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Significant changes in the works for 2017 Georgia legislative session

Some significant new rules for the Georgia Senate are in the works that could lead to big changes for next year’s legislative session.

A bipartisan panel of Senate leaders signaled Thursday that they would move crossover day – the final day for a bill to move from one chamber to the other – up from the 30th day of the legislative session to as early as the 25th day.

The daily ritual of morning speeches – known as “points of personal privilege” – would be cut nearly in half during the latter part of the session under the proposed rules.

And the Senate seems poised to weaken a rule that requires conference committee reports – House-Senate legislative compromises - to be printed and delivered to senators at least two hours before they vote on them.

Republicans said the changes, which would have to be approved on the Jan. 9 start of the legislative session, were aimed at giving Senate lawmakers more time to vet and debate the crush of bills during the 40-day session. But Democrats bristled at some of the moves, warning that they could further deepen the partisan divide.

Here’s a closer look at the changes:

An earlier crossover day. The pivotal day has creeped upward from Day 35 to Day 33 to Day 30 in recent years, and Senate leaders said there’s a consensus with House counterparts to edge it up even earlier this year. Although there’s no set time, the Senate approved a motion to move it to as early as Day 25.

“It’s something that could help the Senate be more deliberative in our process toward the end of the session,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert said. “We’re deluged toward the end of the session in House bills, and sometimes we have as little as two weeks to deliberate.”

It was approved unanimously by the Senate Legislative Process Study Committee, which includes a handful of GOP and Democratic leaders.

We're told that at a GOP caucus meeting later Thursday that Republican senators agreed to make crossover day on the 27th day of the session, subject to negotiation with the House.

Shorter ‘points of personal privilege.’ The speeches are a staple of every legislative day, giving lawmakers a brief spotlight to talk about whatever they wish – from welcoming guests to railing against legislation.

State Sen. Jeff Mullis, the chairman of the (powerful) Rules Committee, initially wanted to reduce the five-minute limit to three minutes for the entire session, but he agreed to a compromise to only cut the timing after Day 20 of the session.

The Chickamauga Republican said the points of personal privilege were rife for abuse, and he noted that Republicans in the minority were once ordered by Tom Price – a GOP Senate leader at the time – to use all 10 minutes they were allotted to filibuster Democratic aims.

Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, the chamber’s top Democrat, said aside from an attention-hogging lawmaker or two, there was little abuse from either party.

“Trying to get complex points down to three minutes is impossible,” Henson said. “For us to restrict senators from having more than five minutes to air their personal opinions is a mistake. It will lead to a more alienated minority that would be a mistake in the long run.”

Conference committee reports. The chamber’s rules now require conference committee reports to be printed and distributed to each senator at least two hours before a vote during the final five days of the legislative session.

The draft rule change approved Thursday would shorten that window to four days and allow a majority vote to suspend the requirement.

It was opposed by Henson and is sure to stir up opposition from some Republicans, including state Sen. Josh McKoon. The Columbus attorney proposed earlier this year a 24-hour waiting period before a Senate vote on a final passage of a bill as a tonic to the rushed process that often marks the end of each session.

Live-streaming Senate meetings. Secretary of the Senate David Cook said there were still too many technical obstacles to broadcast Senate meetings live online, though he didn’t elaborate.

The House has streamed most of its committee meetings for several years, but the Senate has not followed suit.

At Thursday's meeting, one member of the public was sitting in the nearly empty committee room with a camera pointed toward the lawmakers. But he was not working for the Senate. He was live-streaming the proceedings on Periscope.

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.