Originally created 02/21/99

Column: Good government `weed' sprouts in Atlanta 022199 - The Augusta Chronicle



Dry spells in the General Assembly -- and right now, we're talking summer in the Sahara -- generally give rise to special-interest junk legislation. When there are no real problems to be solved, lobbyists invent some.

The Capitol is seeing its share this year, as idle legislators are dragged into the middle of turf wars between types of eye doctors, or between auto dealers and Detroit manufacturers.

But somehow amid this drought, a stubborn good-government weed is sprouting.

-- House Speaker Tom Murphy and his Democratic leadership team filed legislation this week to prevent agencies from hiring free-lance contract lobbyists to augment their presence at the Capitol. The bill would put a stop to cushy landings for the likes of former Rep. Grace Davis, D-Atlanta, who was put on the prison system's payroll after losing her seat last July.

-- Some senior House members led by Rep. Jeanette Jamieson, D-Toccoa, are proposing to outlaw lying in campaigns -- honestly. A pair of bills letting the State Ethics Commission punish those who falsely identify the source of statements, or misrepresent endorsements, is awaiting House committee action.

-- Gov. Roy Barnes' potent open-government bill, adding criminal penalties for politicians who wrongfully shut the public out of meetings, cleared the House with just one "nay" vote and awaits Senate action as soon as Monday.

-- Close behind the open records and meetings bill is a "taxpayers' rights" package that threatens elected officials with the loss of their salaries if they impose tax increases without proper public notice.

SOME OF THESE proposals may be self-serving headline grabs. Some are intended merely to send a message.

But it may be a measure of the public's distaste with a season of below-the-belt campaigning -- and below-the-belt Washington hijinks -- that normally shameless politicians are becoming sensitive to their ethical image.

Barnes arrived in the General Assembly as part of the mid-'70s class of "Watergate babies" who enacted the state's first open-government laws. A generation later, he and his Democratic team are finding again that good government can be good politics.

SNAP JUDGMENTS

-- The absentees from last week's Georgia Republican Party fund-raising banquet were as noticeable as the attendees. Missing: former attorney general Michael Bowers, home in bed with the flu, who sent his family to work the crowd and keep his famous name in play for 2002.

Missing: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., in whose congressional district the banquet was held -- and whose name was mentioned just once from the podium all day. Missing: any activity by presidential candidates for 2000, except for a lone table distributing literature for the "draft Elizabeth Dole" movement. GOP leaders say U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., and his statewide political machine are lining up behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush, an unannounced candidate so well-known he doesn't need to spend money on early organization.

-- Georgia's Medicaid department is planning its first-ever audit of how hospitals use $300 million in state and federal money that's supposed to pay for poor people's health care.

State Medical Assistance Commissioner Bill Taylor is set to announce the program this coming week, responding to criticism that too little of the Indigent Care Trust Fund trickles down to its intended beneficiaries.

A past review of hospitals' spending by Morris News Service found hospitals were diverting millions into recruitment bonuses for doctors, urgent-care clinics in affluent neighborhoods and other uses that weren't federally approved.

This session lawmakers have questioned why $70 million a year from the trust fund is spent on programs that provide no patient care, such as contracts with a Georgia State University think-tank studying health issues.

Meanwhile, a coalition of rural and small-town House members is proposing to let counties (and consolidated citycounty governments) use existing local-option sales tax proceeds to finance health care services for the poor.

Those local tax dollars could be used to supplement the indigent care fund, which small-town hospitals say is inadequate to cover their mounting unpaid bills. Sponsors of the proposal include Reps. Chuck Sims, D-Ambrose; Keith Heard, D-Athens; and Jay Shaw, D-Lakeland.

-- The new governor is trying to fool the calendar in his effort to consolidate power over state agencies. Most state departments are run by appointed boards whose members serve staggered terms, keeping any governor from throwing out the whole bunch at once. So Barnes' floor leaders filed legislation Thursday to pack the boards of Natural Resources and Industry with four new members each, effective immediately. Most board seats are distributed by congressional district, but the new positions would be open to anyone regardless of residency. Since Barnes may soon get three appointments to the State Court of Appeals -- two new judgeships, plus retiring Judge Dorothy Beasley's position -- the extra board seats would give Barnes an instant chance to remake state government in his image.

Frank LoMonte covers politics in Georgia for Morris News Service.