Clock winding down for assembly

By Billy Corriher

When the speaker of the state House of Representatives pounds his gavel to kick off today's legislative day, lawmakers will be rushing to pass important bills. After today, lawmakers will only have two legislative days scheduled to consider pending legislation.

Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton, said lawmakers will start early and continue debating well into the evening, perhaps to midnight.

"These next three days will almost be 24-hour days," Barnes said. "It's all day and all night."

The legislature still has many important bills to take up, including next year's state budget, which has been approved by both chambers with differences that must be worked out in conference committee.

Barnes, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said he thinks the conference committee will reach a compromise between the Republican-controlled Senate version and the Democratic-controlled House version this week.

Barnes said he was still pushing for the $3 million in funding for the Department of Transportation's proposed Atlanta-Lovejoy commuter rail line. The funding was included in the House version, but not the Senate version.

"I don't know why the Senate wants to take that out, because it'll be a great economic boost for Georgia," he said.

Sen. Terrell Starr, D-Jonesboro, said he wasn't as sure about the conference committee's ability to reconcile the chambers' different versions.

"We've got a lot of differences to work out," he said. "Everything is tight. It's just a difficult budget to put together."

Starr said the Legislature might have to go into extra session to address the budget and other issues.

"The end of the session is never pretty," he said.

One issue that lawmakers could have behind them is the effort to ensure the survival of the HOPE scholarship program.

The House and Senate have both approved triggers for the program that would save it money if lottery revenues fall short. The chambers' versions have slight differences, but Starr said the conference committee should resolve the differences in time.

"I think that money for the books and students fees will be kept in HOPE," he said. "I think that's been resolved."

Rep. Darryl Jordan, D-Riverdale, said he hopes the compromise state budget will also keep adequate funding for education, which the House version focused on. The Senate version of the budget put less money into education, but more into health care.

Jordan said lawmakers didn't want to cut health care or education, but tough decisions must be made when the budget is tight.

"That's the hardest part of being a legislator, when there's no good solutions to the problem," he said. "It's going to take the Wisdom of Solomon."

Another complicated decision could also come before the House on Wednesday. The Democratic leadership decided to reconsider a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, a measure that narrowly failed last month.

Jordan said he would support the amendment, which would go to Georgia voters as a referendum in November if approved by the House.

"I'm going to vote to let the people of Georgia decide," he said.

Barnes said he would also support the measure, even though he doesn't view it as a high priority.

"We certainly have more important things we have to work on," he said.

Barnes said the amendment is being promoted for political purposes and isn't really necessary because gay marriage is already illegal in Georgia.

"We could leave it alone and it would still be illegal," he said.