Immigration bill gains final passage

ATLANTA - The House adopted the final version of Georgia's crackdown on illegal immigration Tuesday, putting to bed the signature issue of this year's General Assembly session.

The 119-49 vote came late in a long legislative day marked by a dispute over next year's state budget that temporarily shut down the House and Senate on the next to last day of the 40-day session.

The immigration bill was in the form of a conference committee agreement that had been hammered out by House and Senate negotiators on Monday and approved in the Senate 39-16.

Introduced into the Senate last month as a top priority of legislative Republicans, the measure will deny many taxpayer-funded services to the estimated 250,000 to 800,000 illegal immigrants living in Georgia. It would accomplish that by requiring anyone applying for such aid to prove that they're a citizen or in this country legally. The provision will apply only to adults and excludes certain services, including emergency health care, prenatal care and K-12 and higher education.

It also goes after employers who hire illegal workers on two fronts. Businesses seeking government contracts will have to verify their employees' legal status, using a system put in place by the federal government.

The bill discourages hiring illegals in the private sector by denying business owners income tax write-offs for any illegal workers they pay more than $600 per year.

During a brief debate on the House floor Tuesday, opponents argued that the state should have no role in curbing illegal immigration because it is a federal issue.

"There's been very substantial and specific progress in Washington, D.C., in the last 24 hours," said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, referring to passage of a comprehensive immigration bill on Monday by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Senate is devoting the next two weeks to debating illegal immigration.

But House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, said the prospects for immigration reform at the federal level still are uncertain.

Indeed, supporters of the General Assembly's immigration bill have said they believe states addressing the issue will help spur Congress to take action.

"I have no idea what the federal government's going to do," Richardson said. "There's no way we who are sitting here can know."

The bill also includes provisions increasing penalties for human trafficking, requiring law enforcement agencies to verify the legal status of suspects arrested for felonies or DUIs and clamping down on "notarios," people in the Hispanic community who falsely claim to be lawyers with expertise in obtaining documents illegals need to get a job.

A new provision added by the conference committee requires businesses to withhold a 6 percent income tax from "contract workers" who cannot provide a taxpayer identification number or Social Security number.

The measure now goes to Gov. Sonny Perdue for his signature.

In the House, the bill was supported by Republicans and conservative Democrats. The opposition came primarily from white Democrats from the Atlanta area and black Democrats from across the state.

The late-afternoon vote probably would have come earlier Tuesday had it not been for a harsh exchange between Richardson and Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah.

In an unusual step, Richardson took to the well of the House to accuse Johnson of backing out of a deal on the $18.65 billion 2007 budget.

Even more unusual was Richardson's disclosure of the contents of a private telephone conversation the two had on Monday night.

The speaker accused Johnson of offering to trade Senate passage of a bill that House leaders supported if the House caved in on the budget.

"We're not going to trade bills for votes on the budget," Richardson said. "I'm not going to play any more games."

Later in the day, Johnson suggested that he had attempted to trade for votes.

"Trading in the General Assembly, as you try to bring about solutions and agreements, is not unusual," Johnson said. "To imply that it is is dishonest or naive."

While House and Senate budget conferees have their usual disagreements over dollars, the dispute that led to Tuesday's confrontation actually focuses more on legislative power.

The Senate is pushing for the right to set aside specific funding within the judicial and Department of Education budgets and require that the money be spent for certain purposes.

The House argues that those agencies have the final say over how they spend their money once it has been appropriated by the Legislature.

If the two chambers don't resolve their differences and adopt a budget on Thursday, the final day of the session, lawmakers would have to return to the Capitol for a special session.