Originally created 05/03/04

Hopes are for speedy session



ATLANTA - The gavels that bring today's special session to order in the House and Senate might still be vibrating from the opening when it's time to adjourn for the day.

That's because all lawmakers have to do is pass one bill.

Though they would rather be making a living or campaigning, the 236 members of the General Assembly have been called back to the Capitol by Gov. Sonny Perdue, who acknowledges that he could have balanced the books without them.

They are coming from throughout the state to finish consideration on House Bill 869, which got hung up in the last hours of the 40-day regular session that ended April 8. It sets up the mechanism to raise an estimated $57 million from new court-filing fees.

It's critical because the budget already passed for the next fiscal year includes approval to spend that $57 million on lawyers to defend poor people accused of crimes. Without the fee income, the budget doesn't balance.

"Technically, I could have done all that is necessary by cutting funds elsewhere to make up for the $57 million that the Legislature chose not to fund," Mr. Perdue said, "but I didn't think that was the right thing to do."

Legislative staffers estimate a special session costs taxpayers $45,000 per day. Mr. Perdue hopes to finish this one in five days, the legal minimum to pass one bill. That would bring the total to $225,000.

But Mr. Perdue's aides say the fiscal restraints he negotiated last week could easily save taxpayers $1 million in the first year.

Mr. Perdue asked legislators to hold up the bill during the regular session because it didn't include the restraints he wanted. On Thursday, he announced an agreement with House Speaker Terry Coleman and Chief Justice Norman Fletcher to add the restraints to the bill for passage this week.

"We think we've got a pretty good proposal," Mr. Coleman said.

The new court fees are intended to go to a new state agency providing indigent defense called the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council. As an agency of the judicial branch, the council's budget would ordinarily be off limits to the governor and legislative branches, who would have to pass it without changes.

Mr. Perdue's deal would allow the council to budget spending 100 percent of the fees collected. Any money needed beyond that would be subject to legislative and gubernatorial review, just like those of any other agency.

Because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that taxpayers must foot the lawyer bill for defendants who can't, it still might be hard to argue against council budget requests.

Mr. Perdue says his stance on the council's budget authority, the reason for the special session, isn't a power grab on his part. But he did say, "I hope that our General Assembly will take that as a lesson to move things along in a more orderly way and in the next session to move the important things along."

The pace of the special session is slowed by a requirement that a bill be read three times in each chamber before it can pass. Though no one actually reads the bill aloud, clerks in each chamber do read the title of the bill to satisfy the rule.

A lot has changed in the few weeks since the Legislature last met. Five Democrats have switched parties. Some veteran Democratic leaders announced their retirement, and everyone else qualified to run a new campaign for re-election or for higher office. The last place any of them want to be is together at the Capitol.

"It should be short and sweet," said Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta. "We'll be there for the necessary readings and votes, and then go home."

Gov. Sonny Perdue says he could have balanced the budget without the session.