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The other big stories of 2005

I overlooked the biggest story of 2005, and so did many of my fellow chin-strokers. Perhaps we missed it because it looked like old news. We had heard it before. Besides, the news was obscured in a jumble of hard-to-read numbers.

Looking back, Georgia's soaring population has to be the top news story of the past year. It could turn out to be the most significant news of the new century.

The Census Bureau told us in late December that Georgia's population increased by more than 154,000 residents between July 2004 and July 2005. We were the fifth-fastest growing state in the nation, the census-takers said. The massive migration, reported by the feds, did not - repeat, did not - include as many as an estimated 105,000 refugees who fled to Georgia to escape the ravages of Hurricane Katrina.

A few of those folks have departed. Many others stayed to start a new life.

We also don't know precisely how many illegal aliens slipped into our state. We can only guess at their numbers.

The tale of Georgia's runaway growth is a good-news, bad-news story.

The good news:

•More people equal more consumers. New residents generate fresh business opportunities. They expand the need for additional housing and everything else from food to entertainment. Ka-ching! Ka-ching!

•According to Gov. Sonny Perdue's office, Georgia is now ranked the third-best state in the nation in which to do business. Part of the favorable commercial climate is due to an expanding labor pool.

The bad news:

•Congestion. Look around. One can witness the results of population expansion with round-the-clock traffic backups on our principal highways. Traffic headaches are growing. Real solutions are years away.

•Schools, hospitals and law enforcement agencies also struggle, often in vain, to keep pace with growth. Some local infrastructures are strained to the breaking point.

Population growth is just one sleeper headline that we will encounter again on the road ahead. Here is a sampling of other problems and persons likely to become more prominent in the months ahead.

•Illegal immigration: To be sure, the tale of undocumented aliens is a subtext of the bigger population growth story. In the year ahead, "the Mexican problem," as it is called in some quarters, will fester into a wedge political issue. Dealing with it is already on nearly every politician's agenda. The question is, how? The Legislature will consider bills to deny illegal aliens access to local government services and institutions, including colleges. Many Georgia industries, dependent on Latino labor, are already fearful that a one-upmanship contest is developing among state lawmakers over who can be toughest on illegals. Don't bother arguing that immigration is a federal issue. The state guys have found a hot-button topic, and they are determined to press it.

•Glenn Richardson: He may be Glenn Who? to most Georgians now, but he is on the way to becoming one of the state's most important political figures. The Georgia House speaker plainly has his eye on the governor's office in some distant election.

He already has equaled former Speaker Tom Murphy as the state's most powerful legislative leader in modern times. Richardson has released a list of his legislative priorities that demonstrate his antennae are tuned to voters statewide.

He advocates tougher punishment for sexual predators, greater protection from eminent domain and changes in the state's anger-generating voter ID law.

Richardson will be a major player (and campaign funds solicitor) in the upcoming legislative elections, which are likely to result in expanded GOP majorities in both houses. P.S.: Richardson is backing away from controversial plans to develop beach property on St. Simons - another sign he has ambitions beyond his present post.

•Tax overhaul: State Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson recently promised to fund $400 million in property tax relief. "Then we start on the first year of a three-year phaseout of the state income tax on unearned income for Georgians over 65," he added. "Then we begin the debate on what other taxes can be cut."

Meanwhile, the courts are set to force the Legislature to enact more equitable funding for schools statewide. Such action is likely to result in a state sales-tax increase.

This election-year session of the Legislature probably will skate around the tax issue if possible. However, drastic changes in Georgia's antiquated tax code are just over the next horizon.

Those are a few pinpoints of lights to watch as the New Year unfolds and the General Assembly starts a hurry-up session that is likely to produce more heat than light in this historic election year.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.