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By State Representative Greg Morris of  Vidalia.

The 2018 Legislative Session will end on Thursday, March 29th. Many of the most important issues are still on the table. Day 39 on Tuesday, and Day 40 on Thursday will be long, contentious, and dangerous because of the speed and suddenness in which an important bill can appear with amendments that can turn a good measure into a very bad one.

2018 Budget. The Senate passed their version of the budget last week. Both chambers spend the extra billion of projected revenues on increased school enrollment, health programs and construction projects. Both chambers agree to spend 361 million of the new spending to shore up the teacher’s pension fund. The Senate eliminated the House proposal to give state retirees a one- time bonus of up to 900 dollars even though the Senate has supported them in past budgets. The Senate says they opposed the plan because current state employees and teachers weren’t getting raises, which is true. The Senate added 2 million to grants to improve school safety bringing the total to 10 million. The most interesting change in the Senate plan was 3 million to provide grants to counties and cities to supplement law enforcement pay. Their pay needs to increase, but state money will always lead to state interference in the policies of the recipients. Local control will eventually be compromised and that is my concern. I have seen it happen more than once. Conference committees from the House and Senate will present their compromise budget probably on Day 40.

Distracted Driving/Mobile Phones. H.B. 673, which would prohibit the handling of cell phones and electronic devices passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. The main difference in the two versions are the fines. The House plan called for a minimum fine of $300, while the Senate reduced it to $75 for the first offense, $150 for the second, and $300 for the third. The Senate also reduced the amount of points charged against your license and exempted smart watches from the ban. The Senate version is less punitive and I believe a much better bill than the House version. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle supports it, and Gov. Deal says he will sign this version. I still have serious reservations about the bill, but I have very little doubt that this version of it is about to become law.

S.B. 17/Sunday Sales. S.B. 17 has passed both Chambers, allowing restaurants to begin serving alcohol as early as 11:00 AM on Sunday instead of the current 12:30 pm. Grocery stores and liquor stores were not included for the earlier time. I voted no basically for personal reasons. There were 63 no votes. Usually there are only twelve of us who have consistently voted against Sunday sales. The proponents have always jokingly called us the “deacons”. Although he is a “tee-totaler” who doesn’t drink, I believe Gov. Deal will sign it.

Rural Internet Service. Whether the Legislature passes legislation that will help bring faster internet service to rural areas is uncertain. For sure, there will be no new taxes on digital products such as Netflix, satellite TV, or music downloads proposed in H.B. 887. S.B. 402 will probably pass very close to its current version. 402 allows the Department of Transportation to lay lines on public right of ways and lease them to internet companies. Local EMCs could begin to offer internet services along with electricity. Some critics say the bill needs language to streamline and standardize the deployment of wireless broadband to effectively increase access to rural areas. Another bill S.B. 426, would provide for 5G wireless internet service through boxes placed on poles in public right of ways . That measure has drawn criticism from local governments for reasons of spoiling the looks of decorative downtown lamps. At the very least, I believe infrastructure improvements will pass, but the funding to subsidize the service in the future is a far from certain.