Second Longest Session in Georgia History Criticized by Many

The sluggish 2007 Legislative Session became even slower in its final weeks due to an intense standoff between the House and Senate over the midyear budget. The session, which saw passage of relatively little substantive legislation and almost no input from Governor Perdue, was nearly at a standstill for two weeks as the chambers worked through their differences.  The clash became more heated after Governor Perdue vetoed the midyear budget bill late on the second to last day of the session, claiming the compromise was hastily thrown together.  The conflict forced the session to become the second longest in history, while a gubernatorial veto will send the legislature into a special session.  These events have led to very public acrimony between the Speaker and the Governor, with the Speaker referring to the Governor?s tactics as childish ?nursery rhyme games.?

The conflict began after initial passage of the budget bill in the House, when Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle warned House Speaker Glenn Richardson that the Senate intended to pass a bare bones budget, stripping away most of what the House had worked to develop.  In response, House leadership took the budget bill back from the Senate to allow time to decide upon a strategy.  The House then passed the bill again, marking it ?urgent attention required,? limiting the Senate?s available time and upping the rhetorical ante.

The Senate quickly passed a five-page version of the bill, stripping away all the programs appropriated in the House version, even pet programs of Governor Perdue. The few exceptions included funding for PeachCare, public defenders program and tornado relief in rural Georgia.  The budget was sent to conference committee between the House and Senate in order to find middle ground.  During this process a very public debate occurred between Richardson and Cagle over the true meaning of conservatism, and each chamber at one point held hostage legislation from the other side.
House leaders finally offered a compromise consisting of a budget similar to the Senate version but including a $142 million homeowner tax cut.  Governor Perdue, however, felt the bill was insufficient and wielded his veto pen with little time left in the session.  The veto prompted a symbolic override vote by the House, which the Senate failed to follow because no veto was actually delivered by the time of the vote.  A special session is expected to be called by Perdue imminently.  Passing a budget is the only constitutional requirement of the General Assembly.

The feelings of many legislators and commentators are portrayed by the words of Senate Minority Whip David Adelman (D-Decatur), ?I?m disappointed we are in one of the longest sessions in modern history and it?s been so unproductive...? Jim Wooten, conservative commentator for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, noted that the Republican infighting produced no winners, except for the Democrats who sat silently as the majority imploded.

Passed Legislation
- SB 10 ? School vouchers for children with special needs.
- SB 39 ? Allows entire school systems to apply for charter status.
- HB 147 ? Requires doctors to offer an ultrasound to women who want abortions.
- SB 148 ? Allows stem cell research from naturally deceased fetuses.
- HB 2 ? Creates new regulations for county-city annexation.
- SB 200 ? Allows for the creation of "private cities."
- HB 227 ? New regulations for video and cable franchising.
- HB 332 ? Eliminates classroom size restrictions.
- SB 194 ? Sets Georgia?s presidential primary date at February 5.

Failed Legislation
- SB 137 and HB 468 ? Allow for the Sunday sales of alcohol.
- HB 89 ? Allows motorist to keep handguns anywhere in their car.
- HB 43 ? Prevents employers from restricting employees from keeping a handgun locked in their car while at work.
- HB 263, HB 337 and HB 568 ? Certificate of Need laws.
- HR 413 ? Constitutional amendment making English the official language of Georgia.
- HB 340 ? Increasing the requirements to obtain PeachCare.
- HB 434 ? Allows counties to create partnerships to improve traffic conditions through a one-cent sales tax.
- SR 20 ? Taxpayers Protection Act of 2007.
- SR 125 ? HOPE Chest, limits lottery spending to HOPE scholarship and pre-k programs.
- HB 195 ? Tax cuts for seniors.
- SB 86 ? Removes pickup truck exemption from seat belt laws.
- HB 163 ? Repeals prohibition of payday lending.
Trauma System Remains a Top Priority

Georgia?s trauma centers are running deep in the red financially and struggling to stay alive.  A comprehensive, well-coordinated EMS system is non-existent in the state.  Grady Memorial Hospital has nearly $60 million in debt stemming from uncompensated trauma care, a trend seen throughout Georgia?s 152 hospitals.  The trauma death rate in Georgia is 20% higher than the national average, accounting for more than 700 lives lost yearly.

