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Georgia GOP casting wide net for legislative proposals

If it's good enough for Oregon or Colorado, it's good enough for Georgia. That seems to be the reasoning of Republicans in the General Assembly who increasingly are looking to other states for ideas.

Last month, a radio talk show host and think-tank president from Denver testified to a House study committee about the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights approved by Colorado voters in 1992.

Two weeks ago, a property-rights advocate from Oregon described to a Senate panel a new law that allows property owners there to collect compensation when their land loses value because of government-imposed environmental or zoning restrictions.

Casting such a broad net is an approach that arrived with the advent of Republican control of the legislature, starting with the Senate in 2003 and spreading to the House this year.

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson traces the willingness of GOP lawmakers to reach outside of Georgia to their isolation from this state's political power centers during decades of Democratic rule.

"When we were in the minority, we were used to communicating with like-minded individuals in other states," said Johnson, R-Savannah. "We are more used to ... looking for good ideas wherever they occur."

The greater ease of communication today undoubtedly also has contributed to the trend.

At the national level, The Heritage Foundation maintains a Web site providing a constant source of conservative public policy proposals on a range of issues.

The American Legislative Exchange Council serves the same function at the state level, offering conservative approaches to issues affecting state governments.

But Senate Democratic leader Robert Brown, D-Macon, said Republicans need to be cautious when looking to transplant legislative proposals from other states to Georgia.

"Certainly, you want to be open to new ideas," he said. "But that doesn't mean every good idea somewhere else is a good idea here."

Brown said when Democrats were in charge at the Capitol, they tended to rely upon their "institutional memory" when deciding which policies to pursue.

Democratic leaders had plenty of that to call upon, particularly in the House. The triumvirate of Speaker Tom Murphy, D-Bremen; Majority Leader Larry Walker, D-Perry; and Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, ruled the roost for decades.

"We had far less carpetbagging," said Brown. "It's not that we felt we had the absolute truth. We just felt it was better to fit things within the mores and structure that Georgia had evolved."

Johnson agreed that it wouldn't be wise for Georgia to charge into new policies just because other states are pursuing them. But he said Georgia decision-makers can learn from other states' experiences.

As examples, he cited the General Assembly's passage this year of a tort reform bill containing restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuits and Gov. Sonny Perdue's decision to try to rein in the rising costs of Medicaid by enrolling recipients in managed care.

"As we go into more managed care for Medicaid, we'll be looking up at Tennessee's TennCare as a way not to do it," said Johnson. "With tort reform, we were able to watch Texas and Florida and see where they got bogged down and made mistakes."

But it's worth noting that both out-of-state proposals taken up recently by legislative study committees came from the West, where voters enjoy a power foreign to their Georgia counterparts. In many western states, proposed legislation can be put directly on the ballot, bypassing lawmakers.

The practice of "initiative and referendum" goes back to California in the late 1970s, when voters passed a steep property tax cut known as Proposition 13, which spawned a nationwide tax revolt.

During the Senate committee hearing on property rights, a planner for the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District said that Oregon might not be the best example to follow because it makes zoning decisions at the state level. But Pat Stevens might just as easily have been issuing a general warning about the dangers of emulating Western states.

"Be careful when you look at things on the West Coast," she said. "They tend to do things in the extreme."