Monday, March 28, 2011

With just seven days remaining in the 2011 legislative session, lawmakers have major issues left to deal with, but leaders of the House and Senate hinted Friday that only a handful are likely to be tackled.

When the Legislature convenes Monday for the 34th day of the 40-day session, the agenda will be dominated by the 2012 state budget, a suddenly revamped proposal to overhaul the state tax code and Sunday alcohol sales. That will leave little oxygen in the Capitol for much else, despite that of more than 2,000 bills introduced this year, only seven have reached Gov. Nathan Deal's desk.

But other major issues, including guns and abortion, might fall victim to the time crunch, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said.

Senate Bill 102, which does away with restrictions on where weapons can be carried, will likely end up part of discussions after the session about an omnibus gun bill that has been taking shape in the House, Ralston said. And SB 210, which makes it easier for women to sue abortion providers for performing abortions, did not get careful enough scrutiny, he said.

“When you’re dealing with things that are so fundamental and so important, it seems to me that’s an issue we ought to be having a serious, thoughtful discussion about,” Ralston said. “I’m not sure that happened over there [in the Senate]. I’m not sure there’s enough time to have the kind of serious discussion that requires over here.”

Lawmakers will be in session all five days this week, then take a break for the Masters and spring break the week of April 4. They'll return to the Capitol for the final two days of the session April 12 and 14.

Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, pointed out that the Legislature this year has already moved on politically tough or controversial issues such as changing HOPE scholarships to keep them financially viable.

"I think we will get through next week all right," he said Friday.

In the Senate, lawmakers are expected as early as Wednesday to adopt their version of an $18 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The House has already passed its version of the budget, and negotiations between the two sides could begin by the end of the week.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said he has few details about what the Senate has done but expects the negotiations to be smooth.

"As far as the meat of the budget, I doubt there's going to be a whole lot of difference," England said. What is different, he said, "can be worked out fairly easy. With it being a pretty much bare-bones budget, there's not a whole lot to go in and argue over."

The House could vote as early as Tuesday on SB 10, which would allow local governments to ask voters if alcohol by the bottle should be sold on Sundays. It could appear before the Rules Committee Monday morning, where a favorable vote would send it to the House floor on Tuesday.

Lawmakers also have a time crunch in dealing with immigration. Competing bills have passed each chamber to crack down on illegal immigration, but legislators must now scramble over the final seven days to find a compromise.

But the House this week also could face a new major challenge. A special joint House-Senate committee on Thursday announced that after lying dormant for months, a plan to overhaul the state's tax code would be unveiled as soon as Monday. Under special rules created for the tax plan, anything the committee approves would be sent directly to the House for an up-or-down vote.

It's not clear, however, how soon that might happen, and lawmakers have yet to commit to actual legislation making the changes. Republicans on the committee said Thursday they were nearing consensus for a plan that would lower the individual income tax rate and add sales tax to certain services. If a tax plan passes the House, it would then go to the Senate for an up-or-down vote.

Sen. Jim Butterworth, R-Cornelia, said he is concerned about the limited time the Legislature has to deal with such a complex issue.

"When we walk in the door Monday morning with the short timeline we have, the tax reform issue is going to have to be dealt with fairly quickly," Butterworth said. "I've already expressed a general concern about the timeline that we've been handed on this tax reform issue with only seven legislative days left."

But Ralston said lawmakers need to act on tax reform.

“This is our opportunity to make our tax policy the most job-friendly and job-creating in the nation,” he said.

Another key issue remaining is water. SB 122 would allow local governments to partner with private companies to finance and operate enormously expensive water projects such as reservoirs or water treatment plants. The bill has stalled in a House committee, but supporters expect it to move before lawmakers adjourn sine die to end the session.

The governor, meanwhile, had a few major concerns this session -- HOPE and the budget -- and will see both accomplished, said Deal spokesman Brian Robinson.

"We went into this session with daunting challenges, so overcoming those in our first session was the governor's priority," Robinson said.


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