Originally created 01/31/05

Controversial bills head toward debate



ATLANTA - Some of the most controversial issues of the legislation session could grab the spotlight at the General Assembly this week, with limits on medical-malpractice lawsuits expected to come before the Senate and ethics bills facing a House committee.

Bills dealing with the volatile issue of abortion also could begin to work their way through the lower chamber.

After a relatively light month in January, this week threatens to come roaring to life with high-profile issues. Lawmakers have settled into their offices and begun filing dozens of bills dealing with an array of issues.

One of the hottest conflicts of the session is expected to be the battle over limits on medical-malpractice lawsuits. After listening to nearly seven hours of testimony last week, a sharply divided Senate Judiciary Committee sent a tort reform bill to the entire chamber after two Democrats walked out of the meeting.

"I would expect it to go the floor," Senate Majority Leader Bill Stephens, R-Canton, said of the package.

The legislation would cap noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, at $250,000 for each doctor or hospital a victim sued and limit a plaintiff's total noneconomic award at $750,000. It would also tighten rules for expert witnesses, add new malpractice reporting requirements for doctors and make several changes to the rules governing civil lawsuits.

Shots over the packages were already being traded Friday, with Democrats complaining that the panel's GOP majority had locked out amendments to the bill with procedural maneuvers.

"What are they afraid of?" asked Sen. David Adelman, a Decatur Democrat who voted against the proposal in committee.

Republicans countered that Sen. Preston Smith, R-Rome, had included some of the Democrats' suggestions in a new version of the bill and said lawmakers who walked out of the meeting were irresponsible.

"The people in Georgia deserve to be represented in this body, and they deserve to be represented in the committee," said Sen. John Wiles, R-Kennesaw.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, said the full House would take up its first bill of the session today when it debates a conservation bill proposed by Gov. Sonny Perdue. Other bills will begin making their way through committee, Mr. Richardson said.

Ethics legislation will be one of the bills heard by a House panel, the speaker said. A package backed by Mr. Perdue would forbid public officials from lobbying until a year after they left government, limit gifts by lobbyists and tighten other provisions. Democrats have also sponsored ethics proposals.

"To me, it's not a burning issue for Georgians," Mr. Richardson said. "But it should be a burning issue for (lawmakers), because we've got some problems in our own ranks."

The House could also begin considering the "Women's Right to Know" legislation, a multipronged bill aimed at reducing the number of abortions in the state while improving safety for the procedure. Although Mr. Richardson said the House would be "deliberative" in handling the measure, he said he believed most lawmakers have already made up their minds about the issue.

Mr. Richardson didn't specifically address how soon the House would act on Mr. Perdue's proposed $17.4 billion spending package for the fiscal year that begins July 1, though lawmakers gave budget work as one of the reasons for taking off this Friday.

"We will pass the budget out of the House and get it to the Senate more timely than it's ever been done before," he said.

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701 or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.

KEY BILLS

Here are key bills introduced thus far during the 2005 General Assembly session:

Bill: House bill 16

Description: Exempts interstate projects from the share of highway funds that must be split evenly among Georgia's 13 congressional districts. It is expected to free up more money for metro Atlanta districts.

Status: Referred to House Transportation Committee

Bill: H.B. 48

Description: Gov. Sonny Perdue's "Honesty in Government Act" would bar public officials from entering lobbying until they have been out of office for a year, limit the gifts officials could accept from those with business before the state, protect state whistle-blowers, widen the authority of the State Ethics Commission, and make other changes to state ethics laws.

Status: Referred to House Ethics Committee

Bill: H.B. 84, 86

Description: Makes changes to the state spending plan for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30

Status: Referred to House Appropriations Committee

Bill: H.B. 85, 87

Description: Allocates a proposed $17.4 billion spending plan for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1

Status: Referred to House Appropriations Committee

Bill: H.B. 145

Description: Would bar elected officials from public service advertisements paid for with public money

Status: Referred to Noncivil Judiciary Committee

Bill: H.B. 197

Description: Tightens rules on parental notification for minors seeking an abortion and establishes a 24-hour waiting procedure for women seeking the procedure

Status: Referred to House Health and Human Services Committee

Bill: House Resolution 13

Description: Would change the name of the University of Georgia's Sanford Stadium to Dooley-Sanford Stadium in honor of former head football coach and athletic director Vince Dooley

Status: Referred to House Higher Education Committee

Bill: Senate Bill 3

Description: Limits jury awards in medical-malpractice lawsuits, tightens rules about expert witnesses and makes other changes in procedures for malpractice trials

Status: Approved by Senate Judiciary Committee

Bill: S.B. 4

Description: Exempts interstate projects from the share of highway funds that must be split evenly among Georgia's 13 congressional districts. It is expected to free up more money for metro Atlanta districts.

Status: Referred to Senate Transportation Committee

Bill: S.B. 9

Description: The "Georgia Smokefree Air Act of 2005" would ban smoking in most public places in the state.

Status: Prefiled

Bill: S.B. 35

Description: Gives public school districts more freedom to allocate funding for class-size reductions to other purposes

Status: Referred to Senate Education and Youth Committee

Bill: S.B. 77

Description: Tightens rules on parental notification for minors seeking an abortion and establishes a 24-hour waiting procedure for women seeking the procedure

Status: Referred to Senate Health and Human Services Committee

Bill: Senate Resolution 33

Description: Would create Gwinnett State College to replace the Gwinnett University Center

Status: Referred to Senate Higher Education Committee

Bill: S.R. 49

Description: A constitutional amendment that would allow state dollars to flow to religious organizations that serve the needy

Status: Referred to Senate Rules Committee

- Morris News Service