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Democrats say GOP not dealing with key issues

With the General Assembly's Republican majority focusing on a limited agenda for the legislative session that starts on Monday, Democrats say they're missing some key issues that need addressing.

When the lawmaking wraps up around the end of March, Georgians' property rights are almost certain to be safe from abuses of the governmental power of eminent domain, illegal immigrants will be on notice not to try to shoulder U.S. citizens aside in the line for state services and sex offenders will be looking at longer prison sentences, particularly if they choose kids for victims.

While all three are legitimate concerns, acting on them also is likely to be popular with Georgia voters and, thus, help the GOP retain control of the House and Senate this fall.

Democrats say what's absent from the majority party's short list of priorities are causes that don't resonate as strongly at the polls, like cracking down on Georgia's title-loan industry or building on the ethics reforms Gov. Sonny Perdue and lawmakers achieved last year.

"Everybody is against sex offenders. Everybody wants a good eminent domain bill,'' said Rep. Mary Margaret OIiver, D-Decatur, who is sponsoring legislation in the House addressing title loans. "(But) the Georgia General Assembly is open for all kinds of ideas affecting large and small groups of people ... I have never fashioned my agenda based on poll numbers.''

Oliver's bill would prohibit title-loan companies from charging annual interest rates of more than 60 percent. Current law allows interest rates of up to 300 percent per year.

But Oliver said she's concerned that pressure from the industry will prompt the Legislature to settle for a "featherweight'' Republican-backed measure that stops at prohibiting lenders from pocketing the profits from selling repossessed cars.

Sen. Steen Miles, D-Decatur, who is sponsoring a Senate bill similar to Oliver's, agreed that the interest rate issue will be the key sticking point. But she's optimistic that something will get done this year.

"The hearings we had over the summer months had an excellent turnout from people who felt they'd been victimized,'' said Miles, whose district includes most of Rockdale County.

"We're going to move on the Senate side. Hopefully, we can convince people on the House side who are more reluctant to come over.''

As for ethics reform, Republicans appear satisfied for now with the comprehensive legislation enacted last year.

It is highlighted by a long-sought provision aimed at the "revolving door'' of Georgia politics by prohibiting state elected officials or agency heads from becoming lobbyists within one year of leaving office.

But House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, said his GOP counterparts in the House watered down the bill considerably by removing a proposed $50 cap on gifts and a provision giving the State Ethics Commission the power to investigate alleged conflicts of interest involving lawmakers.

Instead, House and Senate negotiators created a new committee of legislators to, in effect, investigate themselves.

"They didn't really get that much done,'' Porter said. "They allowed the bill to be gutted.''

But Perdue is more willing to accept the give and take that went with getting a law passed.

"I would have preferred an independent body rather than this legislative oversight,'' the governor said. "I introduced it that way, and it didn't happen. But this is a relationship up here. You've got an executive and a legislative branch.''

Where Republicans and Democrats are likely to reach a meeting of the minds during the upcoming session is education and health care.

To Democrats, they represent the "real issues'' that GOP leaders aren't paying enough attention to in their rush to curb eminent domain and illegal immigration.

While they might not be at the top of the Republicans' legislative agenda, they're too important to ignore.

Perdue set the tone late last week, declaring that education will be the big winner in his 2007 budget.

And, with more money at the state's disposal due to the improving economy, he's promising no more major cuts in health benefits for teachers and state employees or increases in insurance premiums.

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