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Lawmakers scramble, protest controversial issues on final day

Rep. Carol Fullerton, D-Albany, walks out of the in the House chambers after a bill restricting abortion passed on the last day of the Georgia General Assembly Thursday, March 29, 2012 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Rep. Carol Fullerton, D-Albany, walks out of the in the House chambers after a bill restricting abortion passed on the last day of the Georgia General Assembly Thursday, March 29, 2012 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

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Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal greets lawmakers as he leaves the House Chambers on the last day of the Georgia General Assembly on Thursday, March 29, 2012, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

ATLANTA (AP) -- State lawmakers scrambled Thursday to pass reams of legislation on the final day of their legislative session, including striking a last-minute agreement on legislation that would 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 restrictions on 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.

The abortion bill had appeared to stall earlier in the week. House lawmakers passed a stricter version sponsored by Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens. 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.

"We are going to save a thousand of 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

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.

NONVIOLENT OFFENDERS

House lawmakers gave unanimous approval Thursday to an overhaul of the criminal justice system sought by Republican Gov. Nathan 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.

Lawmakers have boosted funding for accountability courts as part of the overhaul. Those specialized courts allow people such as substance abuse addicts or troubled military veterans in trouble with the law to avoid prison if they agree to seek treatment under court supervision.

MANUFACTURING INDUSTRY

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.

The tax reform affected others too. Married couples would be able to keep more income under the latest tax plan. Georgia is also moving to phase out the annual property tax on cars. People who buy new or used cars or trucks after March 1, 2013, would pay a one-time tax that tops out at 7 percent. They would no longer get an annual property tax bill pegged on the value of their vehicle. People who keep their car or trucks past that date will keep paying the annual tax until they buy a new vehicle.

Those changes were not as sweeping as recommended by a tax commission 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."

ETHICS REFORM

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 prevented the state's Ethics Commission from publicly releasing records concerning investigations and violations by state officials in some cases. The legislation would have prevented the watchdog agency from releasing records when a lawmaker was ultimately found to have not broken the law or committed what the bill described as a "technical defect."

It 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.

------AP Education Writer Dorie Turner contributed to this report.