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State legislators beat the clock
Lawmakers pass budget but fail to resolve tax cut on sessions final day
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ATLANTA -- The Georgia General Assembly ended its 2008 session Friday, giving final approval to the $21.2 billion state budget for fiscal year 2009.

The budget, often the cliffhanger in the annual session, was quietly passed Friday evening.
This year's 11th-hour issue was an ongoing dispute over tax cuts.

House and Senate conferees met several times during the night, seeking compromise between strong positions held by House Speaker Glenn Richardson and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, both Republicans.

Richardson, from early in the session, has advocated a constitutional amendment allowing voters to decide on a repeal of the ad valorem tax portion of the annual fees paid for personal vehicles. Cagle proposed a phased-in cut in the state income tax, with the first reduction coming in July.

What has ensued is a war of words between the two men that became personal. Richardson made a rare appearance in the conference committee and did not mince words about Cagle.

"Tell him to stand up and be a man and say ‘I don't support tax reform,'" Richardson told three state senators at a brief meeting late Friday night.

Senate leaders, meanwhile, argued the two chambers first should agree on capping property assessments before considering the House's plan to wipe out the car tag tax.

Just after 11 p.m., Richardson informed the House that tax reform was dead for the session, but not before taking a hard verbal shot at Cagle, accusing him of "obstructionist tactics."

"It's time to get a new lieutenant governor," Richardson said. "When Georgians go to buy their tags, they can now pay the Casey Cagle birthday tax."

Renewal of vehicle tags is due each year on the birthday of the registered owner.

Cagle did not respond to Richardson's comments.

Legislators achieved their only constitutional duty -- adopting the annual budget -- late Friday night when they voted overwhelmingly to adopt the budget with virtually no debate. The plan boosts salaries for state employees, funnels money into schools and slashes $245 million without any layoffs or major program cuts. Gov. Sonny Perdue had ordered spending cuts to deal with slowing tax collections.

The final budget included some good news for Northeast Georgia, including restoration of $2.4 million in design funds for an academic building at Gainesville State College in Oakwood.

The conferees also restored $1.5 million in additional funds for an expansion of Lanier Technical College's campus in Oakwood and $5 million to build what will be the first new building on the college's Dawsonville campus, presently on the site of the former Dawson County High School.

The budget also includes $350,000 for the Field of Dreams at Alberta Banks Park, $20,000 for the Northeast Georgia History Center and $100,000 for the Healthcare Initiative.

"The process is so tough," said State Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, who is a vice-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The chambers also knocked out a number of other high-profile plans.

Senators voted to allow authorities to seize the cars of unlicensed drivers involved in accidents. And they signed off on a plan to allow consumers to place a freeze on their credit for $3.

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 impounding the vehicle, but returning it if it belongs to a person with a valid driver's license.

"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."

The bill now goes to Perdue for his signature. State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, who had worked on the credit freeze for three years, was pleased with its passage.

"It's got everything we wanted including the $3 fee and it is free for persons 65 and over," Benton said. "It worked out well."

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, 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.

But it was also a day of last-minute amendments and obscure procedural moves that threatened to gut legislation, or transform it into something entirely new.

Rep. Bobby Franklin, R-Marietta, spent 30 minutes trying to turn a bill dealing with dog collar requirements into one that outlawed abortion, until he was quieted by a 152-2 rejection from his colleagues.

House lawmakers spent another 25 minutes arguing whether a measure that would ban retailers from selling marijuana-flavored candy to children infringes on personal rights, before quickly sending it to the Senate.

It was also a day of goodbyes. State Rep. Ben Bridges, R-Cleveland, announced Friday night that he would not be a candidate for re-election to his House seat. Bridges, who 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.

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