crossover day" deadline looms. Wednesday - the 30th day of the 40-day legislative session - is the final day by which bills are supposed to pass at least one chamber to become law.

Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ochlocknee, said he believes he now has the votes to pass the bill out of committee and win the full Senate's approval.

"I just asked the leadership to whip the question again," Bullock said. "They have said what the majority of our caucus wanted was what we're going to do. I feel like we have more than the 29 votes we need to pass it."

The Senate approved a bill allowing licensed gun owners to carry their weapon anywhere except into prisons, jails, nuclear power plants and state mental health facilities. The measure passed by a vote of 43-10. Among the places that people could carry guns under the legislation are restaurants, churches or political events. Gun owners would be excluded from carrying in prisons, jails, at nuclear power plants and state mental health facilities or into county or municipal government buildings without permission from the local governing authority or into courthouses past the security checkpoint.

- Also Monday, the House passed a bill designed to ensure that private citizens don't have to register as lobbyists if they meet with lawmakers about legislation.

The bill's sponsor, House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, an Atlanta Republican, said the changes were needed after a state Ethics Commission advisory opinion. It held that under the sweeping 2010 ethics law nearly anyone who has contact with lawmakers on legislation must register as a lobbyist.

The new bill says individuals would only need to register if they spend more than $1,000 and more than 10 percent of their time on lobbying activities.

But Jim Kulstad, lobbyist for the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, said while he supports much in the bill, the 10 percent limit is a major loophole that could open the door to corporate lobbying that would not need to be disclosed.

The bill now heads to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.

Most measures passed a chamber for the first time on Monday:

- The House 126-45 adopted zero-based budgeting, a favorite of some fiscal conservatives. It would require state agencies to justify all their expenditures at least once every six years. Under the current system, department heads are only required to explain budget changes.

State Rep. Stephen Allison, a Blairsville Republican, said zero-based budgeting would save money by eliminating waste. But state Rep. Carolyn Hugley, a Columbus Democrat, questioned the effectiveness of the budget process in other states where it's been implemented.

The Senate has already approved a similar bill. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue vetoed zero-based budget legislation last year.

- The House softened a planned increase in the amount businesses pay into the unemployment insurance trust fund. The surcharge on employers had been set to rise from 35 percent of the base tax they pay to 100 percent. Legislation approved unanimously would cap it at 50 percent.

Faced with skyrocketing jobless rates, Georgia had to borrow more than $600 million from the federal government to keep the unemployment fund afloat.

Still, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bill Hembree, a Winston Republican, said it's the wrong time to hit struggling businesses with a tax hike.

- The House also approved legislation that allows parents to get waivers for a law requiring students to wait one year to qualify for special needs scholarships. Lawmakers voted 115-33 to lift a mandate that students must spend a year in a Georgia public school under an Individualized Education Program before they can qualify for a special needs scholarship. Parents must apply for the waiver.

The state's special needs scholarship program allows families with children who qualify for special education programs to obtain a voucher to be used at private schools.

- The Senate, meanwhile, voted unanimously to expand the state's mental health court system.

The state has been looking at alternative sentencing options to rein in soaring prison costs. State Sen. Johnny Grant, R-Milledgeville, said offenders should receive treatment rather than jail time when their major issue is mental illness.

Under the proposal, defendants charged with crimes including murder, armed robbery rape and child molestation would not be eligible for the program and mental health courts could be funded with state or federal dollars, or privately or through grants.

- The Senate also approved a bill that would require Medicaid clients to use a digital identification card and scan their fingerprints at the doctor's office to discourage fraud. Republican Sen. John Albers of Roswell said the proposal will prevent card sharing and phantom billing and could save Georgia taxpayers millions of dollars.

When patients arrive for medical appointments, they would be required to swipe a so-called "smart card" containing their picture and a computer chip carrying their personal information. They would also provide a fingerprint scan as proof that they received medical services.

- The Senate supported a proposal that would allow a Conyers golf course to serve wine and liquor. Cherokee Run Golf Course was already allowed to serve malt beverages and served liquor previously when the course was under private ownership.

The course's lessee went bankrupt and the city took control of Cherokee Run last year, but state law forbid them to continue to sell distilled spirits, and the Conyers mayor and city council asked for the code to be amended.


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