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Our Views: A useful 40 days

General Assembly produced successes, a few failures and some welcome restraint

POSTED: April 17, 2011 1:00 a.m.

As legislative sessions go, this year's General Assembly gathering ranks as useful and effective compared to past years, when too much time was spent on hot-button topics with little real impact, at the expense of more serious issues.

This year, hopes were high if only because a few more grown-ups were in charge at the Capitol. House Speaker David Ralston and new Gov. Nathan Deal seemed to be more focused on solving the state's problems, than posturing for political gain. And for the most part, that has been the case.

But the session began on the wrong foot when the Senate Republican leadership managed to strip some powers from Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a struggle that continued to the end of the session. Such inside baseball sparring serves to distract from more important matters. Senate leaders have months now to resolve this and find an equitable way to share power in the chamber. At the very least, they need to quit changing the rules based on who happens to be holding the gavel; decide what the lieutenant governor's role should be and let it go.

Lawmakers did manage to pass a budget that doesn't raise taxes and delivers considerable cuts to many areas, some good, some less desirable. There is no way to balance a budget in lean times without some pain, as we have seen at the local level as well. Only in Washington do our elected officials push along debts to future generations by avoiding tough choices now.

Fortunately, our state leaders cannot do this, thanks to the wisdom of the balanced budget amendment voters approved years ago. While the details of the budget will be better known in time, we at least know that state government won't face the kind of silly political gamesmanship as we've seen in Congress recently.

Here are a few highlights from this year's session:

It's nice to see our state leaders finally trust us to decide for ourselves if we want to buy beer and wine on Sundays. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue and other leaders bowed to a minority interest and blocked such legislation for years, but it finally passed both houses and is expected to be signed by Deal.

It's not that we ever thought Sunday sales were a big issue; most folks know enough to plan ahead and buy on Saturday. But if we really believe in local residents being able to make their own decisions, there is no reason for a statewide ban. Now communities can make that call. What might work in Atlanta and Athens might not in Clermont and Commerce, and that's fine. At least it will be up to us, the voters.

An illegal immigration bill was passed, modeled after the high-profile law in Arizona. But this bill ran into problems from the start. With Arizona's law tied up in legal challenges, Georgia lawmakers faced the challenge of creating a bill that would be approved by the courts. And when the bill included a requirement that employers verify the legal status of their employees, business interests, particularly agriculture, objected. They know having a ready and willing workforce is necessary to keep produce from rotting in the fields.

When these and other businesses resisted, the bill was watered down to include only employers with more than 10 workers, and allow a 30-day grace period to comply. It also recommends changes to guest worker laws at the federal level to help agribusinesses hire the help they need.

So what began as a tough Arizona-style crackdown was diluted down to the point where it likely will be ineffective and unenforced. It appears to be yet another law designed to show the voters at home that legislators are doing "something" about illegal immigration, even if what's done has little effect.

As we've said before, any long-term solution to illegal immigration has to come at the federal level, and include tougher border enforcement and an effective guest worker program. Everything else is merely designed for show.

Sometimes failing to pass new legislation is as important as what does get passed. That was the case with the tax reform measure which lawmakers realized by session's end simply wasn't ready for adoption. Considering how complex they are, that probably was a wise move. With more study and debate there are high hopes for significant change next year .

Legislation to save the HOPE Scholarship was wise and necessary. The popular lottery-funded program is facing an uncertain financial future with falling revenues, and something needed to be done. While changes will lead to extra expenditures for some students, it is better than watching it fade away. Deal's plan was a good one, and legislators made it happen without major changes.

Private-public partnerships on reservoirs could be a good way to attract development and get projects rolling. Yet we have to watch to make sure there aren't abuses on the "private" side of the equation that takes the public out of the picture. Voters and water users most affected by the plan need to retain a voice in future projects.

And our legislators are not done for this year. Lawmakers will return to the Capitol in August to begin the arduous process of redistricting, the result of last year's census. Georgia will gain a 14th U.S. House seat, so redrawing those lines will be a pitched battle that likely will face court challenges and federal review, no matter what the result.

As legislature sessions go, we've seen worse in recent years. While the preoccupation with laws designed to gain votes will always be on the agenda, there was at least some worthwhile business conducted in the 40-day sprint.

We hope when they return in August, lawmakers will be just as serious in addressing redistricting and apply common sense and not just partisanship to the process.



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