State Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, capped off a busy and sometimes contentious legislative session late Thursday by bringing up what may have been the most controversial bill of the year.
As the clock approached midnight, McKillip shepherded through a revised version of his bill limiting abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy rather than the current 26 weeks, legislation that upset female Democratic lawmakers so much they protested by wrapping themselves in police tape.
The bill appeared dead earlier in the week after the Senate passed a watered-down version that House leaders rejected, but Republicans in both chambers came to an agreement.
“We just worked back and forth until we got to a point where we had a rock-solid late-term abortion prohibition,” McKillip said.
He and Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, both served on a six-person conference committee that reached the agreement. The Senate had already approved a version of the bill with two changes. One protected doctors from civil lawsuits out of fear that malpractice insurance rates for obstetricians and gynecologists would skyrocket. Another allowed abortions after 20 weeks for “medically futile” pregnancies, when the unborn child has a major defect or genetic disorder that wouldn’t allow it to survive outside the womb.
“We heard a lot of feedback from women who’d been in that type of situation,” Cowsert said.
The House version would have forced women whose babies were certain to die shortly after birth to carry them to full term. That struck home for Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, whose young son died in an accident two years ago. A parent faced with that choice wouldn’t feel any less pain either way, he said.
“For me, this was the toughest vote I’ve ever had to cast,” Ginn said Tuesday. “I don’t know that there’s a good answer for that.”
The eventual compromise hewed closer to the Senate version, keeping the exception for medically futile pregnancies but adding a definition provided by the anti-abortion group National Right to Life. The language will prevent “abortions of convenience” after 20 weeks, such as if a woman wanted to abort a fetus with Down’s Syndrome, McKillip said.
“We tightened up our definition of ‘medically futile’ to make certain it was really cases where the baby would be born and pass away within minutes,” he said.
Republicans who had supported the amendedments, including Ginn and Cowsert, voted for the revised bill late Thursday. It passed the House overwhelmingly as well.
“We will save a thousand babies, when this bill is adopted, every year,” McKillip said from the well, urging colleagues to approve it.
Georgia’s WIN List, a group that works to elect Democratic women, called the bill part of a GOP gender war.
“Last night was a setback for Georgia women and a failure of our government, and it proves that we have a lot of work to do,” the group said in a news release.
For better or worse, lawmakers got a lot done in 2012. In addition to the abortion bill, other high-profile legislation included tax reform, criminal justice reform, drug tests for welfare recipients and a $19 billion budget that provides $52 million for a new University of Georgia veterinary teaching hospital.
“I think we had an extremely good session for Georgia and Georgians,” Rep. Terry England, R-Auburn, said.
Rep. Keith Heard, D-Athens, had a different take. Business was rushed, the tone was partisan and procedural rules ignored, he said. Heard called Sine Die — the session’s lengthy last day — the worst in his 20 years at the Capitol.
“It’s election-year politics,” he said. “This is par for the course for my colleagues on the other side of the aisle.”
A bill requiring welfare recipients to pass drug tests particularly rankled Heard, who said it is unfair and doesn’t provide for treatment. Supporters said the bill will stop taxpayers’ money from going to drugs.
“If you’re going to do Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, TANF recipients, why don’t you do HOPE Scholarship recipients?” Heard said. “Why don’t you do these contractors who get multi-million dollar contracts from the state? I could go on and on.”
Lawmakers on both sides praised the criminal justice reform package passed earlier in the week. Rather than serve time in jail, many nonviolent criminals will be sentenced to treatment and probation, often in special DUI, drug and mental health courts. Such courts have successfully reduced recidivism in Clarke County and elsewhere around the state.
The bill is expected to save taxpayers about $250 million when fully implemented because fewer people will be locked up behind bars, but it only includes about $10 million to set up new courts this year.
Two controversial bills — one that would ban protests outside private residences and another to ban illegal immigrants from attending public colleges — died on the session’s last day.
Unions, Occupy Wall Street and tea party groups banded together to fight the protest bill. McKillip said he opposed it because it violates constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.
Georgia law already bars illegal immigrants from competitive universities where they might take the place of a legal resident and requires them to pay out-of-state tuition even if they went to high school in Georgia. A proposal to bar illegal immigrants from public colleges altogether never came up for a vote because legislators said they addressed the issue with a strict immigration law last year.