Georgia Legislature works late to pass bills on final day

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ATLANTA — State lawmakers scrambled Thursday to pass reams of legislation on the final day of their legislative session, including an overhaul of the criminal justice system and funding for new charter schools.

Rep. Emory Dunaho, R-Gainesville, (right) talks with Travis Hutchinson in the House chambers on the last day of the Georgia General Assembly on Thursday.  JOHN BAZEMORE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
JOHN BAZEMORE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Rep. Emory Dunaho, R-Gainesville, (right) talks with Travis Hutchinson in the House chambers on the last day of the Georgia General Assembly on Thursday.

The marathon pace capped off a year when political leaders in the General Assembly promised to focus on creating jobs in a state with more than 9 percent unemployment. Considerable parts of the 40-day session were spent by the Republican majority pushing for bills popular with conservative voters ahead of the fall election, including a debate on whether to more tightly restrict abortion.

The abortion measure passed late Thursday.

If signed by Gov. Nathan Deal, the bill would ban abortions after five months except when pregnancies threaten a mother’s life or health. In a change sought by the Senate, doctors could perform abortions after five months if they diagnose the fetus with a fatal defect.

Charter schools dominated the education agenda under the Gold Dome this year. State lawmakers passed a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to establish charter schools over the objection of local districts. Voters will decide in a referendum this fall whether to approve that change to the constitution. Lawmakers approved legislation Thursday that explains how those new schools would be funded.

Other education legislation that awaits the governor’s signature includes a measure that allows the state schools superintendent to hire and fire some employees without the approval of the state Board of Education.

House lawmakers gave unanimous approval Thursday to an overhaul of the criminal justice system sought by Republican
Gov. Nathan Deal, finally sending the legislation to his desk.

Political leaders from both parties say their goal is to steer nonviolent offenders, for example, drug addicts, 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 past two decades to more than 56,000 inmates and costs about $1 billion annually.

Georgia lawmakers also voted this year to exempt manufacturers from paying the sales tax on the energy used to produce
their products.

Deal made that change a key part of his State of the State speech, saying it would bring Georgia in line with neighboring states, boost the struggling manufacturing industry and attract new employers.

The tax reform affected others, too. Married couples would be able to keep more income under the latest tax plan. 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 car or trucks past that date will keep paying the annual tax until they buy a new vehicle.

Other groups lost ground during the session.

Opponents of abortion lost ground late Thursday when lawmakers agreed to a watered-down bill restricting abortion five months after conception. Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, initially passed legislation supported by the National Right To Life Committee that would have banned most women for seeking abortions 20 weeks into their pregnancies. His bill would have allowed abortions after that point when a pregnancy threatened the life or physical health of the mother.

But the state Senate amended the bill to add an additional exception allowing women to seek an abortion after five months if a doctor diagnoses a fetus with a fatal defect. Georgia Right To Life opposed that exception, dubbing it “selective euthanasia.”

Ultimately, McKillip and House lawmakers agreed to the Senate’s more lenient position.

McKillip called the compromise necessary “to move the ball forward on abortion statutes in Georgia.”

Lawmakers were expected to vote on a final version late Thursday.

It was a mixed year for those seeking to tighten lobbying rules and increase government transparency.

For the second consecutive year, tough talk on ethics reform came up early in the legislative session, only to fall flat in the final days as lawmakers lacked the political will to make substantive changes. A $100 cap on lobbyist gifts was again rejected on Day 40, when Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, attempted to tack the measure to another bill. His amendment failed.

Legislation substantially rewriting Georgia’s open government law passed easily in both chambers. 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 that violate the law.

“It’s some very good, commonsense changes that help the people,” said Attorney General Sam Olens, whose office helped write the bill.

DEMOCRATS BLAST STONE OVER MAP

ATLANTA — The Democrats in the Augusta delegation announced late Thursday they were going to let a court draw the election districts for the Augusta Commission and Richmond County school board rather than agree to a version sponsored by Sen. Jesse Stone.

The Democrats blasted Stone, a Waynesboro Republican, for introducing an alternative version when he doesn’t live in Richmond County, even though part of his district includes the county.

“The last thing this delegation wants is for the courts to draw our district lines; however, we think it is equally as disheartening for a senator who represents less than 15 percent of Augusta to draw the lines,” the Democrats said in a statement listing Reps. Wayne Howard, Quincy Murphy, Gloria Frazier and Earnest Smith.

“It’s unfortunate that a self-appointed senator to be involved that caused us to be in this problem we’re in now,” said Howard, the chairman of the delegation.

– Morris News Service


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