Lawmakers OK budget before session's end

Photo by Avan Clark

Photo by Avan Clark

ATLANTA -- Lawmakers adopted a $17.9 billion budget and worked late into the night Thursday to hash out differences on the contentious issues of abortion and gun rights as they scrambled to put the finishing touches on Georgia's 40-day legislative session.

Both chambers signed off on a deal on the top priority -- the spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 -- which kept legislators at the statehouse later than usual. Falling tax revenues forced lawmakers to cut spending by about $3 billion in the last two years, but they balanced the budget with new fees and a tax on hospitals.

"You passed a budget filled with the right things, the tough choices necessary to protect our core mission," Gov. Sonny Perdue told the Senate. "It's not been fun, it's not been pleasant. But I go out thinking we've done what we could, and I think we've done it well."

Georgia legislators have already addressed some of their key priorities on this year's to-do list by reaching long-awaited deals on water conservation, transportation funding and an ethics overhaul. But there was a long list of social issues to tackle before the session concludes by midnight Thursday.

State legislators passed two bills that would make it illegal to text while driving. One would ban teens from using their cell phones at all while driving. A second would ban all motorists from texting, checking e-mail or using the Internet behind the wheel. The two bills now go to the governor.

Both chambers overwhelmingly adopted a constitutional amendment that would add a $10 annual fee to car registrations to shore up the state's cash-strapped network of trauma hospitals. The measure, which would have to be approved by voters at the ballot box, could raise as much as $80 million to bolster existing hospitals and expand access in rural Georgia.

The House and Senate worked late into the night to hash out final details on a measure that would allow gun owners with permits to bring their firearms into some bars and the parking lots of colleges, courthouses and jails. Both chambers have passed separate measures, which supporters say would clarify confusing gun restrictions.

Still left on the docket is a proposal that would ban doctors from performing an abortion if there's evidence the woman was being coerced into asking for the procedure or that she objects to the race or gender of the fetus. The measure, which must pass both chambers, would also require new signs advising women that they must "freely and voluntarily" consent to the abortion.

Also up in the air is an evaluation system to judge how well teachers do their jobs. Perdue has pushed the measure to help Georgia's chances of winning up to $400 million in federal funds in the second round of the "Race to the Top" federal grant competition. Georgia fell just short of winning in the first round.

They could, though, close the books on the most crucial piece of legislation: Georgia's 2011 spending plan. Forced by falling tax revenues to slash state spending, lawmakers cut more than $600 million in funding for Georgia's schools and colleges. But they balanced the budget with more than $90 million in new fees and another $200 million in hospital taxes.

As lawmakers gathered for the final throes of the session, it often felt like it was the last day of school. More than a dozen retiring legislators made emotional farewell speeches and groups of lawmakers dotted the chamber posing for goodbye pictures.

"Y'all ready to go home?" Ralston asked tired lawmakers, who responded with a loud cheer.