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Lawmakers sweat over budget

By Michael Davis and Billy Corriher

As the clock ticked on the last day of the 2004 legislative session, questions remained about whether lawmakers would be ordered to return for a special session to work out budget differences.

As late as 10 a.m., the conference committee on the budget, which had been working since Sunday, had not reached an agreement. Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough, said that though there was a $100 million difference in the two chambers' proposals, committee members were haggling over smaller spending items.

"It's like they're walking around a dead moose picking up scraps and ignoring the dead moose," he said.

By mid-afternoon Wednesday, budget negotiators had worked out a compromise on the fiscal-year 2005 budget, which begins July 1 but only hours remained for Capitol staff to print and proofread the pages and get them to legislator's desks before the session ended at midnight.

Earlier in the day, some representatives feared the governor might veto a spending plan if it didn't include the education funding he was looking for, which includes teacher and employee pay raises.

As state revenues have decreased in the last several years, lawmakers in both parties have vowed not to raise taxes.

"It's harder to say cut it than spend it," said Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton.

Some lawmakers saw the delay in approving the budget as indicative of the entire session.

"It's a new era with a Republican Senate and a Democratic House and it's very strange," said Rep. Ron Dodson, D-Lake City.

Pointing to political conflicts between the two chambers, some lawmakers said that this has been one of the toughest years to get bills passed. One Senate Republican blamed much of the stalemating on the majority-Democratic House.

"We just don't feel like they've been cooperating," said Sen. Mike Crotts, R-Conyers. "But we've had more difficult sessions when we (Republicans) were in the minority and trying to get to the majority," said the six-term Senator, whose bid for Congress will remove him from state office.

"They're seeing the signs of losing power so it's just a political struggle to try to hold on."

Freshman representative Victor Hill, D-Riverdale, said that lawmakers could've been more focused. "This year has not been as productive as it could've been," he said. "I wish we would've spent more time concentrating on healthcare and education. I think a lot meaningful legislation might not have made it because we spent a lot of time discussing issues that don't affect a majority of Georgians."

HOPE, other bills clear final hurdles

But after months of negotiations, Republicans in the state Senate and Democrats in the House of Representatives finally did reach an agreement to save the cash-strapped HOPE scholarship program on Wednesday. How to fund the popular but cash-strapped program had been in contention from the first days of the session.

Rep. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro, said lawmakers were worried as recently as Tuesday about the chances of passing a bill before the session expired.

"It's a blessed relief to get to this point, especially because we had the Republican leadership (in the Senate) saying yesterday they wouldn't agree to our changes," she said.

The HOPE program's costs have been skyrocketing since its inception. The cost of HOPE went from $21 million in 1993, its first year, to $440 million this year and a projected $502 million next year. Economists warned the fund would be bankrupt by the end of the decade if changes weren't made.

Under the compromise approved by a conference committee Wednesday, the program's changes won't take effect next year, and the biggest money-saving measure won't take effect until 2007, when a new standard for getting the scholarship is implemented.

Starting in three years, high school seniors will need a 3.0 grade point average to qualify for a HOPE scholarship, instead of the current 80 numerical average. In many school systems, an 80 average is not a B, which means a third of current HOPE recipients would not be eligible.

Buckner said the bill's trigger to drop payments for books and fees if lottery funds dip and its exemption for Pell grant recipients were similar to the bill that came out of the House Higher Education Committee.

"It's been a long road to get to what I feel like is a very short distance," she said.

Sen. Valencia Seay, D-College Park, said the new standard of a 3.0 grade point average is a good compromise for legislators to save money for the program.

"I think we've made some good strides to work with the program and we've got a bill we can live with," she said.

Payments from the HOPE program for mandatory student fees will be frozen at current levels. If a college raises student fees, students would pay the difference.

Another sticking point during negotiations was payment for books. Under the new plan, if the year-end balance of the lottery fund dips, book payments will be eliminated. Pell Grant recipients, the state's poorest students, won't lose full book payments. If the year-end balance continues to fall, payments for fees will also be phased out.

Seay said that exempting Pell grant recipients was important, and she was glad lawmakers approved changes in the program before the legislative session expired.

"There's been a lot of time spent trying to get that program back on target," she said. "But there is more that needs to be done."

A legislative committee will be set up to monitor the HOPE scholarship's finances and suggest more changes if needed.

Full-time students who receive HOPE scholarships will also have their grades checked every spring, instead of being checked after taking a year's worth of classes.

Also making Wednesday's deadline was an overhaul of Georgia's early childhood education. The Senate agreed to the House of Representatives' proposal even though it differed from the measure that Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue was seeking as part of his education package.

The plan would put the oversight of pre-kindergarten and day cares under the new Department of Early Care and Learning, and it creates an oversight committee to monitor the department.

The bill now goes to Perdue for his signature.

The Senate also approved a bill sponsored by Buckner that would require all school boards in the state to have a code of ethics and bars people with a revoked teaching certificate from serving on a school board.

"We were glad to get the bill through," Buckner said. "This should give school boards more guidance."

Late in the day the House passed Senate Bill 297 that would make running from law enforcement officers a felony. Hill, who is also a Clayton County Police detective, presented the bill to the House. From the well of the state House, Hill described his own experience in a police pursuit that ended with the death of a family of four.

"It was probably the worst day of my life," he said.

"This is wonderful," Hill said of the bill's passage. "All it's waiting for is the governor's signature."

The measure was prompted by the December death of Georgia State Patrol Trooper Tony Lumley, who died when he ran off the road during a high-speed chase in Spalding County. That chase began after a robbery in Clayton County.

The suspect who was fleeing the trooper, 26-year-old Kenneth Brad Medlock, faces five felony counts of murder for Lumley's death.

Currently it is only a misdemeanor to refuse to stop a vehicle for a police officer. The bill would make it a felony, punishable by five years in prison and a $5,000 fine, when drivers refuse to stop for police and then drive more than 20 miles per hour over the speed limit.

Confederate bill passed

Private Civil War displays would get special protections under a bill approved by lawmakers Wednesday.

The measure, which bans desecration to any private veteran display, is probably not greatly needed.

But lawmakers wanted to pass it as a peace offering to Southern heritage groups still angry that the state flag was changed to remove the Confederate battle emblem.

Some of the heritage activists complained that vandals target Confederate symbols on private property and that they need greater protections.

"We need to honor out military people and not allow the desecration of our monuments," said Rep. Mike Snow, D-Chickamauga.

The House approved the bill 162-1. The measure already passed the Senate and now awaits the governor's signature.

The Associated Press and staff writer Ed Brock contributed to this report.