During the 2007 session, the Georgia General Assembly took the first initial steps needed to improve this desperate situation.  Senate Bill 60 established guidelines for the Georgia Trauma Care Network Commission (GTCNC) and the Georgia Trauma Trust Fund.  GTCNC will be a nine-member board responsible for studying the plausibility and reliability of funding uncompensated care.  Eventually GTCNC will be responsible for distributing trauma monies to trauma physicians, trauma centers and EMS providers.  SB 60 overwhelmingly passed the House and Senate and now awaits Governor Perdue?s signature.

Despite this progress, the trauma system still lacks funding or a funding mechanism.  Leadership in the General Assembly and Governor?s office failed to provide funding in the budget, and various bills attempted to address the problem, but no plan succeeded in passing both chambers.  Senate Bill 125, the ?super speeder? bill, would have provided funds for the state?s trauma system by placing a $200 fine on people convicted of traveling 85 mph or faster on Georgia interstates or 75 mph or faster on two-lane roads or highways.  House Bill 77 was amended to set new guidelines for red-light cameras and redistribute all but 25% of the funds raised from red-light cameras to the Georgia trauma system.  Other ideas included a 3.5% surcharge on car rentals, and an additional charge added to telephone bills.  None of these proposals succeeded in passage by more than one chamber of the General Assembly.

Because of Georgia?s need for a more coordinated and efficient trauma and EMS system, several interested groups, including the Healthcare Georgia Foundation and Reece & Associates, are working to organize elected officials, policy makers and others involved in EMS.  There is a need to determine the best policies and practices for Georgia to take in order to ensure the state will have a state-of-the-art trauma system that saves every life possible.
Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce Lends Helping Hand to Grady

Grady Memorial Hospital is in desperate financial trouble; the hospital system loses about $3 million each month and currently has around $60 million in debt.  Outside consultants Alvarez & Marsal warn that drastic changes must be made ? Grady must limit expenses and reduce payroll to remain a viable source of healthcare in Atlanta.

In an effort to reduce payroll, the Grady administration is offering buyouts to senior non-medical staff, which account for about 10% of total staff.  If senior buyouts are not taken, hospital administration could be forced to lay off some workers.  Alvarez & Marsal also recommend Grady reduce bed capacity, close the oral surgery and dental clinic, cease pediatric surgery, outsource outpatient pharmacy and dialysis and re-negotiate the contract with the city about inmate care.

County and hospital officials are apprehensive about the feasibility of these suggestions and are seeking help from the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.  To this end, the Chamber has implemented a task force designed to inspect Grady?s procedures and operations and to look for ways to improve, as well as to examine new funding sources for Grady.  The task force will be led by Georgia-Pacific chairman emeritus Pete Correll.  It also includes Metro Chamber president Sam Williams, H. J. Russell & Co. CEO Michael Russell, and Cousins Properties CEO Thomas Bell, among others.  The Chamber?s task force will also assist Grady in discussions with public policy leaders about the proper way to restructure the hospital.
Voucher Program for Special-Needs Children Passes General Assembly

In a historic development, the Georgia legislature approved a voucher or ?scholarship? program for Georgia children with certain disabilities.  Senate Bill 10, championed by Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, allows parents of children with certain disabilities to use the monies that the state would have spent on their child in public school to offset the cost of private school tuition.  Opponents argued that the move would open up Georgia to more voucher programs, and would take away monies from public school systems.  Proponents countered that the program would only affect state funding for that particular child; public schools would likely end up ahead as local funding for that child could be used for other purposes, and the state funding provided is often less than is actually needed to educate a special needs child.  Supporters of the bill also pointed to the need to provide additional choices to parents of exceptional children ? there are cases in which a private school is better suited to educate a child with a particular disability than public schools.

