Health lawsuit among plans


ATLANTA --- Georgia's next attorney general plans to follow through on a pledge to participate with other states in a lawsuit challenging President Obama's health care overhaul after he's sworn in.


That will be just one of Sam Olens' concerns, as he also works to broker a water deal and guide some ambitious legislation through the Statehouse.

The Republican says he will sign off on a legal motion to join the legal challenge filed by Florida's top attorney after he takes office today. It's a policy shift from his predecessor, Democrat Thurbert Baker, who refused to sue because he said the state lacked a viable legal claim.

Though Georgia already had a foothold in the challenge -- outgoing Gov. Sonny Perdue bypassed Baker by appointing a special attorney to join the fight -- Olens said putting the resources of his office behind the lawsuit that now includes multiple states is more than a symbolic move.

"It makes the lawsuit consistent with Georgia statutory law," he said. "And now it will have the full weight of the state behind it."

Olens said Georgia needs to formally object to the expansion of Medicaid -- which he said will cost Georgia $1.5 billion each year starting in 2014 -- and the overhaul's requirement that people purchase health insurance or face penalties.

"It's a huge unfunded mandate," he said. "And it's vital that we have that legal claim heard by the U.S. Supreme Court."

Olens has put plenty on his plate since beating Democrat Ken Hodges in last year's election.

He wants to help the state deepen Savannah's harbor and support a transportation overhaul. He also plans to roll out proposals to tweak state sunshine laws, target foreclosure fraud and crack down on cyberbullying.

Perhaps his most pressing priority is also the most daunting: working out an agreement to end a decades-long water dispute involving Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

A federal judge has warned he will restrict Atlanta's use of its main water supply in 2012 unless leaders of the three states reach a deal to end more than 20 years of fighting. Georgia has been mired in negotiations with its counterparts for years, but the judge's warning has given leaders a new sense of urgency.

Olens said he hopes Georgia can soon negotiate a comprehensive agreement with Florida and Alabama, but he did not rule out brokering a compromise with Alabama alone if Florida officials aren't willing to go along.

"I think that there has been much good will between Alabama and Georgia over the last year, and I'd like to see that come to fruition with a settlement," he said. Brokering such an agreement would create "myriad legal issues," but he said it's possible.

Olens is also readying a legislative package that would give him the authority to launch criminal investigations into foreclosure fraud, streamline the state's sunshine laws and beef up laws targeting sex traffickers and cyberbullies. He said he will be ready to unveil specifics by the end of January.

He will have a powerful ally. Olens has hired Nels Peterson, Perdue's former executive counsel, to handle the office's legislative agenda and coordinate the health care challenge and water litigation.