Originally created 01/13/04

Assembly's first day is quiet



ATLANTA - Belying the political controversies that are bound to roil the 2004 General Assembly, peace and harmony prevailed Monday as lawmakers kicked off the annual 40-day session.

But then, the most difficult issue the House and Senate tackled on Opening Day was their meeting schedule for the coming month.

Most of the day's activity took place outside the legislative chambers. News conferences in various parts of the Capitol highlighted the state flag, one of the major issues of last year's session, and the HOPE Scholarship program, expected to be a hot topic this year.

The recently formed Southern Heritage Political Action Committee released a "Deck of Shame," playing cards picturing legislators who voted last year for a flag referendum without the 1956 flag, dominated by the Confederate battle emblem.

In March, Georgia voters will decide between the flag adopted last year, modeled after the first Confederate national banner, and the flag sponsored by former Gov. Roy Barnes and approved by the General Assembly in 2001.

"A referendum on the state flag is not acceptable unless the 1956 flag is an option," said William Lathem, spokesman for the heritage group.

The heads of the House and Senate Higher Education committees previewed upcoming legislation to preserve HOPE from a financial crunch projected to hit the popular program within several years.

Under the bill, the product of a study committee that examined the issue last fall, the scholarships no longer would cover books and fees.

The measure also will call for standardizing grading systems across Georgia so the "B" average required of high school students applying for HOPE would mean the same everywhere.

The legislation is not expected to set a minimum SAT score for HOPE eligibility, an idea being pushed by Mr. Perdue. But the bill won't necessarily be the last word on saving HOPE, said Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Douglasville, the chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee and a co-chairman of the study panel.

Two issues also expected to be at the forefront this year already appear to be on the fast track.

On Monday, Mr. Perdue and Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a Democrat, shared a platform urging lawmakers to end Georgia's status as the only state in the nation without a felony law against child endangerment.

"It is a tool that we as a state need to make our children safer," Mr. Taylor said.

If Democrats and Republicans work together rather than competing for credit in an election year, the legislation likely would enjoy smooth sailing.

Another Perdue priority cleared the Senate Rules Committee on Monday when the panel approved a constitutional amendment that would allow religious groups to use state funds for social services.

The measure faces longer odds than the child-endangerment bill. House Democratic leaders, who blocked a similar proposal last year, have expressed concern that allowing tax money to go to faith-based organizations could cross the constitutional barrier separating religion and government.

In floor sessions that lasted slightly longer than an hour, the two chambers adopted a schedule aimed at wrapping up the session by the end of March. Most Wednesdays, at least until mid-February, will be set aside for committee meetings that don't count against the 40-day limit of "legislative days."