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Range of bills face extinction

ATLANTA - Majority Republicans in the General Assembly are delivering on promises to crack down on illegal immigration in Georgia, protect private property rights and lengthen prison sentences for sex offenders.

But bills addressing a host of other issues are about to fall by the wayside for 2006, victims of "Crossover Day'' in the Legislature.

Under an informal agreement between the House and Senate, any bill that hasn't passed either chamber by the crossover deadline is finished for the year unless its sponsor can find a creative way to attach it to other legislation.

If lawmakers don't act by Day 30 of the 40-day session - tentatively set for one week from Monday - nothing will get done on measures to:

•Create a health insurance program for Georgia children not covered by Medicaid or PeachCare.

•Ban most lobbyist gift-giving to public officials

•Re-regulate Georgia's natural gas industry

•Prohibit state spending of lottery funds on anything but HOPE scholarships and prekindergarten

•Allow religious groups to receive state funds for human services programs

•Let the top high school students from each school district attend the Georgia public university of their choice

•Put new restrictions on the ability of cities to annex unincorporated land

•Give the Legislature greater oversight of the insurance plan covering teachers and state employees.

Doomed from the start

Realistically, the Peach-Kids initiative, gift ban and natural gas bills were political non-starters in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. All three were introduced by Democrats, and PeachKids is the signature 2006 priority of Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue this fall.

PeachKids would provide health coverage to about 100,000 uninsured Georgia children whose parents earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid or PeachCare. Parents would pay premiums and copayments on a sliding scale based on income.

"We're just trying to help the people who are falling through the cracks,'' Taylor said.

The legislation landed on the agenda of a Senate committee one day last week, but the meeting was canceled. Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, complained that Democrats didn't include a fiscal note with the bill outlining what it would cost.

Taylor put the measure's price tag at about $50 million to $100 million a year when he introduced it in January.

"It's sad to me that a good, sound proposal is not even heard in committee,'' Taylor said. "One hundred thousand Georgia kids deserve a hearing.''

The gift ban would build on an ethics-in-government reform law the General Assembly passed last year as part of Perdue's 2005 legislative agenda. It would prohibit lobbyists from giving public officials tickets to sporting and entertainment events or for travel or lodging. It would allow meals but limit them to $50.

In not picking up the bill, Republicans said they would rather wait to get a feel for the effects of last year's law.

GOP leaders also have shown no interest in dealing with rising gas prices by re-regulating natural gas.

On the House floor last month, Democrats argued that they were sold a bill of goods in the late 1990s when the Legislature - then under Democratic control - voted to deregulate the industry because increased competition would reduce prices.

"We found that just the opposite happened,'' said Rep. Georganna Sinkfield, D-Atlanta.

But House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, said today's high prices can't be blamed on a deregulated marketplace.

"States around us that are regulated are paying higher natural gas rates than we are now,'' he said.

Democrats' turn

While Republicans are using their superior numbers to block Democrats' priorities, the Legislature's Democratic minority is holding up two constitutional amendments proposed by Perdue. Changing the state Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in each legislative chamber, a bar the GOP can't reach.

Democrats say the governor's "HOPE Chest'' amendment protecting the HOPE Scholarships program is unnecessary because lottery revenues are growing again after a sluggish period.

House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, said limiting the spending of lottery money to HOPE and Georgia's prekindergarten program would leave out other education-related uses lawmakers have found for those funds, including computers for classrooms and distance-learning programs.

"It restricts some of the good things we've done with HOPE,'' he said.

Democrats already have blocked the amendment in the Senate, and Keen acknowledged the minority party has the votes to stop it in the House. But he said House leaders may put it on the floor anyway and make Democrats go on record against protecting HOPE.

For the second year in a row, Democrats also appear to have enough votes to deny Perdue's "faith-based'' initiative the two-thirds vote it needs to go before Georgia voters as a constitutional amendment.

Again, the issue is private school vouchers. Republicans assert that nothing in the proposal would allow state funds to go toward school vouchers.

Democrats say they won't vote for the measure without a provision specifically stating that it could not be used to legalize state-funded vouchers.

Time crunch

Other measures about to make the dead bills list are less overtly partisan but simply have run out of time in the crunch that marks each legislative session.

Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said a Senate Democratic bill called "Georgia Promise'' has potential.

However, officials with the university system are worried about the potential impacts of allowing Georgia high school seniors who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class to attend the state college they choose. The legislation is modeled after a successful program in Texas.

"When you get into the session, you don't have time to figure anything out,'' Harp said. "We're going do a study committee (this summer) ... so we can get some good hard data from Texas and bring it back next year.''

Rep. Doug Holt, R-Covington, also ran out of time trying to get legislation giving counties some say over annexations through a House committee. Current law allows cities to annex unincorporated land without the affected county's permission.

Holt introduced a bill giving counties veto power over annexations. After the Georgia Municipal Association objected, he returned with an offer giving counties 30 days to object to an annexation proposal and take it to binding arbitration.

But he said the effort was undercut when the committee pulled back a threat to declare a moratorium on annexations until cities and counties could get together on the issue.

"I tried to offer something that was truly an even playing field for the cities.'' Holt said. "(But) by the time we got to the table, (cities) knew the moratorium wasn't going to be passed.''

Two bills emerged out of a flurry of legislation introduced early in the session addressing the State Health Benefit Plan.

A Senate bill introduced by Sen. Michael Meyer von Bremen, D-Albany, actually passed a committee. It calls for forming an advisory committee to look for ways to improve health coverage for teachers and state employees.

A House bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Hanner, D-Parrott, failed in committee last week only after the Republican chairman cast the deciding vote against it. The measure would have allowed temporary credentials for doctors trying to sign up with the new plan administrator the state hired last fall.

Hanner said state health officials argued it was unnecessary because 95 percent of the doctors seeking credentials from United Healthcare have obtained them.

"That other 5 percent is in rural Georgia,'' he said. "I'm still getting e-mails every day from people either having to pay out of network or driving 50 to 60 miles.''

Democrats like Hanner can take solace that whatever majority Republicans kept them from accomplishing legislatively this winter can be taken to voters on the campaign trail this summer and fall. The same goes for the Republican-backed constitutional measures blocked by Democrats.

Meyer von Bremen noted that 630,000 teachers and state workers are enrolled in the State Health Benefit Plan.

"You can't tell me that's not a bloc of voters out there,'' he said.