Ga. lawmakers almost finished

This year's session ends today

ATLANTA -- The General Assembly approved some tax breaks designed to spark jobs, allowed utility companies to pour money into political campaigns, added a bitter flavor to antifreeze and permitted hunting deer with bait.

By supper time today, the lawmakers still hadn’t agreed on one of the biggest issues of 2011, namely whether to impose new restrictions on employers of illegal aliens.

Another nagging disagreement is over consolidating the Senate budget office into one shared with the House. Senators say having their own staff of 10 financial analysts gives them access to the same amount of information as the other chamber in the politically charged process of negotiating annual budgets for the state.

The House may recognize that, too, and keep insisting on a single budget staff to work to its advantage. All day, it has been insisting on consolidation in Senate bills that would overhaul the whole budget-review process.

House leaders seem to sense they have an opportunity to win the negotiations over the analysis staff because the Senate is hampered by a leadership crisis. Leadership powers are divided among a committee of eight senators who have sometimes found it hard to get the rest of their GOP colleagues to go along.

“The Senate is in turmoil,” said Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, a close ally of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and an opponent of the leadership’s committee of eight.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my 31 years,” said Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus, the senator with the most seniority.

But another long-time legislator discounted it.

“There have been worse things happen in this building,” said Sen. Bill Jackson, R-Appling, a long-time member of each party and each chamber of the General Assembly at various periods in recent decades.

The leadership struggle has titillated political junkies as they’ve tried to follow it from the sketchy details that have leaked out of the closed-door caucus meetings. It has also affected the rest of the General Assembly.

For instance, there has been only one conference committee appointed to work out differences between the House and Senate versions of bills. Customarily, the legislature recesses between the 39th and 40th day to give conference committees the chance to meet, but the only conference committee appointed by the start of business Thursday was the one that negotiated the budget. Instead, the Senate Republicans held a five-hour caucus meeting Wednesday.

Throughout Thursday, few bills went to conference to keep Cagle from using his authority to name members to conference committees. Instead, many Senators were swallowing their distaste for House versions and asking their colleagues to simply go along, notes Rep. Mickey Channell, R-Greensboro.

“You may have forced people to be more accommodating,” said Channell, a 19-year veteran of the House.

The session got off to a slow start, beginning with a blizzard that literally froze out the normal ceremonies of opening day. The legislature took longer to thaw than the weather did because few standing committees considered any major bills until March.

“No lobbyist is happy with this session’s atmosphere. Something’s missing. Something’s wrong,” said veteran lobbyist Neill Herring of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups. “No one could get a rhythm.”

Still, the legislature has passed bills addressing several issues that have lingered, such as packaged-alcohol sales on Sundays, a budget full of cuts in every agency and a bipartisan revision to the HOPE Scholarship to end its deficit spending.

Rep. Keith Heard, D-Athens, said HOPE was an example of the minority party convincing the majority to improve a bill.

“I’ve been proud of the way Democrats have engaged this session,” he said. “There were a lot of issues that had to be more thoroughly thought out, not just passed to say ‘we did something.’”

It didn’t pass an overhaul of the tax code designed to spur job creation, a measure that it set in motion at the end of last year’s session with the creation of a citizen panel to recommend the changes.

By 5 p.m. Thursday, the legislature had given its final OK to a tax break for out-of-state airplane owners and developers of tourism attractions, approved a database of prescriptions and creation of an interstate compact that would bypass federal health reform.



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