The bill easily passed the Senate, but cleared the House only after members were called back to the floor to vote for the bill so that Speaker Glenn Richardson could cast the deciding 91st vote, giving the legislation the required constitutional majority.  The measure must be signed by Governor Perdue in order to take effect.
Certificate of Need Reform Too Complex for One Session

New legislation designed to reform Georgia?s nearly three-decade-old certificate of need regulations appeared before the House this session.  The proposed reform would ease restrictions on doctor-owned ambulatory surgical centers and allow medical imaging centers to operate anywhere in the state.  Doctors supported the measure claiming it would increase competition throughout the medical profession and thus the quality of healthcare in Georgia.  Hospitals opposed the legislation stating it would make it almost impossible for the states? hospitals to survive.

Certificate of need reform was recommitted late on Crossover Day, the last day legislation can transfer between General Assembly chambers, effectively killing it for the session.  House officials cited the complexity of the issue and the time frame of the session as reasons for the motion to recommit.  Legislators intend to return to this issue next year.
Non-action on Parking Lot Gun Bill Preserves Private Property Rights

Two bills before the Georgia General Assembly this session threatened the private property rights of business owners throughout the state.  SB 43 and HB 143 proposed to restrict business owners from preventing employees from having firearms at work.  If passed, the measures would have allowed employees to keep firearms locked in their cars while at work.  This legislation would have violated the property rights of business owners and threatened workplace safety.

SB 43 posed additional threats to business owners because it included language holding business owner liable if they ?should have known? an employee was going to commit a crime with a gun while at work.  After both bills failed to cross chambers by day 30, the last day a bill can do so, proponents of the legislation attached portions of the bills to HB 89, a related bill allowing licensed gun-owners to keep guns anywhere in their car, as a rider.  HB 89, however, was also not voted on by the Senate by day 40 and died for the session, despite intense pressure from the NRA that many likened to bullying.  There is also word that the Senate finally decided to let SB 43 die after receiving telephone calls from the National Republican Committee cautioning legislators about the insensitivity of passing the measure in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre.
Seat Belt Legislation Dead for Another Year

Attempts to close loopholes in the state?s mandatory safety belt laws were stymied again in the 2007 session.  The only measure to pass at least one chamber was Senate Bill 86, which would remove the current pickup truck seat belt exemption.  The legislation would have helped reduce traffic-related fatalities in Georgia.  House leadership blocked SB 86 and other seat belt legislation, arguing that the measures increase government intrusion and infringe on traditional pick-up truck use in rural counties.  Many would respond that pickup trucks are no longer strictly for agriculture purposes; they are a common and sometimes luxury mode of transportation, and should be treated as such.
Less Focus on Anti-Immigration Measures in 2007

The Georgia General Assembly took up several bills that aimed to make locating and residing in Georgia more difficult for illegal immigrants.  However, the legislature?s appetite for anti-immigration bills seemed lessened from the previous year.  In 2006, the General Assembly passed the landmark Senate Bill 529, bolstering state protections against the impacts of illegal immigration.  In 2007, more immigration-related bills failed than passed before the session ended.

Bills failing to pass one or both houses included: SB 25, increasing penalties for obtaining a drivers? license with false documents; HB 21, prohibiting state government from printing official documents in any language other than English; HB 43, requiring proof of U.S. citizenship prior to voting registration; and HR 413, amending the state constitution so that English is the official language of Georgia.  Passing legislation included: SB 15, increasing penalties for driving without a license; SB 38, requiring the possession of a Georgia drivers license or ID card before receipt of an automobile tag; and HB 275, requiring notaries public to prove legal U.S. residency.
National Immigration Reform Again Gathering Steam

