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Legislature negotiating

By Diane Wagner

With four days left in the Georgia General Assembly session, bills passed by the Democratic-controlled House are in the hands of the Republican-controlled Senate and vice versa.

Now each party has the opportunity to give the other what it wants. Or not.

"Things are pretty fluid here right now," state Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough, said Friday.

This is the first session in over a century when Democrats have not held the majority in both chambers. State Sen. Terrell Starr, D-Jonesboro, characterized it as "a very unusual year."

The two sides are still far apart on the budget for state operations beginning in July. Other issues where the parties have drawn lines in the sand include the state flag, a new Senate district map, Gov. Sonny Perdue's ethics package and an increase in the tobacco tax.

"There are many possibilities on the table," state Sen. Mike Crotts, R-Conyers, said. "There could be a tradeoff of the district map for the tobacco tax or a referendum on the flag. There are items in the budget some people are trying to restore. Right now it is wide open and, probably, some of it will not be known until the conferees meet."

Members of a joint House and Senate conference committee are expected to spend all weekend hashing out the differences between the two budget proposals.

The House passed a version that leaves a $140 million deficit, hoping the Senate will fill the hole with an increase in the tobacco tax. The Senate, on record as opposed to any tax increase, passed a balanced budget Friday that cuts spending to the bone.

One of the targets is funding for the office of Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, a Democrat. Starr led a group of senate Democrats in protesting the proposal.

"There are some very offensive items in that budget," he said. "The lieutenant governor was elected statewide and he got more votes than the governor did. Hopefully there will be some changes made that restore reality to it."

Starr said $600,000 for the state archives in Morrow was also left out of the Senate budget, but it was an oversight that he expects to be rectified by the conference committee.

The redistricting map proposed by the Senate, however, may not even get to the floor of the House for a vote.

"The House leadership said the bill would not be heard," Lunsford said. "There's a rumor that the Senate would kill the flag referendum in exchange for a vote on the map, but I think it would be foolish for them to do it. They could make the deal and then see the map changed in conference committee."

The Senate's proposed map would favor Republican candidates but Crotts said it is ultimately aimed at restoring "communities of interest."

Once Henry County's sole senator, Crotts' district now spans parts of nine counties. The change would give him half of Henry County, all of Butts and Newton counties and part of Walton County.

"Terrell Starr would have the rest of Henry County, and my district would be so much more compact," Crotts said.

But Starr, who now represents most of Clayton County and the Stockbridge area of Henry, said the new map would stretch his district to five counties.

"It doesn't make sense, when I'm living in a county with 250,000 people and you only need 145,000 in a district," he said. "I know they're trying to use it for leverage, but I don't believe it's going to work."

Crotts said it's possible black Democrats in the House would support the map in exchange for the Senate dumping the flag referendum. But, despite his eagerness to change the district lines, he has doubts about such a deal.

"I would want to know how my people feel about it. A lot of people were promised a referendum and I'm not sure how it would shake out," he said. "The governor campaigned on it, and I initiated a bill calling for a referendum when the flag was first changed. It may be that people think the tradeoff is worth it to get communities back together but, unless something drastically changes, I couldn't support it."

Lunsford said he voted for the flag referendum in the House because the issue must be put to rest.

"If we're ever going to get closure on this, we have to take this step," he said. "Some won't like it, some will. But nobody likes Roy Barnes' flag."

The General Assembly is scheduled to meet Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, take a break on Thursday, and adjourn on Friday. However, state law requires a balanced budget and Perdue said he will immediately reconvene the legislature if a compromise cannot be reached by the end of the 40-day session.