Georgia lawmakers have stretched this year's legislative session over four months and with only six days left, the end is hardly in sight. At the top of the priority list is the 2011 budget, which the House is expected to pass Wednesday, leaving the rest of the week for senators to wrestle with the numbers.
When state lawmakers will wrap up their 40-day session is still unclear. Legislators are typically gone by mid-April and facing re-election this year many lawmakers are anxious to get out on the campaign trail.
The Republican majority must also figure out how to forge ahead after they were sent reeling on their first day back from a weeklong break. In a rare interruption of the day's business, Sen. Preston Smith of Rome railed for nearly 20 minutes against his colleagues, claiming he was robbed of his role as chairman of the judiciary committee after voting against the hospital tax.
"I firmly believe that when you attempt to improperly influence a legislator's vote through promises of reward or threats of recrimination, I believe it is unethical, immoral and illegal," Smith said Monday. "I have a constitutional right to vote for my constituents and I should never be subject to bullying, intimidation or harassment because anyone wants to force me to cast my vote in some other way."
Republicans courted several Democrats on April 1 in an attempt to rally the votes needed to approve the hospital tax, which is expected to bring in $175 million to help fill the state's budget gap.
Senators debated for more than an hour before passing the bill 31-15. In the final tally, three Democrats voted in favor of the bill, and three Republicans voted against it. Ten senators skipped the vote completely.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams said Smith's actions jeopardized the passage of the hospital tax, which supporters argued is needed as one of the fixes for next year's immense budget gap.
"Nobody passes a bill without 29 votes," Williams said. "We only had 28 Republicans with no guarantees that we had any Democrats. We had no knowledge that we had any help."
Smith's rare address on Monday, delivered in the middle of debate over an entirely separate bill, called for Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers of Woodstock to hastily take the floor to defend the hospital tax vote - which was almost completely partisan. After adjourning for the day, Rogers was confident the Legislature would get everything done this month.
"This is not our easiest day, but hopefully tomorrow everyone will be back together and we'll move forward," Rogers said.
Rogers also confirmed that Sen. Mitch Seabaugh of Sharpsburg resigned as majority whip last week. Seabaugh also voted against the bill.
In a statement issued Monday, he said he represented his constituents with his no vote on the issue.
"The caucus decided to take a self-imposed caucus position in an attempt to force all members to vote for the bill," the statement read. "Members of the caucus took exception with my voting the convictions of my district instead of the adopted caucus position, so I have agreed to step aside as their Whip."
Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown said after Smith's speech that many of the points he brought up were also raised by Democrats ahead of the vote on the hospital tax.
"This is a tax increase," Brown said. "There's no way around that. There are alternatives, this is not the only way to increase revenue for this purpose. We feel vindicated in our position."
The Georgia Constitution says the budget must be passed by the end of the 40-day session. Despite slightly better revenue numbers in March, lawmakers still must make tough choices over the next seven days to fill an anticipated $758 million hold in next year's budget.
They have a long to-do-list that includes hammering out a compromise on transportation funding and the hospital tax could still be in gridlock over disagreement between the House and the Senate on the insurance tax break. The Senate must also take up a controversial bill that would hike dozens of fees.
The difficult decisions, coupled with a fractured Republican Party, highlight the reality that there is no clear way to the end of one of the longer legislative sessions in recent memory.
"We've got a lot of other votes coming up," Williams said. "If we're going to get the job done, we need a team. This is not a business for the weak at heart. These are tough decisions we have to make in the most difficult times we've had since the Great Depression. We have to govern."