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Gwinnett legislators prepare for final days of session

Votes on child welfare reform, medical marijuana and other issues could come this week

Brooks 
Coleman

Brooks Coleman

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Chuck Efstration

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Renee Unterman

No one has ever claimed that making a law is a fast process.

But just two months after convening under the Gold Dome in Atlanta, Georgia’s General Assembly is wrapping up its work for the year.

While some major issues like the state budget — the only absolute requirement of the body — gun laws, health care and education issues remain unresolved with the final two days looming next week, this year the legislature is expected to finish in the time it took to finish an elementary school progress report.

“It’s a fast session,” said Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, who said it is the quickest in his more than two decades in office. “But it’s been very productive. We’re staying right to business.”

This past week, the House Education Committee, which Coleman chairs, made changes to an anti-common core bill, to which the bill’s sponsor in the Senate has objected. The issue may have died for the session, although Coleman noted that Gov. Nathan Deal’s executive order denoting the state’s sovereignty will remain in place.

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, expects proposed changes to the foster care system, which developed after the death of Gwinnett girl Emani Moss, will be taken up before the legislators say “Sine Die” to end the work.

“You don’t ever know what’s going to happen here from one day to the next,” Unterman said, adding that the proposal has been attached to three bills that could be taken up next week.

While the senator who heads the Senate Health and Human Services Committee says there were many years earlier in her career where the Legislature closed before St. Patrick’s Day, so the speaker could make spring training, leaders have gotten used to working through April, especially delving into some big budget decisions during the recent economic recession.

This year, with an early primary election looming this spring, meetings have stretched into night, and the usual end-of-session fury is even more acute.

Thankfully, Unterman noted that many of the topics that have found traction under the Gold Dome have been debated for a year in task forces and study groups, like her proposed child welfare reform, autism and Alzheimer programs.

While a Medicaid expansion hotly debated as part of the Affordable Care Act appears to be dead, Unterman said it could be revived in an amendment.

“Everything is still open. As long as we are still open, everything is still open,” she said, adding that she isn’t sure which length of time is best. “The General Assembly is just unpredictable. It fluctuates with the economy. It fluctuates with the leadership. … All I know is I’m tired.”

But Chuck Efstration, the Dacula man who became Gwinnett’s newest representative in a special election late last year, said he has enjoyed the fast pace.

While freshmen legislators often have little luck in moving legislation even in a slower-paced session, Efstration’s bill making home invasion its own charge (as opposed to burglary) is already sitting on the governor’s desk awaiting his signature.

Efstration was also able to get through two local bills that will shift Gwinnett’s chief Magistrate Court judge and Probate Court judge to non-partisan elections.

“I don’t have a reference point, I suppose, but I haven’t felt rushed,” he said. “My philosophy is one of limited government, so I have no problem with a short session. … I feel like we’ve all been doing a thorough job.”

But even with his bills through the legislative process, Efstration said he still wants to try to tackle a new one next week. It arose just over a week ago, when a Paulding County judge qualified for re-election only to have his daughter qualify for his bench at the end of the week and then withdraw his own name after the paperwork period ended.

“The voters should pick who should serve in an office,” he said, adding that he hopes to attach an amendment to a bill that would allow the Secretary of State to reopen the qualifying process in a similar situation. “The system shouldn’t be gamed so that an incumbent can pick his successor.”

For Efstration, a former prosecutor who now runs his own private practice, the end of the session means returning to his day job.

Coleman, though is anxious to hit the campaign trail, hoping to catch up to two primary opponents, as taking political contributions is illegal while the legislature is in session. An earlier than usual May primary, after all, is the reason that the legislators have been working under a shortened schedule.

First, though, there are two days of long sessions and two sure to be filled with committee meetings.

According to Unterman’s tally, there are more than 100 House bills awaiting Senate action, not to mention all of the ones that have wound up in conference committees.

In the past few days, she has rewritten medical marijuana legislation in hopes of fixing some flaws, and senators and representatives are still hashing out the numbers in the budget.

“It’s been so fast and furious,” she said. “It has been long days and long nights. It has been a lot of work in a short period of time.”

“I expect to be there a long time (on) Sine Die (day),” Coleman said. “I’m anxious to see what happens.”