Originally created 01/13/02

Under the dome



ATLANTA - In 1999, it was transportation and air quality.

In 2000, it was education reform.

Last year, it was the state flag.

But as members of the General Assembly gather Monday to begin the 2002 session, neither Gov. Roy Barnes nor legislative leaders are focusing on a single overarching theme, or even a few high-priority issues. Most lawmakers seem anxious to do no more than what's required and get out of town as quickly as possible.

"I don't see anything major happening this year," said Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Garden City.

The governor, lawmakers and political observers cite several factors for the session's lackluster prospects:

  • The recession has put a crimp in the state budget.
  • It's an election year for Mr. Barnes and the entire Legislature.
  • Entering his fourth year in office, the governor already has seen most of his first-term agenda enacted.
  • Georgia's elected leaders have known for months - well before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - that the 2002 session would be dominated by a budget crunch.

    To cope with the tighter economy, Mr. Barnes has cut state spending by $215 million, and the 2003 budget proposal he will unveil this week will cut more. The austere climate will force legislative budget writers to save what they can from current programs rather than look for new ways to spend taxpayer dollars.

    Aside from the budget constraints, 2002 also is an election year. Although Mr. Barnes has been the driving force behind most of the major legislation the General Assembly has passed during the past three years, it would be politically prudent for him to be less active this close to an election, Rep. Ben Harbin said.

    "Everything he's done up to now he's had plenty of time to explain," said Mr. Harbin, R-Martinez. "He's got to make sure this year is a calmer, quieter session ..."

    Mr. Harbin said lawmakers also have reason to hope for a routine, quick session. The House and Senate maps drawn during back-to-back redistricting sessions in the summer left many incumbents, particularly Republicans, in vastly different districts full of unfamiliar constituents.

    "Everybody's trying to get ready to run in their new districts," he said.

    "You won't have the kind of education reform or the other kinds of tweaking you had the last two years," said Rep. Charlie Smith, D-St. Marys, who steered Mr. Barnes' school plans through the House as the governor's floor leader. "We need some time to let what we've done sink in and let the process work."

    The biggest disagreement between Republicans and Democrats could come over the linchpin in Mr. Barnes' strategy to stimulate the state economy.

    Sales from a huge bond package the governor proposed last week would be used to speed up construction of rural highways and accelerate the completion of capital projects, including public school and University System of Georgia buildings.

    Mr. Harbin calls the $1.3 billion package risky in light of projections that the state revenues needed to pay off the bonds could remain sluggish for as long as four years.

    SESSION SCHEDULE

    Here is a timetable for the General Assembly's 2002 session. The Legislature can be in session for 40 days and can recess if needed.

    Jan. 14: Lawmakers convene the 40-day session at the Capitol.

    Jan. 16: Gov. Roy Barnes delivers his 2003 budget request before a joint session of the House and Senate.

    Jan. 22-25: The House and Senate Appropriations committees review the budget proposals, department by department. The full Legislature takes the week off.

    Late January-late February: Cities send political and business leaders to the Capitol for a special day or two set aside in their honor, featuring meals and receptions held by the local delegations. It's a chance for them to lobby lawmakers to approve items that would benefit their communities.

    Late February: The General Assembly approves the midyear budget, which covers state spending through June 30.

    Day 33: Crossover Day, the deadline for bills to have passed either the House or Senate. If they haven't made it through at least one of the chambers, they're dead for the session (usually falls in early March).

    Days 38-40: The General Assembly usually waits until the waning days of the session to approve the "big" budget, which covers spending for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

    Day 40: By law, the last day the General Assembly can be in session. Adjournment comes late in the day, sometimes right at midnight (usually falls in mid to late March).

    Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.