Originally created 05/06/04

House OKs lone bill of session

ATLANTA - A special session of the Georgia Legislature is on track to conclude by the end of the week after the House approved the lone bill on the agenda Wednesday.

The bill, which raises court fees and fines to help pay for indigent defense, was considered last legislative term but didn't get approved in the session's hectic closing hours.

Gov. Sonny Perdue said the state budget won't balance without that bill and made it the single item for consideration in a costly weeklong special session.

This time, the bill passed the House 167-4 and now heads to the Senate, which has changed its rules to hurry up the bill's passage, setting up a Friday end to the session.

The court fees bill would raise $57 million, with the money going to pay for a new statewide system of providing lawyers for poor people accused of crimes. Currently, each judicial circuit has its own method of providing indigent defense, leading to a hodgepodge system that even prosecutors have called unfair.

The matter of raising court fees and fines wasn't especially controversial during the regular session that ended last month, but the bill failed because Mr. Perdue and other Republicans wanted to add language giving the governor more control over the judicial branch's budget.

Governors, as head of the executive branch, have traditionally had a limited role in setting the judiciary's budget. Mr. Perdue said the judiciary spends too much and that he should have the power to trim its budget requests. Democrats disagreed, saying that would violate the separation of powers.

The dispute was resolved last week when the parties agreed to change the bill so that Mr. Perdue can oversee, but not solely control, the judiciary budget. That left a special session with just a single bill and little dissent.

Both Democrats and Republicans spoke in favor of the bill during its debate in the House.

The four dissenting votes, all from Republicans, said they feared the new indigent defense system could cost counties more money.

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