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Ga. lawmakers tackle crowded agenda in final week

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

The Associated Press

ATLANTA -- After a week off, Georgia lawmakers head back to the Gold Dome for their final week of work to tackle a crowded agenda that includes an overhaul of the state tax code, immigration and a referendum on Sunday alcohol sales.

Oh, and they still have to pass the 2012 budget.

Despite the hefty workload ahead, House Speaker David Ralston was undeterred Friday.

"I'm getting excited," he said. "We've already dealt with the HOPE scholarship. We're close to having a balanced budget. If we can get tax reform passed next week, I'm good."

This year, day 40 comes two weeks earlier than the end of the 2010 session, when lawmakers struggled to balance the budget as required by the state Constitution. This year, the amended fiscal year 2011 budget sailed through both chambers, and a joint House and Senate committee appears poised to come to a consensus on next year's plan.

Other issues won't be so easy. On Friday, Republicans were still tweaking a tax proposal they say will create jobs, keep the state competitive among its neighbors in attracting business and save money for Georgia taxpayers. Senate infighting last week threatened to derail the bill. But after a cooling-off period while the General Assembly took a weeklong spring break holiday, tensions appeared to have eased as leadership in both chambers complimented each other for cooperating to get a deal ready to pass out of committee on Monday.

Ralston said he was confident he has the votes for the measure to pass the House. The bill then must head quickly to the Senate, where the earliest a vote could be held is the last day of the session, currently scheduled for Thursday.

Neill Herring, who has spent more than three decades lobbying at the Georgia Capitol, said the tax proposal will complicate the home stretch.

"It colors everything else," Herring said. "They know there's going to be a whole day blown on that."

Senate Rules Chairman Don Balfour said that while there will be some discussion on the measure, the bill isn't designed to create a marathon debate.

"It's an up or down vote," he said. "There are no amendments. It is what it is."

Legislators have spent much of the session haggling over two proposals addressing immigration and still haven't reached an agreement for a plan that can pass both chambers next week. Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams said he was optimistic Friday that a bill could still be hammered out.

"I'm not sure which bill, but we're close," he said.

The issue of Sunday alcohol sales, stalled for years at the Capitol under the threat of a veto by former Gov. Sonny Perdue, has been stuck in the House since clearing the Senate nearly a month ago. Supporters have promoted the proposal as one that encourages local control and respects morality, letting municipalities decide whether to put the question to voters in a ballot referendum.

While the end-of-session crunch is typical, passing so much major legislation at the end is not, Herring warned.

"They will pass a whole bunch of these bills," he said. "They will pass some that prove to be real surprises to everyone, when somebody finally reads them."

Sen. Rules Committee Chairman Don Balfour said Friday that while this year isn't much different than the nearly 20 years he has spent in the Legislature, there was less legislation passed.

"There are a lot of new people who basically think, 'They didn't send me down here to pass laws, they sent me down here to get the government off my back,'" he said.