Originally created 02/28/05

Some things unchanged in Legislature

ATLANTA - A lot has changed in the Georgia Legislature this year with Republicans in control of both houses. Yet some old customs and practices never seem to die, no matter which party is running the show. Writing a state budget is a case in point.

When Democrats held the majority in both houses, everyone knew to expect fierce battles between the House and Senate over who was going to put what into the state budget. The posturing, saber-rattling and brinksmanship was a predictable part of any session.

No one was sure what Republicans would do when they came to power, but now a sense of deja vu surrounds the ongoing negotiations over the midyear spending bill, the first - and least difficult - appropriations bill the GOP-led Legislature must pass this session.

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," laughed Democrat and former House Speaker Terry Coleman of Eastman. "You have personalities and egos and agendas involved, no matter who's in charge."

It's been more than a week, and the six-member legislative negotiating team trying to resolve House-Senate differences over the midyear budget has been unable to reach agreement.

A major sticking point: Republican House leaders, new to power this year, stuffed $20 million in pet projects into the spending bill. Republican Senate leaders, beginning their third year in power, pulled the projects out.

The scrap may seem minor, but Rep. Mack Crawford, R-Concord, a vice chairman of the House budget committee, said the outcome could shape budget negotiations for years in the new Republican Legislature.

"The House needs to stand firm. Being the first budget between the two bodies, we don't need to set the tone by folding too soon," said Crawford, who is fighting for one of the projects the Senate wants to cut - $275,000 to design a new facility for Gordon College in his district.

The money was put into the budget last year by a Democrat. Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue prevented it from being spent through a deferral.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, has argued that the projects don't belong in a midyear budget that only affects state spending for the remaining four months of the budget year.

"For years Republicans have said the supplemental budget shouldn't be for adding projects," he told his House counterparts during a negotiating session last week. "This budget ought to be about minor changes."

House Republican Leader Jerry Keen of St. Simons Island, facing Hill across the negotiating table, hung tough, reminding Hill that even the governor put some new money into the midyear budget for his New Georgia program. "Wouldn't all the New Georgia programs be new money?"

Even so, Hill insisted later that the budget battle among Republicans is nothing like the knock-down, drag-out battles Democrats used to have.

"It's a little bit of a dance in a way in that we're learning more about our partner... Where do we hold hands? Where do we kick? So we're learning, and I don't see us as all that far apart," Hill said. "I just don't think either side's going to be able to have it all their way. We're not Burger King."

Hill believes the struggle is less about House-Senate power than it is about specific projects that some lawmakers want to see funded. Others say it's as impossible for Republicans to put aside House-Senate rivalry as it was for Democrats.

Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist whose students serve internships during legislative sessions, said the House-versus-Senate mindset is so pervasive that his students pick it up quickly.

"They get assigned randomly, but very quickly it's 'our chamber' versus 'the other chamber.' It permeates the environment. I suspect that in every bicameral legislature you have this 'us' against 'them,'" he said.

Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who has served in both chambers, said, "It's just the nature of having the two houses. The only way you'd change that is to move to Nebraska."

Nebraska is the only state in the nation whose Legislature is composed of just one chamber.


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