Legislature on slow track

It was the last day of January back in 2001 when Georgia's new flag first was run up the flagpole atop the state Capitol.

Then-Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, had shoved what became known as the "Barnes flag'' through a Democratic-controlled General Assembly in just one week, arguing it was time to abandon the old flag dominated by the Confederate battle emblem.

Four years later, the legislature's new Republican majority took a little longer to push through tort reform.

Still, it was Valentine's Day - barely a month into the 2005 legislative session - when the Senate gave final passage to a bill capping jury awards in medical malpractice suits. Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the measure two days later.

Such quick action on controversial issues stands in sharp contrast to this year's session, which passed the halfway mark last week.

While the Senate has passed three education bills sponsored by Republican leaders, there's been only one floor debate in the House lasting longer than an hour, the discussion leading up to last week's passage of a gun-rights bill.

The nature of legislative sessions is that most of the heavy lifting comes in the last couple of weeks.

But the early weeks of this session have been even slower than most, a relative lack of activity that hardly comes as a surprise for two reasons.

First, Perdue's midyear budget request is stuck in the House Appropriations Committee because of uncertainties over short-term funding of children's health insurance.

The federal portion of the popular PeachCare for Kids program, which makes up 70 percent of its money, is due to run out sometime next month due to a shortfall driven by what state officials say is a flawed funding formula.

The governor and General Assembly are looking to President Bush and Congress to pony up the needed funds, but the feds don't appear to be moving with any sense of urgency to help one state. The 16 other states facing shortfalls have enough money to cover their programs until May.

Beyond such policy considerations, there's also the Republican philosophy of limited government.

House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, tipped his hand at the outset of the session when he said he wouldn't be in a hurry to adopt new laws.

Richardson reiterated those remarks earlier this month, just after the 40-day session had passed the quarter-pole.

"The first 10 days of the session, we didn't pass a single new law to tell you how to live your lives or run your families,'' he said during a breakfast sponsored by the Georgia Agribusiness Council.

"Our main job is to pass a budget that takes care of the health and human services needs of this state and whatever else comes along.''

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle was in a hurry to get his two education bills passed and, as the Senate's presiding officer, was well positioned to do so. But the Republican from Gainesville, who took office last month, agreed with Richardson on a general approach to governing.

"We don't always have to pass a lot of legislation to be successful,'' Cagle said. "Everything is a question of priorities.''

The lieutenant governor has left no doubt that improving education is on his short list of priority issues.

For Richardson, it's tax reform. He and other House Republican leaders have led the way in pushing to overhaul Georgia's tax system, including proposals to abolish the car tax and eliminate the state income tax.

But with this year's session half over, those ideas are going to have to wait until 2008, the second year of the current two-year legislative term.

Indeed, this year's agenda in the General Assembly is heavy with complex reform proposals. Even their most ardent supporters say they can't be fleshed out in one year.

The lone exception could be a drive to make major changes in Georgia's Certificate of Need law regulating hospitals and other medical facilities.

Richardson has formed a special committee to take up only bills pertaining to that issue, a strategy he used successfully in passing tort reform two years ago.

House Minority Leader DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, said he doesn't begrudge his Republican counterparts taking their time on such major issues as tax reform, even if it takes two sessions for something concrete to emerge.

But Porter said something is lost when day after day goes by in the House without lawmakers taking up substantive issues that affect Georgians.

"The legislature is truly your deliberative body in the state,'' he said. "This is where policies need to be discussed and a direction formed.''

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.

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