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As this year's session of the Georgia General Assembly winds down, we again find ourselves sifting through another spate of bad ideas that come spilling out of the Capitol every March.
It is a year when budget issues need to take top priority, when finding enough scarce resources to maintain services has been a challenge. That is especially the case in education, where school systems are struggling with dwindling tax revenues and face massive job layoffs and school closures, while colleges deal with their own cutbacks in student programs and financial aid.
The state must fund road construction in a slumping economy. And Georgia still must address its ongoing water crisis as the clock ticks toward 2012, the deadline for a deal to share water with Alabama and Florida before Lake Lanier water withdrawals are severely curtailed.
Yet amid all these challenges, as in every year, we see the usual litany of nonsense legislation taking time that could be better spent on making our state safer, stronger and fiscally sound. In some cases, five minutes spent on any of these notions is five minutes too many.
We'll start with this year's granddaddy of bone-headed ideas: A law to allow gun owners to legally tote firearms into churches, bars, college campuses, even some parts of an airport. Not that there is anything wrong with legal gun ownership for sport or home security; law-abiding gun owners don't break laws with their guns, criminals do.
Yet who thinks it's a good idea to let even well-intentioned folks get tanked up in a bar with a pistol on their hip? Tempers could flare, accidents could happen. If we don't allow folks to use one deadly weapon — an automobile — while under the influence of alcohol, why give them another? Drunk people and guns are just a bad combination all around.
And in church, the Lord's house? Why would anyone need a weapon of violence in a place of peace?
The law stipulates that allowing firearms will be left up to businesses and churches themselves. The Board of Regents already has indicated it frowns on allowing guns on college campuses, and most bars and churches may do the same, if for no other reason than to avoid potentially jacked-up insurance rates due to increased liability concerns. So what exactly is the point?
But this isn't the only crazy idea legislators have wasted time on. Another would allow cities to sanction car racing on their streets. Though, in fairness, the bill would not let the Duke brothers race the General Lee down Green Street; it would only let cities sponsor such events as a tourist draw. But considering how few cities are likely to bother, is this something that needed to be passed this year?
Here's another lousy idea: In a time when the state's courts are struggling to handle growing caseloads, the same lawmaker who authored the wacky gun law also proposed cutting 19 Superior Court judges statewide. The idea was to force the judiciary to make more stringent budget cuts, but severely undermining the court system is not the way to do so. Yet judges often are a target for politically motivated lawmakers who don't like their great ideas scuttled by constitutional review, and they seldom miss a chance to fire a broadside at their robed antagonists.
And also under the "do we really need this?" heading comes the House's plan to extend the state's hotel tax until 2050 to fund a new stadium for the Atlanta Falcons. The team's current home, the Georgia Dome, isn't yet 20 years old. But in an era when NFL teams build billion-dollar palaces bristling with luxury boxes to earn more revenue, every team now wants its new toy or it threatens to bolt town. Sure, most of the tax will be paid by out-of-towners and not Georgians. But does it really matter either way to the 10 percent-plus of Georgians who don't have jobs and can't afford a ticket?
The point isn't that all of these bills lack some degree of merit. But as we said at the start of the session, this is not the year for piddling around with silly laws to please a handful of special interests. The state budget still needs to be settled and time is running short. Short of printing more money, which Uncle Sam frowns on, or raising taxes right and left, the only option left is to make difficult decisions on what gets cut and how much. That painstaking effort needed most or all of the 40-day session, not the usual practice of sliding it through in the final days.
In fairness, some good ideas have come from this session. New plans to raise revenue are needed, and some may pass, including Gov. Sonny Perdue's hospital tax. The legislature has targeted tax scofflaws, both businesses that withhold sales tax receipts and lawmakers who don't pay theirs, to collect money due the state. A bill to redefine sexual offenders was long overdue, drawing a distinction between true predators and youthful offenders. And a bill offered by Hall County's Doug Collins banning teachers from having sex with students, no matter the age or level of consent, was worth doing.
But aside from those few, the budget needs to come first and last, the rest put aside for brighter days. When the economy is again strong, Georgians are back at work and the state budget is flush with cash, there will be time to bother with street races and football stadiums. Not now.
Georgians need and demand leadership; it's time to get serious and put the playthings away.