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Legislative session winding down

From Staff and Wire Reports

As this year's session of the state Legislature winds down, the state's budget writers are furiously working to come up with a compromise bill for the 2005-2006 budget year.

House members and senators assigned to the six-member conference committee have haggled over $3.5 million in local spending projects approved by the House in its version of the budget bill, but quashed in the Senate.

But as that work continues off the floor, lawmakers in both chambers have this week busily passed the other's legislation, despite threats to hold up bills over the budget.

Monday will be the 38th day of the 40-day session, though some have predicted lawmakers may call it quits before the constitutional cutoff.

Among legislation approved this week is another round of the state sales tax holiday set for July 28- July 31.

Lawmakers along the state's borders say the holiday encourages out-of-state shoppers to spend money in border cities and the boost to the economy off-sets any loss of tax revenue.

Exempt items include mainly school-related clothing and supplies and computers.

The bill heads to the governor's desk.

Senators passed a version of a bill that would let Georgia's public colleges and universities keep secret the identities of their donors.

The House passed a similar bill earlier, but the measure must pass both chambers in identical form to become law.

Privacy advocates say donors sometimes hesitate to, or don't give at all, because of Georgia's disclosure policy. They say the bill would help colleges and university fund-raising efforts by shielding donors from disclosure.

But critics say the bill will allow big donors to wield undue influence over the governing of the state's schools.

"There is a difference in power between people who give $1,000 and people who give $50,000," said Sen. Kasim Reed, D-Atlanta.

Child Support overhaul falls short in Senate

The biggest overhaul to the state's child support laws was narrowly voted down in the Senate Thursday.

The measure would put Georgia's child support regulations on a "shared income" model, meaning support payments would be calculated using the incomes of both parents. The plan missed passing in the Senate by one vote.

Supporters say it would put Georgia in line with other states' child support laws.

But opponents say it could unnecessarily throw families back into court to have their payments reconsidered.

"We see no need to go back and put those families through a heart wrenching process again," said Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Ellenwood.

Smoking ban bill

The House on Tuesday passed a version of the Senate's state-wide smoking ban that included several amendments allowing for plenty of exemptions.

House members called the Senate's version over broad and too stringent. One compared the act "reminiscent of Nazi Germany."

House exemptions included bars, restaurants where minors are not allowed or there is a private smoking room, hotel rooms designated as smoking rooms and employee break rooms if ventilated among others.

"I do know smoking is bad for your health, but when I read the final bill with the dictatorial language and harsh fines, I voted no on the bill," said Rep. John Yates, R-Griffin, a non-smoker.

Supporters have been pushing the ban for several years. Some Georgia cities and counties already have implemented their own bans.

"I refuse to believe that the inconvenience of asking a smoker to step outside outweighs the cost, inconvenience and health risks of the nonsmoker," said Rep. Stacey Reece, R-Gainesville, who sponsored the bill in the House.

Lawmakers are expected to work on a compromise bill next week but if not approved by the 40th day of the session, the bill will be snuffed out until next year.

Shoulder driving approved

Senators Monday approved a bill to direct the state Transportation Department to study the use and implementation of so-called "FlexAuto Lanes" on Georgia's interstates.

In use in areas of Virginia, supporters say the idea of creating an extra lane out of emergency lanes and hard shoulders will ease traffic in areas where the proposal is implemented.

State Rep. John Lunsford, R-McDonough, authored the bill.

"We're hoping they'll at least look at it and see if there are some perfect locations," Lunsford said.

The bill outlines several areas identified as potential flex lanes, which would only be allowed during rush hours.

Transportation officials have stepped cautiously around the idea, saying they will make sure that where they are used, safety and congestion mitigation are the top priority.

DMVS overhaul approved by Senate

A bill backed by Gov. Sonny Perdue that would overhaul of the Department of Motor Vehicle Services and make it more efficient, supporters say, passed the Senate Thursday.

The measure would break the functions of the DMVS up and place them under other state agencies. The DMVS, which currently enforces HOV and other interstate regulations, would continue issuing drivers licenses under Perdue's plan. Enforcement would be moved out of the agency.

"It's kind of like having a redundant layer of law enforcement," said Sen. John Douglas, R-Covington. "The job the DMVS does can be done by the State Patrol and local law enforcement," he said.

Lawmakers reconvene Tuesday for the 38th day of the session.