Kathleen Foody, Religious freedom, education, gambling bills top 2016 agenda, Associated Press

Georgia lawmakers return to the Capitol in Atlanta on Monday, kicking off the 2016 legislative session. Here’s a look at some of the top issues expected to come up this year.

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

Debate continued during the legislative break over a returning bill that would forbid government from infringing on a person’s religious beliefs unless the government can prove a compelling interest. The proposed “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” would cover individuals, closely held companies like Hobby Lobby and religious organizations.

It easily passed the Senate but stalled in the House last year after a Republican member of a committee added nondiscrimination language. Supporters of the bill said that would gut its protection for people acting on religious faith.

The bill’s sponsor state Sen. Josh McKoon spent the summer promoting the bill at Georgia GOP events, including the state party’s convention. McKoon acknowledged at a recent panel that perception has become an issue but blamed people on both sides for “peddling scenarios with no basis in reality.”

“We know what this bill is going to do: Provide modest protections for people of faith,” he said.

The state’s business community has boldly come out against the bill. A coalition of about 100 companies, including Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Google and Home Depot, announced this week that its members are committed to a state “welcoming for all people, no matter one’s race, sex, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”

The Metro Atlanta Chamber released a study in the fall cautioning that the state could lose a billion dollars or more in tourism dollars if the bill passes.

LGBT advocates fear the religious-freedom bill, if enacted, would allow people to use religion as a cover for engaging in discriminatory behavior based on sexual orientation.

EDUCATION OVERHAUL

Gov. Nathan Deal, entering the second year of his final term in office, plans to focus on overhauling the state’s education system.

Deal hasn’t announced his specific proposals but gave clear instructions to his appointed commission that spent last year studying all elements of Georgia’s education system, particularly the state’s system for dividing up dollars to local districts.

The sweeping recommendations sent to Deal in November would allocate money per student, factoring in qualities including poverty, enrollment in gifted or special education classes and grade level. The group also advocated for more flexibility on testing, more support to charter schools and letting students advance grade levels when ready.

But a recommendation that districts set their own pay scale for teachers, rather than using a statewide system based on experience and training, struck a nerve with educator groups.

Deal’s allies and national education interest groups also are preparing for the November vote on creating a state-run district to take over schools dubbed “chronically failing.”

Deal’s school takeover proposal squeezed through the Legislature last year despite opposition from teachers’ organizations. It requires a constitutional amendment, which voters will consider in November.

CASINOS AND GAMBLING

Casino and horse-racing backers are promoting gambling as a solution to Georgia’s higher education scholarship’s funding gap. Demand for the merit-based HOPE scholarship program has outpaced lottery funding in recent years.

Lawmakers met throughout the fall to study the issue and plan a summary report soon.

Casino firms, including MGM, have hired at least 20 lobbyists. Rep. Ron Stephens proposed a constitutional amendment last year that remains active, allowing up to six casinos in certain regions.

Gov. Nathan Deal remains skeptical about gambling expansion, while state Lottery officials warn it could affect their revenue.

Democrats, meanwhile, want any funds from casinos devoted to a new program providing needs-based aid for higher education costs. House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said details of the “Hope 2” proposal still are being developed.

“Providing needs-based aid for college completion is the most important priority we can have,” Abrams said.

GAY MARRIAGE

State Sen. Greg Kirk plans to introduce a bill protecting government employees who object to same-sex marriage, called the First Amendment Defense Act and modeled on a federal bill. Kirk, a former Southern Baptist preacher, called his bill a “more targeted” approach to religious liberty, and said he doesn’t believe it would prevent same-sex couples from marrying.

“Same-sex marriage is the law of the land,” Kirk said. “But that does not take away from my ability to express my sincerely held religious belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

House Speaker David Ralston has discussed plans for a bill, known as the “Pastor Protection Act,” stating that religious officials aren’t required to perform wedding ceremonies that conflict with their religious views. The bill also would cover religious properties.

“It reaffirms in a very clear, specific way, Georgia’s commitment to honoring the distinction or the wall between church and state,” Ralston said.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA

Rep. Allen Peake pre-filed a bill Wednesday allowing state-licensed medical marijuana manufacturers to operate in the state. Peake sponsored legislation approved last year allowing people with certain medical conditions and a doctor’s permission to legally possess medical cannabis oil. However, the product can’t legally be manufactured in Georgia, and it’s also risky to transport it from states where production is legal. Law enforcement and Gov. Nathan Deal have spoken against in-state production.

TRANSPORTATION CLEAN-UP

Lawmakers expect some efforts to alter last year’s $900 million transportation package, which included a new $5 per night fee at hotels and motels. Tourism industry groups argue the fee was a surprise, developed by a conference committee of lawmakers in the session’s final days and hurts hotels or motels located along state lines. Some industry representatives also want people who rent out private homes through web-based short-term rental companies like AirBNB to pay the fee.

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