Sen. Ed Harbison announces candidacy for re-election

State Sen. Ed Harbison (D-Columbus) has officially qualified as a 2008 candidate for Georgia Senate District 15, which includes part of Muscogee County and all of Chattahoochee County.

Sen. Harbison is currently Chairman of the Senate Interstate Cooperation Committee. He is also secretary of the Regulated Industries & Utilities Committee and serves on the Banking & Financial Institutions, Insurance & Labor and Reapportionment & Redistricting Utilities Committees.

“I look forward to meeting with and talking with the voters of the 15th District during the course of this campaign,” Harbison said. “This is a very important election year in Georgia, and I pledge to continue listen to the views of the people and use my experience and leadership positions to deal effectively with the issues important to the Columbus area and the entire state.”

The Democratic Primary is scheduled for July 15, and the General Election will be held November 4.

Senate delays vote on controversial secrecy bill

The Senate’s action this week to table consideration of House Bill 218 is a sign that it does not currently have enough support to win approval.

Supporters of HB 218 say it is intended to improve Georgia’s competitive position in recruiting industries and more jobs to our state. But others believe its harmful side effect – that of denying the people of Georgia knowledge of what their government is doing and how their tax dollars are being used – outweighs the positive intentions of the legislation.

As approved in the House of Representatives, the bill would allow state economic developers as well as local governments and development authorities to negotiate deals with prospective businesses in secret, and keep the public out of the loop until the deal is practically completed. This bill would need to be amended, especially to protect citizens of counties without zoning, in order to be acceptable.

Georgia has succeeded under previous administrations in securing industry and jobs. I support business-friendly initiatives that make our state attractive to prospective employers, including good transportation, quality health care, solid educational opportunities and lower taxes.

These are the proven strategies for boosting economic development in our state, regardless of whether HB 218 is revived. We can continue to bring jobs to our communities without keeping the public in the dark as to tax incentives being offered or the type of industries being recruiting.

Smoking would be prohibited in most indoor public spaces in Georgia under legislation approved by the Senate on Wednesday. Supporters of the legislation point to evidence that second-hand smoke is a serious public health hazard and that non-smokers should not be subjected to its effects in their workplaces or while visiting other public facilities including restaurants.

A similar ban is already in effect in several Georgia cities and counties, and representatives of the restaurant industry have said they would prefer a consistent policy throughout the state. The measure was approved by a 44-7 vote and now goes to the House for its consideration.

My fellow Senate sponsors of the HEROES legislative package, which would provide enhanced financial and educational benefits for members of the Georgia National Guard on active duty in Iraq, and I continue to be concerned that none of this legislation has yet made it out of committee.

Many of us are dismayed that the Senate majority leadership has found time to pass legislation such as naming the green tree frog as our official state amphibian but has failed to move on legislation to show support to our National Guard members and their families.

We were told that at least one of the bills would move out of committee next week, but with no more than 15 legislative days remaining in this session, time is running short to get this package through both houses of the General Assembly.

Underage drinking continues to be a problem in our state. I have co-sponsored legislation that would address this issue. Under Senate Bill 205, the driver’s license of anyone under 21 years of age convicted of consuming an alcoholic beverage would be suspended for six months on the first offense and for one year on the second and subsequent offenses.

The legislation has been favorably reported by the Senate Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee and will be considered by the full Senate.

Despite substantial opposition, the Senate voted to approve Gov. Sonny Perdue’s proposal to delay reductions in public school class sizes for another two years. The bill, which now goes to the House for consideration, would allow schools to put off for two more years the class size reductions in grades 4-12 that are required by the state’s education reform program.

Smaller class sizes will allow students at all grade levels to learn more, and this important initiative should not be delayed any further. Hopefully, the House of Representatives will reject this legislation.

More redistricting an unnecessary distraction

I am among many legislators concerned over the movement by the leadership in both the state Senate and the House of Representatives toward reopening the issue of redistricting for the third time in the last four years.

The reapportionment of legislative and congressional district lines is required once per decade to reflect population changes in the state. However, because of a lawsuit, Georgia’s 2001 redistricting plan was overturned last year, and new state House and Senate districts were drawn up.

Now, emboldened by their control over both houses of the legislature and the Governor’s Office, some Republican leaders are pushing to rearrange the state’s 13 congressional districts as well. This is an unneeded partisan exercise, reportedly being pushed only by Republican congressmen who wish to strengthen their position in their own districts and Republican state legislators who might have an eye on running for Congress in a newly redrawn district.

While lawmakers should be spending our time focusing on important state issues like education and health care, it appears we are going to have to divert our attention to redistricting to satisfy ambitious politicians who cannot wait until the next census to assume more power. The citizens of Georgia will, of course, be the pawns in the process, enduring more confusion over who represents them in Congress.

The Senate approved midyear changes to the fiscal year 2005 budget. The revisions differed from the supplemental budget passed earlier by the House of Representatives, and a conference committee was appointed to iron out differences in the two plans.