Despite the prominence of immigration reform throughout the year and election, the United States Congress failed to pass any real immigration reform in 2006.  Members of Congress are currently moving the issue back to the forefront of the nation?s agenda.  Attention is initially focusing on a bi-partisan bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Luis V. Gutierrez (D-IL).  The Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy, or STRIVE Act, expands northern and southern border security, increases the number of illegal immigration enforcement agents, and gives undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

The STRIVE Act is comparable in many ways to the McCain-Kennedy bill that passed the Senate last year.  STRIVE reforms the visa process and creates a guest worker program allowing immigrants to permanently live in the United States as long as they abide to certain requirements, such as steady employment. The bill also creates a timeline and standards for undocumented aliens currently in America and future guest workers to gain citizenship.  Requirements include certain labor and legal processes and one return trip to the country of origin.

While STRIVE is the first bill to address immigration in the 110th Congress, the final reform will most likely come in a different legislative package.  Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Chair of the Judiciary Subcommittee on comprehensive immigration reform, plans to file a bill of her own that would address the issue.

In a reversal of last year?s roles, the Senate will likely be the body in which the least employer-friendly bills emerge.  One Senate proposal under consideration requires guest workers to return home for 6 months every year and a half.  This would make the program unworkable for many employers.  Debate over immigration reform is expected to escalate throughout the summer.
German Ambassador Honored by Georgia State Senate

Georgia business and public policy leaders graciously hosted the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany upon his first official visit to Georgia on March 27, 2007.  His Excellency Dr. Klaus Scharioth was honored at a lunch sponsored by Porsche Cars North America and presented by the German American Chamber of Commerce at the Capital City Club Downtown.  The lunch was followed by a ceremony at the rostrum of the Georgia Senate chamber, during which Dr. Scharioth was presented with Senate Resolution 478.  The resolution recognizes not only the Ambassador, but also the close economic and business ties between Georgia and Germany, and encourages greater collaborations among these two governments, their people and businesses.  A reception hosted by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the German Consul General Hans-Joerg Brunner brought a close to the events honoring Dr. Scharioth.
Eighteen State Legislators Attend Luncheon with Porsche Cars North America CEO

On March 14, eighteen Georgia legislators joined area business leaders for a luncheon presented by the German American Chamber of Commerce (GACC), at which Peter Schwarzenbauer, President and CEO of Porsche Cars North America, was the keynote speaker.  The luncheon was held at the Capital City Club Brookhaven, and the attendance by legislators marked the largest turnout from that group at a GACC event.  Mr. Schwarzenbauer?s presentation was entitled ?Brand Appeal vs Volume Pressure.?  Porsche Cars North America is headquartered in Atlanta and is the exclusive importer of Porsche automobiles for the United States and Canada.
Race for the 10th District U.S. House Seat

Following Congressman Charlie Norwood?s death February 13, Governor Sonny Perdue pushed back the special election that would decide Norwood?s successor for the 10th District U.S. House seat.  The special election will be held June 19, with a runoff election scheduled for July 17, if necessary.  Normally, special elections are held about forty days after the vacancy occurs.  The Governor?s delay allows candidates currently serving in the legislature to finish the session before resigning their posts.  The timing of the special election will also allow the legislators time to mount full-scale campaigns after the session ends.  The election is nonpartisan, but candidates? party labels will be listed on the ballot.

The current favorite to win the seat is State Senator Jim Whitehead (R-Evans).  Whitehead, residing in the Augusta area, holds the highest elected position and is the best known of all the candidates.  Whitehead became the frontrunner when fellow State Senator Ralph Hudgens (R-Comer) decided not to run and to instead keep his seat in the State Senate.  The qualifying period for the election will be April 24 to 27.  Thus far, four Republicans ?Senator Jim Whitehead, physician Paul Broun, former state House candidate Erik Underwood and realtor Nate Pulliam ? and only one Democrat ? former marketing executive James Marlow ? have filed their candidacy for the seat.

The 10th District runs from Augusta to the North Carolina border, including Athens, and leans Republican.
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