Lawmakers pass budget, give up on midyear plan



ATLANTA - The General Assembly approved a $20.2 billion budget Friday night, completing action on the only bill lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass less than an hour before adjourning the 2007 session.

But the unity of the House and Senate on the 2008 spending plan was in sharp contrast to a dispute over the 2007 midyear budget that set the stage for a special session as early as next week.

The Senate passed next year's budget. A few minutes later, the House followed suit, 170-3.

"This budget covers the priorities we have all worked to support,'' Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said shortly before the House vote.

The historic showdown over the $700,000 midyear budget erupted hours earlier on the final day of this year's legislative session when the House voted to override a veto of the spending plan that Gov. Sonny Perdue had issued on Thursday night.

When the Senate backed the governor by refusing to take up the override motion, it appeared likely that Perdue would carry through on his threat to bring the legislature back to the Capitol to complete work on the midyear plan.

In overriding the governor's veto 163-5, the House gave Speaker Glenn Richardson a huge bipartisan show of support in the dispute with Perdue.

The governor had accused House and Senate leaders of acting in desperation last week when they settled on a compromise built on a $142 million property tax cut. He said the rebate would blow a hole in the midyear budget, leaving several important programs without enough money to take them through the end of the fiscal year in June.

But after Friday's House vote, Richardson, R-Hiram, said Perdue's veto was an attempt to force lawmakers to approve the governor's version of tax reform, a bill eliminating taxes on retirement income.

The governor's bill and the property tax cut carry roughly the same price tag.

"This is not about moving money around to departments,'' Richardson said. "This is about ... the governor wanting to take away a tax cut to the homeowners of Georgia.''

During a 40-minute debate before the override vote, House leaders - Republicans and Democrats - supported standing up to the GOP governor. They argued that the independence of the House was at stake, a legislative chamber they portrayed as closest to the voters.

"We are here because we believe in the institution,'' House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, told his colleagues. "The institution is critical for the credibility of what you're here to do.''

Within minutes of the House vote, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate's presiding officer, announced that senators would not be voting on the override motion.

Cagle, a Republican from Gainesville, cited a constitutional provision that gives governors three days to transmit vetoes during legislative sessions. Perdue, he noted, had not sent Thursday night's veto to the General Assembly.

"The Constitution is very clear that we cannot respond to a veto until we are in receipt of it,'' Cagle said. "We are going to appoint a conference committee to try to work out the differences.''

Senate leaders backed Perdue in calling on the House to agree to combine the midyear budget and the 2008 spending plan into a single bill.

But their House counterparts wouldn't reopen the midyear budget, and the two sides eventually settled on an agreement limited to the 2008 spending plan.

As the budget negotiators worked on the fourth floor of the Capitol, the rest of the House and Senate acted on the usual last-day flurry of bills.