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Legislature had most productive session in years

In the 13 years that I have been in the Senate, this has been the most productive session we have ever had. The 2005 legislative session wrapped up March 31, one day early, with the General Assembly successfully passing an aggressive agenda that will benefit all Georgians.

Stronger economy

After a three-year battle over civil justice reform, Georgia lawmakers passed a comprehensive tort reform bill that will end frivolous lawsuits against doctors and hospitals, reduce health care costs, increase access to health care for women and improve emergency room care. The bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue, will also prevent unfair class action lawsuits that raise costs for consumers and benefit a handful of trial lawyers.

To help grow Georgia's economy and create jobs, the Legislature passed a bill that changes the way Georgia companies are taxed. Over 10 years, it is a $1 billion tax cut. The law also closes a corporate tax loophole that previously allowed Georgia-based companies to avoid paying income taxes by incorporating in Delaware.

The state budget process was reformed to create "program-based" budgeting, which will give the Legislature more control over bureaucracy, including how federal dollars are used in Georgia. This will boost accountability, efficiency and customer service.

Georgia's budget will provide $430 million in property tax relief.

Under Gov. Perdue's Commission for a New Georgia, private sector management techniques are being applied to the operation of state government. These reforms, which are expected to save $200 million by 2009, include consolidating purchasing, reforming real estate and fleet management, and creating the State Accounting Office.

Tourism, which is Georgia's second-largest industry sector, will benefit from legislation that streamlines and consolidates resources. Working with the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the New Georgia Tourism Foundation will help coordinate marketing efforts of Georgia's tourism-focused entities and develop public-private joint advertising campaigns to maximize cost effectiveness, as well as solicit private donations and in-kind gifts to promote tourism.

Better schools

Students all across Georgia will now benefit by having access to college prep and advanced learning classes via the Internet with the creation of the Georgia Virtual High School.

In addition, teachers who consistently improve test scores among students will now be publicly recognized by the newly created Master Teacher designation, which will offer a 10 percent pay raise to teachers who agree to mentor younger teachers or work in underachieving schools.

A bill was also passed which will create a new four-year college in Gwinnett County. This is the first new four-year college established in Georgia in over 30 years.

Children and families served

The Woman's Right to Know Act provides that women seeking an abortion receive information about the risks involved with the procedure (which is required in any other surgical procedure), the age and development of the unborn child and alternatives to abortion, as well as providing a 24-hour waiting period before having the abortion. The bill also requires parental consent for minors seeking an abortion.

Another law waives the cost for obtaining marriage licenses for couples who get premarital counseling.

And a new law will require the courts in Georgia to consider the income of both parents when calculating child support payments. The current child support guidelines do not take into consideration the income of the custodial parent.

Consumers protected

Personal and financial information will be protected by a new law which requires companies that collect data to notify Georgians when their information is either leaked or stolen. The law, which was prompted after news that Georgia-based ChoicePoint had mistakenly sold the confidential data of 145,000 people, also requires companies to notify credit reporting agencies so they will know to watch out for identity theft.

To further protect Georgians from identity theft, another bill was passed to stop the use of digital fingerprints on Georgia driver's licenses and to require the government to destroy all of its driver's license fingerprint records to protect Georgians from identity theft.

Another consumer-protection bill will better protect Georgia consumers by updating current Georgia law against illegal multi-level marketing schemes.

The General Assembly has also passed a bill to ban the publication or release of personal cell phone numbers to prevent telemarketing or text message spam.

In an attempt to reduce spam, it is now a felony to send more than 10,000 spam e-mails in any 24-hour period, or more than 100,000 in any 30-day period.

By breaking up the Department of Motor Vehicle Safety bureaucracy, a single agency has been created which will be solely responsible for issuing driver's licenses. Licenses will be renewed every five or 10 years (rather than four), and more examiners will be hired in an effort to reduce long lines.

A cleaner Georgia

Georgia will now have a statewide ban on smoking in public places, including restaurants and bars that employ or admit children under 18.

The Land Conservation Act will create a $100 million fund to buy threatened greenspace, protect historic sites, buy land for parks and provide incentives for private landowners to keep their land undeveloped.

Additional funds for traffic relief, as well as nearly $400 million for road projects, are also provided under new legislation passed this session.

A stronger democracy

A new, fair congressional district plan was passed which establishes compact districts that will protect communities of interest and will split fewer than half the number of counties and precincts in the present gerrymandered map.

Georgia's election laws were also reformed to make voting easier, more fair and secure. The bill reduces the number of acceptable forms of identification which may be used to vote from 17, which included utility bills and bank statements, to six forms of government-issued photo ID. In addition, the bill loosens restrictions on absentee voting by allowing no-excuse absentee ballots to be cast by mail during a 45-day period. In addition, winners must win a majority of votes cast, instead of 45 percent.

At Gov. Perdue's urging, the Legislature passed the most comprehensive ethics reform package in the State's history. The ethics bill requires stricter financial disclosure by candidates as well as elected officials and puts an end to the revolving door from politicians to lobbyists. Imposing heavier fines for violators and protecting whistle-blowers from retaliation, the ethics bill also creates a new Ethics Oversight Committee to address allegations of conflicts of interest.

The General Assembly also held its first Family Day on a rare Saturday session in March. Families were invited to watch their state government at work, and thousands attended. This day was used to repeal outdated laws, including the repeal of the segregationist "Jim Crow" laws.

Helping to make our homeland safer

New laws helping Georgia Guard and Reserve members serving in harm's way will:

Allow taxpayers to donate a portion or all of their refunds to help families of deployed soldiers.

Extend deadlines for leases, licenses and contracts until service members return from duty.

Provide a tax deduction for life insurance premiums.

Give scholarships for soldiers who serve in a combat zone and their children.

Allow spouses of reassigned soldiers to draw unemployment insurance.

To combat the problem of meth labs in neighborhoods across the state, a new law requires retailers to place products with pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in the manufacture of methamphetamine, behind the counter.

A new law requires juvenile offenders or their parents to make full restitution to victims.

State prosecutors will finally be on a level playing field with criminal defendants when picking juries, by being given "equal strikes" of potential jurors. Under current law, criminal defendants are able to strike, or remove, twice as many potential jurors as the prosecution. The bill also extends the state's "rape shield" law, which currently shields only the names of rape victims from the public, to include victims of other sexually violent offenses, such as aggravated sodomy and aggravated child molestation.

Sen. Don Balfour represents the 9th District of Georgia, which includes Parkview, Brookwood, South Gwinnett, Grayson and Central Gwinnett high school districts. Balfour has been in the Senate for 13 years and is the senior-most Republican in the Senate. He chairs the Senate Rules Committee and is chairman of the Senate Majority Caucus.