Originally created 12/29/04

Businesses focus on Capitol



ATLANTA - In less than two weeks, state lawmakers will get down to business.

And as the legislative session starts up again, industry lobbyists and economic-development groups also will reappear at the Capitol, pushing for bills on behalf of Georgia companies.

Many of the state's largest business groups are still finalizing their legislative agendas before the session's start Jan. 10, but most are placing tort reform at the top of their list of issues to watch.

Measures to reform the state's civil justice system, designed to address rising malpractice-insurance rates and health care costs, stalled during previous sessions under a politically divided Legislature. But with both houses now controlled by Republicans, the reform bills are expected to have a better chance.

Opposing groups, who argue that the changes will benefit businesses and hospitals at the expense of patients, will be sending in their own lobbyists to counter the appeals of the corporate sector.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce plans to support the reforms and call for provisions such as mandatory, nonbinding arbitration in medical cases and restricting what cases qualify for class action status, according to the group's draft legislative agenda.

State chamber officials will meet to approve the slate of issues as soon as the session starts.

The chamber also is pushing for a guarantee that fees collected from tire sales and hazardous-waste violations be used for the cleanup of waste sites because the state has been dipping into the fund for other purposes, according to the draft.

In the area of workman's compensation insurance, the chamber is supporting the continuance of a 7.5 percent premium discount for workplaces that are certified as drug free.

The initial legislation allowing the discount is set to expire soon.

State economic development officials say they are working closely with Gov. Sonny Perdue on his legislation package.

"Two years ago, we really weren't involved in policy," said Chris Clark, the deputy commissioner for public affairs and policy for the Georgia Department of Economic Development. "We have tried to be more proactive in bringing up issues to the governor."

Though Mr. Perdue has not laid out his full economic development agenda, he has outlined a few proposals he intends to bring up.

Part of his package will include improving job-creation tax credits for existing industries and easing future regulatory burdens for small business owners.

That kind of regulatory reform bill is a top issue for the 13,000 Georgia members of the National Federation of Independent Business, said the group's state director, Melody Harrison.

She said it costs a small-business owner about $7,000 per employee a year to keep up with government regulations.

She also said small-business members will welcome a shift of attention toward existing companies since most tax credit discussions have been for attracting employers new to the state.

"Small business creates more jobs in Georgia than are actually created or brought in by outside businesses," she said.

There also will be dozens of lobbyists hired to push their individual companies or industry's needs.

For example, the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores would like to see a study committee formed to look at how to stem the flow of cigars and smokeless tobacco from states where the products are not taxed, as they are in Georgia.

But Jim Tudor, the president of the association, said most business groups are going to watch the same general issues such as tort reform while trying to feel out the large number of new lawmakers now in power.

"It's a matter of knowing whether to bring it up this year," he said. "Each one of these sessions is different."

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (404) 589-8424 or vicky.eckenrode@morris.com.