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The 10 plagues of Georgia 

A preview of the 2008 legislative session

Yea, and it came to pass that the land of Georgia was ruled by Sonny the Bitter, who seethed in silence while he didst avoid the hard work of governing.

And in the Legislature's 40 days, when the rulers assembled under the Gold Dome in Atlanta, Sonny didst turn his hardened heart even on those of his own party. And the people's problems multiplied – painful injustices and woeful ignorance, droughts and traffic jams – even as Sonny led the lawmakers in wrongful directions, or not at all.

In ancient Egypt, the Lord sent Moses to free the Hebrews. To punish the oppressors, He beset Egypt's people with 10 plagues. In Georgia, there is no Moses, and the plagues have been brought upon us by our own rulers.

1 The waters run dry

The drought of the century exposed something other than tires and beer bottles long buried by Lake Lanier. It also laid bare the inevitable collision between North Georgia's limited water supply and its unfettered development.

For nearly 20 years, the state's leaders frittered away chances to avert a crisis, instead butting heads over water rights with Alabama, Florida and parts of South Georgia. And they always seemed to peddle solutions sure to exacerbate conflict with our downstream neighbors: Dig new reservoirs. Transfer water from one basin to another. Spend billions of dollars to pipe it from Tennessee or the Atlantic Ocean.

God forbid we impose anything that might inconvenience developers, who are, after all, the masters of our political leaders. Conservation? Land-use planning? Fuhgetaboutit.

One hopeful sign was the creation in 2001 of the Metropolitan North Georgia Water District, followed by a 2004 mandate for a statewide water plan. But the district has been a mild-mannered disappointment – backing off an effort, for example, to retrofit existing houses with low-flow toilets. And this winter the state plan, which the Legislature may or may not pass this session, became a power brokers' battleground: Planning districts based on watersheds were gerrymandered overnight to conform instead to political boundaries, with council members handpicked by the governor and top legislators.

This session, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson plan (of course) to push for new reservoirs. Given North Georgia's dire straits, the state eventually may win approval for some of them. But reservoirs also are likely to infuriate neighboring states and South Georgia on the suspicion that metro Atlanta wants to hoard even more of nature's bounty.

More importantly: They're bound to put off the day that North Georgia finally reins in its development machine with slower growth and less wasteful community planning.

2 Wailing and gnashing of teeth over taxes

Taxes may be unpleasant, but they're not the real problem here. The problem is Richardson's political ambition, which he's tethered to his ill-considered and still murky GREAT tax "reform" plan.

In short, the speaker would replace stable property taxes with a 4 percent levy on services and products now exempt from taxes. Although he initially planned to rid Georgia of all property taxes, stiff resistance from cities forced Richardson to target just school levies, which still account for the lion's share of property-tax bills.

Perdue, Cagle and other critics charge that, in addition to its practical faults, GREAT isn't a tax cut. Rather, it's a shift to a less predictable form of taxation that falls heaviest on poor and middle-class folks, who must spend a high percentage of their incomes. Plus, it amounts to a power grab for local purse strings, giving the Statehouse near-total control over school spending.

Richardson is attempting to add "tax reformer" to the résumé he's beefing up for a future run for governor. But in doing so, he's unleashed a pack of competing tax bills from other ambitious politicians up for re-election this year. Among them: Sen. Majority Leader Eric Johnson's proposal to freeze property taxes until a homeowner sells his or her house.

According to legislators on both sides of the aisle, the General Assembly probably will devote a sizable share of its semivaluable time this year grappling with Richardson's ego – er, we mean, proposal – and its legislative offspring.

Good thing we don't have any actual problems to solve around here.

3 No pity for the mentally ill

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's stellar reporting on Georgia's dysfunctional mental-health system revealed something startling but sadly not surprising. One hundred and fifteen people died in seven state hospitals from 2002 to 2006, and there were nearly 200 substantiated cases of physical and sexual abuse against patients.

The exposé started a cascade of action, including an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, a state review of the entire system and a flurry of bills in last year's legislative session. Yet during and even after all that, 21 more suspicious deaths occurred.

Riding the momentum of heightened awareness, mental-health advocates are pushing this year for more money and oversight. The chief complaints: Employees are overworked and underpaid; cash-strapped and undermanned hospitals have to shuffle patients because of lack of beds; and an ombudsman's position created in 2000 to oversee the mess still lacks funding.It's not just the hospitals that are underfunded. Community groups that often are the sole resource for discharged patients are even more starved for resources.

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