Lawmakers have long list of unfinished business

ATLANTA - An accepted part of life in the General Assembly is that most of the heavy lifting takes place during the last couple of weeks of each year's session.

But lawmakers have shown even less sense of urgency than usual in 2007. As a result, most major pieces of legislation introduced since Jan. 8 face a do-or-die deadline Tuesday, Day 30 of the 40-day session, when the House and Senate return from a weeklong recess. It will be Crossover Day, the last chance for bills to pass in the chamber where they originated or be declared dead for the year.

The execution list includes virtually every controversial measure legislators have taken up during the last 21⁄2 months:

• Sunday alcohol sales

• Payday lending

• Private cities

• Transportation funding

• Overhauling the state's Certificate of Need law

• A host of proposed constitutional amendments, including several introduced on behalf of Gov. Sonny Perdue

• Most of the rest of the governor's agenda, including a tax break for senior retirees.

Payday lending

Among all of those bills, only legislation that would bring payday lending back to Georgia after a three-year absence has made it as far as a floor vote.

At the end of a marathon session last Tuesday night, the House rejected the measure in a tie vote, 84-84. To win passage, bills have to get 91 votes in the 180-member chamber.

The legislation's supporters aren't about to go away after coming so close. Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, chairman of the House Rules Committee, is expected to move to reconsider last week's vote at some point during what is virtually certain to be another daylong session Tuesday.

Members of a coalition of religious and consumer watchdog groups that have been fighting the bill throughout the session are optimistic that they'll beat it again.

Allison Wall, executive director of Georgia Watch, cited the 27 "no" votes on the legislation from Republicans last week - including a host of committee chairmen - as proof that the GOP-backed measure is doomed. Even some of the lawmakers who supported the bill in the House Banks and Banking Committee turned around and voted against it on the floor.

"Members of both parties are having second thoughts about legitimizing an industry that operated illegally in Georgia for over a century ... that can't play by the rules and that charges triple-digit interest rates," she said.

But Jabo Covert, a lobbyist for the cash-advance industry, which flourishes in many states, said he believes the votes will be there to pass the bill Tuesday. He said the groups opposing the bill essentially have been fighting the last war, pointing to abuses perpetrated by payday lenders before lawmakers banned them from Georgia in 2004.

"There were some bad actors before," Covert said. "This bill eliminates every one of those old problems with a whole series of safeguards."

Private cities

Next to payday lending, the issue that has made the most progress is "private cities," a bill and companion constitutional amendment that would allow developers to use quasi-governmental powers to finance and build new communities in undeveloped areas across Georgia.

Both were on the Senate calendar last week, but their sponsor, Sen. Johnny Grant, R-Milledgeville, pulled them apparently because they didn't have the votes to pass. Grant has pitched the idea as a great way to keep pace with Georgia's rapid growth by speeding up construction of roads, schools and water and sewer lines in undeveloped areas.

But Senate Democrats, who united to block the legislation last year, remain determined to stop it again, said Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon.

"If one of these things goes belly up, what happens to the people who are left?" Brown asked. "We don't think there are enough safeguards in that direction."

Many of the other major bills facing the Crossover Day deadline have made it through the legislative committees they were assigned to and need only clearance from the House or Senate Rules committees to reach the floor.

Sunday beer

The Sunday alcohol sales bill is in that category. It would allow some local governments to ask their voters whether they want to allow supermarkets and convenience stores to sell beer and wine on Sundays, while counties that already let restaurants serve liquor on Sundays also could put retail sales of hard liquor on the ballot.

The Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee voted 4-3 earlier this month to move the bill forward, despite opposition from Christian conservatives and a strong signal from Perdue that he may veto it if it gets through the Legislature.

"I think this bill has gotten farther than some pundits thought," said Jim Tudor, a lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores. "That's certainly indicative of the widespread support it enjoys across the state."

However, it's still uncertain whether Senate Republican leaders will let the bill out on the floor and force GOP senators to go on the record with votes that later could be used against them by religious groups, a major component of Republican support in Georgia.

CON debate

The same fear surrounds legislation that would make substantial changes in the state law governing the construction of hospitals and other health-care facilities. The hospital industry, a major contributor to lawmakers' campaigns, has led the fight for the status quo and would be in a position to punish those who vote to overhaul the Certificate of Need law.

Hospital officials warn that making it easier for doctors to own and operate outpatient surgery and imaging centers would put hospitals at a competitive disadvantage. Unlike hospitals, which have to accept patients whether they can pay or not, freestanding centers can skew their patient mix toward people with insurance and, thus, take them away from hospitals.

On the other side, doctors complain that the cumbersome CON-approval process is stifling their ability to expand the supply of medical facilities in a state where health care access is an issue.

A special House committee has approved three CON-related bills, including a comprehensive measure that the governor added to his agenda about halfway through the session.

"The debate wasn't going anywhere," said Rep. Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, Perdue's floor leader in the House. "He wanted to move the debate forward and try to establish a balance between competing interests."

Perdue's agenda

While the governor's CON bill stands a good chance of passing, Golick appears worried about legislation that would exempt affluent senior retirees from state income taxes. During last year's successful re-election bid, Perdue pledged to expand an existing senior tax break capped at $35,000 a year into an unlimited exclusion that would cover all forms of income except any wages that retirees earn.

"There's been some talk from House leadership about incorporating that into more comprehensive tax legislation," Golick said. "Personally, I think it's important to pass it now. We need to keep our retirees in Georgia."

Indeed, "wait till next year" is a theme from legislative leaders about much of Perdue's agenda because many of his proposals involve constitutional amendments. Since Georgians couldn't vote on those measures until November 2008 at the earliest, the governor's plans to protect the financial health of the HOPE Scholarship program and allow faith-based organizations to use state money to deliver human services haven't gained much traction this year.

Road money

The same fate also has befallen two competing proposals to bolster funding of transportation improvements, an issue that took on greater urgency when the state Department of Transportation late last year started putting out the word that Georgia faces a $7.7 billion six-year shortfall in funds available for vital road and transit projects.

Among the major unfinished business going into Crossover Day, legislation to plug that gap with either regional or statewide sales tax increases is the deadest of the dead. Even supporters have reluctantly accepted legislative leaders' decision to put the brakes on tackling transportation funding in 2007.

"This is a complex bill on a complex subject," said Bill Linginfelter, chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce's Transportation Policy Committee. The metro group is among 17 chambers of commerce that endorsed the regional sales tax bill, including the Georgia chamber. "It is not surprising that it will take a two-year legislative cycle for its passage."