The Senate Rules Committee will hold its final meeting for the 2016 legislative session on Monday, March 21. We will set the calendar for the final two legislative days, and these days are likely to be long and tiresome. There is never enough time in a legislative session, and we still need to ensure bills are being carefully reviewed before the final vote is cast. Governor Deal will have a 40-day period to sign or veto legislation after March 24.

Religious expression was protected this week with the passage of House Bill 757, which was renamed the Freedom Exercise Protection Act. The bill includes language from the Pastor Protection Act (the original title of the bill), the First Amendment Defense Act (Senate Bill 284) and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (Senate Bill 129). The revised bill is a strong compromise between the House and Senate that offers protection for deeply held religious beliefs, but also requires public employees to carry out the full responsibilities of their job description. House Bill 757 simply protects individuals who are exercising their religious beliefs from government retribution or civil lawsuits, and in no way promotes discrimination or prejudice.

This week, I carried House Bill 727 in the Senate. In 2015, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing the sale and use of fireworks in Georgia. This is a follow-up bill that imposes further regulations on fireworks, including time constraints, restriction during times of drought and grants enforcement authority to the state fire marshall and other appropriate agencies. House Bill 727 passed by a vote of 54-0.
Several other notable bills passed the Senate this week, including:

• House Bill 951: This bill reauthorizes the “back to school” state sales tax holiday, as well as a sales tax exemption for energy efficient appliances. It also creates a new sales and use tax exemption for ticket sales to nonrecurring major sporting events. This is anticipated to be a very competitive economic development measure for the state. HB 951 passed by a vote of 38-14.

• House Bill 768: The Georgia Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act would allow people with disabilities to create an untaxed savings account to help pay for “qualified disability benefits” such as purchasing a car or house payment. The program is limited to those with significant disabilities diagnosed before the age of 26 years old and creates a deposit cap of $14,000 per year. The bill passed with a vote by a vote of 53-0.

• House Bill 887: This legislation provides a statutory mechanism to grant temporary caregiving authority for a child to another person without involving the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS). DFCS would be required to give preference to a relative or fictive kin over a nonrelative caregiver in a child placement hearing. The bill passed by a vote of 54-0.

• House Bill 965: The Honorable Jimmy Carter Cancer Treatment Access Act would prevent health plans from requiring that a patient responds to one drug before providing coverage for a different FDA-approved drug. The bill only covers treatment of stage four advanced, metastatic cancer. The use of a different drug must be supported by peer reviewed medical literature. The bill passed by a vote of 54-1.
Although there is a still lot of work to be done this legislative session, I want you to know I am never too busy to answer your questions or hear your concerns about proposed legislation. As always, it is an honor and a privilege to represent Senate District 53 at the Georgia State Capitol.