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It's do-or-die today at Capitol

The year’s priorities are up in the air in last legislative session

POSTED: April 2, 2009 11:59 p.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Gainesville State College students listen to Joan Marler during Thursday afternoon's business environment class. Business classes like this one would move into a new building being planned by the college if the project gets full funding from the legislature.

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The Georgia General Assembly will begin a fast and furious game of beat the clock when the opening gavel sounds today in the House and Senate.

House and Senate conferees made little headway Thursday over dueling plans for a transportation tax. And legislators struggled to find common ground on the $18.6 billion spending plan that must be approved by today, the sole annual obligation for lawmakers called to Atlanta each year for the 40-day legislative session.

Among the items in the 20 pages of differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget is $6.2 million for an academic building at Gainesville State College. House members cut the project from $31.2 million to $25 million. The Senate restored the higher amount. College officials say anything less than the full amount will result in additional costs to redesign the project.

The day is filled with a long line of what are called “agrees and disagrees,” a vote on whether to accept the other chamber’s changes to a bill. A vote to agree sends a bill to Gov. Sonny Perdue for signing. A disagree sends it to a conference committee with three members from each chamber. Some matters are resolved in the frenzy, while others will resurface next year.

“We will be meeting to try to iron out differences between Senate and House bills,” said state Sen. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville. “We’ll be on and off the floor. It will be a fire drill.”

Hawkins is hopeful for passage of his bill that would benefit free clinics, such as the Good News Clinic in Gainesville. Under the proposal, nurses or paid physicians working at the clinic would be given immunity from claims arising from free care.

“The sovereign immunity would allow the clinics to take the money they use to pay for liability insurance and use that for medication and supplies,” Hawkins said.

Also today, the Senate likely will approve the two bills authorizing nonbinding referendums on an elected mayor and board of education chairman for Gainesville.

With so many proposals still up for debate, there’s a good chance Georgia’s Republican leaders could leave the Capitol without passing some of their top priorities, much like they did last year when infighting between the House and Senate erupted into the open.

That session ended in a bitter feud as House Speaker Glenn Richardson lashed out at Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle after the Senate failed to wipe out the car tag tax. Business leaders were furious lawmakers failed to approve a 1 cent transportation tax.

Fast forward one year and the stalemate over the tax plans drags on.

The Senate canceled a vote Wednesday on a plan pushed by House leaders to replace the annual tag tax with a one-time fee of up to $1,500 for newly purchased vehicles.

And both chambers still are at odds over how best to fund infrastructure improvements, with the House insisting on a statewide sales tax as the Senate backs one that could be imposed regionally.

Both sides still seemed stuck during a series of committee meetings Thursday.

“The Senate will not pass a statewide plan. I’ve told you; I’ve told everybody from day one,” state Sen. Jeff Mullis, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, told his House counterparts. “We will not pass a statewide plan in the Senate.”

House leaders tried to build momentum behind a “compromise” that would allow counties to band together to levy the sales tax if a referendum on a statewide tax fails.

“It’s time for us as a state to have a state transportation plan, and show the nation that Georgia is ready and willing and able to adopt the plan,” said state Rep. Vance Smith, who leads the House committee.

State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, lauded a plan that would give the governor and lawmakers more control over how transportation dollars are spent.

It passed despite GOP lawmakers’ concern that it handed the governor too much power, but the plan still is far from final as the chambers have yet to hash out an agreement on how the overhaul would work.

“From what I gather, the Senate is stonewalling on those (transportation) bills,” Benton said. “I have no idea what kind of egos are involved in this.”

Other key proposals still hanging in the balance are a push by legislators for more control over the ailing public defender system; an effort to soften parts of Georgia’s crackdown on sex offenders; and a bid to sanction lawmakers who haven’t paid their taxes.

A pair of measures targeted by immigrant groups also could move toward final passage. One would require driver’s license applicants to take the written exam in English and the other calls for residents to prove they are U.S. citizens before they register to vote. Both bills are sponsored by Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain.

Another Mills bill, allowing people to adopt embryos, likely is to be agreed to by the House after minor changes in the Senate.

“We will be the first state in the U.S. to offer this option,” Mills said. “The significant thing is the implied statement that an embryo is a child. We only adopt children.”

The bid to erase the car tag tax and a slew of other tax breaks remain up in the air. Included are efforts to slow the growth of property assessments and phase out the corporate income tax for Georgia-based companies.

In fact, only a few measures have reached final approval by the Legislature.

Among those, lawmakers approved a plan requiring food makers to quickly alert state inspectors of internal test results; fines for motorists caught driving well over the speed limit; and new authority for Georgia Power to charge ratepayers early for the construction of two new nuclear reactors.

Yet with so many issues left undecided, today’s marathon day finally will help resolve the questions that have lingered throughout the session. Namely, can Republican leaders strike a compromise on a host of issues, or will the legislative session end in another bout of acrimony?

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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