published Sunday, April 10th, 2011

Lawmakers face three days of big decisions

By James Salzer/The Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers head into the final three days of the 2011 legislative session this week facing three major policy decisions: How to spend the state’s tax money, whether to cut some taxes and raise others, and how and whether to crack down on illegal immigrants.

In each case, lawmakers will be given hours or — at most — a few days to read, analyze and vote on the final versions of spending, tax and immigration bills.

As Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour, R-Snellville, said, “That’s the way the process always works.”

Lawmakers spend hours honoring beauty queens, high school football teams, minor celebrities and prominent Georgians during most of the session. But the end often is a sleepless blur in which three months of work is concentrated into a few days of rapid-fire lawmaking that leaves some legislators wondering what exactly they passed.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said he’s hoping for bipartisan support for the Republican leadership’s plan to cut income taxes, which will be voted on Monday. But House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, said late Friday that she hadn’t seen it because it was developed in secret by Republican leaders.

“My concern is we aren’t even going to have the time to evaluate it,” Abrams said. “When you are dealing with something as fundamental as tax policy, that is not only no way to run a democracy, that is no way to run a business.”

Republican leaders already had talked to GOP lawmakers about what they expected to be in the tax bill, which was finalized Friday.

The state’s $18.2 billion budget is negotiated between House and Senate leaders and their budget staffs largely behind closed doors.

The two chambers typically don’t reach an agreement on the plan until the last few days. Sometimes it doesn’t get done until the final hours of the session. Lawmakers get a copy on their desks, and they seldom have more than a few hours to see what’s in the final spending plan — and what’s not — before they vote.

The immigration bill still is up in the air. When asked about it, House and Senate leaders said they’d been so busy whipping the tax bill into shape they hadn’t had time to work on immigration.

The end of each legislative session is like that. It’s a rush to get deals — big and small — done in time to meet the constitutional limit of 40 working days.

Dozens of bills could cross lawmakers’ desks before the final gavel falls Thursday — ranging from proposals to renew the state’s $1 tire fee to legislation letting more frail seniors stay in assisted living facilities. There is always a chance that bills on abortion and guns — measures thought dead earlier in the session — will crop up in the final days.

But other than passage of a state budget — something lawmakers are constitutionally mandated to do — taxes, Sunday alcohol sales and illegal immigration probably will dominate the final week.

Ralston said if the General Assembly can approve the tax and immigration bills that still are up in the air, he’ll consider it a successful session.

“My philosophy has been I don’t measure legislative success by the number of bills we pass,” Ralston said. “What I try to get the Legislature to do is do a few things and do them well. Hopefully we will have done the things we need to do.”

The one thing lawmakers must do before they leave for home is pass a budget. The $18.2 billion spending plan for fiscal 2012, which begins July 1, will cut higher education funding, which in turn will mean a sizable increase in tuition for students.

With state finances still suffering from the Great Recession, the budget includes few new initiatives, no cost-of-living raises for more than 200,000 teachers, school personnel and state employees and a 10 to 20 percent increase in their health insurance premiums.

Whether the budget is realistic may depend on the tax plan lawmakers are considering.

The Sunday sales legislation would enable cities and counties to ask voters to approve such alcohol sales at grocery, convenience and liquor stores.

The legislation has stalled in the Senate during four previous sessions. But after initially looking dead again this session, it came back to life amid a strong lobbying effort. The House is expected to give it overwhelming support.

“I feel pretty good about it,” said House Regulated Industries Chairman Roger Williams, R-Dalton. “The desire to address the issue is out there. It’s a hot topic.”

Gov. Nathan Deal has said he would sign the bill. If that happens, the issue could be on the ballot in some cities this fall.

While there has been the typical end-of-the-session wrangling this year, there is probably less of it than in the past, chamber leaders say. That’s partly because some of the tough issues, like making the HOPE scholarship program more financially viable, have been handled. In addition, there is little left in the state budget to fight about because lawmakers have been cutting spending for three years.

“We’re down to the essentials. There is no money to argue over or a list of projects that might have been in the budget,” said Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons. “A lot of the things we wanted to do we’ve gotten done.”

House members, including Ralston, have raised concerns about an ongoing leadership row in the Senate. They complain that they don’t know who is in charge of the chamber since Senate Republicans stripped GOP Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle of some of his power.

But that hasn’t stopped the two chambers from agreeing on major issues this session.

“I think people realize we’ve got to get the job done, and they don’t want to look like they do up in Congress,” Roger Williams said. “I think we’ll come together at the end and come out with a productive session.”

Contact James Salzer at jsalzer@ajc.com.

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