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Legislative update: Budget is next major issue

By Justin Boron

A little over halfway through this year's legislative session, the General Assembly has breezed through civil justice reform, grappled over the budget and entered debate over a bill that some legislators say could blur the lines between church and state.

The Faith and Family Services Act would allow state funds to be given to faith-based organizations.

Sen. Valencia Seay, D-College Park, chairwoman of the Clayton County legislative delegation, say they will oppose the bill.

"While we have a deep respect for what churches and other faith-based organizations do for our communities, we do not believe that an amendment to our constitution is needed," she said. "Using state funds for religious organizations is, in my opinion, a violation of the separation between church and state."

Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough, said if the bill makes it to the House he will be in full support of it.

"Churches take care of a lot of children," he said. "I don't know where we would put them."

With no state funded orphanages and little support offered for foster parents, Lunsford said funding for faith-based organizations, which already do much of the work, is a likely solution.

In the first budget written by a Georgia Legislature under complete Republican control, the major difference between the House and the Senate is over special projects.

In a fight that Lunsford said crosses partisan lines, the House and the Senate are grappling over which side's special projects should be included.

Earlier in the week, the Senate approved a tort reform bill that limits medical malpractice suits.

Hospitals across the state lauded the bill saying it would work to decrease insurance premiums that have risen tremendously in the past five years and have reduced the amount of service medical facilities can provide.

Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the bill into law Wednesday.

"Due to the rising costs of lawsuits, many of our state's OB/GYN physicians have been forced to leave their practice. These reforms will help our medical community continue to provide and care for expectant mothers in our state," he said. "They will also ensure that frivolous litigation does not further limit the availability of quality medical care for all Georgians."

Seay said she would have liked to retool the bill but debate was closed before any discussion could be heard.

"By voting to close debate, the legislative process was not allowed to take its course, and a bill was passed through that shows support for a formula that caps the value of a human life," she said.

Democratic state Rep. Mike Barnes, who represents parts of Clayton and Henry counties voted for the bill when it passed a House vote last week, but reluctantly. He also said he also would have liked to raise the cap on medical malpractice further.

The majority Republican legislature also drew up a pair of plans that redefine districts in the state. In addition to the plans, Republicans began work on a "principles of redistricting" resolution. The bill is expected to come up for a vote on the House floor Tuesday.

The following also are some items bills working their way through the General Assembly.

? Strip club billboards would be outlawed under a bill introduced by five Republicans in the House. The measure would make illegal any highway sign for a business that "appeals to the prurient interest."

? Fireworks would still be illegal in Georgia but buying sparklers would be OK for those over 18 under a bill approved 41-9 by the Senate.

? A day after a Georgia-based company alerted more than 100,000 customers that their personal information may have been stolen, lawmakers said they are working on legislation to make such notification mandatory. Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Carrollton, said he's considering a law modeled after California's – which required ChoicePoint to notify 35,000 people there.

? The Senate approved a bill supported by prosecutors that would make it easier to go after members of street gangs. The bill expands the definition of a gang and allows for additional penalties if certain crimes are committed by a gang member.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.