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Sunday, January 13, 2013 - 11:00pm

The Gold Dome Comes Alive

Georgia lawmakers begin a new legislative session Monday. They will wade through hundreds of bills over the next three months. But there’s only one thing they are required to get done.

By state law, legislators must pass a balanced budget.

But lawmakers will also likely tackle ethics reform, with a bill aimed at limiting gifts from lobbyists.

Tom Crawford edits The Georgia Report, an online political digest. He says the Senate may kick-start the effort by adding a gift cap to its rules.

“There’s a proposal in the Senate to put in its rules a limitation on what lobbyists can spend on members of the Senate," he said. "The thinking is that if an ethics bill putting limitations on lobbyists doesn’t pass this session, it will still be there by force of rule in the Senate.”

Ethics violations over false expense reports snared one state Senator, Don Balfour of Snellville, last session. Crawford says his colleagues are eager to avoid that happening again.

Lawmakers will also debate the so-called hospital bed tax. It’s a Medicaid provider fee that expires next summer.

Crawford says letting the tax expire would have consequences.

“If the tax goes away, that’s going to create a lot of financial hardships for some hospitals, especially those in rural areas," he said. "And I’ve seen predictions that you could have five or six or seven hospitals that actually have to shut their doors because of hardships brought on by the lack of money in Medicaid.”

Others, however, say it's a tax, and many conservative lawmakers oppose taxes on principle. Rep. Jason Spencer, a Woodbine Republican, for example, says the tax specifically benefits large facilities such as Grady Hospital in Atlanta that serve a large Medicaid population.

State lawmakers have already pre-filed a number of bills dealing with issues such as repealing a ban on guns on college campuses and legalizing horse racing.

They'll begin the 40-day session with budget hearings.

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