Georgia General Assembly Convenes?Republican Leaders Hope to Skirt Controversy

The 2006 legislative session begins today.  With Republicans in control of the house, senate and the governor?s office, political observers expect this year?s session to match expectations, shy away from controversial issues and end quickly.  Although the session can last as long as 40 working days (holidays, breaks and weekends may or may not be included), last year legislators concluded their work in just 39 days.  However, insider intelligence tells us that even with an election in November, we can expect a 40-day session this year.  But the rumor is that the Republican leadership is hopeful of wrapping up those 40 days by the end of March.  

? Election Looms
Every two years all 236 members of the general assembly must seek re-election.  This year will be the first election since Republicans gained control of both legislative bodies.  Although Republicans hold 99 of 180 seats in the house and 34 of 56 seats in the senate, their leaders will most likely shy away from legislative gambles that Democratic challengers could use against them in November.  Meanwhile, Governor Sonny Perdue also faces re-election and will be putting pressure on his republican cohorts to focus on positive, voter-friendly issues.    

? Holdover Bills
Technically a session of Georgia?s General Assembly lasts for two years and is broken into two separate legislative terms.  Because 2006 is the second year of the current General Assembly session, legislation that failed to pass and was not defeated last year is resurrected.    
Governor Perdue Bolstered By Poll Numbers

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Zogby International, 61% of Georgians gave Governor Sonny Perdue a favorable job approval rating and a whopping 70% of Georgians have a favorable opinion of their governor (think he is a nice guy).  This is up significantly from the summer and late spring when his job approval ratings dipped below 50%--a sign of vulnerability for an incumbent.  

The poll numbers suggest that Perdue dodged a bullet in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita when he ordered the state?s public schools to close in order to conserve fuel.  His move, which sent parents scrambling to make arrangements for their kids, was thought to have caused the governor some political damage.  The poll numbers suggest that whatever harm the school closure caused was either short-lived or forgiven.

The same poll pitted Governor Perdue against both of his likely Democratic challengers, Secretary of State Cathy Cox and Lieutenant Governor Mark Taylor.  In these imaginary match-ups Perdue comes out the victor 56%-37% against Cox and 57%-31% against Taylor.  Election experts caution not to read too much into these early numbers, as most voters have not begun to pay attention to the race and will only start doing so after the campaigns gear up this summer.  It should be noted that at this same point in 2002, then Governor Roy Barnes had similar positive poll numbers and still lost the election in November.
House Republican Leaders Deny Having Set List of Priorities

In just one year of power, house Republican leaders seemed to have learned an important lesson about managing expectations.  With an election just months away, house leaders are asserting that they carry no formal priorities into this year?s legislative session.  While we know leaders have been touting their agenda to individuals on a one-on-one basis, they have intentionally refrained from putting their goals on paper.  Republican leaders have apparently learned that they face being charged with failure by their opponents or the press if just one of their priorities is not reached.  
State Ethics Commission Fires Director

Last week the State Ethics Commission dismissed its executive secretary, Teddy Lee.  Lee, a Democrat, held the position for fifteen-years.  The five-member ethics panel is theoretically independent and removed from political squabbles.  However, elected officials appoint its members.  Three of the four members who voted for Lee?s dismissal are Perdue appointees, and Democratic Speaker Terry Coleman appointed the fourth.  The only vote to retain Lee came from an appointee of Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mark Taylor.

Lee was upset by the move and blamed the commission?s decision on ?political meddling.?  Lee?s highest profile case involved fining Governor Sonny Perdue in June for violating campaign finance laws in the 2002 election.  This was the first ever censure of a sitting governor by the ethics commission.    

