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2008 General Assembly: Lawmakers OK $21.2 billion budget

POSTED: April 15, 2008 5:00 a.m.

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10:50 p.m. State Rep. Ben Bridges, R-Cleveland, announced Friday night that he would not be a candidate for re-election to his House seat.

Bridges said he from the well of the house that he had signs it was time to retire.

"When your daughter calls and tells you she's a grandmother and you go look in the mirror and you realize that you don't have as many days ahead of you as you do behind you and you're still healthy," Bridges said.

Bridges, who was retired as a captain with the Georgia State Patrol was stationed in Gainesville for a number of years. In his early days with the patrol, he protected then Lt. Gov. Zell Miller.

He entered the House in 1997 and served as chairman of the House Retirement Committee.
Bridges told lawmakers that he and his wife, Jeanie, have plans to travel in their fifth-wheel camper.

Come back to gainesvilletimes.com throughout the evening for more reports from Harris Blackwood on the General Assembly's final day.  

9:50 p.m.: Senate conferees have offered a new proposal on the elimination of the car tax. The proposal would eliminate the tax on all personal vehicles purchased after Jan. 1, 2009, and on all vehicles not previously titled in Georgia and brought into the state after that date.

The tax on existing vehicles would be reduced over a five-year period through a credit on the state income tax at 20 percent per year.

State Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, questioned whether the move would creative a market for used cars from outside the state.

Conferees are to meet again at 10 p.m. for what will likely be a final verdict on the proposal. Any bill must be placed on the desks of lawmakers for an hour before a vote. The legislature, which is in its final day, must adjourn by midnight.

9:15 p.m. A Hall County lawmaker is concerned that a last-minute measure passed Friday night by the House could delay the addition of a fifth Superior Court judgeship in the Northeastern Judicial Circuit, which is made up of Hall and Dawson Counties.

State Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said a bill which approves three judgeships beginning on July 1, 2009, was passed by the House and sent back to the Senate. Normally, judgeships are approved in the same year they begin, however, the Senate removed funding for the new judgeships.

"It raises a huge concern," Collins said. "Typically, we allot three judgeships a year, but this year we are allotting none. If we fund the three approved by the House, that means we would have to fund six judgeships next year. It could possibly push our judgeship into 2010."

New judgeships for 2009 were approved for the Alcovy, Brunswick and Atlanta judicial circuits.
Hall County Superior Court Judge Andrew Fuller has expressed the need for a fifth judge in the Northeastern circuit.

The action has no bearing on the Hall County State Court judgeship. Funding for that position is provided by Hall County. The bill authorizing a third judgeship for state court is awaiting the signature of Gov. Sonny Perdue, who would appoint the position beginning July 1.

8 p.m.: Both Houses of the Georgia General Assembly have passed the compromise state budget for fiscal year 2009. Final passage came just before 8 p.m. on the $21.2 billion spending package which includes design funds for a new academic building at Gainesville State College, as well as a 2.5 percent raise for teachers and state employees.

"In addition to providing a well-deserved pay increase for teachers, we have dedicated funding to restore the austerity reduction and have given more resources to HOPE scholarship recipients," said Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in a statement released after Senate passage of the budget. "Our transportation infrastructure will improve through the congestion relief fund and a state transportation infrastructure bank."

However, the House and Senate appear to be far apart on their two tax cut proposals.

The conference committee on a tax cut proposal became high theater Friday night as House Speaker Glenn Richardson appeared as one of the House conferees. The speaker wasted no time in laying blame on Cagle.

"Tomorrow morning, if we don't have a tax cut on cars, it's because Casey Cagle did not want to give tax reform to the people of Georgia, period," said Richardson. "Either we're going to do it or we're not. I don't understand."

After the 15 minute meeting, the conferees walked away.

Richardson said if agreement is not reached by 9 p.m., it would be unlikely that any kind of reform could be printed, placed on lawmakers desks and voted upon before the midnight deadline.

Senate conferees offered the proposal to cap property assessments as a good faith gesture, but Richardson and the other conferees, including Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, declined the offer. 

7 p.m.: Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, remains hopeful of a tax cut compromise before midnight.

The House and Senate conferees, including Mills, are set to meet at 7:15 p.m.

"The only thing that is stopping us from passing a tax cut is an agreement," Mills said. "Ultimately it boils down to whether the heads of both bodies can agree."

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, has been critical of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle for blocking the House plan.

Meanwhile, Mills was somewhat pleased with the amended version of his car seizure bill.

"House Bill 978 is not all that it started to be, but it sends a strong message to people on our roads that aren't licensed," Mills said. "The Senate added a lot of wiggle room which the House did not, but we're in the 11th hour and sometimes you settle for half a loaf over no loaf." 

