Originally created 03/20/00

Legislators face packed agenda in final week



ATLANTA -- Georgia lawmakers are breathing a sigh of relief now that the General Assembly's biggest, most time-consuming priority for the year is history.

But despite final passage of Gov. Roy Barnes' education-reform plan late last week, there still will be plenty to occupy the House and Senate in the final two days of the annual 40-day session.

Mr. Barnes is looking to continue the perfect batting average with his legislative agendas that he began last year, when every one of his bills was enacted.

"It's looking good at this point," said Rep. Charlie Smith, D-St. Marys, the governor's floor leader in the House. "But you never know until the end."

With the education-reform hurdle and most of Mr. Barnes' 2000 agenda safely behind, several bills remain on the calendar, including the governor's gun bill, which the House will take up today.

The biggest potential obstacle to the legislation, which increases penalties for people who bring guns near children, was overcome when the Senate defeated a bid to attach a tougher bill to the measure aimed at those who leave guns lying around where children can get to them.

Also today, the House will consider the governor's bill prohibiting "pink-lining," discrimination by insurance companies against victims of domestic violence.

The House also still must deal with Mr. Barnes' bill creating the Georgia Technology Authority, designed to cut costs by centralizing control of the state's computer and telephone systems.

After a weekend of negotiations, the House/Senate conference committee on the 2001 state budget is expected to present its report today.

The two chambers aren't far apart on the governor's $14.4 billion request for the fiscal year starting July 1. The major issue in flux is just how much it will take to fund the first year of Mr. Barnes' education-reform program.

While the budget conference committee wasn't expected to have a difficult time reaching consensus, it could be tougher for conferees trying to resolve differences in the House and Senate versions of a hate-crimes bill.

The bill narrowly passed by the Senate increases prison sentences for defendants convicted of crimes motivated by their victim's race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation. The House removed those categories from the legislation late last week and provided for stricter penalties for any crime fueled by prejudice.

"I don't know whether the real message is still contained in the bill. It's been muddled," said Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta. "I think we need to take it back to the original language. If we're going to address the issue of hate crimes, let's address it, and specificity is necessary."

Mr. Walker said another conference committee he's watching closely is working out a final version of legislation giving the General Assembly more say over regulations put forth by the state Environmental Protection Division. The House bill gave lawmakers carte blanche to override the agency, while the Senate version limits that authority to water-quality regulations affecting animal husbandry, including livestock, poultry and hogs.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.