Originally created 01/14/02

Election-year session expected to be short but contentious



ATLANTA -- The signs pointed to a contentious legislative year as Georgia lawmakers opened a new session Monday. Crowds gathered outside the statehouse to protest the new state flag and Republicans hurled sharp criticism at the governor.

A senator under indictment and a senator fresh from being fined by the State Ethics Commission took their regular seats on a legislative day that lasted less than an hour.

Among the first bills of the election-year session was one to re-regulate the gas industry in Georgia. Deregulation and problems with delayed bills and soaring costs touched off consumer protests last year.

The flag protests were sparked by the Legislature's decision last year, at the urging of Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes, to shrink the Confederate battle emblem on Georgia's flag. The crowd included some Civil War re-enactors dressed in Confederate garb.

At one point, they displayed signs referring to Barnes as "Roy Judas Barnes." Periodically, a portable tape player cranked out a parody of the tune, "Yellow Rose of Texas," which included the new lines: "The yellow streak of Georgia is not the flag for me."

Dan Roberts of Toccoa, one of the demonstrators, said he wanted lawmakers to know "we're not forgetting before the next election comes."

"The governor is here to focus on the present - Georgia's economy, the education of our children and the future prosperity of the state - not the past," said Barnes' spokeswoman Joselyn Baker.

The combative tone continued inside the statehouse as House and Senate Republicans teamed in a news conference to denounce Barnes' handling of the state's economy and to announce their united agenda for the session.

Barnes, facing an economic downturn and six straight months of declining revenue, has proposed a combination of spending cuts and increases. That includes a proposed $900 million building program he says will spur recovery.

"Georgia does not have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem," said House Republican Leader Lynn Westmoreland of Sharpsburg.

Senate Republican Leader Eric Johnson of Savannah agreed. "They've been spending money on programs, bureaucrats and pork. Their economic policy is, don't just sit there, spend something."

Johnson also said Georgia tops the nation in jobs lost - 100,000 - and said Barnes is to blame.

"You cannot blame President Bush, you cannot blame Congress and you cannot blame Osama bin Laden for Georgia's record," Johnson said.

Barnes' spokeswoman, Joselyn Baker, replied, "It's the start of another session and business is back to normal under the Gold Dome. Members of the Republican leadership are whining about everyone else."

Sen. Van Streat, D-Nicholls, who is under indictment, took his usual seat on the floor. "I was elected by the people of the 19th District, and I will continue to serve as they wish," he told reporters.

Streat has until Jan. 23 to decide if he wishes to suspend himself voluntarily. After that, the governor must name a three-member committee to decide whether he should be suspended.

He is accused of helping to influence the transfer of a convicted murderer in exchange for political contributions from the prisoner's associates.

Senate Democratic Leader Charles Walker, fined $8,500 by the State Ethics Commission last week for failing to disclose business connections on disclosure reports, said, "It's behind me and I'm going to move on."

Gas re-regulation or a variation thereof was a topic in both chambers.

Rep. Billy McKinney, D-Atlanta, proposed repealing the law and returning the state to regulation.

"We made an error three years ago ... It hurt poor people, senior citizens. It's time to undo what we did," McKinney said.

In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor didn't go quite that far but said deregulation had led to "unacceptable and unfortunate consequences" and promised a cure.

Taylor, like Barnes facing re-election this summer, outlined an agenda that included support for a predatory lending bill to rein-in lenders who prey on the elderly and the unwary, and efforts to curb underage drinking.

The Republican agenda included measures to allow students to escape failing schools and to create a regional authority to oversee Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport.