Tax holiday may return this year

By Michael Davis

The Georgia General Assembly worked overtime this week to beat the deadline for legislation to make it out of one chamber and over to the other without effectively dying for the session.

Wednesday's "crossover day" however, left some Senate Democrats furious with Republican leaders who, they say, killed legislation that was important to them by adjourning the session before it was discussed. But still, dozens of bills and resolutions passed.

The Democrat-led House squeaked out another proposed sales tax holiday Wednesday evening. Backers say that sales tax exemptions on certain clothing, computers, school supplies and other products for a period of time spur economic growth in cities and towns along state borders by attracting out-of-state residents to spend money in Georgia.

Opponents say they've not been shown that the money lost will be made up in other areas.

But Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton, said that revenues made up in increased sales should offset the lost tax revenue.

"I think the actual sales that are going into the merchant's cash registers will cancel that out," he said.

McDonough resident Jenifer Conarton's 4-year-old daughter will be starting school this fall and she said that a sales tax holiday would help her and her husband save money on buying school supplies for the first time.

"I would take advantage of it," Conarton said. "Especially since we're going to have to start engaging in back-to-school clothes buying."

If approved by the Senate and signed by the governor, the exemption would be set for July 29 to Aug.1.

The House did not approve the midyear spending bill that would've saved Medicaid payments which ran out Thursday. Friday, Barnes said he'd been assured that the bill would be taken up first thing Monday morning.

"We've got Medicaid payments that have run out," he said.

The House is also expected next week to take up the fiscal year 2005 budget.

On Friday, the House passed a long-stalled child endangerment bill that would make it a felony to put a minor in harm's way. The bill would also toughen penalties for cooking methamphetamine in the presence of a child.

Legislation requiring convicted sex offenders to register on the Georgia sex offenders list despite first-offender status passed Wednesday. The bill's author, Rep. Victor Hill, D-College Park, said that the bill was an important measure "to help protect Georgians and their families against sexual predators."

Current law in Georgia does not require those convicted under first-offender status to register on the list.

"They were flying under the radar," Hill said.

The bill faced several amendments at the committee level. Hill's first version denied first-offender status to all sex-offenders but the committee's substitute, Hill said, "encompasses all criminal sexual conduct against children."

New state House and Senate maps drew heavy attention and some opposition at the beginning of the week as the same three federal judges who threw out the 2001 district maps unveiled their own versions Monday.

Unless the General Assembly can approve its own versions and pass the scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Justice, which could take months, the maps drawn by the special arbitrator and the team appointed by the panel will stand as interim maps for this year's election.

Some Republicans this week praised the maps, saying that politics should never have been used in drawing the maps in the first place.

"It's the fairest thing for Georgia," said Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough, whose new district would include part of Newton County, where he attends church.

Legislators were given 72 hours to submit comments on the maps but only allowed to make legal appeals, not appeals based on political motives.

"They're federal judges – they don't have to take our comments," Lunsford said.

Earlier in the session, 71 legislators signed a pledge that they would not oppose the judge-drawn maps.

Wednesday, the Legislative Black Caucus voiced its opposition to the new maps, saying they would set black legislators back after decades of struggling for power in the General Assembly.

Several lawmakers were lumped into districts with other incumbents – some of them the most powerful blacks in the Legislature – forcing them to run against each other in this year's elections.

"The judges are literally setting an entire race of people back decades, stripping them of experienced leadership," Sen. Ed Harbison, D-Columbus, chairman of the Black Caucus, said Wednesday. "Careers could be derailed because of the three-judge panel ruling."

Lawmakers had until Friday at noon to submit their comments on the maps to the panel of judges but it was unclear if the panel would make significant changes to the maps based on those comments.

Thursday, House Speaker Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, removed House Judiciary Committee Chairman Tom Bordeaux, D-Savannah, from his position as chairman.

Coleman told The Associated Press that the removal was due to "philosophical differences."

Bordeaux was replaced by Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, a former senator and chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Republicans blamed Bordeaux for blocking dozens of bills important to the GOP.

He has also been blamed for holding up key tort reform bills. Legislation that would create sweeping changes in medical malpractice cases was championed by doctors, but Bordeaux, and lawyers, insisted the changes weren't necessary.

Flint Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tommy Floyd said that at times Bordeaux was difficult to work with on bills important to prosecutors.

Former chairman of the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council, Floyd said, "I know that Tom Bordeaux has not been a friend to issues prosecuting attorneys have been interested in."

Republicans claimed victory following the shuffle and Floyd said he was "heartened" by Oliver's appointment.

"She has a vast experience – and she'll be fair," Floyd said. "A person that we can talk to."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.