Originally created 01/04/01

Panels hear request for ballot upgrades



ATLANTA - State lawmakers got their first look Wednesday at a proposal aimed at assuring Georgia will avoid the national embarrassment suffered by neighbor Florida over the counting of presidential election ballots.

Secretary of State Cathy Cox outlined her request for $200,000 to experiment with various types of electronic-voting systems this fall in a handful of cities across Georgia. She was one of a parade of agency heads who addressed a joint meeting of the House and Senate appropriations committees.

According to a report released by Ms. Cox last week, about 95,000 Georgia voters who showed up at the polls Nov. 7 either didn't cast a vote for president, or their vote wasn't counted because of an error. Georgia's rate of so-called "undervotes" for president - 3.5 percent - was well above the 1.9 percent nationwide figure released by President-elect Bush's campaign.

"It is hard for me to believe that 95,000 Georgians took the time to come to the polls and chose to jump over the most important election on the ballot," Ms. Cox said. "We don't need to be the next Florida in 2004."

Ms. Cox said she is seeking funding in the 2002 budget that Gov. Roy Barnes will unveil next week to begin a three-year phase-in of a uniform statewide electronic-voting system that would be in place by the next presidential election in 2004. She said several bills are expected to be introduced into Congress to provide federal funds to help states pay for electronic-voting systems.

Rep. Bob Holmes, chairman of the House Governmental Affairs Committee, predicted state lawmakers and county officials will welcome Ms. Cox's initiative, as long as counties don't get stuck with the bill.

"This pilot program ... to try this new equipment would give us a track record," said Mr. Holmes, D-Atlanta. "Then, as money comes down from Washington, we can take some of the financial burden off of these poor counties and get this new equipment in."

Testing was also on the mind of Superintendent of Schools Linda Schrenko as she explained to the joint appropriations committees how the cost of developing statewide exams is driven up by a single provision in last year's education-reform act. Giving parents a copy of the annual tests will require ongoing development, which she estimated would cost $7 million to $10 million yearly.

If the tests weren't made public, the questions could be reused, she said. The Department of Education is spending $9 million to research 39,000 questions for tests needed in five subjects for eight grades, and Mrs. Schrenko estimated that pool of quizzes would last just a few years.

A larger request came to the budget-writing committees to address rising medical costs.

Community Health Commissioner Russ Toal asked lawmakers for a whopping $42.9 million to cover a projected fourth-quarter deficit in Medicaid, the state and federal health-insurance program for the poor.

Mr. Toal blamed the shortfall primarily on the soaring costs of prescription drugs, a trend he said has driven many states' Medicaid programs into deficits.

"That's the one part of our budget that's least controllable," he said.

The midyear budget also contains the first installment of Mr. Barnes' plan to reduce the number of Georgians without health insurance. The governor is asking for $11.4 million to expand the popular PeachCare for Kids program, which provides health coverage to children from families with incomes too high to qualify for Medicaid but too low to afford private insurance.

Mr. Toal said more initiatives aimed at the uninsured will be included in the 2002 budget Mr. Barnes will present to the General Assembly next week.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.