Originally created 02/05/06

Officials will pause for funeral, general's return



ATLANTA - The funeral of an internationally recognized figure and a speech by a general returning from Iraq might accomplish what Democratic complaints and election-year pressure have been unable to do this year: Slow the General Assembly down.

After a busy first month, many of the high-profile bills of the session have made it through at least one chamber, from the Senate's approval of eminent domain restrictions and Gov. Sonny Perdue's plan requiring schools to use 65 percent of their funds on the classroom to the House's adoption of mid-year budget revisions and tougher laws on sexual offenders.

Tweaks to the state's controversial voter ID law and Mr. Perdue's plan to suspend half the tax on home heating fuels have already gotten the governor's signature; a proposal to redraw Athens-area Senate districts sits on his desk.

But with the funeral of Coretta Scott King on Tuesday - which will prompt a day off for legislators - and remarks from Gen. William Webster, the leader of the 3rd Infantry Division, on Wednesday, and another day off Friday, there will be little time this week for getting to what remains.

"There's a little bit of uncertainty as to what we'll take up," said House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram.

But there's always time for lawmakers to try to get a special project in the budget for the coming spending year, which begins July 1. So despite the day off, many lawmakers almost certainly have Friday circled on their calendars.

That's when a special panel of budget-writers will begin hearings on which local projects - critics call them "pork" - will make it into the blueprint.

Legislative leaders say the hearings will add transparency to a process that almost derailed budget negotiations last year. House appropriators wrote $3.5 million in local-assistance grants into the budget; the Senate balked.

Most of the projects were eventually approved.

"We're going to try to approve as many as possible," Mr. Richardson said.

Much of the action in the Senate will likely take place behind the scenes.

Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said he expects two of the session's highest-profile issues to come to the chamber's committees in the form of new, refocused bills.

"I anticipate that we will see the new consolidated immigration-reform bill, and I anticipate we'll see the eminent domain legislation next week also," he said. "Until now, there's been multiple bills and multiple discussions."

Proposals for revamping the state's laws on eminent domain use have included everything from narrowly defining when governments can use the tool to seize private property to creating a "bill of rights" for owners facing condemnation.

Similarly, ideas to address the state's policy on illegal immigrants run the gamut from a constitutional amendment blocking their access to all state-funded services to penalizing employers who knowingly use illegal immigrant labor.

The Senate might not rush to schedule another vote on Mr. Perdue's proposal for a constitutional amendment designating lottery proceeds for HOPE scholarships and preschool programs.

Enough Democrats, upset that the bill did not include more protections for HOPE funding in the future, were able to block the legislation last week.

But the Senate on Friday agreed to leave the bill open for another vote.

Reach Brandon Larrabee and Vicky Eckenrode at (404) 681-1701.