ATLANTA — Rumors swirled around the Gold Dome on Sine Die — the last day the Georgia General Assembly is in session. Word was, the session would end hours before midnight.
Like most rumors, it turned out to be just that.
Sine die, Latin for not having a future date to meet, is known among state legislatures as being a marathon session. When it came down to, literally, the end of the day, Thursday was no different.
Much of the last final hours of the session lacked drama. Earlier in the day, Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, called it “anti-climactic.”
With some 30 minutes left before midnight, however, television cameras crowded around Speaker David Ralston, and heated questions broke out over a tax bill.
That was the exception to the rule. For a majority of Thursday, the pace was quick — sometimes frenzied — but mostly peaceful.
One reason — many of the bigger battles already had been fought, said Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland. The budget, the only constitutional task legislators must address each year, was done. Started in the House and moved to the Senate, a six-member committee of “conferees” had already met, hashed out the differences and gotten it on legislators’ desks by Thursday afternoon.
Rules state that House legislators couldn’t even discuss the bill until it had sat on their desks for one hour. It hit House desks just before 3 p.m. after having been passed in the Senate. House members began discussing it at 5:05 p.m.
It passed 137-33 at 5:46 p.m. All Democratic members of the Columbus delegation voted against it. Columbus’ Republican delegation uniformly supported it.
“We disagree with the way the budget is being funded,” said Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus. “The cuts in education are particularly troublesome.”
Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, said some different avenues could have been pursued that would have prevented the cuts.
“They had been introduced long ago,” she added.
Smyre, a 35-year veteran of the House, said this year’s budget was one of the most painful processes he’s seen.
Cuts were steep — some $2 billion was gutted, bringing a $19 billion budget down to $17 billion. Education was hit. So were state parks. Sen. Seth Harp said the state Department of Natural Resources took a 45 percent cut.
“There are going to be closures of state parks,” he said. “I hate that.”
CSU gets $2 million
On the plus side, Columbus State University will get $2 million for technological upgrades. Also, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab in Columbus got some more funding, Rep. Richard Smith, R-Columbus, said.
Bills and laws
Many local legislators said that the budget was the biggest concern this year, especially because of the drastic cuts.
“This year, we focused so much on the budget and everything else took back seat, and rightfully so,” Republican Rep. Kip Smith said.
Lawmakers did spend much of their time on Thursday handling a seemingly never-ending list of bills. One of those was Democratic Sen. Ed Haribson’s bill that requires all witnesses before a grand jury to take an oath. Symre said the bill, which passed the House on Thursday and now moves to the governor’s desk, stemmed from the 2003 shooting death of Kenneth Walker.
David Glisson, the former deputy who shot Walker, didn’t take an oath before testifying before a grand jury, Smyre said. The grand jury declined to indict Glisson on any criminal charges.
Previous bills that moved through the houses affecting Columbus include House Bill 1391, submitted by Smyre, which changes the salaries of the Municipal Court clerk and the marshal. The two salaries are tied to the sheriff’s, which changed when Sheriff John Darr was elected. Under the new bill, the two salaries will either be $68,217.79 or 70 percent of the sheriff’s salary, whichever is higher.
A bill to make the Municipal Court judge a nonpartisan election, however, didn’t pass both houses. Judge Stephen Hyles, who won the election as a Democrat, asked for the change. The bill, sponsored by Harp, passed the Senate but failed to pass the House.
House Bill 471, sponsored by Harp in the Senate, deals with sexual offenders. Under the bill, which passed both houses, consent cannot be a defense to a teacher having sex with a student enrolled at that school.
All bills that pass both houses go to Gov. Sonny Perdue’s desk, who must sign them before they become law.
Thursday marked the end of the longest session of the Georgia General Assembly, Smyre said. Usually, the session takes around three months, Richard Smith said. This year’s took about four.
“People are tired,” he added. “There’s so much that you have to get done in this 40-day session.”
While fatigue has grown over some, Smith said they could see the light at the tunnel’s end and that led people to grow more relaxed.
One item that might have brought some comfort — rules don’t allow for the last day to go beyond midnight. That means that any thoughts of General Assembly business crossing into today would be stopped.
It never came to that as the General Assembly adjourned at 11:59 p.m.