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Legislature racing against the clock
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The Georgia General Assembly is racing against the clock in order to meet a significant deadline-the 30th legislative day, which is also more commonly known as Crossover Day. This is the last day that Senate bills can transfer to the House for consideration, and vice versa. This means that all Senate bills must be filed and favorably reported out of committee this week in order to still be eligible for consideration in 2016.

Since this is the second half of a biennial legislative term, any bills that fail to meet these important deadlines are considered "dead" and must be re-introduced in 2017. Therefore, the pressure is on to make this a productive and effective legislative week.

Last week, the Senate approved legislation that protects Georgians most closely held religious beliefs. House Bill 757 prevents pastors, ministers and other religious clergy from being forced to step outside their religious beliefs when performing marriage ceremonies.

The legislation was combined with a Senate bill commonly known as the First Amendment Defense Act, which added language further protecting the free exercise of religion.

HB 757 now also prevents state or local governments from taking discriminatory action against individuals or faith-based organizations with a sincere religious belief about lawful marriage. The legislation will now go back to the House for final approval.

Gov. Nathan Deal signed House Bill 750, the amended Fiscal Year (AFY) 2016 budget last week. With an additional increase of $1.23 billion, the funding amount for AFY 2016 now totals $23.06 billion. Our focus has now shifted to reviewing the FY 2017 budget, which must be finalized and approved by both the House and Senate before March 24.

This is the 40th-and final-day of the legislative session.

Other bills receiving Senate approval last week included:

• Senate Bill 309: This legislation prohibits public high schools from participating in sporting events that ban student athletes from expressing religious beliefs on his/her uniform. This bill was drafted after a high school student was disqualified from a cross-country race in 2015 because he wore a headband featuring a bible verse. SB 309 now transfers to the House for consideration.

• Senate Bill 282: Companies that provide credit or financial services would be banned from discriminating against any individual, business, public entity, or trade association who lawfully sell firearms or ammunition. SB 282 now transfers to the House for consideration.

• Senate Bill 270: This bill would exempt qualified retired law enforcement officers from certain restrictions on the licensing and carrying of firearms. The bill also extends these same benefits to former law enforcement officers who worked out-of-state but are now retired Georgia citizens. SB 270 now transfers to the House for consideration.

• Senate Bill 329: Students completing post-secondary dual credit coursework and who have earned certification for an "in-need" technical industry would be awarded a high school diploma if this bill receives final General Assembly approval. The bill also expands HOPE scholarship eligibility to these students. SB 329 now transfers to the House for consideration.

It was a pleasure to host Miss Apple Capital Katherine McCauley and Miss Apple Capital Outstanding Teen Kendall Chamberlain in the Senate chamber last week. McCauley and Chamberlain will both represent Ellijay and the North Georgia area at the 2016 Miss Georgia Pageant.

Please continue reaching out to me with any questions, comments or concerns about legislation during the 2016 legislative session. I always appreciate and encourage your feedback.

Sen. Steve Gooch serves as Majority Whip of the Senate Majority Caucus. He represents the 51st Senate District which includes Dawson, Fannin, Gilmer, Lumpkin, Union and White counties and portions of Forsyth and Pickens counties. He may be reached at (404) 656-9221 or via email at steve.gooch@senate.ga.gov.