House passes education reforms

By Billy Corriher

With the state legislature's deadline for having a bill pass at least one chamber or be considered dead for the session, lawmakers were scrambling Wednesday to pass bills on a legislative day that was sure to stretch late into the night.

Rep. Gail Buckner, D-Jonesboro, said it was hectic in the Capitol building Wednesday, with legislators and lobbyists scrambling to see which bills would make the cut.

"It looks like we're going to be burning the midnight oil," she said.

Amid the chaos, the House approved important changes to the education reforms passed a few years ago. Among other things, the bill delays mandatory retention for third graders who don't pass mandated tests and also does away with the letter grades used to grade schools based on their test scores.

Buckner said delaying the mandatory retention for failing third graders and delaying the lowering of class sizes would give schools more time to prepare for the new policies.

"To try to force the issue right now would be counter-productive," she said.

The House was planning to consider more than 50 other bills, including a constitutional amendment allowing state tax dollars to go to religious charities.

Senators had at least 45 bills on their calendar. Highlights included a bill that would require Georgia's new electronic voting machines to provide a paper receipt for voters.

The Senate managed to pass a bill that would protect private monuments to the military, including the Confederate Army.

Some lawmakers viewed the bill as a nod to Southern heritage groups angry over a state flag vote last month that did not include their favored version, with a large Confederate battle emblem.

Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, the plan's sponsor, said no group influenced him to push the measure.

"I'm not doing it for any particular crowd," said Mullis, noting that one of his ancestors owned property where the Civil War Battle of Chickamauga was fought. "My job is to protect heritage because it's part of my blood."

The Senate also approved a measure requiring businesses that sell hunting and fishing licenses to offer voter registration.

Although the state legislature's deadline is famously loose ? a supposedly "dead" bill can always be substituted for something that has passed ? lawmakers were still scrambling to make sure pet bills got through. But it appeared that several bills wouldn't make the legislature's deadline.

Rep. Ron Dodson, D-Lake City, was pushing several bills aimed at keeping down the cost of medical malpractice insurance by capping lawsuit awards for pain and suffering and establishing rules for who could be held liable in a lawsuit.

Dodson said most of the bills appeared unlikely to come up for a vote in the House on Wednesday, and he was worried about how the rising cost of premiums would affect medical professionals, particularly those that perform risky procedures.

"More of them are going to go to surrounding states where they have this kind of reform," he said. "You're going to start seeing hospitals that are uninsured or closed up."

Trial lawyers and some lawmakers opposed the measures, saying that market forces, not lawsuit awards, were to blame for rising malpractice insurance premiums.

"The problem of rapidly rising premiums has next to nothing to do with Georgia state tort law," said House Judiciary Chairman Tom Bordeaux, a Savannah attorney blamed by many doctors for holding up malpractice bills.

Earlier this week, lawmakers in both chambers approved measures to trim the HOPE scholarship. The changes, many of which won't take effect until 2007, include requiring a 3.0 grade point average, not a "B" average and triggers for capping payments for student fees if the balance of the HOPE fund dips.

A sales tax holiday that would offer a break on taxes on books, clothes, and notebooks was not scheduled for a vote on Wednesday in the House, where tax bills must originate.

Sponsors hoped the bill would be added late in the day to ensure the holiday is offered this summer, but some legislators worried about its effect during a sluggish year for collecting sales tax revenue.

Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton, who sits on the House appropriations committee, said he would support the holiday.

"It gives parents getting their kids ready for school a little tax break," he said.

Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough, was pushing Wednesday night for a bill to create a new judgeship on the Flint Judicial Circuit in Henry County. Though it was not scheduled to come up for a vote, Lunsford said he thought it would be put on a supplemental schedule at some point.

House leaders hoped to vote on their own version of legislative redistricting maps at some point Wednesday night.

After Representatives got a look at new maps drawn by a federal court this week, many legislators were not pleased with the districts, which did not take incumbents' residency into account and lumped many Democratic and some Republican leaders together.

The courts' maps included several changes for local legislative districts, including the elimination of multi-member districts like the one represented by Dodson and Barnes.

Dodson would instead find himself in the district of Rep. Georganna Sinkfield, D-Atlanta, making it tough for him to keep his seat.

"With this new map, it doesn't look like I'll be around much longer," he said.

Lunsford said he thought some version of a map would be approved as a "dummy bill" that could be worked out with the Senate version passed weeks ago.

Lunsford said the courts' maps would kick out a lot of incumbents but would provide fairer representation, particularly for Henry County.

"The court were politically blind (when drawing the maps) and I think that's the way it should be," he said.

Barnes said he was also ready to move past fighting over the maps and wanted to spend the remaining seven days scheduled for the legislature on more important matters.

"I guess as far as I'm concerned, we'll go with the old maps," he said. "There are issues we need to deal with that really affect people."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.