ATLANTA (AP) — During their frantic final day Thursday, Georgia lawmakers passed a tough bill cracking down on illegal immigration, clearing the way for Gov. Nathan Deal to sign it.
Dozens of bills cleared the House and Senate as lawmakers before the chambers gaveled the 40-day legislative session to a close at 11:38 p.m. amid a shower of confetti.
The General Assembly had already tackled major legislation on issues including the HOPE college scholarship, Sunday alcohol sales and the 2012 budget. A proposal to overhaul the state's tax code fell apart in the last hours.
Immigration was the only big bill on their agenda the final day. The Senate voted 37 to 19 and the House voted 112-59 to pass the bill that includes parts similar to a contentious law enacted last year in Arizona.
"I think it's a great day for Georgia," said sponsor Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City. "We're real proud of the product. It's been a lot of work but we think we have done our job that our constituents asked us to do to address the costs and the social consequences that have been visited on our state by the federal government's failure to secure our nation's borders."
Deal said during his campaign last year that he would support an Arizona-style bill, but a spokesman declined to comment Thursday night on whether the governor would sign the bill.
A major sticking point in the debate was whether private employers should be required to use a federal database called E-Verify to check the immigration status of new hires before they could get a business license or other papers needed to operate.
Groups representing businesses, agriculture, restaurant owners and others had urged lawmakers to eliminate the E-Verify mandate, saying it would be too burdensome for employers. Ramsey has said repeatedly that E-Verify is important because jobs drive illegal immigrants to Georgia.
The Senate added wording Thursday that retains the E-Verify requirement for private businesses with more than 10 employees but says any company found to have committed a "good faith violation" of the mandate would have a 30-day period to come into compliance. The requirement would be phased in in three steps with all employers with more than 10 employees being required to be in compliance by July 1, 2013.
Democrats argued that immigration is a federal issue and that the bill would harm the state's economy and could lead to civil rights violations.
"You have crafted a bill that insists on demonizing people of brown skin and with Spanish accents," said Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta.
A group of about 100 people gathered outside the Capitol Thursday evening to protest the bill's passage.
"I think it's a shame that Georgia legislators continue to push our economy over the cliff. This bill will kill jobs in Georgia," said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. "We think the governor will act in the best interest of our state and veto this bill."
The bill also says agriculture is a "vital pillar" for the state's economy and that a federal guest worker program that allows the industry to bring in seasonal workers is "administratively cumbersome and flawed."
It includes a resolution that directs the state Department of Agriculture to study the issue and recommend actions or legislation. The study should specifically address the federal guest worker program and provide recommendations for federal changes to the law.
The Senate passed a weakened version of the bill Monday, essentially stripping out the E-Verify requirement, only to have the House put it back in with the exemption for employers with 10 or fewer workers.
Before the House gave its final OK, Democrats raised parliamentary concerns saying it was violating its rules. House Speaker David Ralston ruled against them and the vote went forward.
The bill would allow law enforcement officers to verify the immigration status of certain criminal suspects and to detain those found to be in the country illegally and would also penalize people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants, all similar to Arizona's law. It also would make it a felony to "willfully and fraudulently" present false documentation when applying for a job.
The Georgia immigration debate coincides with a federal appeals court decision Monday to uphold a stay blocking major parts of Arizona's tough immigration law. Ramsey has said the language in his bill differs significantly from Arizona's and that he is confident it will stand up to any legal challenges.
With Thursday's passage of the bill, Georgia is one step away from joining Utah this year in passing a tough crackdown on illegal immigration similar to Arizona's.
Arizona passed a law several years ago that requires many private employers to use E-Verify. A lawsuit filed by civil rights and business groups challenging that law is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.
—Lawmakers signed off on a bill that allows Georgia-licensed health insurance to be sold across state lines. Supporters contend it would lower insurance costs by introducing more competition. Opponents say it paves the way for watered-down policies that don't require coverage for crucial procedures that Georgia policies mandate.
—Unemployment benefits will be extended for thousands of Georgians after the House and Senate agreed to a conference committee report bringing Georgia law in line with federal eligibility requirements.
— The House awarded final passage to a bill that extends a hefty tax break for Savannah, Ga.-based Gulfstream Aerospace. That break on the sale of aircraft parts on planes repaired or maintained in Georgia will cost the state $4.2 million in revenue next year.
The state Senate tacked on an amendment providing a tax break for developers of tourist attractions.
The bill squeaked by after Ralston took the unusual step of casting the deciding vote.
— A tax break for another hometown corporate giant, Delta Air Lines, also passed. It could save the company up to $30 million over two years on taxes it would have owed on jet fuel.
— Georgia lawmakers signed off on a bill that allows employees of utilities to make contributions to political campaigns. The legislation also closes an ethics loophole that exempted lobbyists from disclosing what they spend on gifts to staff members of elected officials. The ethics watchdog group Common Cause of Georgia praised lawmakers for moving quickly to close the lobbying loophole but the group doesn't like the provision dealing with utility contributions.
— The GOP-led Legislature also delivered a rebuke to President Barack Obama's federal health law, handing final approval to a bill that would have Georgia enter into a proposed health care compact. The bill would pave the way for Georgia to create alliances with other states on health care.
— The House gave final passage to a bill that removes distance restrictions on South Georgia hunters who use bait to attract deer and feral hog hunters Opponents labeled such hunting unsportsmanlike and unethical. But supporters say it will help thin out booming deer and hog populations.
— Also heading to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature is a bill requiring antifreeze be made bitter tasting to deter animals from ingesting the sweet-smelling substance. It mandates that the bitter-tasting chemical denatonium benzoate be added to antifreeze sold in Georgia.
— Lawmakers have signed off on a bill that creates an advisory panel to look at an overhaul of the state's tough sentencing laws. The joint committee will make recommendations in time for lawmakers to act next year.
— Lawmakers approved a plan that would give the governor authority to appoint members to the embattled Atlanta Public School board.
Deal has 40 days to sign the bills into law.
Lawmakers are expected to return to the state Capitol Aug. 15 for a special session to deal with redrawing congressional and legislative district lines to conform to new U.S. Census data.
"Now I'm having so much fun doing this that I want to invite you to come back around Aug. 15 and we'll do it all over again," Deal joked in a short speech before the House Thursday night.
Associated Press Writer Errin Haines contributed to this report
Georgia General Assembly: http://legis.ga.gov
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.