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Lawmakers pass flurry of bills in final hours of session

ATLANTA - Longtime observers of the General Assembly know most of the work gets done during the last couple of weeks of each session.

It's equally true that most of the major bills lawmakers pass during the marathon that marks the last day of the session don't get voted on until the final hours.

Friday night's harried conclusion to the 2007 session was no exception.

While the House and Senate convened at 10 a.m., it wasn't until after the dinner break that the legislature passed bills dealing with stem cell research, private school vouchers, a measure criticized by opponents as "private cities'' and several other bills that had been widely followed throughout the session.

The stem cells measure encourages new mothers to donate postnatal tissues and fluid for use in stem cell research and establishes a state commission to oversee the program.

While the bill only applies to adult stem cell research, the original version included language that offended some Georgia researchers who work with embryonic stem cells.

The House eased the way for the bill's passage by removing those clauses, and on Friday night, Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, the measure's chief sponsor, agreed to the changes.

"My objective from the start has been to promote the types of stem cell research over which there is no ethical controversy,'' he said. "The bill prevents taxpayer funds from being used in research that destroys human embryos.''

A bit later Friday night, the legislature passed a bill allowing parents of disabled students to apply for state-funded vouchers to send them to private schools.

"Public schools are under tremendous pressure to serve this unique population,'' said Rep. David Casas, R-Lilburn, who introduced a similar bill in the House. "Funding is short. Transportation costs are high. Teachers are hard to find.''

But Rep. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Albany, a retired public school teacher and administrator, said private-school vouchers are the wrong approach.

"(It) literally hands over taxpayer dollars ... to any parent or guardian who asserts their child has disability needs ... with no accountability to taxpayers,'' she said. "I say buyers beware.''

As Casas led the fight for the vouchers bill, another House member from Gwinnett County spearheaded opposition to the private cities bill but with less success.

Lawmakers approved a constitutional amendment to let voters decide whether to allow developers to form residential districts with the authority to sell tax-free bonds to finance roads, water and sewer lines and even schools.

Supporters said such a financing mechanism would allow fast-growing communities to manage growth before it gets out of control.

But Rep. Brian Thomas, D-Lawrenceville, said opponents hung the moniker "private cities'' on the proposal for a reason.

"These districts would have broad taxing authority that we currently limit to elected governments ... without any oversight by citizens who move into them until many years after they're established,'' he said.

Also during the late-night flurry, the legislature passed bills giving counties more say over annexation proposals from cities, moving up Georgia's presidential primaries next year to Feb. 5 and requiring doctors who perform ultrasound exams on women seeking abortions to offer the patient an opportunity to view the image of the fetus and hear the heartbeat.

There was such a rush to approve bills at the end of the night that the last one didn't gain final passage until a couple of minutes past midnight.

The last bill of the session was Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle's measure to allow entire school districts in Georgia apply with the state to become charter systems.

Weary lawmakers won't have long to rest.

Minutes after the session was gaveled to a close, Gov. Sonny Perdue announced that he would call a special session to address the midyear budget.

The governor vetoed the measure on Thursday night, but the House voted to override the veto on Friday.

However, the Senate refused to take up the override motion, leaving in limbo the $700,000 budget covering state spending for the fiscal year ending June 30.