Originally created 02/24/02

In election year, Legislature slows



ATLANTA - By this time last year, the General Assembly had changed Georgia's flag for the first time since 1956, downsizing the Confederate battle emblem to postage-stamp size.

By the halfway point of the session in 2000, the House had passed Gov. Roy Barnes' sweeping education-reform legislation.

In 1999, by this stage, the Senate had approved the linchpin of the governor's strategy to combat urban sprawl in cities with poor air quality: the creation of a regional transportation authority to oversee highway and rail projects.

SO FAR THIS year, Mr. Barnes' fourth year in office, the 40-day session's most dramatic development has been House passage of a sales-tax holiday proposed by the governor, an offer that comes with a one-year guarantee.

"There's no doubt things are extremely slow," said Sen. Tom Price, R-Roswell, who as minority whip is the Senate's second-ranking Republican. "I would contend they're slow for a reason."

Mr. Price said majority Democrats are afraid of doing anything to alienate voters in an election year. After three years of aggressive policy-making, Mr. Barnes and the rest of his party members are, Mr. Price said, playing it safe by choosing popular and noncontroversial issues to address.

But the governor's floor leaders are cautioning patience with the slow-to-develop 2002 session. After all, it's only a little past the halfway point.

Rep. Charlie Smith, Mr. Barnes' floor leader in the House, said both predatory lending and natural-gas reform are likely to produce lively discussion by the time lawmakers adjourn for the year.

Although the governor's bill restricting high-interest loans was introduced in the House almost two weeks ago, it is just beginning to move. Mr. Barnes unveiled his legislation to fix problems with Georgia's deregulated natural-gas industry late last week.

"I've got a file that is probably six inches thick on predatory lending," said Mr. Smith, D-St. Marys. "That's a big storm brewing."

THE LACKLUSTER atmosphere surrounding the first half of this year's session isn't based on the numbers. The House and Senate are starting to pass legislation at the usual clip and Mr. Barnes has weighed in with about two dozen bills, a typical showing.

But the administration's agenda thus far is light on political risk. For example, among the bills Mr. Barnes has introduced this year is a measure that more than doubles the compensation the state pays to victims of violent crimes.

In an election year, the measure is unlikely to generate opposition to the governor, either in the Legislature or at the polls.

"I think the governor just really doesn't want to take any chances," said House Republican leader Lynn Westmoreland, of Sharpsburg. "He's got $11 million in the bank to spend on getting re-elected. ... He needs to lay in the bushes."

It's a sharp contrast to 1994, the last year a Georgia governor was running for re-election.

Then-Gov. Zell Miller entered the year as the nation's most vulnerable incumbent governor, said Rick Dent, an Atlanta-based public relations consultant who served as Mr. Miller's communications director.

Shortly after Mr. Miller entered office in 1991, Georgia's economy plunged into a recession, necessitating budget cuts and layoffs.

Mr. Dent said Mr. Miller pushed two major pieces of legislation through the General Assembly in 1994, a $100 million state income-tax cut and his "two-strikes-and-you're out" crime bill, then ran on those accomplishments that fall.

MR. BARNES, ON the other hand, was able to produce his major legislative achievements earlier in his first term because when he came into office, the economy was strong, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

Now, it's Mr. Barnes who is hampered by a sluggish economy, giving him another reason besides politics to keep his goals for this year more moderate.

"You can't have a revolutionary session every year," Mr. Smith said.

But both floor leaders say the action is about to pick up.

Natural-gas reform promises to be a spirited contest between advocates of re-regulating the industry, those who don't want any changes in the current system and supporters of the governor's middle approach of mending deregulation without ending it.

Mr. Dent said an evaluation of the governor's fourth year doesn't depend on what the Legislature does.

"(Governors) are not simply defined by what legislation they pass," Mr. Dent said. "Especially in a recession, managing government is as critical and important to Governor Barnes' political success as passing legislation."

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