The 2001 Georgia General Assembly, which adjourned last week, will go down in the history books for changing the state flag, spending a $900 million surplus, implementing a second phase of the governor's education reform program and failing to ban video poker.
Gov. Roy Barnes commendably stressed public school accountability and lawmakers responded. They passed his proposal that, beginning in 2003, third graders will have to pass the state's Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in order to be promoted to the next grade.
The governor also included funds in the record $15.4 billion state budget to provide remediation and targeted assistance when teachers discover students struggling with reading and math. Funding for paraprofessionals was also restored in some grades - a rare admission by Barnes that he and the legislature acted too hastily last year in cutting off that funding.
Since South Carolina banned video poker, the machines have spilled over into Augusta and elsewhere in Georgia - thus bringing the crack cocaine of gambling to new addicts and financial ruin to their families. The governor urged both Democrat and GOP leaders to "do something" about video poker yet it wasn't meant to be. A bill to ban video poker was brought up 10 minutes before adjournment but died because Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon, conducted a rambling filibuster.
The bill that teen-agers and their parents were interested in - legislation by Barnes to ban 16-year-olds from driving in four congested Atlanta area counties - died mainly due to opposition from the House speaker.
As for the session's impact on Augusta, area projects were huge recipients of lawmakers' beneficence because of the large surplus. A prime example is $1.1 million to establish a Biomedical Services Network to involve the Medical College of Georgia in a new venue to fight disease. One million dollars is targeted to a new Youth Challenge Academy at Fort Gordon and another million of taxpayer money goes for a 3 percent boost in the MCG Health Inc. contract with the University System Board of Regents (another reason why MCG Health Inc. should strive to be open with its records and meetings).
There is also a long list of grants (published in last Wednesday's Chronicle) going to entities ranging from museums to schools and fire stations.
Priorities, however, sometimes get out of whack. For example, while everyone should support Augusta Mini Theater founder Tyrone Butler and the work his arts center does in our community, why would the Mini Theater receive a $250,000 grant while badly-needed assistance for burn survivors and their families at the Augusta Burn Center only totaled $70,000.
Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, described it as a "good session that could have been better" - an observation generally shared by most other area lawmakers. More excitement, political catfights, jockeying for partisan political gain and maybe even court action will come later in the year when the governor and lawmakers sit down for a special legislative session to analyze new census figures and draw state legislative and congressional districts.
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