If you thought Georgia lawmakers leaned to the right during the last four legislative sessions, you'd better get out of the way in 2007: The walls are coming down.
The annual General Assembly session kicked off Monday with Republicans holding firmer control under the Gold Dome than ever. Now, the only question is how far they'll go to placate special interests, pander to the right-wing base and champion showboat issues intended to propel them to higher office.
Here are eight proposals to look out for:
Get healthy -- if you're wealthy: Ask Republicans about health insurance, and you're likely to get pointed in the direction of former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gingrich wants to see state tax cuts for businesses that offer their employees the chance to invest in personal health-savings accounts.
Critics worry that his approach threatens group health insurance, which requires people of varying degrees of wellness to pay into the same pool -- to essentially cover one another. The other problem is that health-savings accounts don't do a thing to help people who aren't making enough money to open the accounts in the first place.
But the fact that the former speaker is backed by deep-pocketed drug and insurance companies and has key support in the Gold Dome means Newt could burnish his consumer-driven "Georgia model" on the 2008 presidential trail.
Mother Nature's wayward son: Casey Cagle earned a Senate rep as an affable guy -- even as he chalked up the chamber's worst environmental record. He pushed an outlandish bill through the Senate last year to cut stream buffers. In a state where rampant development already clogs hundreds of miles of streams with silt, Cagle's bill would have dirtied them even more. Though the legislation died in the House, Cagle has more clout as lieutenant governor than he did as state senator.
Tax-cut romp: Who wants to argue with the interests of senior citizens? They are, after all, a vulnerable population that often especially requires the attention and care of others. Running for re-election last year, Gov. Sonny Perdue promised to deliver property-tax breaks for seniors. Now legislative leaders have rushed out of the blocks with more radical tax-cut proposals. House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, wants a flat tax and/or demolition of the personal income tax. Majority Whip Sen. Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, wants to do away with personal and corporate income taxes. Cagle wants to KO the corporate income tax.
What started with giving poor old seniors a break could become a tax-cut free-for-all. Republicans want to increase the sales tax to compensate for lost revenue from an eliminated income tax. But the sales tax provides an unstable source of revenue and falls more heavily on the poor and middle class. Plus, a flurry of changes could leave the state starving for money to fund education, transportation, health care and other needs.
Asphalt for all: The road-financing plan that's gotten the most play in the run-up to the session is a proposal by the road-building lobby's Georgians for Better Transportation to replace Georgia's 7.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax with a 1-percent sales tax hike. GBT President Mike Kenn has tried to soften the blow of his proposed increase by dangling the idea that the new revenue generator could be used to finance not just roads projects, but also rail and alternative transportation.
Rail advocates have strong doubts. It's unlikely that the road-friendly state Transportation Board would dedicate more money to mass transit, unless it was required to. A Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce proposal for a 1-percent regional sales tax seems a little more hopeful, but some transit advocates worry that even that money would be diverted to roads by the Transportation Board.
Judicial re-activism: The only real setback the Georgia GOP had at the November polls was the lopsided defeat of Mike Wiggins, its handpicked state Supreme Court candidate, by incumbent Justice Carol Hunstein. The conservative Southeastern Legal Foundation says it will work up a plan to add two new Sonny-selected justices to the top court to tilt the bench to the right, a move so cravenly partisan that both Cagle and Senate Majority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, see little appetite for it. Other possible attacks on impartial courts include establishing residency requirements for justices; placing term limits on justices; restricting campaign donations in ways calculated to favor corporate-backed candidates; and, most egregiously, making judicial races partisan. In other words, there are as-yet unidentified conservative ideologues at the Capitol who believe they must destroy the Georgia Supreme Court in order to "save" it.
Voter ID ad nauseum: If there's any doubt that the Voter ID law polls well among the Georgia GOP's base, it should be erased by word that lawmakers are looking to revive this most divisive of issues for a third straight session.
The legislation, which would restrict voters to one of a handful of photo IDs, is widely seen as a partisan effort to disenfranchise poor, black and elderly voters, who tend to support Democrats. Overturned in federal court as a breach of the Voting Rights Act and ruled unconstitutional in state court, the law is likely to be tweaked again this year in an effort to pass federal muster. Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, has already filed a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the guarantee that Georgia voters have free access to the polls. Even if he's unsuccessful, the bitter debate is likely to reaffirm Georgia's national notoriety as a free-fire zone on civil rights.
Georgia lawmakers will meet semi-regularly from now through March at the State Capitol. To find out when the General Assembly is in session or how to contact your legislator, go to www.legis.state.ga.us.
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