State budget moves money away from rail

By Justin Boron

The state Legislature sent a 2005 supplemental budget to the governor without the $1 million originally set aside for the commuter rail planned for service from Lovejoy to Atlanta. But local leaders spearheading the project, said the lost funds would not derail the start date for service in fall of 2006.

The money had been in the $16.6 billion mid-year budget earlier in this year's session when budget hearings were held. But Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale, said the money went to a rail upgrades at Brunswick ports instead.

Clayton County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer said the funds were discretionary, flexible money that had not been used for the rail project and would not dim the outlook of the project.

Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam, D-Riverdale, said she worried the money's removal was a sign that the state was backing away from the project.

While much of the money is still in place for rail service to begin in Clayton County, funding for an extension of the rail service has been a contentious issue in Henry County, as local leaders decide whether or not to match state funds for a station in Hampton.

Rep. Steve Davis, R- McDonough has been accused of misleading his constituents in saying a rail extension into Hampton would cost the county $5 million.

Davis said he had not misrepresented the cost.

Also in the supplementary budget, Seay said she was able to maintain the $25,000 that the Calvary Refuge Center in Forest Park receives to help underprivileged people across the Atlanta region.

The House also passed a $17.4 billion state budget for next year. Loaded with nearly $1 billion in new spending, it sailed through the Georgia House on Friday in a fresh display of how the roles of Democrats and Republicans have changed since the GOP won control of the chamber.

Republicans, who once criticized Democrats for loading state budgets with pet projects, were the ones defending a spending plan Friday.

Democrats were the ones in attack mode, charging that Republicans provided money for projects in the districts of certain legislators while shortchanging education and state workers.

"Somebody has got to stand up and say we didn't do right for our state employees. Somebody needs to stand up and say we ought to do better for our schools," complained House Democratic Leader DuBose Porter of Dublin.

Porter argued the budget should have included money to give state workers a pay raise in October rather than in January and that a down payment should have been made on restoring cuts to educational spending in past years.

But House Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Mark Burkhalter, R-Alpharetta distinguished the special projects from that of his Democratic counterparts saying, the Republican ones weren't "wasteful spending."

"There's one thing if it's band uniforms. It's another thing if it's a water line or a sewer line that would spur economic development," he said.

Republican Rep. Ben Harbin of Evans, chairman of the House budget committee, insisted Republicans will do more as the economy continues to improve, and defended the special projects as "local community projects that meet a lot of needs."

As Gov. Sonny Perdue recommended, the measure includes 2 percent pay raises for teachers, university system employees and state workers, accounting for about $150 million of the new spending.

The measure includes more than $200 million in new money for K-12 schools and colleges and universities, more than $300 million to meet rising costs of various state health care programs and nearly $100 million to pay first-year debt costs on $1 billion in school, college, transportation and other building programs.

The following action also occurred this week in the Georgia General Assembly. There are 12 business days left in this year's session.

G-Strings to Steak Dinners in Ethics Bill

The House overwhelmingly approved tougher rules for elected officials Friday, drawing sardonic stabs from one Democrat who compared the bill to a G-string.

The bill, approved 163-3, includes a waiting period for elected officials becoming lobbyists after leaving office, a measure thought to reduce influence-peddling by former politicians. The bill also increases maximum fines for ethics violations from $1,000 to $10,000.

But many provisions of the original proposal were stripped out. Backed by Perdue, the original bill also would've capped gifts to lawmakers at $50 and would've given the state ethics commission broader powers to investigate conflict of interest complaints.

His remark elicited whoops from lawmakers, but he was jabbed right back from the Republican Leader, Jerry Keen. Keen said Porter himself is wined and dined by lobbyists and announced a menu from a dinner Porter attended earlier in the week along with other legislators: broiled crab cake, 18-ounce New York strip, key lime pie and a $39 bottle of wine.

"Noodling" gets the nod

The House also approved a bill this week to legalize noodling, a practice of catching fish with one's hand. A finer point of a more rural culture, some in the Legislature had no idea what "noodling meant."

School start date bill fails

A proposal to ban schools from starting their years in early August was defeated Thursday as a House committee decided local authorities, not state lawmakers, should say when school starts.

An education subcommittee rejected the bill, which would ban local school boards from setting start dates before the last Monday in August. After hours of public comments, where parents generally said they supported the idea while educators opposed it, the committee defeated the idea 10-3.

Lawmakers cited local control principles.

"Why shouldn't this issue be taken to local boards of education?" asked Rep. David Casas, R-Lilburn.

The vote didn't follow party lines. It was sponsored by a group of Republicans – and the House Republican leader spoke in favor of it – but most Republicans on the committee voted against it. All Democrats voted no.

Both Henry and Clayton County School superintendents opposed the bill, calling it a local issue.

Divorce to take longer

The Senate voted for a proposal to extend the waiting period for an uncontested no-fault divorce from 30 to 120 days for couples with no children and 180 days with couples that have children.

Couples with children also may have to take classes on how the separation would affect their kids.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.