ATLANTA (AP) — State lawmakers scrambled Thursday to pass reams of legislation on the final day of their legislative session and struck a last-minute agreement to restrict abortions five months after women get pregnant.
Angry Democrats and women stood and turned their backs on bill supporters on the House and Senate floor, then left the chamber chanting in protest. The legislation now heads to the desk of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who generally favors limiting abortion.
The compromise was part of a long and chaotic day as lawmakers rushed to pass their bills before the midnight deadline for the General Assembly to adjourn for the year. In addition to the anti-abortion measure, the General Assembly passed measures that would ban assisted suicide, overhaul the state criminal sentencing laws, reduce unemployment benefits for workers and require that welfare applicants pass drug tests.
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, praised lawmakers for passing a tax cut bill earlier in the session. Georgia has a 9.1 percent unemployment rate.
"What is important is we focused this session on the thing I think mattered most to Georgians, which was jobs," he said, shortly after midnight. "That's why when I think about this session, I'm going to think about tax reform. I'm going to think about the initiatives that will make Georgia more competitive."
In the last hour of the session, most eyes were watching an anti-abortion bill sponsored by Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, that earlier appeared to stall. It would have banned abortions 20 weeks after conception except in cases when a pregnancy threatened the life or health of the mother. But Senate lawmakers amended it with a big concession: Doctors would be allowed to perform abortions after the five-month mark if they diagnose a fatal defect in a fetus.
Lawmakers ultimately passed the more lenient version from the Senate.
"We are going to save a thousand babies when this bill goes into effect," said McKillip, who did not take questions as the clock drew closer to midnight — the deadline for adjourning.
Five minutes after the Senate took up debate on the issue, the GOP leadership shut down the discussion and called for a vote over the objection of several Democrats, many of them women.
When the Senate passed the measure by a vote of 36-19, the Democratic women went to the front of the chamber and unraveled yellow "caution" tape in protest before storming out. In the halls of the Capitol, they declared that the women of Georgia would not stand for the vote and chanted, "Women will remember in November!"
"Men do not control us ladies," said Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale. "We've been elected, just like they've been elected. We will not stand silently by. We are mad."
Here is a breakdown of how some key groups fared during this year's legislative session.
Charter schools dominated the education agenda under the Gold Dome this year. After weeks of back-room deals and thousands of lobbying dollars, state lawmakers passed a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to establish charter schools over the objection of local districts. Voters will decide in a referendum this fall whether to approve that change to the constitution. Lawmakers approved legislation Thursday that explains how those new schools would be funded.
The constitutional amendment addresses issues with the state's education law outlined in a May ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court.
"As a parent, I don't think there's anything more important than my child's education and having those options," said state Rep. Alisha Morgan, a Democrat from Austell who has been a vocal supporter of charter schools. "On behalf of parents and kids in this state, it was critical that we fix what the Supreme Court saw as a problem and further clarify it in our constitution."
Other education legislation that awaits the governor's signature includes a measure that allows the state schools superintendent to hire and fire some employees without the approval of the state Board of Education and a bill that would require educators caught cheating on tests to return any bonus money they received.
House lawmakers gave unanimous approval Thursday to an overhaul of the criminal justice system sought by Deal, finally sending the legislation to his desk. Political leaders from both parties say their goal is to steer nonviolent offenders, for example, drug addicts, into treatment rather than prison.
Money was the key motivator for getting formerly tough-on-crime lawmakers to vote for the bill. The state's prison population has more than doubled in the last two decades to more than 56,000 inmates and costs about $1 billion annually. Every dollar spent on prisons means less money for schools, roads or new initiatives.
Some of those applying for welfare would have to take drug tests under legislation adopted late Thursday and headed to the governor. Those who fail a first drug test could not apply for benefits for a month and until they test clean. Failing a third test would make someone ineligible for benefits for a year. The applicant would have to pass another drug tests to be allowed into the program.
Courts have struck down similar laws in other states, although proponents in Georgia say the new legislation can withstand a legal challenge.
Georgia must pay back more than $760 million borrowed in recent years to cover unemployment benefits. Under a plan passed Thursday, unemployment benefits would be reduced from 26 weeks to a sliding scale of between 14 and 20 weeks, depending on the unemployment rate.
After years of debate, Georgia lawmakers voted this year to exempt manufacturers from paying the sales tax on the energy used to produce their products. Deal made that change a key part of his State of the State speech, saying it would bring Georgia in line with neighboring states, boost the struggling manufacturing industry and attract new employers.
Lawmakers opted against making more sweeping changes recommended by a special study group last year.
"We need to take baby steps," said Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon. "A complete overhaul would have been just too tough to swallow in this tough economic environment."
It was a mixed year for those seeking to tighten lobbying rules and increase government transparency.
House lawmakers defeated a last-minute provision that would have permitted the state's Ethics Commission not to release records on investigations where a public official is either exonerated or found to have committed a technical violation.
The bill was soundly defeated in the House by a 25-143 vote.
For the second consecutive year, tough talk on ethics reform came up early in the legislative session, only to fall flat in the final days as lawmakers lacked the political will to make substantive changes. A $100 cap on lobbyist gifts was again rejected on Day 40, when Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, attempted to tack the measure to another bill. His amendment failed.
Legislation substantially rewriting Georgia's open government law passed easily in both chambers. It would lower the price people pay to copy documents, explicitly gives the public access to information in electronic databases and would allow people to seek civil penalties — not just criminal penalties — against government officials that violate the law.
"It's some very good, commonsense changes that help the people," said Attorney General Sam Olens, whose office helped write the bill.