- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 29, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) - Gov. Nathan Deal signed off on several pieces of legislation Tuesday, including bills aimed at making it more difficult to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law to one allowing drug testing for some welfare and food stamp recipients.

Tuesday was the last day for Deal to sign, veto or allow legislation to become law without his signature. Deal, who is up for re-election this year, held three public bill signings to highlight legislation on education, public safety and a statue honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Capitol.

Others were signed without ceremony, and 10 were vetoed including one that would have restricted the release of certain information about private probation companies. A recent state audit had raised questions about limited court oversight of private probation companies, saying that had allowed for policies likely to increase non-compliance and drive-up fees and fines.

“There are a lot of red flags that were raised in that audit with regard to the process and procedures and reporting mechanisms and, quite frankly, the failure to follow existing protocols,” Deal told reporters.

The decision was hailed by the Southern Center for Human Rights. The group’s senior attorney, Sarah Geraghty, said the legislation would have expanded the reach of private probation companies while keeping the amount of fees they collect secret.

“By vetoing this bill, Governor Deal is continuing the important work Georgia has undertaken to improve its criminal justice system,” Geraghty said in a statement.

Deal began the day by signing legislation to establish the Zell Miller Grant for technical college students. It provides full tuition coverage for those technical college students eligible for the HOPE Grant who maintain a 3.5 grade-point average. The bill takes effect July 1 and aims to attract technical college students back to the system.

The technical college system’s enrollment dropped significantly when changes were made in 2011 to the overall HOPE program that included raising the qualifying grade-point average to 3.0 for recipients. At the time, Deal and Republican lawmakers argued the changes were needed to keep the program afloat for future generations.

Technical college officials have said a combination of factors, including the 2011 changes, resulted in a decline of several thousand students. Lawmakers decided last year, with the support of Deal, to lower the grade-point average back to 2.0 for the HOPE grant students.

Democrat Jason Carter, who is running for governor, said Deal’s actions in 2011 decimated the technical college system and called the current bill little more than a “Band-Aid when the patient needs surgery.”

Later in the day, Deal was joined at the Capitol by two of King’s children, Martin Luther King III and the Rev. Bernice King, as he signed legislation providing for a statue to honor the slain civil rights leader.

Martin Luther King III called it a great tribute to his father. “My hope is that it reminds people that there is still work to be done,” he said.

How soon the statue will be erected and where it will be placed on Capitol grounds has yet to be decided. It will be paid for with private funds.

Also Tuesday, Deal signed a bill limiting his ability to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law, something he has already said he doesn’t want to do. Deal also signed a separate bill that prohibits state and local governments from advocating for Medicaid expansion or operating a health care exchange or navigator program under the federal law.

On the bill allowing for drug testing of some welfare and food stamp recipients, Deal said he planned to sign it while acknowledging it was likely to face a legal challenge. A previous plan to drug test welfare recipients in Georgia was abandoned after federal courts found a similar program in Florida was unconstitutional. The new law would allow the state to test recipients if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that a person is using drugs.

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