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'06 session gets down to business

camie.young@gwinnettdailypost.com

ATLANTA - Republicans in control of the General Assembly wasted little time Monday in moving ahead with key portions of their agenda for this year's legislative session.

On opening day, a time normally reserved more for speeches than action, a House committee approved revamped legislation requiring Georgians to show a photo ID at the polls.

And a second House panel passed GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue's bill to temporarily cut in half the state sales tax on natural gas and liquid propane, a measure aimed at keeping the lid on heating bills this winter.

"We are going to get to work and tackle those issues that are important to voters early in the session,'' said House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island.

Not to be outdone, Democrats countered with several initiatives of their own. Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor - a Democrat running for governor this year - unveiled a plan to offer health insurance to all Georgia children.

And House Democrats unveiled an agenda dominated by education, health care, open government and economic development.

"These are the issues that are really important to the people of Georgia,'' said House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin.

In the Senate, President Pro Tem Eric Johnson asked legislators to consider the "tattoo test" when deciding which bills to move forward.

"We don't always want to do something because of a fad,'' said Johnson, R-Savannah. "We want to think about what it will look like 30 years from now.''

Johnson said the 2006 session will focus on education and jobs.

The session began on a positive note in the Senate, with Johnson leading a standing ovation for Taylor.

"No one would question he hasn't been a fighter for the people," Johnson said of the lieutenant governor, who presided over his eighth and final opening day Monday.

The tone in the House was more partisan, as Democrats and Republicans took opening shots in what is expected to be an election-year war of words.

Rep. Bob Holmes, D-Atlanta, charged House Republican leaders with stifling the voices of Democrats last year, the GOP's first in control of the lower chamber, and urged the GOP not to repeat that approach this year.

"We need to respect the right of (political) minorities,'' he said. "In order for us to represent our constituencies, we need the right to speak.''

After Monday's floor session, Keen noted that Holmes' comments were made on the House floor.

"If you have access to the well of the House, how can you say you don't have an ability to speak?'' Keen said.

Much of Monday's hourlong session in the House was taken up with first readings of bills being introduced for consideration this year, the second in the 2005-06 legislative term. Bills aren't voted on until after they are read for a third time.

Besides Perdue's natural gas relief bill, the new legislation also included a bill on his agenda requiring local school systems to dedicate at least 65 percent of their funds to classroom expenses.

Another House measure being pushed by lawmakers representing southwest Georgia and the state's northwestern counties would require that the state Board of Community Health include at least one teacher.

Teachers and state employees from those regions raised an outcry last fall after the state, in a cost-cutting move, entered into a contract with United Health Care to serve members of the State Health Benefit Plan.

Many hospitals and doctors in those areas were not part of United Health Care's network and were reluctant to sign on with the company.

Taylor's plan to make health insurance for children more affordable also stems from a problem that plagues state employees.

The proposed "PeachKids" initiative is similar to the current PeachCare program, which funds health care for 200,000 children in low-income families.

Taylor said PeachKids would apply to families who make more than the $40,000 salary cap for PeachCare.

The current program does not have an income cap but bases premium costs on income level.