ATLANTA (AP) — Out-of-work Georgians will soon see their benefits slashed nearly in half and those seeking food stamps will have to pass a drug test under news laws that start Sunday.
Gov. Nathan Deal signed more than 500 bills into law after the legislative session ended this spring. Many of them, as well as Georgia's 2013 budget, will take effect at the start of the state's fiscal year on July 1.
Other new laws include the beginning of sweeping changes to Georgia's criminal justice system and a rule that would revoke bonuses for teachers who cheat on standardized tests.
This session, Republicans argued that the state needed to find a solution to begin repaying more than $760 million borrowed from the federal government in recent years to cover Georgia's unemployment benefit payments when the state's trust fund was drained during the prolonged recession. The answer was to reduce unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to a sliding scale of between 14 and 20 weeks, depending on the unemployment rate.
Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said now is the responsible time to act with the unemployment rate declining.
"The best way to help the unemployed is to create jobs in Georgia, and that's where Gov. Deal's focus is," Robinson said. "It's important to note the safety net is still there, but we had to reform the system or it would have collapsed - that's the worst outcome for Georgians in need."
The state's unemployment rate has remained above the national average for months.
The new law requiring some people applying for welfare to pass a drug test is likely to face a court challenge. Opponents say they will likely pursue a lawsuit, but not until the measure is actually put into practice. Courts have struck down similar laws in other states, but supporters in Georgia have expressed confidence that the law here would be upheld.
Under it, the state Department of Human Services must create a drug-testing program that would be paid for by welfare applicants. Those able to prove they are receiving Medicaid would pay a maximum of $17 and those without Medicaid would be responsible for the full cost of the test. Applicants who test negative would be eligible for reimbursement.
Those who fail would be ineligible to receive benefits for a month. A second positive result would ban applicants from participating for three months, and a third violation would make an applicant ineligible for a year.
Sen. Vincent Fort of Atlanta said the pair of bills, among others, amount to a bad deal for the state's most vulnerable citizens.
"This is my 16th year in the Legislature and I'll be very honest ... The Republican majority has engineered the worst attack on working families that I've ever seen," said Fort, Senate Democratic Whip. "At the time that it's implemented, we'll take a look and see if legal steps can be taken ... to allow a judge to rule on whether or not it's constitutional."
A more compassionate approach to sentencing for criminals with drug or mental health issues was also approved by the governor, who used to be a judge. He championed the legislation as a priority, sought to provide alternative sentences for nonviolent offenders while reducing soaring prison costs. The Judicial Council of Georgia will spend the next several months establishing standards for state drug and mental health courts.
Sentencing changes for theft, shoplifting and forgery will also take effect July 1.
Also, after an Atlanta Public Schools system investigation revealed widespread cheating among educators in nearly half of the district's 100 schools, lawmakers passed a bill to strip bonuses from teachers found cheating on standardized tests.
Laws of note also taking effect July 1 include:
— A bill eliminating the $1 charge for the optional "In God We Trust" decals for car license plates;
— Legislation that will increase the number of barrels brew pubs could produce from 5,000 to 10,000. The bill also increases from 500 to 5,000 the number they could sell to wholesale distributors. Supporters said the law addresses the growing popularity of craft beers;
— Liquor tastings will be allowed at Georgia distilleries, but limited to half an ounce per person, per day. The state's few distilleries can conduct free promotional or educational tastings, and the move could help boost tourism.