Legislature wraps up first week

By Michael Davis

A week into this year's legislative session, controversy has already divided parties on several issues, a trend that is likely to continue until the end of the 40-day term.

Thursday, a bill passed through the Senate that would give faith-based groups a stronger constitutional basis to spend tax dollars on social services.

Ready now for a vote by the Democratically controlled House, many said they are afraid to vote against the constitutional amendment for fear of seeming "anti-God," though they have concerns over whether the language would allow vouchers for private religious schools.

But Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton, said that he would support the bill.

"I'm sure there will be a lot of debate in the House," he said. "It's an issue with the governor and I don't have a problem at all expanding faith-based services."

"I don't want the state running my church and I don't want my church running the state," he added, "but I believe, through what I've seen, they do a good job."

Gov. Sonny Perdue has said that this legislation would bring the state in line with the nation as President Bush has been calling for faith-based groups to be allowed more funding for projects like homeless shelters and other social services.

The General Assembly also heard the governor's State of the State address as well the State of the Judiciary from the state's top judge.

Chief Justice Norman Fletcher praised the General Assembly for reforming Georgia's indigent defense system.

Representative Howard Mosby, D-Atlanta, described the first week of the legislative session as "pretty uneventful."

"There's been a few bills passed but really nothing of substance," he said.

Barnes agreed. "There was really not a lot of legislation being debated right now," he said. But he noted, as budget hearings get under way Tuesday, the halls of the Capitol will buzz with discussion.

"There will be a lot of debate with the budget," said Barnes, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Economic Development. "A lot of people are going to lose programs in their districts they don't want to see go," he said.

"It's just really going to be hard because the budget is low. It's never fun to cut anywhere. As much as we're having to cut, it's passed lean to (having to) cut services now. Nothing will be exempt this time."

The governor has called for 2 percent pay raises for many teachers while at the same time asking that taxes not be increased. "I know the governor says he wants to provide pay raises but no tax increases, but where's he going to get the money from," Mosby asked.

Budget hearings begin Tuesday and will last through Friday.

Republican lawmakers planned to spend Friday evening and all day Saturday at a caucus retreat in Marietta.

(The Associated Press contributed to this article).