In a news conference that followed the panel?s decision Lee said, ?I know that when someone in this business is removed, it?s usually because they were doing the job they were supposed to,? he said. ?In a logical world, no one gets fired for doing the job they?re supposed to. But when politics invades ethics enforcement, it ceases to be about logic and fairness and it becomes only about power.?
Annual Wild Hog Supper Informally Kicks Off Session

In what has become an annual rite of passage, legislators, lobbyists and politicos attended the 2006 Wild Hog Supper just hours before the legislative session began. Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin started the tradition 38 years ago.  What began as a small formal affair for legislators and a few lobbyists has ballooned into a truly ?wild? event, characterized by the frenzy of politicking taking place.  Now, over one thousand people attend.  Though they might seem out of place at any other function hosted by a Democratic statewide officeholder, dozens of Republican leaders were in attendance demonstrating that long after Irvin retires (or is defeated) they are ready to carry on the tradition and take over hosting duties.
Fundraisers Round the Clock?

As a result of Georgia?s law prohibiting incumbent candidates from fundraising during the legislative session, this past week held up to its reputation as an annual fundraising blitz.  The intent of the law that prohibits contributions during the session is to prevent a direct quid-pro-quo for a legislator?s support on an issue.  Ethics watchdogs are left shaking their heads wondering if the law?s designers anticipated the fundraising frenzy that now precedes each legislative session.  
A Little Extra Money in the State Budget

After an economic downturn hit Georgia, the state’s slow recovery is finally being reflected by two straight years of projected budget surplus.  Collection figures released in December showed that revenues are up $468.9 million or 8% over fiscal year (FY) 2005.  If that trend continues until next June when FY 2006 concludes, the state may end up with a surplus in excess of $400 million.

Of course that means policy makers are on track to argue over the spoils.  This week we expect our first glimpse at Governor Perdue?s response to the surplus in his budget proposal.  He will likely propose putting some of the money into financial reserves, which were almost completely depleted at the beginning of his term.  Reserves currently stand at $250 million.

But there will be pressure from issue advocates to spend money on their pet-projects.  From education to healthcare, legislators will promote programs important to voters.  Fiscal conservatives will likely promote a plan to return the money back to taxpayers in the form of tax rebates.
AIG Agency Auto Hosts Commissioners at NAIC Meeting to Discuss Highway Safety

Taking a break from their official duties at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) winter meeting in December, a group of insurance commissioners joined AIG Agency Auto and Reece & Associates for a social dinner to discuss highway safety partnerships.  Colonel Jim Champagne, Chairman of the National Governors Highway Safety Association joined the commissioners and urged them to partner with their state?s highway safety offices.  Engaging in an open and frank discussion, the commissioners reached a consensus that it was in everyone?s best interest to contribute to the effort.  They pledged to return home to their states to identify where they could help.
Governor?s Education Package to Mandate School Systems Spend 65% in the Classroom

Governor Perdue is expected to unveil his 2006 education package today at the state capitol.  A key component will be a provision that requires school systems to spend 65% of all of their funding on instruction ?in the classroom.?   Proponents believe that the measure will make schools more efficient and limit overhead.  For example, teacher salaries, textbooks and field trips would be included as in classroom expenses, while librarians, nurses, guidance counselors, etc. will not.
Porsche and AIG Sponsor Highway Safety Briefings in Louisiana

In an effort to demonstrate that highway safety issues cannot be ignored, even in the face of the devastation brought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Robert Wooley and The Louisiana Highway Safety Commission hosted two highway safety briefings just days before the new year.  Corporate sponsors Porsche Cars North America and AIG teamed up to help make the events in Baton Rouge and Shreveport possible.  

In all, more than 300 community leaders participated in the meetings designed to increase awareness of the issue and build support for the enforcement of traffic safety laws.   Presenters included Louisiana Secretary of Transportation and Development Johnny Bradberry, Dr. Gary Thoma and Timo Resch, a Porsche engineer who briefed the audience on the systems car manufacturers employ to ensure the highest degree of safety.  Ultimately, participants learned that positive change would have to come from altered human behavior, because as engineer Resch pointed out ?humans will continue to be the ones driving cars for the near future.?
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