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Our Views: Another 40-day feud, wasted time
Lawmakers again spent too much time fussing at each other while key issues were left unsolved
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They have adjourned at the state Capitol, another session of the General Assembly finished for the year, and the analysis of its work is under way.

And there is much to discuss. A state budget accounting both for the rising deficit and an influx of federal stimulus money. An attempt to change how transportation is managed and funded. And the usual bills on hot-button issues that light up the editorial pages and radio dials with anger and rebuttal: stem-cell research, English-only driver's license tests, a citizenship requirement for voters and sex offender laws.

Some bills passed, some failed, some went to that purgatory of nonaction where good and bad ideas often go to collect dust, sometimes to be wiped clean and revived in years to come.

Perhaps the one lingering image we take away from this year's legislature is a familiar one, because it mirrors what we've seen the last few years. That is that, despite a full slate of important issues and the need for serious fiscal policy discussion, our duly elected lawmakers still often scrap like school kids on a sugar high when they get together in Atlanta.

The last two sessions ended with House Speaker Glenn Richardson lashing out at, in turn, Gov. Sonny Perdue and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, for their failure to support his chamber's tax reform plans. The name-calling was less than statesmanlike from all sides.

This year, Richardson kept his promise to tone down the rhetorical jabs, perhaps chastened a bit by another unsuccessful challenge to his leadership from within his Republican party. This time the tantrums came from elsewhere.

A couple weeks ago, it was the assembly's black caucus that threw a hissy after Republicans held up a bill to honor President Barack Obama. Two dozen of them walked out of the House in midsession, claiming the GOP leadership was racist in refusing to acknowledge the president's "reputation of integrity" and general wonderfulness.

It made for grand political theater and probably got a point across, but just a thought here: How did it make the lives of Georgians any better?

Same can be said for some of the other dust-ups that created a lot of heat but little light. Last week, Gainesville Rep. Carl Rogers became upset when his proposed bill dealing with evidence in child abuse cases was tabled in the Senate over procedural matters. That led Rogers to lash out at the leadership, including Cagle, and Sen. Dan Balfour of Snellville felt obliged to return fire.

"I will not be a Senate whore," Rogers fumed.

"... he should not be inpugning the lieutenant governor's integrity," Balfour countered.

Boys, boys. Let's have a timeout and gather our composure. Juice boxes and graham crackers all around while we let the hot heads cool.

Perhaps, though, such exchanges are inevitable. Georgia condenses its legislative business into such a narrow time frame that many ideas worth considering wind up in the discard pile for the same reasons that killed Rogers' bill. It's a big state with nearly 10 million people and a lot of issues to address. It's difficult to cram all of that into 40 days' work without some valid proposals getting swept away in the rush.

This year, lawmakers even considered stopping the clock and splitting the session, returning midsummer to deal with the anticipated federal money. When the stimulus came through, they decided to go ahead and finish the budget in regular time, even with short weeks to get it all done.

As a result, many bills didn't make it past "crossover day," when legislation must be presented before one or the other chamber to be considered by both. There just aren't enough hours in the day or days in the calendar. There are 236 legislators in the Dome, plus the governor and lieutenant governor, each with their own pet project or two, or more, to propose. They all can't make it to the floor, or even out of committee, which can lead to frustration and angry words.

Perhaps it's time to again consider a longer session; eight of the nation's largest states meet year-round and others Georgia's size meet for much longer. Or perhaps a permanent split session, allowing more time in-between to do more of the nuts and bolts work in committee sessions that can get bills ready for a floor vote.

But until then, we need a 40-day session that focuses on the state's priorities more effectively without the pointless sideshows and personal conflicts that bog down the assembly's important business. Our state is too big and faces too many challenges to face such legislative paralysis year after year.

The lawmakers we elect are, by and large, good people with good intentions who want our state to prosper. They all have different ideas of how to do so, and that's fine; it's what a democratic republic is all about. Their divergent agendas — urban vs. rural vs. suburban, conservative vs. liberal, Democrat vs. Republican — naturally can create tension.

That's why leaders need to find common ground where possible and bridge their differences. Yet each year, legislators fritter away their precious time on parochial interests when more important matters that affect everyone either get a last-minute coat of paint and are shoved out the door or wind up stuck on the shelf for another year.

Every year, we enter the session hoping for a focused attention on solving key problems. By spring, we lament the lack of action, or misdirected action, and wish for better results. Doesn't matter which party is in charge or who the players are. Georgia's roads remain clogged, it struggles to fund Medicaid, trauma care, indigent defense and other key needs, and our schools, despite some successes at the local level, remain near the bottom nationally in most measurable categories.

And next year is an election year, when we'll be selecting a new governor and all members of the legislature will be on the fall ballot. Posturing for the voters with looksee legislation likely will take precedence over substantive action.

If that's OK with everyone, then we have the legislature we deserve. One of these years something needs to change, if not in the Gold Dome then at the ballot box. Because this isn't getting it done.

There has to be a better way. We're open to ideas.

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