Originally created 03/03/03

Budget matters causing recess



ATLANTA - Members of the General Assembly usually are buckling down to business during the first week of March, gearing up for the frenetic final few weeks of the legislative session.

This year, though, the lawmakers are getting ready for some time off.

Starting Thursday or Friday, the Legislature is expected to take a lengthy recess. As of the end of last week, the consensus around the Capitol was that the break would be about two weeks but that it could last longer.

Why the hiatus?

For one thing, Georgia isn't used to a divided government.

With a Republican governor and GOP-controlled Senate on one side and a Democratic House majority on the other, it's more difficult to work out a compromise on the budget.

Even more important, the down economy is forcing Gov. Sonny Perdue and lawmakers to decide whether to impose severe spending cuts on state agencies or to raise taxes.

As House Majority Leader Jimmy Skipper, D-Americus, put it to his colleagues on the floor last week, the stark choice for 2004 is between finding $400 million to $500 million in new cuts or that same amount in new tax revenues.

Before they move on to 2004, however, lawmakers must decide what to do about the rest of fiscal year 2003, which ends in July.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to vote today on Mr. Perdue's midyear budget request. The House passed it several weeks ago but didn't take up the tax increases on tobacco and liquor that the governor proposed to help cover a looming shortfall.

Last week, Senate Republican leaders released a "draft" of the midyear budget spelling out exactly what would have to be cut to avoid the $90 million in higher taxes. House Democrats criticized the move as an irresponsible scare tactic aimed at swaying lawmakers to vote for the tax increases.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill said the upper chamber's version of the midyear budget could end up with those cuts intact.

"We've put the debate on a more aggressive plain," said Mr. Hill, R-Reidsville. "We'll have to see how it plays out."

If Mr. Hill's committee approves the midyear budget today, he said, it would go to the Senate floor Wednesday. After that, a joint House-Senate conference committee would work toward a compromise during the recess as budget writers labor over the 2004 budget.

Other issues are expected to move forward this week. One of them, revising the anti-predatory lending law passed last year, is headed for a conference committee.

The House is expected to vote today on the revisions to the Georgia Fair Lending Act. That law took effect in October and immediately drew a lawsuit and boycotts of Georgia mortgages from within the industry.

The House will vote on a bill by Sen. Don Cheeks, R-Augusta, that already has passed the Senate. The House version is different, so a conference committee will eventually hash out the differences.

The Senate and House haven't liked each other's version. The Senate plan is simpler, and the House draft makes more changes in the new law. Consumer advocates say the House plan weakens significant provisions that protect unsophisticated borrowers, but industry executives say it merely corrects problems that should have never been enacted.

KEY BILLS

Here is the status of key bills introduced during the 2003 Georgia General Assembly session:

HOUSE BILL 37

DESCRIPTION: Prohibits the state, local governments and school districts from denying any youth organization access to public facilities for meetings, based on that organization's enforcement of its moral principles. Aimed at preventing discrimination against the Boy Scouts for prohibiting homosexual members or leaders

STATUS: House assigned to Judiciary Committee

HOUSE BILL 83

DESCRIPTION: Prohibits drivers from using cell phones, except for hands-free phones, while their vehicle is in motion

STATUS: Assigned to Motor Vehicles Committee

HOUSE BILL 121

DESCRIPTION: Midyear budget adjustments for fiscal year 2003

STATUS: Passed by House, awaiting Senate Appropriations Committee action

HOUSE BILL 122

DESCRIPTION: Budget for fiscal 2004

STATUS: Assigned to House Appropriations Committee

HOUSE BILL 125

DESCRIPTION: Makes it a misdemeanor for drivers engaged in distracting activities to cause an accident resulting in injury or property damage; prohibits drivers from using cell phones except in emergencies unless equipped with a hands-free device

STATUS: Assigned to House Motor Vehicles Committee

HOUSE BILL 142

DESCRIPTION: Fixes loopholes in a law aimed at predatory lenders. Supporters say the law, passed last year, inadvertently made it difficult for many borrowers to get home loans in Georgia

STATUS: Passed House, awaiting action by Senate Banking and Financial Institutions Committee

HOUSE BILL 149, SENATE BILL 17

DESCRIPTION: Creates new child-support guidelines aimed at making payments by noncustodial parents more equitable

STATUS: Assigned to House Special Judiciary Committee, Senate Judiciary Committee

HOUSE BILL 192

DESCRIPTION: Reduces legislators' salaries by 5 percent, a budget-cutting gesture

STATUS: Assigned to House Appropriations Committee

HOUSE BILL 237

DESCRIPTION: Restricts interbasin transfers of water, requires farmers to monitor water use and creates a committee of state agency heads to develop a statewide water-management plan

STATUS: Passed House

HOUSE BILL 250

DESCRIPTION: Provides one-day sales-tax holidays on school supplies, clothing, shoes, computers and computer accessories in April and August

