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.