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Blinking games

Special session comes down to test of wills

This could turn out to be one expensive game of chicken for Georgia taxpayers. And it's not exactly the unstoppable-force-vs.-the-immovable-object variety. It's Gov. Sonny Perdue vs. the ever-shrinking state House Democrats.

At issue is $57.7 million that's supposed to pay for the legal representation of indigent defendants. The General Assembly didn't pass a measure to fund the initiative before the most recent legislative session ended. Now, Perdue plans to call a special session, probably starting May 3. Just how long that session lasts — and how much it costs Georgians — depends on whether either side will budge from its position.

Perdue wants control of the indigent defense purse strings because, his camp says, the House has in the past used money earmarked for the judiciary as a piggy bank from which it finances pet projects. Perdue is afraid the same thing will happen with the budget for indigent defense.

But the judiciary's budget requests are off-limits to the governor. Only the General Assembly has say over it.

So far, neither side has moved. But if lawmakers can come up with a budget that addresses the indigent defense problem, then Perdue spokesman Dan McLagan suggests that legislators can get in and out of the Capitol in just five days — plenty of time to spend the rest of the summer campaigning and raising money. State legislators aren't allowed to raise campaign dough during a session, special or otherwise.

But if they don't hustle to come up with a workable budget that addresses Perdue's concern, there's no telling what a special session will look like or how long it will last. Every day that lawmakers meet costs the state roughly $45,000.

While the House wrangles over the numbers, the Senate will have nothing to do, McLagan points out. So ethics reform, tort reform and a measure to change the state constitution to circumvent Georgia's so-called Blaine Amendment, which is supposed to prevent the spending of state money by organizations with religious ties, might all show up on the agenda — after all, the governor controls what's discussed during a special session and how long it lasts.

Billy Linville, a consultant to the House leadership, spoke Friday evening to Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, about the prospect of an extended session.

"His response was, 'Well, let's do it,'" Linville says of Smyre's double-dog dare. "I hear that the Republicans don't want to [have a special session] either, because a lot of them are running for Congress or involved with their businesses. We'll see who blinks. I don't think the House leadership is going to change its position on indigent defense."

Linville is right about the Republicans. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Newnan, is running for the 8th Congressional District seat and faces another lawmaker, Sen. Mike Crotts, R-Conyers, in that race.

"I don't think the governor will call us in for a lengthy session," Westmoreland says. "I think he will wait until he has something worked out before he calls it. [A special session] is not going to help anybody. It's already a short campaign cycle for people running for the House or Senate."

That said, Westmoreland concedes that Perdue is committed enough in what he believes that he'll do whatever necessary.

But any heavy-handed tactics could have unint- ended consequences, including angering high-powered Republicans itching to campaign and solidifying Democratic opposition.

Former Gov. Roy Barnes, who controlled both chambers of the Legislature, learned that lesson well after calling for a 2001 special session on redistricting in which he crammed Democrat-friendly districts down lawmakers' throats. It gave Republicans an issue with which to campaign against him. And, ultimately, Barnes' district maps were thrown out by the courts.

But unintended consequences depend, at least partially, on how House leaders pitch a special session to the public. The Democratic leaders rarely have managed to develop a coherent strategy to deal with Republican-led initiatives, such as gay marriage, during the session. And they haven't come up with one for a special session yet, either.

"Hopefully, we'll generate one," Linville says. House Speaker Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, who had been out of the country until recently, is slated to meet with his leadership team early this week.

Perdue, while exerting pressure behind the scenes and chiding legislators publicly, is generally perceived to have a looser grip on action under the Gold Dome than his predecessor, Barnes. Last session, members of the governor's own party stuck a knife in his back by opposing tax hikes he had proposed to balance the budget and avoid deep spending cuts.

Perdue's had a little more success this session, passing his education package and child endangerment legislation — though that had been a Democratic initiative of Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and Minority Leader Sen. Michael Meyer von Bremen, D-Albany, for years.

As each day passes before the start of the proposed session, however, Perdue is gaining. The governor has succeeded in pressing Democratic lawmakers to change teams.

On April 16, Rep. Bob Lane, R-Statesboro, chairman of the House Game, Fish & Parks Committee, switched parties from Democrat to Republican. Three days later, Rep. Tommy Smith, R-Nicholls, left the Dems and joined the GOP.

Meanwhile, Rep. Tom McCall, D-Elberton, was being mentioned as another possible defector. McCall did not return phone calls asking for comment.

Following the jumping ship trend, there's been no word yet on whether Coleman will have a leadership team left once all the state's opportunistic Democrats have met with Perdue.

kevin.griffis@creativeloafing.com