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In what would be their final chance to make an impact on Georgia’s laws this year, legislators hustled bills Thursday that banned some abortions, reformed the state's criminal justice system and changed how special sales taxes are divvied up among school districts.
Georgia’s General Assembly is now adjourned, much of its work from the past three months still pending a signature from Gov. Nathan Deal.
Members packed all they could into their final day of lawmaking, passing versions of bills back and forth between the House and Senate and appointing ambassadors to negotiate differences.
Some compromises came late.
Lawmakers came to consensus, well after dark, on a bill banning abortions 20 weeks after conception except when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. Seemingly dead earlier this week, the bill won final approval in the last hour of the year’s session.
As its author, Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, presented it for the final time, a number of Democrats stood with their backs turned to the well of the House in protest, some of them with yellow “caution” tape wrapped around their mouths.
McKillip did not take questions from other representatives on the bill. After about five minutes, discussion in the Senate was also shut down.
After casting their votes, a number of the women marched out of the chamber silently.
Despite the display, the bill passed its final legislative hurdle with 106 votes in favor and 59 in opposition. Republicans applauded its passage.
“We are going to save a thousand babies every year,” McKillip said.
The bill that gained final approval made an extra exemption for doctor-diagnosed defects that would keep a fetus from being able to live outside the womb.
Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, who co-sponsored the bill, said the final product “banned convenient abortions past 20 weeks.”
“It’s a very strong, pro-life bill,” he said.
“It’s not what everyone wanted, but that’s what a conference committee is. We are still advancing the ability of babies to be able to live,” said Renee Unterman, R-Buford, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
But after the bill passed each chamber, women chanted in the halls of the Capitol, declaring that the women of Georgia would not stand for the vote and chanted, “Women will remember in November!”
“Men do not control us ladies,” said Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale. “We’ve been elected, just like they’ve been elected. We will not stand silently by. We are mad.”
Other issues addressed in legislation that passed included:
Education sales tax
Lawmakers failed to agree on a constitutional amendment that would define how school districts in a county divide revenues from a special purpose sales tax for education.
The proposal would make schools share revenues based on their number of full-time students. Previously, there has been no set rule on how school systems would split the tax funds.
When the matter came before the Senate, it spurred an impassioned speech by Sen. Butch Miller, R-Flowery Branch.
“We’re making the system right,” Miller said. “We’re making the system whole.”
The amendment was of particular relevance in Hall County, where special education sales taxes are shared with Buford’s school system, which has comparably few students who live in the county.
Miller said the issue wasn’t a “family feud” among Hall County and Buford schools.
“I see this as taking the revenue and distributing it based on the number of students,” he said.
Late into the night, lawmakers were negotiating on a Senate amendment that exempted school systems with 3,000 or fewer students. House sponsors of the bill said the exemption put those schools at an unfair advantage.
The negotiations never came through in time for the midnight gavel.
Lawmakers finalized an update of laws that govern the opennes of Georgia’s governments. The final reincarnation of the bill kept state-level economic development discussions from public view until state officials reach an agreement with a prospective company.
It would lower the price people pay to copy documents, explicitly gives the public access to information in electronic databases and would allow people to seek civil penalties — not just criminal penalties — against government officials who violate the law.
“It’s some very good, common-sense changes that help the people,” said Attorney General Sam Olens, whose office helped write the bill.
Criminal justice reform
House lawmakers gave unanimous approval to an overhaul of the criminal justice system sought by the governor, finally sending the legislation to Deal’s desk. Political leaders from both parties say their goal is to steer nonviolent offenders, such as drug users, into treatment rather than prison.
Money was the key motivator for getting formerly tough-on-crime lawmakers to vote for the bill. The state’s prison population has more than doubled in the last two decades to more than 56,000 inmates and costs about $1 billion annually. Every dollar spent on prisons means less money for schools, roads or new initiatives.
Lawmakers have boosted funding for accountability courts as part of the overhaul. Those specialized courts allow people such as substance-abuse addicts or troubled military veterans in trouble with the law to avoid prison if they agree to seek treatment under court supervision.
After years of debate, Georgia lawmakers passed an exemption on sales taxes charged to manufacturers on the energy they use. The exemption was a key goal laid out in Deal’s State of the State speech, which the governor said would attract potential employers.
Legislative tax reform affected others, too. Under lawmakers’ proposal, married couples would be able to keep more income. Georgia is also moving to phase out the annual property tax on cars. People who buy new or used cars or trucks after March 1, 2013, would pay a one-time tax that tops out at 7 percent.
They would no longer get an annual property tax bill pegged on the value of their vehicle. People who keep their cars or trucks past that date will keep paying the annual tax until they buy a new vehicle.
Associated Press contributed to this report