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Republicans push limited '06 agenda

ATLANTA - The General Assembly's first Republican majority since Reconstruction pulled some symbolic one-upsmanship on the Democrats last year when the Legislature adjourned on Day 39, one day ahead of tradition.

GOP leaders could do it again during the 2006 session, which starts Monday. The limited agenda they are pushing includes issues expected to attract bipartisan support from lawmakers this winter, votes in November, or both.

"The new Republican majority is going to want to show that they're more efficient than the Democrats," said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. "They get in, get it done and go home."

If nothing else is accomplished between now and the end of March, Republicans in control of the House and Senate are promising action on:

•Eminent domain - Following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last June in a Connecticut case, state legislators around the nation are vowing to pass laws safeguarding private property rights.

•Sex offenders - Several highly publicized murders of children in other states allegedly by convicted sex criminals are behind proposals to lengthen prison sentences for those who prey upon children and toughen monitoring requirements for sex offenders after they are paroled.

•Illegal immigration - Although controlling the flow of illegals into the U.S. is primarily a federal issue, Georgia Republicans are pushing legislation to deny taxpayer-funded services to people who are here illegally.

•Voter ID - Republican leaders say they plan to "fix" legislation the General Assembly passed last year requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls. Last fall, a federal court issued a temporary injunction preventing enforcement of the law as currently written.

Ambitious proposals

Several months ago, legislative Republicans were gearing up for a more aggressive 2006 as a follow-up to last year's busy session.

They had study committees examining a host of ambitious proposals, including an overhaul of the way public schools are financed in Georgia and an effort to limit annual increases in government spending to the rate of inflation plus population growth.

But the idea of replacing school property taxes with a higher state sales tax ran into opposition during a series of public hearings around the state.

The spending cap, also known as the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, lost momentum in November when voters in Colorado, the state that has pioneered the concept, passed a referendum temporarily lifting the spending limits in effect there.

"We put out some ideas that were kind of controversial," said House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram. "Now, we're going to heed what we heard."

The eminent domain issue surfaced during last year's session when Senate Republicans introduced legislation allowing local governments to enter into public-private partnerships with building contractors as a way to speed up public building projects.

But the bill was abandoned after newspaper columnists and editorial writers raised fears that it could be used to make it easier for cities and counties to condemn private property for public use.

Following the Supreme Court decision allowing the city of New London, Conn., to condemn houses in an old neighborhood to make way for new development, Georgia Republicans have gotten behind legislation to prohibit the use of eminent domain merely to improve a municipality's tax base.

House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, accused GOP leaders of pushing the issue now to cover up what they tried to do last year.

"These people intended to take property rights away," he said. "What they're doing now is a smokescreen."

Inverse condemnation

Some Republicans also are targeting inverse condemnation, an action by the government that doesn't take a property owner's land but causes it to lose value.

A Senate study committee has been working on legislation that would force local governments to compensate property owners when environmental or zoning restrictions limit the use of their land.

But advocates for cities and counties have objected that such a law would cripple their ability to regulate land use.

"Eminent domain is easier to get your arms around," said Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus. "(With inverse condemnation), you know it when you see it. But how do you correct it without affecting other things?"

While protesting Republicans' motives, Democrats are likely to support tightening Georgia's eminent domain law because it's politically popular.

The same holds true for cracking down on sex offenders.

House Republican leaders served notice last spring that going after sex criminals who target children would be a top priority this year. That was shortly after a convicted sex offender was arrested in Augusta and charged with kidnapping and murdering a 9-year-old Florida girl.

A House committee has been working on comprehensive legislation for several months, and Senate Republicans weighed in late last month with several bills.

The longer sentences contemplated in both the House and Senate measures undoubtedly will drive up the state's prison budget.

But Gov. Sonny Perdue said he's not worried about the cost.

"If we get it right in being able to identify and adjudicate true sexual predators who prey upon young people, I'm prepared to spend whatever it takes to keep them locked up," he said.

Dividing issues

There's much less unity in how to approach illegal immigration and the photo-ID requirement for Georgia voters.

While Republicans are driving the push for the Legislature to address illegal immigration, even GOP leaders concede it's mainly a federal issue.

"You can't pass a (state) law saying (illegal immigrants) can't go to public school or use emergency rooms because the federal government says they can," Balfour said.

However, Balfour said he expects lawmakers to pass a bill prohibiting illegal immigrants from receiving in-state tuition benefits at Georgia's public colleges and universities.

Other Republicans are crafting legislation to prohibit the state from hiring contractors that employ illegal immigrants.

Democrats have countered by prefiling legislation giving the state University System Board of Regents the ultimate say over admission and residency requirements and asking Congress to take the lead on dealing with illegal immigration.

Photo ID back

The photo ID issue wasn't expected to come up again until U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy issued a ruling in October prohibiting the state from enforcing the law adopted by the General Assembly last year. Murphy compared the requirement that Georgians obtain a photo ID before being allowed to vote to an illegal poll tax.

Richardson said legislation will be drafted this year scrapping the fee the state was to collect for providing photo IDs to voters who don't already have a driver's license or passport.

"We're going to fix voter ID," he said. "You are going to need a photo identification to vote in Georgia."

Throughout last year's debate on the bill, Republicans said their purpose in reducing the acceptable forms of ID at the polls from 17 to six was to prevent voter fraud.

But Democratic leaders accused the GOP of targeting voters least likely to possess a photo ID - the poor, elderly and minorities - because those groups tend to support Democratic candidates.

"This was designed to keep certain segments of society from voting," Porter said.

But, as with every other priority issue, Republicans have the votes to change the photo ID as they see fit.

With solid majorities in both chambers, GOP leaders expect to pass their bills and head for home by the end of March.

"The quicker a citizen legislature can return to their families and jobs, the easier it is to serve up here," said Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah.

Plus, there's campaigning to do.

Qualifying week for statewide and legislative candidates will be held April 24-28.