 

6 p.m.: By a vote of 115-44, the House agreed to a Senate substitute to House Bill 978. The bill, introduced by Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, would allow authorities to impound the vehicles operated by persons who are not licensed to drive on Georgia roads.

The bill is directed at illegal immigrants who are operating cars without a license.

The Senate version provides for return of the vehicle if it belongs to a person with a valid driver's license.

The bill now goes to Gov. Sonny Perdue for his signature.

5 p.m.: House conferees have offered a compromise to the State Senate on a sales tax for transportation.

The plan would give a penny of the sales tax on motor fuel directly to transportation. The plan would generate an additional $160 million to $180 million, according to lawmakers.

The House wants the issue addressed through an amendment to the state constitution, something the Senate has resisted.

"The sand in the hourglass is sliding away, but that puts pressure on us to get something done," said State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

The proposed amendment would also allow for a regional local option transportation tax, the details of which would be spelled out in enabling legislation to be passed by the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, the State Senate has agreed to a House version of the bill allowing consumers to "freeze" their credit reports. The bill, which now goes to Gov. Sonny Perdue, would allow the three credit reporting agencies to charge a $3 fee for a credit freeze.

3 p.m.: Goodbye to a legend. In a rare moment, the House gave a sustained standing ovation for a reporter and the Capitol Press Corps joined in.

Dick Pettys, who has covered state government since the administration of Gov. Jimmy Carter, is retiring after 34 years with the Associated Press and four years with Insider Advantage, a subscription news service.

Pettys, long the dean of the press corps, was honored with a resolution from the House and spoke briefly to the lawmakers.

"Mr. Speaker, I want to thank you for making the last four years so interesting," Pettys said, drawing laughter from House members and a handshake from Speaker Glenn Richardson.

2:05 p.m.: House and Senate budget conferees have officially signed off on a compromise version of the $21.2 billion state budget for fiscal year 2009.

The compromise includes a 2.5 percent raise for state teachers and employees.

It also restores $2.4 million in design funds for a new academic building at Gainesville State College, as well as $5 million for a new building at Lanier Technical College's campus in Dawsonville. Also back is a $1 million in additional funds for an expansion at Lanier Tech's campus in Cumming.

"I'm glad to see the funds back for Gainesville College, which is such an important part of our community," said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville.

The budget is being printed and must be on lawmaker's desks for an hour before it is voted upon. The budget is the only action that is required to be completed by the General Assembly prior to adjournment. However, a number of conference committees are meeting in an attempt to reach a compromise on other pending legislation.

12:06 p.m.: Let there be lunch. It's been said that an army travels on its stomach, and the same must be true for a legislature.

Lobbyist groups have brought in an assortment of food in various conference rooms around the capitol to feed lawmakers and their staffs. The food ranges from chicken and vegetables to sandwiches. But there is little indication that the House or Senate will adjourn for lunch, leaving lawmakers a quick opportunity to slip off the floor for a bite to eat.

Another culinary tradition in the legislature involved dinner from the Varsity. Orders are taken by using the legislature's voting machine. All who want a hamburger vote "yes" and those wanting a hot dog vote "no."

11:18 a.m.: The game of "Beat the Clock" is under way under the gold dome. As the session begins, lawmakers are bringing up bills from the opposite chamber and asking that conference committees be appointed to quickly iron out differences between the House and Senate.

9 a.m.: The Georgia General Assembly begins its final day at 10 this morning. The day promises to be a busy one with lawmakers working to resolve differences on the $21.2 billion state budget, which is the only task the General Assembly is required to complete during its 40-day session.

Even if agreement is reached, the rules require the budget to be printed and placed on lawmakers' desks before final passage, which could drag the process into the night.

The House and Senate are gridlocked over competing tax breaks. Vast changes to the education system hang in the balance. Plans to hike the sales tax to pay for transportation improvements and create a new fee to shore up Georgia's trauma network are in limbo.

About the only trademark issue both chambers had already agreed upon by Thursday was a statewide water plan to chart out the drought-stricken state's resources and needs. But efforts to pass more ambitious plans to expand existing reservoirs and build new ones have sputtered.

The story as of this morning: Late last night, House and Senate budget writers reached agreement on a compromise $21.2 billion state budget for fiscal year 2009. Budget staffs were up all night making technical corrections to the bill, which must be printed and placed on lawmakers desks. The final version has not been made public.

Meanwhile, it appears that the House and Senate are far apart on tax relief measures.

The session must adjourn by midnight and activity is at a frantic pace as lawmakers work against the clock.

 




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