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General Assembly keeps quick pace

Legislative Republican leaders weren't kidding when they promised to focus on just a few key issues during the 2006 General Assembly session but go full bore on those.

As the halfway point of the 40-day session came and went Thursday, lawmakers already had enacted legislation requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls. They also were moving ahead with bills protecting private property rights and targeting illegal immigrants and sex offenders.

"The pace is matching last year's in efficiency," said Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, referring to the frenetic 2005 session, the first since the 19th century with Republicans in full control.

But Democrats say the session thus far has been less than meets the eye.

The minority party in an election year is on board with the GOP push to limit eminent domain and crack down on sex criminals. But beyond that, Democratic leaders say their Republican counterparts aren't addressing substantive issues in their rush to score political points with voters.

"It's been long on politics and short on policy," said Sen. Tim Golden, D-Valdosta, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, said the most blatant politics in what has been a political session thus far was early passage of the voter ID bill and a revisiting of legislative redistricting.

In response to a federal court ruling in October shelving last year's voter ID law, Republicans pushed through a new bill making it easier for voters who don't already have a government-issued photo ID - such as a driver's license or passport - to get one. For two years now, GOP leaders have pitched it as an anti-voter fraud measure.

Democrats protested that Republicans simply were determined to pass legal muster with a law that would make it harder for poor, elderly and minority Georgians to vote, all groups that tend to support Democratic candidates.

Then, GOP lawmakers passed a measure splitting Athens-Clarke County into two Senate districts, a move likely to hurt Democratic Rep. Jane Kidd's chances to win a vacant Senate seat.

"I think we spent most of the first part of the session figuring out how to rig elections," Porter said.

The eminent domain debate has been less partisan, the two parties vying for credit in seeking to protect Georgia property owners following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld a Connecticut city's right to enhance its tax base by condemning old homes to make way for new development.

Gov. Sonny Perdue has taken charge of the issue with a comprehensive bill now making its way through the House.

Republicans clearly are driving a crackdown on sex criminals who victimize children. The House has passed a bill that lengthens prison sentences for convicted sex offenders and tightens monitoring requirements when they get out of jail.

In an election year, Democrats aren't about to get in the way.

"I don't know of anybody who's going to try to oppose protecting the children of Georgia," Golden said.

Golden said Democrats are working on legislation related to illegal immigration, an issue also being dominated by the GOP.

Many Democrats say getting tough with illegals should be up to Congress.

"What we're going to do is create a hodgepodge of bills around the country when the federal government should be addressing this," said Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

But legislative Republicans are impatient with Congress, which has long been accused of dragging its feet on illegal immigration.

House Republicans already have passed one bill, slapping a 5 percent fee on cash illegals wire out of the country. The Senate is expected to begin considering a more comprehensive bill this week.

"If Washington doesn't deal with it, Georgia will," Johnson said.

For the most part, Republicans have used their superior numbers to get their way.

However, constitutional amendments remain problematic because they require a two-thirds majority of each legislative chamber. Senate Democrats, saying they have a better plan, have used that extra hurdle to block Perdue's proposal to prohibit spending Georgia Lottery money on anything but HOPE Scholarships and prekindergarten.

Democratic senators also convinced their GOP counterparts last week to put $3.6 million in the midyear budget to keep parents of children with severe disabilities from being thrown off the Medicaid rolls, a smart move in an election year.

Sen. Steve Thompson, D-Powder Springs, praised that rare moment of bipartisanship.

"You can feel the love in this chamber," he said.

Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.