Friday, February 19 marked the end of day 24 of the 40-day legislative session. The proposed MARTA sales tax survived, an amended 2016 budget was approved, and the First Amendment Defense Act passed the Senate and is headed back to the House for final approval.

Still en route, MARTA expansion. Senate Bill 330, the MARTA expansion bill, was approved by the Senate Transportation Committee. If it becomes law, the bill would allow the governing bodies of DeKalb and Fulton counties to adopt a resolution or ordinance to hold a voter referendum in November of 2016 or 2017, to decide whether they would pay an additional half-percent sales tax to fund the largest expansion of MARTA in more than a generation.

Before receiving committee approval, the bill was amended to make it more palatable to some north Fulton County mayors by allowing for the possibility that expanded bus service could be substituted for rail in future projects. The bill has until February 29th (cross-over day) to pass the full Senate.

Approved, an amended budget. The General Assembly approved the 2016 amended state budget. The majority of the increased spending in the budget went to transportation, approximately $800 million. Education and healthcare each received about $100 million. Next stop for the budget is Governor Deal's desk. The governor is expected to sign the budget into law.

On its way back to the House, House Bill 757. The Senate Rules Committee combined the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) with the previously uncontroversial Pastor Protection Act (PPA) and passed the newly merged House Bill 757 by vote of 38-14. Previously, the PPA, supported by Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) would have reaffirmed the clergy's First Amendment right not to be compelled to officiate same sex weddings against their religious belief or moral conviction. It was viewed by some as a conciliatory gesture to the religious community which was acceptable to the business and the LGBT communities and had previously passed the House 161-0.

The newly merged bill is now much broader, providing that persons and faith-based organizations cannot face "adverse action" by the government for acting in accord with their "sincerely held religious belief between two people, including the belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman or that sexual relations are properly reserved to such a union."

On its way to the Senate, a bigger bench for the state's highest court. The House passed Governor Deal's proposal as recommended by the Appellate Jurisdiction Review Commission to expand the State Supreme Court from seven to nine members. If the bill is passed by the Senate, Governor Deal would have the opportunity to appoint two new justices this summer in addition to any appointments he may make if any of the current sitting justices retire before Deal's term ends. Deal has already appointed Justice Keith Blackwell.

Happening this week under the Dome

Crossover day approaches. Expect activity to intensify as February 29 marks crossover day, the date when any bill that has not passed in at least one legislative chamber will not be eligible for passage in 2016.