Major bills among late casualties of state legislative session

ATLANTA - The odds looked favorable late last month that the General Assembly would pass legislation allowing Georgians to bring their guns to work as long as they left them locked in their cars.

The powerful National Rifle Association had declared the bill its top priority for the 2007 session, and the Senate was due to take it up on Crossover Day, the deadline for legislation to pass the chamber where it originated.

But on that Tuesday morning, a woman was shot by a co-worker at an Atlanta furniture store.

As the news spread around the Capitol, Senate leaders dropped the "parking lot" bill to the bottom of their calendar for the day and adjourned without considering it.

That would have spelled defeat for the measure, but supporters pushed to keep it alive by attaching it to another gun bill that had cleared the House.

A Senate committee then passed the combined bill, and it appeared ticketed for the full Senate.

But on that Monday morning, committee members were unaware that the worst killing spree in U.S. history was taking place on the campus of Virginia Tech.

Not even the bill's strongest backers wanted to bring up a gun measure amid the press coverage that followed those mass shootings. The last day of the session came and went that Friday without further mention of the measure.

"It was dark humor, but every time it came up for discussion, somebody got shot," said Alice Johnson, executive director of Georgians for Gun Safety, which opposed the legislation.

Unfinished business

The parking lot bill undoubtedly was the most snakebit of this year's General Assembly session.

But lawmakers also left town without acting on an unusually large number of major bills, even for the first year of a two-year term.

The list of casualties in the final days of the session alone included not only the two gun bills that had been rolled into one, but also a measure allowing non-unanimous death sentences for capital crimes and an effort to cut the cost of the PeachCare for Kids program.

Both gun bills drew opposition from groups legislators look to for endorsements at election time.

Police chiefs across Georgia were worried that legislation allowing motorists to hide guns inside their cars wherever they see fit would have endangered officers during traffic stops.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce fought the parking lot bill as an infringement on the private property rights of business owners.

To address the chamber's concerns, Sen. Chip Rogers, the bill's sponsor, agreed to an amendment aimed at protecting employees from having their cars searched without interfering with the right of business owners to decide what can occur on their property.

"This did not impact a property owner," said Rogers, R-Woodstock. "We were dealing with ... whether an employer could search vehicles in a public parking lot.

"An employee ought to have an expectation that someone's not going to look through their car and fire them for having a firearm."

Opponents criticized the change as a "don't-ask-don't-tell" policy that didn't alter the bill's intent.

But Johnson said what really soured senators on the measure was the NRA's strategy.

Even senators with longstanding records of supporting NRA-backed bills were told a vote against this one measure would be held against them.

"There's such an arrogance about the way they operated in Georgia this year that, I think, was quite an eye opener to legislators," Johnson said.

But Rogers said the bill's defeat was a result of timing. He said there wasn't enough time at the end of the session to fully explain the legislation.

And then there was the Virginia Tech massacre.

"We didn't want to debate this issue at that time," Rogers said.

Death penalty bill

While the NRA experienced a setback on the parking lot bill, it was Georgia prosecutors who were unhappy when legislation allowing non-unanimous juries to recommend death sentences went down in the Senate.

For one thing, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the measure on a technicality, voting it down when its House sponsor wasn't in the room.

"I don't consider the Senate vote a judgment on the bill itself," said Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter. "It got caught in a car crash in the procedure."

The legislation, based in part on a Gwinnett case, would allow juries to recommend death sentences if at least 10 jurors favor execution.

Porter said the bill would help level the playing field between prosecutors and defense lawyers, who can avoid death sentences for their clients by zeroing in on one or two wavering jurors.

"Defense lawyers are playing the game for one juror," he said. "I have to get 12."

But Sara Totonchi, public policy director for the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, said the death penalty is too final not to have a unanimous jury, especially when lesser crimes require unanimity.

She also noted that outspoken opposition to the bill came from conservative Republicans who are also lawyers concerned about protecting the integrity of the jury system, particularly in an era when death row inmates are being exonerated by new DNA technology.

"They know the law," Totonchi said of those GOP lawyer-politicians. "They know that the rest of the country is taking steps to be more careful with the death penalty."

Inaction on PeachCare

Of the major bills that didn't make it out of the General Assembly at the end of the session, PeachCare reform was the only one to get as far as a House-Senate conference committee.

But it stopped there, as conferees couldn't reconcile the huge differences between a bill pushed by House Speaker Glenn Richardson and the version adopted by the Senate.

Republican leaders in the two chambers were attempting to come to grips with a looming federal shortfall in a program that provides health coverage to more than 300,000 children of the working poor.

Congressional leaders have promised to come up with the needed funds, but the issue is caught up in a controversial bill funding the war in Iraq.

Richardson, R-Hiram, proposed tightening eligibility requirements for PeachCare.

The Senate bill actually would increase some benefits by moving the lowest-income PeachCare children into Medicaid.

"Now is not the time to expand PeachCare," Richardson said. "We don't have the money, and we don't know when we're going to get it."

The Senate legislation also would raise premiums on higher-income families substantially.

As a result, Democrats weren't having any part of either bill, arguing that restricting PeachCare isn't necessary given the congressional assurances.

"They keep telling us, 'We're going to work this out,'" said House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin. "Until then, we should sit tight."

In effect, the bill's failure accomplished the Democrats' aim. Nothing will happen to PeachCare for the time being and, depending on what Congress does, changes might not be necessary next year.

On the other hand, backers of the gun bills and the non-unanimous death penalty measure expect to be back at the Capitol in 2008.

If You Go

Here are several major bills that failed to pass the General Assembly during the final days of this year's session:

•House Bill 89: A last-minute combination of two bills allowing guns in cars. The original bill would let motorists hide guns in their car wherever they choose. An attached bill that originated in the Senate would let employees bring their guns to work if they keep them locked in their cars.

•House Bill 185: Allows juries to recommend the death penalty if at least 10 jurors favor execution.

•House Bill 340: Adds cost-cutting restrictions to Georgia's PeachCare for Kids program because of a looming federal shortfall.