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Political Point-scoring

With elections around the corner, expect the Gold Dome to resemble an NBA All-Star game

Yule-bashing teachers, beware: Republican lawmakers are determined to make sure in the upcoming legislative session that you'll never again be able to forbid a Georgia public school student from wishing a classmate Merry Christmas.

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Are legislators really out to save Christmas? Or might they instead be out to milk votes from their conservative Christian constituents — knowing full well that their pro-Christmas bill will never make it out of committee alive?

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With every seat in the GOP-controlled Legislature up for re-election this fall — as well as the governorship, lieutenant governorship and all other statewide elected posts — Georgians should expect to see more than the usual level of pandering and pop-culture conservatism coming out of the Gold Dome in the coming weeks.

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House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, has repeatedly proclaimed his desire for the 2006 General Assembly, which begins Jan. 9, to be as short and focused as possible. Fat chance. The GOP is on shaky ground across the country, and the new legislative session will provide one of the last opportunities for lawmakers to score political points with folks back home before the elections.

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"Certainly it's an election year and we'll have members who want to make statements," concedes Rep. Mark Burkhalter, R-Alpharetta, the No. 2 man in the House. "But we'll keep our promise to limit the role of government this year."

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Perhaps. But with a Republican governor desperate to give voters a reason to return him to office and a Democratic lieutenant governor with little else to do but make soap-box attacks on the sitting governor whose job he's seeking, the headline-grabbing rhetoric could reach a full boil in a matter of weeks. And these aren't even the guys writing the legislation.

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Chuck Clay, a former longtime legislator and state GOP party head, predicts that attempts to keep a lid on election-year politicking by members of either party likely will be futile. He also says it will be hard to stave off a flood of "statement-making" bills.

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"I can tell you as a Republican that, after years of writing legislation that you know isn't going anywhere because your party's not in power, it's going to be hard to rein in the impulse to make grand statements," Clay says.

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The problem is, ideological bills are a lot like Christmas presents: In the end, it's the thought — and only the thought — that counts.

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For instance, Sen. Chip Rogers, a second-year Republican from Woodstock, has pre-filed legislation that would make it illegal to remove the feeding tube of a comatose or brain-dead patient who hasn't specifically requested not to be placed on life support. After the measure caused the desired flurry of controversy, Rogers announced he wasn't planning to push it, telling the Marietta Daily Journal that he "didn't want this to turn into a Terri Schiavo bill." Yes, we're sure that was the furthest thing from his mind.

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Rogers also has publicly backed off a bill he introduced in the 2005 session to prevent illegal immigrants from enrolling in state universities. But he's sticking with another hot-potato bill that would deny state-funded services — including food stamps, drivers licenses and HOPE scholarships — to anyone unable to prove himself a legal Georgia resident, even though some fellow Republicans are concerned that Rogers' bill could run afoul of federal statutes.

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"We've got constitutional limitations on how we deal with immigrants," warns Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs. "We can't deny them health care or education."

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Rogers and the pro-Christmas crowd may be operating on the fringes, but there are plenty of bills also being advanced by heavy-hitters with an eye toward winning points with voters. Even legislation that might first appear to be rooted in policy concerns often is driven by election-year politics.

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Sen. Bill Stephens, R-Canton, may certainly believe, as many do, that Georgia's electronic balloting system would be more secure with a paper record of votes. But it's no coincidence that he's pushing a bill to that effect while running to succeed Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who introduced electronic voting to Georgia.

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Another issue likely to spur a frenzy of me-too bills is eminent domain. Last year, the Senate GOP leadership had their heads handed to them when they introduced SB5, a bill designed to facilitate development through "public/private partnerships" in which the government's condemnation powers could be harnessed for projects suggested by private companies.

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Now, following the outcry over the Kelo v. New London ruling, in which the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that governments can take private land for economic development purposes, Georgia lawmakers are falling all over themselves to show their undying support for private property rights. Even Senate Majority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, an architect-turned-developer who was one of the main boosters of SB5, has come full circle, voicing support for "inverse condemnation" legislation that would — no one's quite sure how — require cities and counties to compensate landowners for restricting the use of their property through zoning laws and tree ordinances.

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"It would be a warning shot across the bow of local governments regarding private-property rights," says Johnson, who still says SB5 was misunderstood (he points out that it would not technically have expanded the power of eminent domain).

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Because they're aware that lawmakers seeking re-election may try to one-up each other in curbing eminent domain, House leaders likely will limit amendments to the version of the bill that makes it to the floor, Burkhalter says.

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"It has the potential to turn into a Christmas tree bill, where everyone wants to hang something on it," he says.

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Speaking of Christian icons, House Republicans seem to believe they've figured out a way to get the Ten Commandments into local courthouses and government buildings after all. A new bill that's already received the all-important blessing of House Speaker Richardson would allow the posting of such "historical documents" as the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence and, well, you guessed it.

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Even more contentious is a provision to require the state attorney general to defend any podunk government sued for displaying the Old Testament crib sheet, effectively shifting the legal costs from the counties to the state.

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Perhaps Gov. Sonny Perdue's soon-to-be unveiled state budget will help focus lawmakers' attentions back on more serious matters, such as funding for education and health care. Otherwise, as one Senate Democrat warns, "we're the last in education, we've got the worst traffic and if we spend our time discussing the Ten Commandments, we'll be living in Georgia-bama."