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Short agenda yields results for Legislature

ATLANTA - Republicans in control of the General Assembly entered this year's legislative session almost three months ago with tunnel vision.

In an election year, they wanted to get to the Capitol, pass a short list of priority bills and get out with plenty of time left to raise money for their re-election bids and hit the campaign trail.

While it took until the waning hours of the final day of the session, GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue and his allies in the Legislature accomplished most of their goals, both in terms of policy and timing.

Lawmakers cracked down on sex offenders with legislation supporters billed as the toughest in the country, targeted illegal immigrants and the businesses that hire them and put new restrictions on the ability of local governments to condemn private property.

They also got on board with Perdue's 2006 education agenda by requiring local school systems to spend at least 65 percent of their money in Georgia's classrooms and resuming class-size reductions that were interrupted by several years of sluggish tax revenues brought on by an economic slowdown.

"The governor, House and Senate came together on the big issues that matter,'' Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, said Friday, one day after the Legislature called it quits for 2006. "It's good to get out at the end of March.''

Dems take credit

While Democrats criticized some of the Republicans' priorities and supported others, Democratic leaders said the minority party also deserves a lot of the credit for this year's accomplishments.

Indeed, they argued that much of the progress that was made during the session was spurred by Democrats.

"A lot of our work has been raising issues to get them to move closer to middle ground,'' said Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, the House minority whip. "They have moved closer to our positions on a lot of issues.''

The session began with leftover business from last year. Over Democrats' objections, Republican leaders moved quickly in January to pass a bill requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls.

The Legislature decided to readdress the issue after a federal judge issued a temporary injunction that kept the state from enforcing the requirement during last fall's municipal elections.

The next major partisan debate erupted over illegal immigration with the introduction in early February of a bill requiring Georgians seeking many public services to prove that they either are U.S. citizens or in the country legally.

The debate broke down largely along party lines. However, Sen. Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock, the bill's sponsor, worked with Sen. Sam Zamarripa, D-Atlanta, to reduce its effects.

The final version lawmakers adopted last week exempts children from the provision dealing with public services. It also delays the effective dates of several provisions to allow businesses time to prepare for new requirements that they verify the immigration status of the workers they hire.

Support widespread

There was less division among the parties over the sex offender and eminent domain bills.

House Republican leaders made it clear starting last spring that they were determined to pass a tough bill aimed at sex offenders who victimize children, an upshot of some highly publicized crimes in other states.

After navigating through some potential legal pitfalls, they accomplished their mission with little help from Democrats.

On the other hand, the eminent domain bill was more of a group effort.

Perdue's House floor leader introduced the measure on behalf of the governor, bypassing a tougher bill being pushed by Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick.

Chapman wanted an outright ban on the use of eminent domain for anything other than public projects, such as roads, schools or water and sewer lines.

The governor's bill allows an exception for blighted properties, which lets cities and counties condemn buildings that have been allowed to deteriorate into a public health or safety hazard.

The legislation also spells out the legal rights of property owners targeted for condemnation, with provisions similar to those in a bill sponsored by Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur.

"We have worked to have a more moderate bill,'' said Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon.

In fact, Democrats said the eminent domain bill is just one example of how they contributed to this year's legislative crop.

In some cases, the minority party helped like-minded Republicans get bills passed. In other instances, Democrats took credit for killing legislation backed by GOP leaders.

Estate recovery

On the last day of the session, lawmakers in both parties joined forces to send a message to the state Department of Community Health.

They amended legislation dealing with Georgia's Medicaid program to lessen the pain of the agency's plan to start collecting reimbursement for the cost of caring for nursing-home patients from their estates after they die.

The amendment would increase the portion of an estate exempt from recovery from $25,000 to $100,000. Also, the state would not be able to go after the estates of seniors who entered nursing homes before the plan takes effect.

Also on that final day, House Republicans combined with Democrats to shoot down a bill that would have allowed property owners to build houses within the 150-foot buffer zones bordering reservoirs.

"These buffers are there for a reason,'' Rep. Brian Thomas, D-Lilburn, told his House colleagues. "It's not just a tree hugger's fantasy. ... These buffers exist solely to protect our water supply.''

In a session with most of the major bills even more back-loaded than usual into the final days, some were bound to fall victim to the time crunch.

While the stream buffer bill at least came up for a vote, several high-profile measures never reached either the House or Senate floor during that final marathon day.

The Senate didn't take up a bill passed by the House designed to ease the way for approval of a planned pipeline to move liquefied natural gas from the Georgia coast to Atlanta.

Private cities shelved

Senators also left on the table the so-called "private cities'' bill, which supporters had pitched as a way to foster growth in undeveloped areas by letting property owners band together and raise money to build roads and utility lines.

Johnson said supporters simply ran out of time to explain its potential benefits.

"It's a huge issue ... complex and new,'' he said. "A few people understood it. (But) it got too big for citizen legislators to understand it.''

Of course, that's what the nine months between legislative sessions are for. Johnson said he plans to create a study committee to keep working on the concept, one of dozens of committees that will keep lawmakers busy this summer and fall, at least while they're not out campaigning.