Legislative Roundup




ATLANTA - The Port of Savannah will be able to unload container ships quicker if Gov. Sonny Perdue's offer to buy two new cranes survives legislative budget negotiations.

The governor also recommended using $800,000 to allow the Army Corps of Engineers to finish pre-construction studies about deepening the port's harbor.

The projects are included in Mr. Perdue's spending plan adjustments for the current fiscal year, which ends July 1. Legislators will discuss their own ideas for the adjustments and decide in the coming weeks which parts of Mr. Perdue's recommendations to keep.

The two super post-Panamax cranes are budgeted to cost $16 million and are a key part of port officials' desire to meet growing cargo demand.

The additional $16.8 million that has been requested would not come from extra taxpayers' money.

Instead, the ports authority, which is scheduled to repay the state $20 million this year for older bonds, would be able to keep most of the money to spend on the cranes and harbor studies.

Ports officials said they did not request any funding for projects in the upcoming 2008 budget cycle.

They said they already have four other cranes on order and would scatter the new models, which are the largest container cranes, among older machines operating along the docks.

The port is expecting the number of larger container-carrying vessels to increase significantly at the Garden City facility, meaning the super post-Panamax cranes with their longer reach and faster movements will be needed to keep the operation running efficiently and to entice new shipping customers.


ATLANTA - Criminals addicted to methamphetamine will continue to crowd out more of Georgia's prison system until the state changes its approach, Department of Corrections Commissioner James Donald told legislators Thursday.

Mr. Donald, whose agency is estimating a $1.1 billion budget during the next spending year, said the system is getting more crowded despite recent moves to add more prison beds across the state.

Many of the prisoners are coming in with drug offenses.

Mr. Donald warned the legislators that until the state starts looking at other treatment options, the corrections system will continue to need more funding to house meth users and dealers.

He said Georgia is becoming a draw in the Southeast region for meth distribution and is taking a toll on the prison system, adding that room needs to be made available for "those who truly prey upon society."

The state is close to having 60,000 people locked up in its prisons and detention centers.

The state also is concerned about paying for rising medical expenses of prisoners.

The corrections department projects a $165 million medical budget despite moves to cut back on costs, such as using more generic prescription medicine.

Mr. Donald said the department also is planning to make inmates pay a small co-pay for medicines - more as a security measure to keep prisoners from requesting unneeded pills and trading them than as a way to make money.

He said all the prisoners hold more than $14 million in their inmate accounts, with an average of $79 per person



COLUMBIA - South Carolina is joining other states this year working to cap payday lender interest rates and fees.

South Carolina state Rep. Alan Clemmons introduced a bill Wednesday capping annual interest rates at 36 percent and fees at $5 for every $100 borrowed.

Mr. Clemmons said he filed the legislation after a friend showed him paperwork for a woman trapped in a cycle of renewing short-term loans who was worried she would lose everything she had. The fees charged were "just incredible," he said.

The cap is identical to new federal standards for loans to military personnel implemented last year. The legislation also prevents lenders from having multiple loans with each customer, a practice that increases fee payments, Mr. Clemmons said.

Around the nation, 37 states regulate the industry that allows people to borrow against future paychecks, said Steven Schlein, a spokesman for the Community Financial Services Association of America, an industry group.

With many state legislatures around the nation starting sessions this month, Mr. Schlein expects more efforts to limit payday lending practices.

Along with the 36 percent annual percentage rate cap, Mr. Clemmons' legislation would limit loan fees to no more than $5 for each $100 borrowed, down from the $15 now routinely charged.

Those restrictions would leave lenders charging $1.38 on a two-week, $100 loan, said Jamie Fulmer, a spokesman for Spartanburg-based Advance America Cash Advance Centers Inc., the nation's largest payday loan lender.

Those fees wouldn't be nearly enough to meet payrolls or operating expenses, Mr. Fulmer said.

If fee and interest standards set in the legislation were applied to other financial transactions, such as overdraft protection on checks or ATM fees, they would break the cap, too, Mr. Schlein said.

Gov. Mark Sanford has said he would not push legislation aimed at capping interest rates for the industry and was wary of any bill that would force the small-loan business underground.


COLUMBIA - House Republicans have pushed through rules changes that guarantee caucuses the right to discuss public policy, political strategy, campaigning and other issues in private.

The changes passed by a 59-52 vote, which was taken Wednesday, said Rep. Skipper Perry, R-Aiken, so that it could be overshadowed by Gov. Mark Sanford's State of the State address.

Mr. Perry, who voted against the changes, broke with most of his GOP members.

"It might be legal, but it didn't look right," he said.

House leaders said they were simply putting into the rules what House Republicans have long believed, that caucuses should be able to discuss, in private, political strategy and, in the words of House Speaker Bobby Harrell, "how they're going to deal with the other side of the aisle."

Rrules committee member Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Bluffton, agreed.

"We're not voting on any legislation," he said. "We're talking about campaign finance and caucus issues."

Caucuses need to air differences among their members without fear their opinions will be misrepresented in the media, he said.

Without privacy, Mr. Herbkersman said, "Why even have a caucus then?"

Critics - mostly Democrats - charged that the rules changes violate the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act. They also noted that the rules committee met and voted on the proposed changes without public notification.

The new rules say, "The public be damned. The public get out," said Rep. Doug Jennings, D-Bennettsville.

House members can change the rules by a majority vote anytime within the first three weeks of the session, which would be the end of next week.

Mr. Perry believes the vote was rushed, but Mr. Harrell disagreed.

"There was no urging," he said. "We have to do it sometime in the month of January, and we just decided to do it."

Mr. Harrell believes that by changing the rules to allow caucuses to meet in private if they rent the room, they are meeting the standards set forth in an opinion Attorney General Henry McMaster issued on the topic in May 2006.

The House also changed its rules to allow Rep. Jim Smith, D-Columbia, the right to vote by proxy from Afghanistan, where he will be stationed with the National Guard. Mr. Smith's votes won't be able to change the outcome of an issue.

- From wire reports