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The $16 billion question

By Michael Davis

Lawmakers worked late into the night Thursday, many wondering if they would have to come back for a special session to approve next year's $16 billion state budget.

Senate leaders however, agreed to delay the last day of the 40-day session until Wednesday, hopefully giving both chambers of the legislature time to work out differences in the spending plan?mainly differences over education and Medicaid funding.

The Senate, earlier this session, passed the state budget but House leaders are looking for more money for education.

The Senate version of the spending plan however, puts more money into the state healthcare program, which required a last-minute bailout this year with the 2004 supplemental budget.

Madeline Laruy, an administrator at a McDonough assisted living home that accepts Medicaid payments said that last month's Medicaid budget shortfall hasn't hit them yet, "but I'm waiting to see what happens this month."

"We're getting ready to go through another bad time," she said. "It's kind of crazy that it comes down to these two critical areas," she said of education and healthcare spending.

Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton, said he expects the six-member budget conference committee to work through the differences over the weekend and have a budget plan on House members' desks by early next week.

"It's got to be on the desks for 24 hours," he said. "In my opinion, it's probably the healthiest partisan argument as I've seen. The bottom line is, people will win."

Voters to weigh-in on gay marriage

A resolution making a ban on same-sex marriage a constitutional amendment pending voter approval passed the House this week, a month after the resolution was approved by the state Senate.

Senate Resolution 595 would allow voters to decide in November whether to add an amendment to the state constitution that defines marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman.

Religious groups, especially the Christian Coalition, have been supportive of the ban while gay rights groups, against the amendment, have said they would shift their focus to lobbying voters to vote the amendment down.

Tort reform makes headway

A sweeping package of tort reforms cleared the state Senate Wednesday and headed to the House for approval.

Including many of the objectives of the healthcare community, the bill however was missing one main goal?a cap on pain and suffering jury awards to the victims of malpractice.

"That was probably the biggest piece the healthcare community wanted to see," said Sam Ahern, president and CEO of Henry Medical Center. "That's something that will probably be lobbied for in next year's session," he added.

Coming out of the House and into the Senate, several amendments were added to HB 1028, a bill by Rep. Alan Powell, D-Hartwell, that would create the Georgia Hospital Insurance Authority.

"This thing was lit up like a Christmas tree," said Ed Bonn, president and CEO of Southern Regional Health Systems in Riverdale, of the number amendments added to the bill during hours of debate Wednesday.

The insurance authority, he said, "would hopefully give small hospitals another avenue in purchasing liability insurance."

The high cost of insurance, healthcare officials say, has been pricing come doctors out of Georgia, and leaving many unwilling to perform high-risk procedures such as births.

Other amendments limit a hospital's liability in lawsuits involving physicians that independently contract with a hospital and tightens up the rules involving physicians who testify as expert witnesses in jury trials.

Thursday, the House set up a joint House-Senate conference committee to study the amendments. Healthcare officials hope that the package makes it make to the floor for Wednesday's last day of the 40-day session.

Sales tax holiday needs governor's approval

If the governor approves, Georgia shoppers could get another four-day sales tax holiday this summer, after the state Senate approved the measure Thursday.

With Gov. Sonny Perdue's OK, items from clothing to computers would be tax exempt from July 29-Aug. 1, something the state's border-towns say helps increase their income as shoppers cross state lines to get the break.

But even in Henry and Clayton counties, some say the holiday still boosts here.

With major retail centers like Tanger Outlet Center and Southlake Mall, some officials say the boost in sales outstrips any potential loss in tax revenue.

"The governor doesn't like it because it takes a few dollars out of the tax coffers," said Rep. Barnes, who said he helped work on HB 228 with Rep. Ron Borders, D-Valdosta.

"My argument is the advantage to business people will far out-weigh that," he added.

Executive Director of the Henry County Development Authority, Bob White, agreed.

"I think it will help probably incrementally. We're starting to attract more shoppers from around the region and our neighbors, hopefully, will come to spend more money in Henry County," he said.

The Associated Press Contributed to this article.