Georgia Senator John Crosby, R-Tifton, right, rests his eyes for a moment as the last day of the legislative session drags into the night, Friday, April 3, 2009, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)
ATLANTA — Georgia legislators filled their constitutional responsibility Friday, approving a balanced $18.6 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The fiscal 2010 spending plan, which goes to the desk of Gov. Sonny Perdue, avoids increasing health insurance costs for state workers but does not remove the chance more will face furloughs from their jobs.
Passing the budget is the only thing the state constitution requires lawmakers to do during the 40-day legislative session of the General Assembly, and House and Senate overwhelmingly adopted the spending plan on Friday night.
But the two chambers battled Friday — and have battled for two years now — over strategies to fund transportation projects. As the midnight end of the session neared, it appeared at press time the gridlock over transportation would continue.
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The House has insisted upon a statewide one-cent sales tax to fund infrastructure improvements, while the Senate favors an approach that allows the tax to be imposed regionally.
Conference committee members convened half a dozen meetings over the last two days to try and come together.
At one point Friday afternoon, Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, took to the Senate floor to berate House negotiators for having “proved they have no intention of moving forward” on funding transportation.
The Senate Transportation Committee chairman, in an uncharacteristically venomous pep talk to his fellow senators to continue backing his special purpose local option sales tax for transportation, also known as T-SPLOST, that would be voted on by residents from county to county, or by region.
Sen. Mullis said SPLOSTs have a track record of success in Georgia. Each county in Northwest Georgia has enacted all three of the optional, five-year maximum taxes multiple times, and very rarely has a SPLOST been defeated at the polls.
Sen. Mullis slammed House members for refusing to abandon their plan for a statewide 1 percent sales tax option for Georgia voters, with funds dedicated to transportation projects.
“Not anywhere in America have they voted for a statewide T-SPLOST,” Sen. Mullis said. “What Kool-Aid are we drinking? The only thing that can pass in this state is a regional T-SPLOST.”
Senate negotiators offered what they called “middle ground” Friday afternoon with a proposal saying counties that band together to levy the tax would send 5 percent of the taxes to the state. That amounts to $230 million for state projects.
But it did not appear the sides would come together on transportation.
On the deal struck by budget writers, federal stimulus dollars were tapped for more cash to pay for Medicaid, the health program for the poor. Enrollment in Medicaid has soared as the economy has worsened.
The budget includes spending cuts of more than $1 billion. The Senate’s top budget writer said agencies will see an average cut of about 8 percent.
Sen. Jack Hill said the plan contains “real pain” but that lawmakers did their best to soften the blow.
“The economy is difficult, and we’ve made our tough choices,” said state Rep. Ben Harbin, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “But in this budget we’ve also maintained our priorities.”
Both chambers agree on a bill giving the House and Senate ethics committees new powers to investigate and sanction legislators who fail to pay their taxes. The vote comes after state tax officials revealed that 22 state lawmakers — about 10 percent of the General Assembly — are delinquent on their taxes.
As time was running out, House leaders also were trying again to erase the annual car tag tax, this time by replacing it with a one-time fee of up to $1,500 for newly purchased vehicles. And they were pushing proposals that would slow the growth of property assessments.
Other key proposals included an effort to soften parts of Georgia’s crackdown on sex offenders and a push by legislators for more control over the ailing public defender system.
The state Senate tried again to get adults in pickup trucks to buckle up, tacking Sen. Don Thomas’s seat belt requirement on a separate bill about learner’s permits and sending it back to the House.
A subcommittee of the House has bottled up the Dalton Republican physician’s bill for the past three years, but it was not clear it would get a vote in the last-minute amendment effort Friday. Georgia is the last state in the nation to specifically exempt adults in pickups from wearing seat belts.
The long list of pending proposals Friday is partly because the Legislature had only given final passage to a few plans in the previous 39 days of the legislative session.
So it seemed likely chance Georgia’s Republican leaders would leave the Capitol early Saturday morning without passing some of their top proposals.
The Associated Press, correspondent Jake Armstrong and staff writer Tom S. Turner contributed to this report.
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