State Rep. Ben Harbin describes the just-completed session of the Georgia Legislature this way: It was 39 days of a one-mile fun walk, and on the last day we ran a marathon.
Welcome to the two-party system.
Prior to this years session, both houses of the Legislature and the governors office were all in the hands of the Democratic Party. But with the historic election of the states first Republican governor since Reconstruction, and with party-switchers turning over the Senate to the GOP, competing parties clashed in the Gold Dome with near-equal footing.
The result wasnt always pretty. Veterans were freshmen in a sense, too, that they were having to learn how to work in a two-party system for the first time, says state Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, who was learning the ropes himself as a newly elected representative.
A lot of things simply didnt get done. A barely averted budget crisis - which trailed former Gov. Roy Barnes out of office - overshadowed the session, slashing most of the traditional pork that lawmakers ladle out for their constituents.
Gov. Sonny Perdue wanted to raise taxes on tobacco and alcohol, but got only half the tax hike he wanted on cigarettes. With the added revenue, the budget is balanced on paper - though Harbin points out that if the economy doesnt improve, theres a strong possibility Perdue will call lawmakers back into special session later to make harder choices.
I have a feeling if he calls us back, it wont be for cuts, Harbin says. Itll be for tax hikes.
All the focus on partisan bickering during the session may have obscured the fact that virtually every session of the Georgia Legislature follows a similar pattern: Lawmakers do little for the majority of the session, and then frantically wrap up legislation in a last-day burst of activity.
This year, the lollygagging kept several controversial bills from passing: An attempt to resurrect video poker died, and an effort to raise the percentage of alcohol allowed in beer is stalled.
But other legislation that would have helped Columbia County didnt make it either. Squeamishness about the impact of any tax breaks on a tight budget kept lawmakers from passing a sales-tax exemption for private fire departments. And counties still cant use sales taxes to build waterlines or fix stormwater problems without restrictions.
Even in a tight budget year, its heartening that Harbin took the lead in saving the states highly regarded elementary school foreign language program, if only for one more year. Proponents of the program must commit themselves now to expanding the program into additional schools to ensure its long-term survival.
Local lawmakers also managed to get a couple of good bills sent to the governor for his signature. Harbins House Bill 352 will force state licensing agencies to disclose the results of actions taken in cases when a citizen files a complaint against a license holder. And Flemings HB 479 improves Georgias system for investigating suspicious child deaths. Significantly, Fleming was one of only two freshmen Republicans to get a bill of his own passed this session.
The session may have been frustrating, and it dragged out longer than any other in Georgia history. But taxpayers kept their increased homestead exemptions, school systems get a partial, reprieve from expensive class-size reductions, and parents will get a one-weekend sales-tax exemption for back-to-school supplies.
As ugly as it looked along the way, thats a pretty happy ending.
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