Four new laws to have gradual effects

ATLANTA - Education, health care, telecommunications and land-use planning are going to be different in Georgia starting today.

But the impacts of four major bills passed by the General Assembly last spring that take effect with the start of the new fiscal year promise to be neither immediate nor dramatic.

Of the new laws governing charter schools, abortion, cable television and annexation, only the abortion legislation becomes fully effective today. The others merely begin processes that won't take shape until later this year and in 2008.

As of today, doctors who perform ultrasound examinations on women seeking abortions will be required to offer the patient an opportunity to view the image of the fetus and hear the heartbeat.

The annexation overhaul, establishing a process for settling annexation disputes between cities and counties through binding arbitration, won't really kick into gear until after Sept. 1, to give the University of Georgia time to train the arbitrators.

Major portions of a bill allowing cable TV providers to obtain statewide franchises won't take effect until Jan. 1.

And legislation that for the first time will allow entire school districts to become charter systems isn't expected to be fully in place before the 2007-08 school year.

Besides the delayed timetable for most of the new laws, there's also debate over whether some of the measures represent major change or merely expand upon existing law.

Next step

The ultrasound bill, for example, is the next step for a Republican-controlled General Assembly that passed a law two years ago requiring women seeking an abortion to wait at least 24 hours in order to receive information on the medical risks.

The Woman's Right to Know Act arguably was the more significant change in abortion law.

Also, the final version of the ultrasound law was weakened from an earlier proposal that would have required women seeking an abortion to view an ultrasound.

"It was somewhat disappointing that the stronger version didn't pass," said Jim Beck, president of the Georgia chapter of the Christian Coalition. "But I think the bill sends a strong message to abortion mills that this state values life."

Like Beck, the bill's opponents also argue that it will have a significant effect in Georgia, despite the weakening of the language.

Leola Reis, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Georgia, said it's going to steer more women toward unlicensed "crisis pregnancy centers" where the primary focus is to scare women out of having abortions no matter what their individual situations.

"We trust that women know what their circumstances are and can make their decisions themselves," she said.

Advocates for both city and county governments say the annexation bill will have a major impact. However, they're hoping it will come into play in only a limited number of cases.

Decisions binding

The new law will allow counties that object to a planned annexation to take the dispute to a panel of elected officials who aren't from the affected city or county. Cases will be settled through binding arbitration, a vast improvement for counties that had been limited to nonbinding mediation decisions cities were free to ignore.

To avoid counties taking virtually every annexation request to arbitration, the law includes a provision forcing counties to pick up most of the costs of the process. That's to discourage counties without both a legitimate beef and a solid case from challenging an annexation.

"If they were given carte blanche, they could just object and hold up annexations," said Amy Henderson, spokeswoman for the Georgia Municipal Association, which represents cities. "We wanted to make sure private property owners wouldn't be held hostage to politics."

While controversial cases like the ongoing annexation dispute between Newton County and Social Circle would be likely candidates for arbitration, experts on both sides expect those to be few and far between.

"The vast majority of annexations won't be disputed," said Clint Mueller, director of policy development for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. "But they're important because those are the ones that make headlines."

While cities and counties overcame competing interests to reach a compromise on annexation, they were on the same side on the Consumer Choice for Television Act.

Most cable providers are expected to jump at the right to obtain statewide franchises rather than bid separately for each community they wish to serve. However, the new law still gives local governments the option to negotiate individual franchise agreements with willing takers.

More importantly, cities and counties can keep the 5 percent franchise fees they've been getting rather than turn that money over to the state.

More choices

AT&T was a huge player on the bill and on the day Gov. Sonny Perdue signed it announced plans to spend $500 million during the next several years on upgrades.

"We look forward to delivering the most advanced technology available in television, voice and Internet services to Georgia," Sylvia Anderson, president of AT&T Georgia, said in a prepared statement. "Consumers will see a new world of communications and entertainment."

But Nancy Horne, president of the Cable Television Association of Georgia, said the statewide nature of the law will let companies like AT&T cherry pick their customers.

"We're concerned that all Georgia consumers aren't really going to reap the benefits of competition," she said. "It allows new entrants to come into communities and pick and choose the neighborhoods they're going to serve. The (existing) industry had to serve all residents in a community, not just in the most lucrative or high-growth areas."

Horne said the association does support a provision in the new law that will require cable companies to continue offering a minimum number of public access channels in each market they serve.

The meat of the new law, the awarding of statewide cable franchises, won't take effect until Jan. 1.

Like the ultrasound bill, the new charter schools legislation will expand upon existing law.

Charter systems

While the concept of individual charter schools is well established in Georgia, entire school systems now will be able to apply with the state for charter status.

The Georgia Department of Education expects to get up to a dozen applications this summer and fall. Five systems will be chosen to kick off the program, probably starting with the 2007-08 school year.

"I think the best candidate in the first round would be an independent city school system," said Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who made the bill one of his top priorities for this year's legislative session. "Logistically, it would be much easier for a small school system ... to maneuver through the process."

Teacher groups in Georgia generally have supported charter schools. But they're going to be watching carefully to see that charter systems don't trample the fair dismissal rights public school teachers now enjoy.

Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said a potential pitfall is that the new law doesn't give the public a vote over whether their school district should convert to a charter system.

"The secret to success of charter schools is buy in," he said. "In a worst-case scenario, an administration could force a top-down charter system, which could go south in a hurry."