Originally created 02/05/01

Officials prepare for week



ATLANTA - With the logjam that was the debate over Georgia's flag broken, this should be the busiest week so far for the 2001 General Assembly.

Several major events that had been delayed by days of wrangling over legislation to change the flag are on tap, including Gov. Roy Barnes' State of the State message, set for Thursday. Senate Republicans, originally due to release their session agenda Jan. 29, will go public with their priorities early this week.

Mr. Barnes will kick off the flurry of activity today when he announces his long-awaited strategy for tackling the state's water-quality and water-quantity needs.

The package is expected to include legislation that would create a water planning district to oversee stormwater, wastewater and water-supply projects in 16 counties in the Atlanta region. Another piece of the puzzle could be a proposal to form a study committee to look for statewide solutions that lawmakers could consider next year.

A task force made up mostly of Atlanta political and business leaders has recommended that the new water planning district be run by a board controlled by local elected officials. That's a sharp contrast to the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, which Mr. Barnes pushed through the Legislature two years ago and is governed by a board he appoints.

"We find some comfort in (the recommendation)," said House Minority Leader Lynn Westmoreland, R-Sharpsburg. "We don't want to add another level of bureaucracy ... for (Mr. Barnes) to get more political appointments."

The water legislation is headed first for the Senate.

Meanwhile, the House will take up two bills introduced by Mr. Barnes late last week after he and the Legislature completed work on the flag bill.

The first would put new limits on teen-age drivers in 18 metro Atlanta counties, toughen laws against drunken driving and crack down on aggressive driving habits that have come to be known as "road rage."

The strongest opposition to the teen-driving portion of the legislation is focused on the number of counties that would be affected. When Mr. Barnes brought up the issue late last year, he talked about imposing it only on the four most urbanized counties in the region.

Some lawmakers also object to a provision that would prohibit open containers in a vehicle. The current law applies only to drivers.

The other bill proposed by Mr. Barnes would offer tax breaks to help middle-income parents save for their children's college expenses.

Rep. Louise McBee, D-Athens, sponsored a similar bill last year. The former University of Georgia vice president said she hopes House members can get the annual family income-eligibility limit in the governor's proposal raised from $75,000 to $100,000 to help more families.

"I just don't know," she said, when asked if there would be enough votes to tinker with the governor's package, "but I hope so."

Ms. McBee said the package would help families whose children don't qualify for the HOPE scholarship or who need more help than the lottery-funded scholarship provides.

Members of the House Appropriations Committee also will be busy this week. Committee Chairman Rep. Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, plans to bring Mr. Barnes' 2001 midyear budget plan before the panel early this week and get it to the House floor for a vote by Friday.

The midyear spending plan includes the next installment of the governor's multiyear tax-cut program and a whopping $468 million construction initiative to help Georgia schools add enough classrooms to comply with the smaller class sizes mandated by Mr. Barnes' education reform bill.

Morris News Service writer Doug Gross contributed to this article.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.