House Speaker David Ralston gaveled out the 2012 session of the Georgia General Assembly Thursday at midnight. State lawmakers tackled some thorny issues this session, including tax reform. But the volume of bills was much lower than last year, as many lawmakers were eager to finish up early so they could hit the campaign trail.
Gov. Nathan Deal laid out priorities in his state of the state address in January: criminal justice reform, tax relief and charter school legislation. With the session now finished, he can take a bow – bills on all three initiatives passed. Democrats even joined Republicans in strongly supporting two out of the three.
Deal, a Gainesville Republican, says it’s all about picking common sense issues.
“I think it’s a matter of trying to put together propositions in terms of legislative changes that do have appeal across party lines,” he said at a press conference at the state Capitol. “And I think that’s what we have in the criminal justice package, that’s what we have with the tax reform package. These are issues that appeal to Georgians, without regard for their party labels.”
The criminal justice bill will create more special courts that prescribe treatment instead of jail time for defendants with drug addictions, mental health and other issues.
The tax reform bill eliminates the so-called “birthday tax” for car owners and increases the exemption for married taxpayers.
And the charter school bill sets up a November referendum, asking Georgians if the state should approve charter schools.
House Speaker Ralston, Blue Ridge Republican, says that's no small list.
“Those are big ticket items,” he said after the legislation passed. “Those are things that I think Georgians can really be proud of.”
But there wasn’t agreement all around. The charter school constitutional amendment split the Democratic caucus in both chambers.
At issue is control. Backers say it will give parents more choice. But others say it removes local school boards from decision-making.
Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat, voted against the bill. He says giving the state control will boost the number of companies seeking to profit from public education.
“This is bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing amendment,” he said during floor debate on the bill. “It uses the children, our children, of this state as pawns in a larger scheme to pad the pockets of for-profit school management companies and real estate deals.”
The other lightening rod issue was abortion. GOP lawmakers managed to pass a bill right at the session’s end that bars most late-term abortions.
Rep. Doug McKillip, an Athens Democrat-turned Republican, was the bill’s sponsor.
“What we have put in place here today stops all the convenience abortions at 20 weeks,” he said after signing the conference report on the bill.
But with unemployment at 9 percent in Georgia, some say voters are thinking about little else than job creation.
Steve Henson, a Tucker Democrat, is the House minority leader. He says the majority party didn’t always have the right priorities this session.
“Certainly I would have liked to see this session focus more on creating the environment to create jobs,” he said in an interview.
Gov. Deal now has 40 days to sign legislation. And with the session concluded two weeks earlier than last year, lawmakers can get a jumpstart on campaigning.