Tax reform, water plan on deck for busy session

ATLANTA --- The stress might have set in a little bit early at the General Assembly this year.


Just before a second day of public hearings on the property-tax reform bill proposed by House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, a lawmaker's child was seated at the committee table.

"We're bringing some intelligence to the committee," a lobbyist could be overheard saying.

Maybe it was just a joke. But it also could have been a sign of stress facing lawmakers, lobbyists and anyone with a stake in one of the several major bills expected to be considered during one of the busiest sessions in recent memory. It all begins Monday.

Lawmakers are considering measures to reform taxes, overhaul transportation spending, revamp the way the state funds schools and approve a state water policy.

Along the way, they'll try to provide financial aid to hospitals that provide care to the most critically ill patients and try to address concerns about the constitutionality of residency restrictions on sex offenders. Plus, a $20 billion budget has to be passed.

And that might not be all.

"There's always something that we don't see on the horizon that ends up being a big issue," said House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island. He pointed to last year's struggle with funding for the PeachCare health insurance program, which looked to be a midsize budget issue before the session ground to a halt as lawmakers waited for a federal fix.

All of this at the same time that every member of the General Assembly will have to go back to voters in November and ask for another two-year term.

Why tackle all of those issues this year?

"Now's the time to address them," Mr. Keen said.

Some of the work is left over from previous sessions. Legislative leaders vowed last year to increase funding for the state's ailing trauma-care hospitals, but they never managed to agree on where to find the money.

"We've been talking about that issue just about since I've been in the General Assembly," Mr. Keen said.

SEN. TIM GOLDEN, D-Valdosta, said some of the state's problems have simply been ignored recently and now have to be addressed.

"Unfortunately, a lot of issues that should have been dealt with the last three or four years have not been dealt with," he said.

Unspoken was the fact that Republicans won total control of state government in the 2004 elections.

Mr. Golden noted that Republicans have begun pushing for legislation that would speed up reservoir construction as a way to address the state's drought -- an approach first championed by Democrats in the 1990s, when they were in the majority.

At a news conference last week to unveil the GOP leadership's priorities for the 2008 session, Gov. Sonny Perdue pointed out that Georgia is one of the fastest-growing states in the nation and is rapidly climbing the ranks of the most populous.

"That means we're right in the middle of the major leagues, and we need to have major-league policies for our citizens," he said.

That doesn't, of course, change the date of the elections. Conventional wisdom holds that legislators tend to get less done in an election year because both parties are too busy trying to set themselves up for victories in November.

Mr. Keen disagrees. He pointed out that lawmakers have to run for re-election every two years in Georgia, and voters are unlikely to forget what a lawmaker did in an odd-numbered year, limiting the differences between the first and second year of a term.

There are plenty of issues that will test Mr. Keen's theory.

A few of them:

- Tax reform: One of Mr. Richardson's first priorities is likely to be his plan to eliminate the property tax on education and replace it with a broader sales tax that would be charged on services such as lawn care and haircuts.

Mr. Richardson and his supporters say the measure would help homeowners continue to afford their property after years of rising assessments.

- State water policy: One thing almost certain to get done this year is a statewide policy governing one of the state's most precious resources.

"In any event, at the end of this session, there will be a water plan," said Environmental Protection Division Director Carol Couch.

- Trauma care: Lawmakers pledged last year to do something to help fund a financially ailing network of hospitals that provide care for the most critically injured patients.