Originally created 02/12/02

Senate hearing aborted



ATLANTA - People opposed to Gov. Roy Barnes' homeland security legislation shouted at lawmakers during a state Senate committee meeting Monday, prompting the panel to adjourn before hearing all those waiting to speak.

The legislation in question was Senate Bill 385, which would require the state to develop a detailed response to bioterrorism attacks and other public health emergencies.

The bill, introduced by the governor's Senate floor leaders, has raised eyebrows in recent weeks because it touches on authority many people - including some legislators - never knew the state had, such as the ability to declare mass quarantines and require vaccinations for contagious diseases.

Monday's furor arose after Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Rene D. Kemp, D-Hinesville, allowed the lawmakers to vote on the bill without any public input from the packed room.

Mr. Kemp later said he made a mistake by allowing the legislators to vote on the bill without soliciting public commentary from the more than 60 people attending the meeting.

"You should have spoken up earlier before I moved too fast," Mr. Kemp said to the audience before reopening the floor for 55 minutes of additional comments.

"If we don't get the bills in the clerk's office by a quarter to 1, they won't get in," he added, explaining his rush to move the bill along.

Atlanta resident Bill Phillips was so angry he had missed a chance to speak before the vote that he initially refused Mr. Kemp's offer to take the microphone.

"I'm not going to be part of this," he said.

However, other members of the audience eventually persuaded Mr. Phillips to address the committee.

"This 'time crunch' is hurting us all today," he said, using Mr. Kemp's term for rushing the vote. "It looks to me like this is being railroaded through by the governor."

Before the committee members voted, they heard from Dr. Kathleen Toomey, the state's public health director. Dr. Toomey assured the committee the bill has only two goals: to broaden the governor's ability to declare a state of emergency and to require the state have a terrorism response plan.

"There's no authority in this piece of proposed legislation that the state doesn't already have," she said, alluding to the quarantines and vaccinations.

The state has had the ability to isolate infected and at-risk groups for years, Dr. Toomey said.

"This is the way they operate in socialist and communist countries!" yelled Ian Madge, an Atlanta resident who signed up to speak to the committee but wasn't given a chance before the vote.

Shortly after Mr. Madge expressed his opinion, others in the audience began hurling their own comments at the committee, prompting the senators to adjourn.

Reach Brian Basinger at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.