The Legislature finished its grueling 40-day session Thursday night, with a festive spirit rising as passed bills mounted and the clock moved toward “sine die.”

Legislation moved forward methodically with limited drama. No last-minute move materialized to revive the religious freedom act, with the issue expected to return next year.

Gov. Nathan Deal visited the Capitol Thursday night to congratulate the legislators for a productive session. Deal thanked the lawmakers for “your spirit of cooperation with me and my staff” and praised them “for displaying the courage that it takes to make hard decisions and move the state forward.”

MARTA measure removed: The Georgia Legislature Thursday removed a measure approved only two days before in the Senate that would have allowed MARTA to raise its sales tax limit from 1 to 1.5 percent. Democrats agreed to the change following a commitment by Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration for comprehensive discussions on the transit agency’s future.

House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, on Thursday introduced a House amendment to strip the MARTA tax measure from House Bill 213. The Senate late Tuesday night approved an amendment allowing MARTA to go before voters to seek the extra half penny. The MARTA tax option was seen as cementing Democratic support for passage of the transportation spending bill.

The House amendment received no objection Thursday. House Bill 213, to permanently remove the requirement that MARTA spend half its revenue on operations and half on capital projects, was then returned to the Senate on a 143-24 vote. The Senate subsequently agreed to the House change 50-3, sending the legislation to Deal for his signature.

Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the leader of the legislative black caucus, told InsiderAdvantage Georgia Thursday that the Democrats didn’t object to the House amendment removing the MARTA tax measure because of an agreement with Deal that “comprehensive discussions be held on MARTA.” Smyre said the talks would include funding, infrastructure needs and the possibility of expansion into other counties.

Smyre, a member of the conference committee that reached the House Bill 170 compromise approved by the Legislature Tuesday, said that MARTA couldn’t seek the tax increase anyway because DeKalb and Fulton counties are already at their constitutional sales tax ceiling.

House Minority Leader Rep. Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, spoke in favor of the House amendment, as did Smyre.

Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, told InsiderAdvantage Georgia that he’s not opposed to MARTA receiving additional funding if needed, but wants transit agency officials to discuss their plans with legislators. He also objected to the sales tax amendment receiving Senate approval just before midnight. “I think anything that passes in that manner is difficult to justify to the taxpayers,” Martin said

Martin later expressed satisfaction with the vote, calling it a good example of bipartisan cooperation.

Joe Wilkinson, the House’s Cal Ripken: Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, on Thursday celebrated 15 years in the Georgia House without missing a day. Even battling prostate cancer didn’t stop him from perfect attendance at the Capitol this year.

“I didn’t miss a vote,” Wilkinson said. He arrived at his desk even on bad days when he was feeling the side effects from radiation treatment.

Wilkinson this week received good news about his cancer: Tests revealed a dramatic drop in his PSA levels, showing that the 44 days of radiation treatment that ended Feb. 27 were successful. “My urologist and oncologist are more than pleased with the results,” Wilkinson told InsiderAdvantage Georgia. “They were off the charts.”

Now Wilkinson doesn’t have to return for a checkup until September, and he’s hopeful he’s beaten the illness, which afflicts many men as they age. “I’m fortunate, and let’s see what happens,” he said.

Wilkinson says his experience shows the importance of men getting regular blood tests showing PSA levels. Frequent checkups and early detection give a good chance of survival. “It’s a highly curable cancer, and there are so many options for treatment,” he said.

After Wilkinson received the cancer diagnosis in November, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, told Wilkinson he didn’t have to worry about continuing his perfect attendance. “Even Cal Ripken stepped down,” Ralston told Wilkinson. “It’s not the end of the world if you miss a day.”

But Wilkinson kept going. The longtime ethics committee chairman said coming to the Gold Dome is a lifetime passion. He began visiting the House gallery when he was a kid and served as a page when the Republican Party was in the minority. “I love the House,” he said.

Autism compromise approved: A compromise requiring insurance coverage for children with autism passed the House 161-0 Thursday, sending the bill to Gov. Nathan Deal. The language of Senate Bill 1 requiring the coverage for children under 6 with autism was attached to House Bill 429, which also requires that those with terminal illnesses cannot be denied needed drugs.

Under the compromise, the Legislature next year will consider a proposed constitutional amendment to establish a .2 percent sales tax to fund autism coverage for children from birth to 18.


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