Originally created 02/22/99

Barnes' legislative agenda to get big push this week



ATLANTA -- With virtually all of Gov. Roy Barnes' legislative agenda finally before Georgia lawmakers, this will be the week he gets it moving.

Lawmakers put off "speed week" -- when dozens of bills fly through the chambers hoping to beat a drop-dead deadline -- until March 1 by taking Thursday and Friday off to work on the midyear and fiscal 2000 budgets.

That gave Mr. Barnes a few more days to roll out his remaining bills and start getting them through House and Senate committees.

What is scheduled to be the final piece of his agenda -- a bill to consolidate state health agencies -- will be filed early this week.

Two highly popular Barnes measures that should move this week are his tax bills.

A House committee has already approved Mr. Barnes' legislation to double the state's property tax homestead exemption from $2,000 to $4,000, and the full chamber may vote on it early in the week.

The Senate Finance and Public Utilities Committee is likewise expected to approve his "Taxpayer's Bill of Rights" -- which would blunt the impact of property assessment increases -- sometime this week, despite opposition from local government officials worried about its implications.

Under the bill, local officials would have to roll back the millage rate to match any increase in the property digest. To increase the take, city councils, county commissions and school boards would then have to raise the tax rate after a series of public hearings.

Once out of committee, the bill should move quickly for two reasons: It is being promoted by a Democratic governor and represents a major plank in the Republican Party's platform.

In fact, the Republicans are crowing about the bill as if it were one of their own.

"The Democratic Party has become Republicans-R-Us," said state GOP Chairman Rusty Paul. "If Roy Barnes wants to govern as a Republican, maybe he should switch parties. The door is open. He doesn't have to break in."

However, Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta, noted that a Democrat-led General Assembly has won approval for about $900 million in tax cuts during the past four years.

And besides the property tax break, Mr. Barnes is peddling a $949 million cut in unemployment taxes paid by Georgia businesses.

Also this week is the beginning of what could be tense negotiations over the $500-million-plus midyear budget.

The Senate will pass its version of the budget today or Tuesday. It looks a lot like the earlier-approved House version, but there are some major exceptions.

For instance, a Senate subcommittee recommended gutting the House's plans to spend $23.8 million relocating a technical school campus to a site near House Speaker Tom Murphy's hometown. It also trimmed millions more from the local projects stuffed into the budget by House Majority Leader Larry Walker, D-Perry, House budget Chairman Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, Ways and Means Chairman Tom Buck, D-Columbus, and House Rules Chairman Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus.

In its place, the Senate added a $22.9 million construction project at Clayton College & State University.

The project was recommended on behalf of Senate President Pro Tem Terrell Starr, D-Forest Park.

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.