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The 2008 session: Good or bad?

Well, it depends on whom you ask

POSTED: June 8, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Over a week after adjournment of the 2008 session of the Georgia General Assembly, political observers are still talking about the session that long will be remembered for the deep rift that developed between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson.

Left undone was any compromise on tax relief from differing ideas floated by Cagle and Richardson. Also undone was any long-term solution for trauma care and transportation.
But some special interest groups managed to get their way and are touting this as one of the best.

Business leaders got a major concession on a gun bill, giving them control on their private property.

Consumers win in a bill that will allow a freeze of their credit report.

But the winners and losers seem to agree on one thing: They're glad it's over.

Among the winners:
Gun proponents

For two years, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce has opposed a bill being pushed by the National Rifle Association regarding guns in cars on private property.

The bill had been dubbed the "Bring your guns to work" bill. In the end, a watered-down version still gives final control to property owners. The bill does allow licensed gun owners to carry them in places such as restaurants, public parks and mass transportation.

The business community also won on a bill which caps the tax on energy when prices soar.

The Hall County delegation, led by Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, sponsored a bill which, if approved by voters, would allow homeowners to exempt school tax payments at age 70.

The legislature passed the Statewide Water Plan early in the session and then added a bill which will allow additional reservoirs in the state.

Mills and Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, were both pleased with the items in the budget for Hall County, including $2.4 million in design funds for Gainesville State College.

Mills was particularly pleased with the state funds for the "Field of Dreams" an athletic field designed for physically challenged children.

"The field was already in the works and we had gotten money in the budget in the past, but it was line-item vetoed by the governor," Mills said.

While pleased with the budget, Rogers has a wary eye toward the future.

"When the governor announced his revenue estimate, I thought his economists were a little bit optimistic in the first of the year," Rogers said. "I thought there would be some soft times coming and they're here."

State Sen. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, was pleased by the passage of a number of bill which address health care in the state.

Georgia's not-for-profit hospitals had long fought a change to the state's Certificate of Need process for approval of new medical facilities. The legislature voted to change the bill to allow general surgeons to build freestanding surgery centers and to allow a national company to open a stand-alone cancer treatment center.

"The bill we passed is going to help everyone involved with that," Hawkins said.

The bill will no longer require hospitals to seek approval for non-medical facilities, such as parking decks.

Jack Chapman, a Gainesville ophthalmologist who is president of the Medical Association of Georgia was also pleased at the passage of health care- related legislation.

"The legislature showed substantial leadership in addressing several key issues related to the uninsured, reform of certificate laws and addressing Medicaid program issues" Chapman said. He expressed "disappointment at the legislature's failure to provide funding of a badly-needed statewide trauma care network."

The House agreed to a Senate substitute to a Mills bill allowing authorities to impound the vehicles operated by persons who are not licensed to drive on Georgia roads. The bill is directed at illegal immigrants who are operating cars without a license.

The Senate version provides for impounding the vehicle, but returning it if it belongs to a person with a valid driver's license.

"House Bill 978 is not all that it started to be, but it sends a strong message to people on our roads that aren't licensed," Mills said. "The Senate added a lot of wiggle room which the House did not."

State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, who had worked on the credit freeze for three years, was pleased with its passage.

"It's got everything we wanted including the $3 fee and it is free for persons 65 and over," Benton said. "It worked out well."

Among the losers:
Tax cuts

In January, the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House flew across the state promising unity on issues during this year's session of the Georgia General Assembly.
It didn't happen.

On Wednesday the three officials appeared at a news conference in the governor's office and the cordial atmosphere that was evident on the prelude of the session was nowhere to be found in the postlude.

The acrimonious atmosphere between the House and Senate has left political observers a bit bewildered.
"The ill feeling and rivalry that we observed between the two chambers is what I would have expected in 2003 and 2004 when we had divided control," said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor.

At that time, Democrats had control of the House, Republicans had the Senate and the governorship with a Democrat as lieutenant governor.

But the elections of 2004 and 2006 gave Republicans full command of the state Capitol and many observers said this was one of the most bitter session they can remember.

The battle that most divided the House and Senate was tax relief. House Speaker Glenn Richardson scaled down an ambitious tax proposal to one that would eliminate the ad valorem tax on personal vehicles.

It would be countered by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle's plan for a five-year cut in individual state income taxes.

On the sidelines was Gov. Sonny Perdue, who said the state, which has seen a downward spiral in revenues, could not afford either plan.

On the final day of the session the effort to reach a compromise was at first tense, then became a bitter war of words.

"It was my hope that we would come to an agreement on tax cuts and we came to the table, many times, in good faith ready to achieve true tax relief for Georgians," Cagle said after the session. "It is unfortunate that those who were in the position to join us in providing tax relief were blinded by ego and unwilling to come to an agreement."

Richardson, before gaveling the session to an end, fired a few final shots at Cagle.

"Tell him to stand up and be a man and say ‘I don't support tax reform,'" Richardson told three state senators at a brief meeting late Friday night.

Senate leaders, meanwhile, argued the two chambers first should agree on capping property assessments before considering the House's plan to wipe out the car tag tax.

Just after 11 p.m., Richardson informed the House that tax reform was dead for the session, but not before accusing Cagle of "obstructionist tactics."

"It's time to get a new lieutenant governor," Richardson said. "When Georgians go to buy their tags, they can now pay the Casey Cagle birthday tax."

Bullock said that unlike previous governors, Perdue has taken a hands-off approach to involvement with the legislative process, similar to that of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

State Rep. James Mills, R-Chestnut Mountain, said this session was especially challenging.

"It's always a challenge to try to get any number of people to agree on any one idea, but I'm disappointed that we could not get some sort of tax cut compromise," Mills said, adding that he was disappointed at the tone of the session.

"There's always going to be times you'll disagree," Mills said. "But, there is a professional and respectful way to disagree and it always disheartens me when I see things get personal."

Mills said it was particularly hard for him because Cagle is a longtime friend and lives in his House district.

"Casey and the speaker have different approaches to things and I have to find a balance," Mills said. Bullock said that unlike last year, when a skirmish between Richardson and Perdue painted Cagle as a calm and reasonable voice, this year is different.

"Nobody wins," Bullock said.




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