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Host of bills facing Crossover Day deadline

By Dave Williams

dave.williams@albanyherald.com

ATLANTA - House Speaker Glenn Richardson warned Democrats last week that his multi-faceted tax reform legislation would be their only chance this year to fund trauma care.

True to his word, he is resisting efforts to find another way to pay for a statewide trauma care network after the defeat of his tax proposals.

But trauma care isn't the only legislative measure on life support as the General Assembly reaches an all-important deadline this week.

Tuesday is Day 30 of the 40-day session, the annual "Crossover Day" when bills must have passed either the House or Senate. Those that don't are all but dead for the year, only available to be resuscitated if supporters want them badly enough to try to attach them to related legislation as amendments.

That means time is running out not only for trauma care funding, but also for overhauling Georgia's eyewitness identification procedures, changing the formula for state equalization grants to school districts, restructuring the state University System Board of Regents and giving retirees a tax cut.

It's somewhat ironic that trauma care funding is in trouble because it has been a high priority issue this year for Republicans and Democrats alike.

Gov. Sonny Perdue put $53 million to jump-start the planned network in his mid-year budget request.

But that only covers spending through June 30.

The governor didn't commit any money for trauma care when he submitted his 2009 budget in January because there was no consensus among legislative leaders on how to pay for the program, Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said.

Car fee

A potential solution appeared when Richardson (R-Hiram) proposed a $10 car registration fee to fund trauma care as part of a tax reform plan that also included eliminating Georgia's car tax.

But that went up in smoke when minority Democrats banded together to block the legislation, a constitutional amendment that required a two-thirds vote.

"Democrats had a chance to end the dreaded car tax, put an end to the out-of-control growth of property taxes, and at the same time fund trauma care," said Clelia Davis, Richardson's spokeswoman. "Instead, they stopped all of these, including trauma care funding."

Brantley said that without the car registration fee, the only identified source of money for trauma care is the estimated $10 million to $15 million a year that would be brought in by a bill Perdue is proposing to increase fines for "super speeders" caught driving well above the speed limit.

But supporters say it would take at least $85 million a year to run the trauma care network.

Brantley said another possibility would be to delay the governor's plan to eliminate the state portion of the property tax, which collects $94 million a year.

But he said Perdue doesn't favor that approach because he wants that tax cut, one of two in his legislative agenda.

The Senate has approved a constitutional amendment getting rid of the state property tax. But for the second year in a row, the governor is getting nowhere with his other tax cut, legislation to eliminate taxes on most retirement income, including investments and dividends. Under the measure, taxes still would be collected on all earned income above $4,000 per year.

Brantley said the proposal would give the state a way to attract wealthier retirees to Georgia and keep those already here from moving away.

But House Republican leaders dug in their heels on the retiree tax cut when it was introduced last year and have declined to take it up again this year.

The measure's opponents have argued for a more broad-based approach to tax reform that would benefit more taxpayers.

Equalization flap

Besides the retiree tax cut, the other Perdue bill apparently headed for oblivion is the governor's bid to overhaul the formula used to distribute equalization grants to school systems. A bill introduced into the Senate on the governor's behalf would add an income component to the formula.

Brantley said such a change would steer the program back toward helping the poor, rural school districts it was originally intended for.

"This is a formula that is meant to buoy the school districts that don't have as much wealth in the system," he said.

Anticipating the bill's passage, Perdue cut equalization formula funding by nearly $31 million in his mid-year budget. In so doing, he drew a hailstorm of protest from the 16 school systems that would be affected, including Gwinnett County Public Schools, which would get almost half of that money.

Gwinnett lawmakers argue that although the county is perceived as not fitting into the "low wealth" category equalization grants were intended to benefit, the school system has a large and growing number of students with family incomes meager enough to qualify them for reduced-price lunches.

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) said last week that Republican leaders have decided not to move forward with the bill because equalization should only be considered as part of a larger overhaul of Georgia's K-12 school funding formula.

Recommendations from a school-funding task force Perdue created nearly three years ago were expected this year. But since the so-called "IE-squared" committee still isn't ready with its report, Johnson suggested that the Senate might create its own legislative committee to take over the task.

"IE-squared, for whatever reason, wasn't able to come up with a final recommendation," he said. "We want to move forward ... working with the IE-squared folks or without them."

Eyewitness IDs

Like trauma care, legislation to improve the way Georgia law enforcement agencies conduct eyewitness identifications seems to have widespread support. Yet, it's bottled up in the House Rules Committee and showing no signs of coming out in time for Crossover Day.

The bill would require local police departments to adopt written policies for obtaining eyewitness identifications, but the state wouldn't dictate what those should be.

Just last week, a House committee voted to pay the latest long-time state prison inmate exonerated by DNA evidence $1.2 million in compensation. Willie Otis "Pete" Williams was convicted of a rape in Sandy Springs in the 1980s based on eyewitness testimony.

Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield (D-Decatur), the bill's sponsor, said faulty eyewitness identifications have become a pattern. "We've had seven exonerations in Georgia," she said. "Every one of them was convicted based on faulty eyewitness identification. Obviously, we have a problem."

But Democrats like Benfield aren't the only frustrated crusaders who haven't been able to persuade legislative leaders to move their bills.

Rep. Bob Smith (R-Watkinsville) appeared to lose his last shot at reforming the Board of Regents when the House Higher Education Committee voted Thursday to table his bill. The measure would take away the governor's power to appoint regents and give it to the General Assembly. It also would restructure the university system's central administration to give more input to the state's other education agencies.

"It's a more business-like structure, a more inclusive structure," he said. "It makes the legislature part of the action ... [Regents] answer to the governor. That's their allegiance."

Despite the cool reception the bill has gotten this year, Smith said his proposal's "got legs" and he will keep pushing it.

Benfield has the same determination to see her bill through to the bitter end.

"The clock is ticking" she said. "I am not optimistic, but I'm persistent."