Legislature ends up in a tangle: Special session awaits and tax break in limbo after debate over meaning of 'veto' runs out clock

This story originally ran on April 21, 2007 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Lawmakers finished the 2007 session Friday night resigned to the inevitability of a special session after the Senate declined to join the House in overriding Gov. Sonny Perdue's budget veto.

Perdue is expected to announce next week when he will call them back to revisit the budget that covers the final two months of fiscal 2007. On Thursday night,  he vetoed the midyear spending plan,  which included a $142 million property tax cut. The House voted to override the veto Friday morning,  but the Senate never took up the issue.

Late Friday,  the Senate voted 50-1 and the House 170-3 for a $20.2 billion spending plan for next year,  including money Perdue requested for his "Go Fish" fishing tourism program,  more than $40 million the governor wanted for land preservation,  and a 3 percent pay raise for teachers and state employees.

The budget negotiations that took place Friday for fiscal 2008,  however,  were a sideshow in a larger swirl of intrigue and debate over the governor's veto of the smaller,  $700 million mid-year budget.

Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson (R-Savannah),  said his chamber didn't think it was legal to take up a vote to override the governor. Senators made a technical argument,  saying Perdue had yet to formally transmit the vetoed document to the General Assembly.

"There is no veto to override, " Johnson said. "The Constitution says it has to be a transmitted bill. What they [the House] brought us to override was a vote scorecard."

Whatever the arguments,  the inaction means homeowners won't get the tax break. At least for now. House members say they will fight to keep the tax cut when they meet in the special session.

"This House is committed to the tax cut. The worst thing you can do is go back on what you promised people, " said House Appropriations Chairman Ben Harbin (R-Evans).

The not-so-final day of the Legislature began with a rare and dramatic display of unity,  as Democrats and Republicans in the House voted 163-to-5 to override the veto.

The governor's spokesman ridiculed the vote.

"It looks like a sixth-grade mock Legislature voting on fake laws. While they are at it,  maybe they will vote to extend recess and eliminate homework, " said Dan McLagan,  the governor's spokesman.

House members argued that the override was a vote for an independent House not subservient to the governor.

"It's time to stand up and say,  'no more, ' " said House Speaker Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram),  who received a standing ovation from the chamber.

House Minority Leader DuBose Porter (D-Dublin) said,  "We need to be able to participate in the process so that our priorities are set. And the only way to do that is to have an independent House. The only way to stay relevant in this process is to keep the independent House."

The House leadership apparently used its muscle to keep representatives from breaking ranks.

Only five did --- four Republicans and one Democrat. One Republican,  Rep. Austin Scott (R-Tifton),  resigned as chairman of the House Governmental Affairs Committee before the vote. He regained the job a few hours later.

The Senate,  meanwhile,  stalled a vote on the override.

"Our priority today is to finish producing a responsible budget that meets the needs of Georgians, " said Jaillene Hunter,  spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle,  the chamber's president.

Perdue,  in a Thursday night news conference announcing his veto,  said the Legislature's budget left out funding for several key programs. And he faulted a $142 million tax cut for property owners that lawmakers hurriedly approved last week.

"I believe politics got in the way of doing the right thing, " the governor told reporters. "The late-night quick fix was the wrong solution for Georgia.

The governor said the midyear budget,  which runs through June 30,  left out needed funding for adult literacy programs,  state prosecutors,  hazardous-waste clean-up programs and efforts to protect children from Internet predators.

The midyear budget had much more in it than just the tax break. It also included $81 million to prop up the PeachCare health insurance program for children of the working poor,  $8.5 million to keep the public defender's system afloat and more than $40 million to aid the startup of a Kia auto manufacturing plant in west Georgia.

After the vote,  Richardson and Republican leaders made it clear that Perdue's veto,  and the Senate's stand,  was about the property tax cut,  not spending cuts. Richardson said any spending items left out of the mid-year spending plan could quickly be taken care of. Most of those cited by Perdue involve a relatively small amount of money.

"The governor wants to take away the tax cut. He doesn't think that's a good use of the taxpayers' money to send it back to the people who sent it to us, " Richardson said. "We think it is a good use.

"This is about not wanting to give a tax cut to the home-owners of Georgia."

A special session would cost the state about $43,000 a day just to pay legislators' expenses. Perdue said he would discuss the timing of the special session with House and Senate leaders before announcing a date.

Perdue called lawmakers back after the 2004 session to pass legislation to fund a public defender system. He held another special session in 2005 to ratify his decision to suspend state taxes on fuel.

Bills that received final passage:

> Increase the penalty for driving without a license

> Promote nondestructive stem cell research.

> Let parents decide whether twins stay together in class

Staff writers Jim Galloway,  Jeremy Redmon and Sonji Jacobs contributed to this story.

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