ATLANTA (AP) - In their haste to award Mercedes-Benz a $1.3 million tax break Thursday, lawmakers in Georgia thwarted any serious debate on the money, broke their own transparency rules and pushed past a constitutional time limit.
The final moments of Georgia's annual 40-day legislative session are usually chaotic. By law, any bill that does not pass by midnight fails for the year, prompting a late rush of voting. Minutes before midnight, amid the ordinary chaos, senior Republicans forced a vote on a rewritten tax bill that included a previously unseen reward for Mercedes-Benz, which is moving its U.S. headquarters to Georgia.
The Senate ignored a requirement that lawmakers get two hours to review the measure and rolled past the midnight deadline implicitly set in Georgia's state constitution.
"Ultimately, this action sacrificed needed transparency and erodes public confidence," state Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, said. "How can I explain to every other business and family moving into Georgia they have to pay their car title fee, but one company does not?"
German luxury automobile maker Mercedes-Benz announced in January it would move its U.S. headquarters from New Jersey to metro Atlanta, partly to be closer to its manufacturing facility in Alabama. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, offered roughly $23 million in state incentives to lure the Mercedes-Benz headquarters and at least 800 jobs down South.
In addition to that package, Mercedes-Benz got another goodie Thursday in what lawmakers jokingly call "Christmas Tree" legislation, a spending bill stuffed with gifts for narrow interests. The manufacturer leases luxury cars to many of its headquarters employees, and those employees would normally have to pay car taxes.
A plan that emerged after 10 p.m. Thursday would exempt those Mercedes-Benz employees from paying about $1.3 million in annual state and local car taxes. Instead, the firm would owe much cheaper application and license plate fees. While the legislation does not specifically name Mercedes-Benz, lawmakers say the terms are written so narrowly that only Mercedes-Benz would benefit.
Asked why the governor supported the tax break, Deal spokesman Brian Robinson responded with a one-word email: "Jobs."
Mercedes-Benz wanted to make its lease program in Atlanta comparable to what its employees enjoyed in New Jersey, company spokesman Rob Moran said.
"This is a valued and valuable employee benefit which enables our employees to experience and interact knowledgeably about the products we sell," he said.
To prevent last-minute mishaps and chicanery, Senate rules require that bills negotiated by a conference committee - like the Mercedes tax plan - should be printed and distributed to senators two hours prior to a vote. Sen. Joshua McKoon, R-Columbus, and others said they received the legislation around 10:30 p.m.
A debate on the tax bill started minutes before midnight. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle twice asked the Senate to suspend the two-hour waiting-period so a vote could proceed. That request was defeated each time.
Cagle called a vote anyway. The tax plan passed around 12:04 a.m., after the midnight deadline.
When asked whether the vote was legal, Cagle brushed off a reporter and walked off the Senate floor.
The Georgia Constitution does not precisely define a legislative day. In 1964, a newspaper photographer snapped a picture of state Rep. Denmark Groover as he dangled over a balcony, trying to manually stop a clock as it ticked toward midnight.
More recently, lawmakers have stopped promptly at midnight. House Speaker David Ralston, a lawyer, rushed to finish the House vote by 12.
"For time eternal, this day has ended at midnight," Ralston said, shortly before the deadline. "It's going to end at midnight today in the House even though I understand that the other chamber may stay later."
AP writer Kathleen Foody contributed to this report. Follow Ray Henry on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rhenryAP