Originally created 04/14/02

Legislators stay late for routine



ATLANTA - It was supposed to be a short session, insiders said, one in which state lawmakers would dispense quickly with the people's business and move on to election-year politicking.

In the end, the Georgia General Assembly's 2002 session became the longest in more than a century. Observers say its length was the only thing historic about it.

Despite a lack of headline-grabbing issues like last year's education reform, teen driving and flag change, the session meandered through four months - consuming nearly a month more than usual.

By the time they were done, legislators had approved a new political map, tweaked Georgia's deregulated natural-gas industry and attacked the practice of offering unfair loans.

"We didn't do as much as we did in previous years," said Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta. "But we dealt with the people's business - the meat-and-potatoes issues."

The reason for the prolonged session, and the biggest political fight of its last few days, was the redrawing of political lines for the Senate.

With three days left in the session, a federal court rejected the map lawmakers had drawn last fall, saying it weakened minority voting strength.

While the court approved the maps of the congressional and state House districts, the decision still left the General Assembly with lots of work in a short amount of time. Democratic leaders had been intentionally slowing the session - taking off days at a time - hoping the court would rule before they adjourned.

EXPECTATIONS OF a quick session "went out the window with the reapportionment bill," Mr. Walker said.

With some rapid cartography, Democratic leaders improved three districts the U.S. Justice Department had questioned - adding black voters to help ensure minority voting strength. Sen. Regina Thomas, D-Savannah, successfully pushed a last-minute amendment that added even more blacks to her district and moved the district of Sen. Jack Hill, a white Democrat from Reidsville, out of Chatham County.

Democrats were confident in their changes.

But the fight isn't entirely over, even if the courts approve the plan.

Republicans have one lawsuit against the plan pending, and plan to file others arguing that blatantly political maps are illegal and that the boundaries unfairly pack Republican voters into the fewest districts possible.

But experts say such suits aren't unique to Georgia. States everywhere are redrawing districts based on the 2000 Census.

"A whole lot of states are getting sued, and they are getting sued by the people who lose in the political process," said Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "No party has the moral high ground on this."

REDRAWING MAPS wasn't the only major work the General Assembly got done. Gov. Roy Barnes' legislative agenda, while less ambitious than in some previous years, still got most of the attention.

And with the exception of a relatively minor bill that would have lengthened the license suspension for first-time drunken drivers, all of his bills passed.

Topping the list was a plan to improve Georgia's deregulated natural gas market.

Although consumer complaints were muted because of Georgia's relatively warm winter, lawmakers wanted to go into this fall's elections having done something to correct a unanimous 1997 deregulation vote almost everyone now agrees was flawed.

Mr. Barnes' bill provides regulated prices for low-income households, opens up the gas market to nonprofit electricity cooperatives and provides remedies if competition in the gas market goes up in smoke.

While the plan received major support in both the House and Senate, negotiators debated minor details until the session's final days.

It was also Day 40 when a final compromise on the Georgia Fair Lending Act was reached.

The plan targets lenders who prey on elderly and uneducated people - offering high-cost and complicated loans that often end in borrowers' losing their homes.

Advocates for the plan were pleased.

"I'm very encouraged that we've helped raise the visibility of this issue and put a face on the problem," said Kathy Floyd, a lobbyist for AARP. "Too often down here at the Capitol, it's papers shifting back and forth. It's important to remember people, especially our members, are being affected."

Not all top bills were sponsored by Mr. Barnes.

Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor pushed an agenda that included new ethics laws for legislators, getting rid of the statute of limitations on violent crimes and providing stiffer punishments for school children who attack teachers.

But one of his key bills - creating a felony crime for people whose actions endanger children - ran out of time on the session's last day, failing to get final House approval before the Legislature's deadline.

Every year at least one bill surprises analysts by the amount of attention it draws even though it's not pushed by members of the leadership. Last year, it was a move to outlaw video poker. In 2002, it was a years-old bill touted as an alternative to aborting or abandoning babies.

The bill, which sits on the governor's desk, allows the mother of an unwanted newborn to drop the child off at a hospital or doctor's office without any legal penalty. Currently, it is a crime to abandon a child anywhere, even a safe place.

With the long session over, lawmakers won't have much time to relax. Qualifying for this year's elections begins in about two months.

"Certainly, everyone is anxious to get out and meet the voters and ask the voters for their support," Mr. Taylor said.

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