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Legislative Update: Almost halfway home

By Michael Davis

By the middle of next week, the state Legislature will be halfway home.

Thursday, the House passed landmark civil justice legislation, capping jury awards in medical malpractice cases at $350,00 for pain and suffering. For cases with more than one doctor or hospital defendant, the award could not exceed $1.05 million. But backers who tried to quickly get the Senate to agree failed, sending the bill to a conference committee made up of House and Senate members.

"I voted to accept it. I think it was an improvement slightly over what we had done before," said Sen. Terrell Starr, D-Forest Park. "However I don't mind it going to conference because maybe we can improve it some more. I know we've got to do something to curb the spiraling cost and I'll vote for it again."

The measure, aimed at stemming the rising cost of medical malpractice insurance, could come back before lawmakers, who been working on the legislation for years, as soon as next week.

"I think we've still got something to work with and I think it's needed," said Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough after the vote Thursday.

House leaders were supposed to have announced whether they were going to redraw the state's U.S. Congressional districts last week but delayed a decision. Rep. John Yates, R-Griffin, said the splattered districts, drawn under Democratic control, should be thrown out and redrawn more sensibly. Yates is a member of the district-drawing reapportionment committee and one of several lawmakers who last year paid out of pocket to fund a lawsuit challenging the state House and Senate districts which were redrawn.

"Everybody's kind of walking gingerly on whether we should do it and when," Yates said.

A bill passed the Georgia House Wednesday that opponents say gives too much power to conceal negotiations in ongoing development deals.

The legislation would shield state and local governments from open records laws when negotiating incentives to bring businesses to Georgia. Proponents of the measure say neighboring states use open records requests to see what Georgia is offering, then top it. But open records advocates say the law would allow too much secrecy.

"It would put a veil of secrecy over everything the state and local government does under the umbrella of economic activity," said David Hudson, an attorney for the Georgia Press Association.

A House committee also passed legislation that would allow – but not require – state transportation officials to study and implement a program to allow drivers to use emergency lanes in some heavily congested areas. Transportation officials weren't immediately warm to the idea last week when the legislation, sponsored by Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough, was introduced but the bills backers want the Department of Transportation to at least look at the idea.

"This bill doesn't require them to that, it allows them to do that," said House transportation committee member Steve Davis, R-McDonough. The bill will go to the rules committee to be placed on a calendar for floor debate.

Davis also introduced legislation to change the public school funding formula, reducing the number of school systems eligible to tap into certain state funding pools. The bill would give the fastest growing school systems a bigger peice of the state education pie but rural lawmakers are sure to challenge the measure.