Changes involving hospital tax threaten timeline for passing Georgia budget

ATLANTA --- The harmony that has been professed by lawmakers and Gov. Sonny Perdue since the legislative session began started to show signs of stress Tuesday when Senate leaders changed tactics on a bill to tax hospitals.

The Senate Finance Committee merged the House version of Perdue's hospital tax with another bill nicknamed the JOBS Act that has a package of tax breaks for businesses. The committee also sweetened some of the tax breaks to resemble a version of the JOBS Act that Perdue vetoed last year.

The committee announced its 8 a.m. meeting Monday, when legislators were in recess, and said the agenda would be disclosed later. Only two Democrats serve on the committee, and witnesses say neither was present.

Senate staffers say the changes were needed to win enough votes for passage. The hospital tax isn't popular with either party.

"We had to do some minor, technical amendments," Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams told reporters Tuesday after the committee meeting.

The combined legislation is likely to come before the Senate for a vote Thursday. That's when the House was expected to pass its version of the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

All of the subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committee had planned to meet Tuesday to approve their parts of the budget to pave the way for Thursday's House vote. Both chambers planned to go into recess after Thursday's session so the Senate Appropriations Committee could spend the next week studying the budget in detail while other lawmakers enjoyed spring break.

But the House subcommittees canceled all of their meetings, threatening to extend the legislative session beyond its mid-April target adjournment.

House Appropriations Chairman Ben Harbin was frustrated after the careful discussions with the Senate and the governor in recent weeks as he worked to convince the state's hospitals to accept a 1.45 percent tax on their revenues.

"You spend three weeks meeting with someone to get an agreement," said Harbin, R-Evans. "Obviously the agreement we thought we had was different from the one they assumed."

The problem with the Senate's changes, Harbin said, is they could alter how much money the state could expect to collect in taxes to fund next year's budget.

Perdue dismissed concerns Tuesday that the budget was coming unraveled.

"They'll be fine," he said.

Transportation tax still alive

ATLANTA - Residents could have a chance to vote on raising sales taxes 1 percent to fund transportation even though legislation Gov. Sonny Perdue proposed didn't pass by the General Assembly's internal deadline.

Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams said Tuesday that a House-Senate conference committee will soon begin negotiations on a plan that can pass both chambers in the nine days left in the legislative session.

"We're going to use the governor's bill as a template," said House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla.

-- Morris News Service