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Legislative session adjourns a day ahead of schedule

From Staff and Wire reports

The Republican-led General Assembly closed its 2005 session a day early by cramming through a smoking ban, ethics reform and a voting bill that narrows the number of acceptable forms of ID at the polls.

Republican leaders planned a smooth, methodical last day in contrast to the late-night frenzies that typically marked the final lawmaking hours under Democratic control.

And for a while their plans held true, with both chambers plodding through the few matters still left unsettled. The bulk of bills important to the GOP passed long ago – such as abortion waiting periods and shielding doctors from malpractice lawsuits. Republicans also redrew congressional districts, which were drawn under Democratic control.

The main question left for the final day was whether lawmakers would agree to new ethics rules for elected officials. The idea has long been pushed by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, and Republican lawmakers said all session that they would toughen ethics laws. But they struggled to agree how.

After weeks of wrangling, and negotiations that broke down at several points, a compromise was struck just moments before the midnight deadline for Republicans to finish up as they intended, a day earlier than legally required.

Although the final version was significantly different than the one first proposed by Perdue, he thanked lawmakers for getting done what "I promised the people of Georgia we would do."

Even top-ranking Republicans seemed relieved they finished the ethics bill, which included higher fines for ethics violators and a new legislative committee to look into complaints against officials.

Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, was charged with ushering through many of the term's most controversial measures and said after wrap-up, "If you told people that we were going to get done all the things we got done this year, most people wouldn't have believed you."

Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, even spoke from the well Thursday night, only the second time this session.

"I believe this is clearly the most sweeping ethics reform that Georgia has ever faced," he said.

Some Democrats disagreed, saying the bill didn't go far enough in separating dollars from politics.

"I think our disagreement is the extent to how sweeping this really is," said House Minority Leader Dubose Porter, D-Dublin. "It is silent to so many things that were sought," he said.

The ethics reform increases the maximum fines for ethics violations up to $10,000 on a graduated scale. The first violation is $1,000, the second is $5,000 and the third and thereafter is $10,000.

For example, if a lawmaker violates the ethics code three times, they will face having to pay out $16,000 – about equal to their yearly salary.

Other bills hashed out in the final hours included a bill to require voters to show picture IDs at the polls.

Gov. Sonny Perdue signaled Friday he will sign the bill, which passed both chambers Tuesday evening, despite fierce objections from Democrats who contend it will disenfranchise poor, rural, elderly and minority voters.

Perdue also said he's torn over a bill to ban smoking in most public buildings and hasn't decided whether he will approve it. Perdue said he must weigh the health benefits against his belief that government should not butt into people's lives.

The voter identification bill requires a picture ID, such as a driver's license, military identification or state-issued identification card, to vote. It removes several forms of identification currently accepted, including Social Security cards and birth certificates.

It prompted vigorous debate and brief walkouts by black legislators on its course through the Legislature. The measure was sponsored by Perdue's fellow Republicans but was not part of his administration's package.

"I think it's appropriate," the governor said. "There was a lot of inflammatory rhetoric about this bill, but people in this society in today's world after Sept. 11, we have to show a picture ID for virtually everything."

He said a check of driver's license logs shows a little more than 300,000 Georgians over 18 don't have a driver's license or a state-issued photo ID card.

The state needs to help those people get photo ID cards quickly, conveniently and essentially at no cost, he said.

Henry road bond bill passes

The state Senate Thursday passed a local act that would establish the Henry County Governmental Services Authority, local senators said. Through the Authority county commissioners in Henry can issue bonds for road projects to be paid for through the special purpose local option sales tax without putting the question back before voters as a bond referendum.

Until recently, commissioners could only bond capital, or building, projects.

The only bill of six local acts offered by the county to pass, commissioners said the bonding bill was the most important.

"That was good news for us," Henry Chairman Jason Harper said Friday.

"Now we need to compile a list of eligible projects we can issue bonds for and immediately proceed," he said.

Because legislators in the 2005 Georgia Legislature have one term left, anything left undone could be revived next year. Among the possible candidates:

? Faith-based Amendment: Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue pushed for a constitutional amendment allowing state tax dollars to go to religious charities, but the Senate twice failed to get the two-thirds vote required to approve his idea. Perdue says the question will top his 2006 agenda.

? Divorces: Another Republican idea, to extend waiting periods for couples seeking divorces, passed the Senate but fell short in the House. House leaders say a vote on the idea is certain next year.

? School Funding: Republicans plan this summer to start looking at whether schools should be funded through a higher statewide sales tax, instead of property taxes. The exact proposal has yet to take shape, but it could come together before next term.

? Teacher Pay: Teachers got a 2 percent raise this year, after two years of flat pay. Perdue and other Republicans have said they'd like to give a bigger raise when finances are better, so expect pressure from lawmakers in both parties to boost teacher pay in an election year.

? Obesity: Lawmakers have considered, but rejected, several ideas in recent years to combat childhood obesity. A bipartisan study committee will meet this summer to see if more practical remedies can be proposed.

A committee of Henry legislators was also established to review the possibility of incorporating Fairview in northern Henry as a city. A bill on an incorporation referendum could be voted on during next year's session.

Staff writer Michael Davis contributed to this article.