STATUS: Assigned to House Ways and Means Committee

HOUSE BILL 354

DESCRIPTION: Authorizes an amnesty program for delinquent state taxpayers from Oct. 31 to Dec. 31 of this year and gives local governments the choice of participating in the program

STATUS: Assigned to House Ways and Means Committee

HOUSE BILL 378

DESCRIPTION: Raises taxes on beer, wine and hard liquor

STATUS: Assigned to House Regulated Industries Committee

HOUSE BILL 379

DESCRIPTION: Raises taxes on cigarettes and cigars and imposes a tax on smokeless tobacco

STATUS: Assigned to House Ways and Means Committee

HOUSE BILL 380

DESCRIPTION: Authorizes a two-part, nonbinding referendum on the Georgia flag, to be held in March 2004

STATUS: Assigned to House Rules Committee

HOUSE BILL 514

DESCRIPTION: Authorizes cities to impose a 1 percent local sales tax, subject to a voter referendum

STATUS: Assigned to House Ways and Means Committee

HOUSE BILL 515

DESCRIPTION: Abolishes state Office of Education Accountability and moves its functions to the Department of Education

STATUS: Assigned to House Education Committee

HOUSE BILL 516

DESCRIPTION: Delays or rolls back elements of former Gov. Roy Barnes' education reforms, including lower class sizes and accountability measures

STATUS: Assigned to House Education Committee

HOUSE BILL 542

DESCRIPTION: Provides sales-tax holiday on school supplies, clothing, shoes, computers and computer accessories, to be held from July 31-Aug. 3.

STATUS: Assigned to House Ways and Means Committee

HOUSE BILL 573

DESCRIPTION Lifts the statewide prohibition on video poker enacted in 2001

STATUS: Assigned to House Regulated Industries Committee

SENATE BILL 2

DESCRIPTION: Calls for redrawing the Senate redistricting map passed by the General Assembly last year

STATUS: Assigned to Senate Redistricting and Reapportionment Committee

SENATE BILL 3

DESCRIPTION: Tightens financial-disclosure requirements for public officers and candidates for public office

STATUS: Assigned to Senate Ethics Committee

SENATE BILL 10

DESCRIPTION: Declares endangerment of a child under age 16 a felony in Georgia

STATUS: Assigned to Senate Judiciary Committee

SENATE BILL 23

DESCRIPTION: Requires women seeking an abortion to wait at least 24 hours to give doctors an opportunity to explain the risks of the procedure and discuss other choices

STATUS: Passed Senate

SENATE BILL 31

DESCRIPTION: Prohibits candidate-to-candidate campaign contributions and forbids legislators from intervening with state agencies on behalf of prison inmates

STATUS: Passed Senate

SENATE BILL 53

DESCRIPTION: Fixes loopholes in a law aimed at predatory lenders. Supporters say the law, passed last year, inadvertently made it difficult for many borrowers to get home loans in Georgia

STATUS: Passed Senate, due for House vote today

SENATE BILL 76

DESCRIPTION: Reduces salaries of legislators and the lieutenant governor by 10 percent

STATUS: Passed Senate

SENATE BILL 91

DESCRIPTION: Requires congressional and legislative redistricting maps to avoid creating bizarre shapes and splitting counties and precincts; mandates that past voting patterns may not be the sole consideration in drawing districts

STATUS: Passed Senate

SENATE BILL 102

DESCRIPTION: Overhauls Georgia's system for representing poor criminal defendants by creating public defenders' offices and a state board to set standards

STATUS: Passed Senate

SENATE BILL 108

DESCRIPTION: Prohibits public officials from hiring relatives or being paid for speeches given in connection with official duties; prohibits former public officials from becoming lobbyists for at least one year after leaving office

STATUS: Recommitted to Senate Ethics Committee

SENATE BILL 109

DESCRIPTION: Tightens financial disclosure requirements for public officials and lobbyists. Requires vendors seeking state contracts to lobby as lobbyists

STATUS: Passed Senate

SENATE BILL 133

DESCRIPTION: Caps jury awards in medical-malpractice and product-liability lawsuits to $250,000

STATUS: Assigned to Judiciary Committee

SENATE BILL 168

DESCRIPTION: Tightens financial-disclosure requirements for public officials. Adds protection for government whistleblowers

STATUS: Assigned to Senate Ethics Committee

SENATE BILL 180

DESCRIPTION: Bans interbasin transfers of water, except in emergencies. Creates regional river basin councils to help develop a statewide water-management plan

STATUS: Assigned to Senate Natural Resources & Environment Committee

SENATE RESOLUTION 1

DESCRIPTION: Amends the Georgia Constitution, subject to a voter referendum, to allow public money to be used by religious organizations to serve the needy

STATUS: Assigned to Senate Judiciary Committee

Reach Walter C. Jones or Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.