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Lawmakers wrangle hefty agenda near session's end

ATLANTA (AP) -- Georgia lawmakers tackled issues including criminal sentencing reform, assisted suicide, the state budget and changes to open records laws on the eve of the end of this year's legislative session.

With strong bipartisan support, the Senate approved the proposed overhaul of Georgia's criminal justice system. The Senate voted 51-0 Tuesday in favor of the legislation -- which also has the approval of major stakeholders, including Gov. Nathan Deal -- with some tweaks. The House must now approve those changes before the bill heads to Deal for his signature.

The governor has touted criminal justice reform as a move that will save tax dollars, improve the state's rehabilitation rate and keep Georgians safe. The bill also raised the monetary threshold for most theft crimes, divided burglaries into three categories, addressed mandatory reporting requirements for suspected child abuse, provided restrictions for who can access a jobseeker's criminal record and shortened how long suspects could be held in probation detention centers.

Some in law enforcement remained critical of the proposal. Oconee County District Attorney Tim Vaughn said the overhaul could have disastrous consequences. He said prosecuting people based on the amount of drugs they possessed is onerous, and that reducing crimes like forgery to a misdemeanor will increase crime in his northeast Georgia district.

"I think that the citizens of Georgia have really gotten the shaft, and I think the Legislature is pushing the costs back on the counties," he said. "I don't really think this has been really well thought out in many respects and if that hurts somebody's feelings, so be it."

Vaughn also said he's not sure accountability courts that focus on alternative sentences for low-level criminals and drug abusers will work in more rural areas.

"While the accountability courts are a great concept, we don't have the resources to implement them out here," he said. "And unless we come up with more money and people, we can't do it."

Deal's administration, which has targeted sentencing reform as a priority, signaled it plans to commit resources to the proposed initiatives beginning next year.

The GOP-controlled Legislature acted early Tuesday to send the fiscal year 2013 budget to Deal's desk. The Legislature must pass a balanced budget during its 40-day session.

Lawmakers approved a $19.3 billion budget plan for the coming financial year that earmarks roughly $100 million in last-minute money for infrastructure. Both chambers voted Tuesday to approve the spending plan for the financial year starting in July.

Georgia is still collecting billions of dollars less in funding compared to before the recent recession. The compromise plan adopted by the House and Senate would use about $100 million from a mortgage fraud settlement to pay for infrastructure and other perks meant to lure employers and new jobs.

Into the evening, the House and Senate remained at odds over a bill that would generally ban abortion five months into a pregnancy. Both sides refused to budge from their positions after the Senate approved a softened version of the proposal a day earlier.

The move was met with frustration from House Speaker David Ralston, who told reporters that the Senate is dodging a difficult issue.

"Now that we're at the point where we can really pass a significant bill that can save the lives of many unborn children, then they've decided to tuck and run," Ralston said.

Sen. John Bulloch, R-Ocklochnee, who supported changing the bill and voted for its passage, distanced himself from the debate on Tuesday.

"It's in the hands of the House," he said. "They need to approve what we sent them."

A bill that would make assisting in another person's suicide a felony crime in Georgia punishable by up to a decade in prison under legislation quickly cleared the Senate by a vote of 48-1 with little debate. The legislation adopted Tuesday responds to a state Supreme Court ruling in February that struck down a 1994 law banning people from publicly advertising suicide.

The House has already approved the measure, but must now OK the Senate's changes.

House lawmakers rejected a bill that would have allowed people to extract logs that sunk in rivers a century ago and sell the timber. It postponed debate Tuesday on bills that would change laws targeting illegal immigrants and restrict picketing at private homes.


AP reporters Dorie Turner and Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.