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State & Regional Govt & Politics
Georgia lawmakers pass medical marijuana bill, not airport takeover
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Georgia lawmakers pass medical marijuana bill, not airport takeover

Delta Air Lines has had its headquarters in Atlanta since 1941. Founder C.E. Woolman moved the airline’s headquarters from Monroe, La., to Atlanta.

Georgia lawmakers pass medical marijuana bill, not airport takeover

With the clock ticking down on the 2019 session, Georgia lawmakers on Tuesday night passed a measure giving medical marijuana patients a way to buy the drug legally in the state.

The clock ran out, however, on legislation giving airlines a jet fuel tax break, creating new rural transit options and allowing the state to take over Atlanta’s airport.

Lawmakers often wait until the waning hours, and even minutes of the session, to pass major legislation. Tuesday, the 40th day of the 2019 session, was no different.

Some of this session’s big issues were already out of the way before Tuesday. The $27.5 billion budget with a $3,000 teacher pay raise for the upcoming fiscal year won passage last week. Legislation that would outlaw most abortions gained approval Friday. A new, $150 million voting system got legislators’ OK earlier in the session.

But with a few hours left Tuesday night, many issues were still up in the air until the end. Gov. Brian Kemp, a former state senator, played a key role in trying to get lawmakers to reach agreement on several bills.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kemp called it a “historic” legislative session.

“We’ve done a lot this session — a lot more than people thought I’d do,” he said. “I’m just doing what I told people I would do. And that’s what I heard from people during the campaign — they were starving for people to do what they told them they would actually do.”

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said: “We’ve had a good session. We have accomplished things that matter a lot to a lot of Georgians.”

Lawmakers reached a deal late Tuesday to allow medical marijuana patients to buy the drug that they’re already allowed to use.

Kemp helped broker the agreement between House and Senate leaders who had struggled to strike a balance between providing access to legitimate patients while preventing illegal marijuana distribution.

Georgia legalized medical marijuana consumption in 2015 for patients suffering from severe seizures, deadly cancers and other illnesses, but the government didn’t provide any way for them to buy it. Patients obtained the drug illegally through the mail, by driving out of state or through friends.

The compromise on House Bill 324 provides several ways for Georgia’s 8,400 registered patients to buy medical marijuana oil, including through six private growing companies, state universities and pharmacies.

It’s unclear how many dispensaries would be allowed to sell medical marijuana oil. That would be determined by a state oversight commission. Smoking or eating marijuana would remain prohibited.

“Over the years, I’ve met with children who are battling chronic, debilitating diseases. I’ve heard from parents who are struggling with access and losing hope,” Kemp said. “This compromise legislation is carefully crafted to provide access to medical cannabis oil to those in need. This is simply the right thing to do.”

Earlier in the day, the Georgia House took a last-ditch shot at winning approval for a tax break on jet fuel for air carriers such as Delta Air Lines and a rural transit bill. They tried this time to pass the measures without a proposal to set up an oversight committee for Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

But it never got a vote in the Georgia Senate.

The House had tacked the state jet-fuel tax break — which was backed by Kemp — and the rural transit bill, including a 50-cents-per-ride tax on ride-share services, onto Senate Bill 200. SB 200 was originally legislation to require the Department of Transportation to set up procedures to appeal rejected bids for contracts.

Last week, the House passed a similar jet-fuel and rural transit bill, except it included a state oversight committee for the airport. The House measure was written in reaction to a Senate bill seeking a state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson.

City of Atlanta officials opposed both bills.

SB 200 included a measure the House also passed earlier this year to suspend state jet-fuel taxes on airlines such as Delta for 20 years. The suspension would save airlines $40 million to $45 million a year. Most of the savings would have gone to Delta.

That proposal included a small excise tax that would raise $3.5 million to $4 million a year and would have been used as matching money to attract more federal funding. That money, in turn, would have been used for projects at small airports, such as runway resurfacing.

State Rep. David Knight, R-Griffin, who had been fighting for more money for small-town airports, said the newest House version didn’t do enough for rural airports.

“This is not a win-win for everyone around the state,” Knight said.

Knight noted that Delta and other airlines already got a $25 million annual tax break last year when then-Gov. Nathan Deal had the Department of Revenue stop collecting local sales taxes on jet fuel.

Advocates for small-town airports say they are important for economic development and particularly for recruiting businesses.

SB 200 also included the rural transit bill the House passed on its own earlier this year. It would have established programs to aid unemployed residents who need transportation to find jobs. Fee money from ride-share services such as Uber and Lyft would have gone toward supporting rural transit.

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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