ATLANTA - The General Assembly veered Thursday toward an abrupt end to the legislative session that could kill several high-profile bills and force a special session to deal with the budget for the coming fiscal year. But a late meeting offered some hope the situation could be averted.
Lawmakers grew pessimistic by the hour as House and Senate negotiators struggled to reach some agreement on the spending plan, which will take effect July 1. If no agreement is reached, it's likely the legislative session would end today, triggering a special session.
"Right now, I'd say 70-30," Senate Rules Committee Chairman Don Balfour, R-Snellville, said when asked about the likelihood of a special session.
An early ending could kill a spate of bills concerning some of the larger issues of the session, including the future of the HOPE Scholarship and tort reform, by leaving little time to resolve differences between the House and Senate.
"There's no time to negotiate," Mr. Balfour said. "There's no time to go to conference."
Senate leaders said they wanted to see movement on a budget dispute with the House before delaying the final day of the session. The Senate presented a proposal at an evening meeting of the conference committee, but no immediate action was taken. House negotiators said they would respond later.
If the proposal is accepted or a compromise found, the House and Senate would still need to agree on and pass a resolution scheduling the final day of the session.
"If we don't pass a resolution, we come back tomorrow and that's it," said Senate Appropriations Committee Jack Hill, R-Reidsville.
The main point of contention on the budget was on a debate over funding for Medicaid and public education. House budget writers wanted to spend $277 million more on education than proposed by Gov. Sonny Perdue, but Senate leaders said that would require underfunding Medicaid.
Democrats disputed that, adding that any underfunding could be corrected in the supplemental budget that the General Assembly will consider next year.
"If it is underfunded, we come back in the supplemental. That's one of the reasons we have a supplemental budget, to make adjustments," said Rep. Mickey Channell, D-Greensboro, the vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
But Republicans are opposed to using the supplemental budget to correct the problem.
In a letter addressed to "My Friends in Education in Georgia" and dated Thursday, House Speaker Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, said the House didn't plan to back down.
"The Senate rejected our recommendations and now the possibility looms of the General Assembly moving into a special session to begin anew the 2005 budget process," Mr. Coleman wrote. "In the presence of the media and representatives from numerous education organizations in the budget conference, we have steadfastly held our position in support of education. We do not intend to retreat from that position."
As late as Thursday afternoon, the Senate's GOP leadership remained optimistic the standoff could be resolved.
"I still think it's do-able," Mr. Hill said. "I still think we can get together."
The day before, House Majority Caucus Chairman Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, was far more pessimistic, saying there was little chance a special session on the budget could be avoided if day 39 were held Thursday.
"We're either going to do it now or do it later," Mr. Smyre said.
The groundwork for the showdown was laid Wednesday, when the House passed a calendar that would have designated April 15 as the last day of the session. Senate Republicans cried foul.
Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said that, if budget negotiations failed, the schedule would not have left enough time for a special session before candidates have to qualify for elections.
Morris News Service writer Dave Williams contributed to this report.