The Georgia Legislative session is supposed to run 40 days, and then come to an end. Part-time citizen-lawmakers should be able to do the peoples business quickly and then go home.
The reality looks a lot more like the just-concluded 2002 session, in which the General Assembly convened Jan. 14 and lurched to a halt 89 days later. Only 40 of those days actually counted toward the legislative clock, of course; but many lawmakers still had to put their lives and businesses on hold while the session dragged past April 1.
Why the long session?
Reapportionment. Its an issue that doesnt even make a blip on the radar screen of most Georgians, but it is vitally important for politicians because it parcels out voters among electoral districts.
Reapportionment in every state takes place the year after the census. With the results of Census 2000, Gov. Roy Barnes twice called Georgia lawmakers into special session last year to carve the state into new districts.
Those new districts were torturously drawn to protect incumbent Democrats and preserve the majority partys hold on power. Aggrieved Republicans challenged the changes in court. Barnes worried that a court rejection could mean yet another special session to fix the maps. That would be costly - in tax dollars and in political capital.
Thus, Democrats stalled. With only a few of those 40 days to spare, the court ruled that some state Senate seats needed to be tweaked. Lawmakers moved a few lines on the maps, pushed through the changes, finished the session and went home.
And still, with more time elapsed than any session since 1885, lawmakers accomplished little. It was a nothing year, says state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans. I dont know any other way to describe it.
Lawmakers implemented two wimpy sales-tax holidays and passed Barnes stimulus package, borrowing money for highway and school construction.
A watered-down predatory lending bill also passed. State Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling, says the result of such bumper-sticker legislation will be that people with credit problems are not going to be able to get mortgages, and in a couple of years will again be whining for help.
Big changes to the states natural gas deregulation fizzled. The part that passed takes money from customers who pay their bills and uses it to buy gas for those who dont.
or Columbia County, four important measures failed:
Aleanas Law, a bus-safety measure named for a Martinez girl killed by her bus, was bottled up in committee;
Private fire departments, like Martinez Fire Department, were denied exemptions from paying sales tax on new equipment;
Evans High School and other schools forced to travel long distances for region competition got no relief from long rides; and,
The designation of Columbia Road as a Purple Heart Highway never made it to the floor.
The biggest gain for Columbia County, other than a few scattered local-assistance grants, was the return of state funding for elementary foreign-language instruction. The funds werent in Barnes budget, but lawmakers found the money after a grassroots push across the state. One local mother, Chris Baum, deserves credit for the campaign that restored the money. It now awaits Barnes signature.
It should be some relief that lawmakers didnt do any great damage this year, like another mammoth education reform bill or changes to the states flag. Thus, we echo Harbins sentiments: The best thing that can be said about the session is that its over.
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