The Senate’s version includes an added $105 million to help local school systems handle increases in student enrollment and an extra $7.6 million to provide more instructional services in public schools. However, no provision was made for the $190 million in cutbacks made last year in education funding. The revised budget also reduces state spending in several health care and human services programs.

The major difference in the Senate’s version is the removal of more than $20 million in bond funding that House budget writers put in to finance construction projects at several universities and technical schools.

By a 38-15 vote, the Senate agreed to accept changes made by the House of Representatives to comprehensive legislation aimed at reducing medical malpractice insurance premiums in Georgia. Later in the week, Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the bill into law.

I supported the legislation in its final form My overriding concern is the impact that rising malpractice premiums have had on access to health care in the Columbus area and throughout Georgia.

The major changes the House made to Senate Bill 3 were raising the limit on non-economic damages in malpractice cases to $350,000 against a single provider or up to $1.05 million against multiple defendants and raising the legal standards for a lawsuit against emergency room health care providers. The bill also includes provisions that eliminate joint and several liability, strengthen the regulations involving expert witness testimony and promote the fair settlement of cases before they go to trial.

These reforms are intended to improve the legal climate in Georgia so that the malpractice insurance market will be more competitive, and premiums will be reduced. MAG Mutual, the largest malpractice insurer in Georgia, has already pledged to roll back its premiums by 10 percent if the Georgia Supreme Court upholds the new law.

I went to the well of the Senate this week to urge my colleagues to support legislation I co-sponsored that would provide meaningful support to members of the Georgia National Guard, more than 4,000 of whom are serving in Iraq.

The legislative package, known as Historic Economic Relief for Our Exceptional Soldiers (HEROES), would create a state fund to help military families pay their household bills, as well as provide a state tax exemption, college tuition grants and life insurance coverage for Guard members. Providing this support is the least the people of Georgia can do in return for the sacrifices these heroes and their families are making for our nation.

Concern over vouchers dooms governor’s proposal

The Senate on Thursday rejected legislation that failed to protect state funds from being used for private school vouchers, fraudulent purposes or even terrorist activities.

A resolution calling for a constitutional amendment that would allow state government to provide funding for faith-based organizations that do charitable work fell three votes short of the 38 needed for two-thirds majority approval of the Senate. Senate Resolution 49, supported by Gov. Sonny Perdue, included no language protecting the funding from inappropriate uses or addressing constitutional church/state concerns.

Elements of the version of the legislation that I support (Senate Resolution 42), which features such protections, were offered as amendments to the measure under consideration Thursday. But a majority of senators, under intense lobbying pressure from the governor, voted down those amendments.

I see this as a missed opportunity for the Senate to assist the worthy programs that faith-based agencies conduct on behalf of people and communities in need. But no legislation at all is better than legislation that fails to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not siphoned off for inappropriate uses.

SR 42 earned the support of the Georgia Association of Educators, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators and the Georgia PTA because it would prohibit funds to be used for education programs in grades 1-12, thus prohibiting public-funded vouchers for private schools. The same education groups opposed SR 49 because of its failure to include such protections.

The governor and his supporters in the Senate insisted their bill was not about vouchers. What many other senators did not understand is, if this legislation is not about vouchers, why not include language that says that? We are concerned that another governor or other legislators in the future could use this legislation as a means of introducing vouchers.
The Senate can reconsider our vote on SR 49 when we return to session Monday. But I am hopeful we will ultimately adopt SR 42, which also stipulates:

— The charitable organization must be a separate entity from the place of worship.

— Audits of each organization would be required.

— Funds would be prohibited from going to organizations against the U.S. or the principles on which our nation was founded, including those that sanction terrorism.

— The charity would be required to follow nondiscrimination laws on race, gender and religion.

The Senate approved legislation I co-sponsored that would revise certain provisions relative to confining patients who are hospitalized for tuberculosis treatment. SB 56 would update state law regarding the public health dangers associated with active cases of tuberculosis and the confinement of patients with active cases.

Other legislation approved by the Senate this week includes SB 89, which deals with updating the definitions of controlled substances and would keep Georgia’s drug classifications up to date; SB 97, which provides that Juvenile Court Supervision fees that are already being collected may be used for truancy intervention services; SR 33, which approves the creation of the Gwinnett University Center; SB 92, which would allow employers to hire new workers under age 20 at a “training wage” of $4.25 an hour for up to 90 days; and SB 26, which would shield animal rendering plants from being sued for being a nuisance.

All of these measures go to the House of Representatives for further consideration.

The Senate failed by one vote Thursday to accept House changes to SB 3, dealing with medical malpractice liability, action which would have sent the legislation to the governor for his signature. If the Senate does not reconsider and accept the House version, a conference committee will be appointed to iron out the differences. Opponents of the legislation, which imposes an arbitrary cap on non-economic damages in cases of malpractice, would restrict citizens’ constitutional right of access to justice.