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Wednesday, January 22, 2014 - 12:32pm

Budgeting For New Students And Old Mistakes

If you look at Georgia’s lawmakers as marathon runners, you could say they’re setting in at a fast pace.

The proverbial ink wasn’t even dry on the bill Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law Tuesday when just a day later lawmakers moved ahead with the annual budget two-step.
Lawmakers decided that the House will vote on the amended 2014 budget Friday. Yes, this Friday. That was after the House appropriations committee ratified the $20.1 billion spending plan Wednesday afternoon.

The bill Deal signed will move the primary elections from July to May in accordance with a federal court order. That’s important because once they take care of the amended 2014 budget – part one of the two-step – and then wrap up work on the 2015 budget – part two of the two-step -- they really won’t have any constitutional or legal need to stick around any further. (They probably will, but more on that later).

The budget for the new year – in this case 2015 – is the one that attracts all of the attention, and requires all of the work of vetting new expenditures (or, of late here in Georgia, mulling over more funding cuts).

The process behind the amended budget is really just a clean-up-and-catch-up operation.

“It’s an adjustment,” said Terry England, the Auburn Republican who shepherds the budget through the House with a steady hand.

Lawmakers can fix any mistakes from the previous year, and they also add more money to cover the cost of increased school enrollment. Indeed, for the amended 2014 budget, nearly 60 percent of the money lawmakers are adding, or about $180 million, will go to local school districts to pay for new students.

“We look at the big budget, the annual budget that we pass -- the big budget that we’ll go to work on next week -- as being as the one where we set the course,” England said Wednesday after the committee meeting. “And then we look at the amended, in navigation terms, I guess, as a course adjustment to get it on into port. In doing that, we try to hold to a minimum the number of changes in the amended [budget]. Because it’s not really the time to look at new policies or new programs.”

It’s not a time to look at new policies, no, but this year apparently it’s time to fund something lawmakers passed last year but didn’t bother to pay for. That’s specifically compensation for a man named Lathan Word. Democratic lawmakers managed to get a resolution passed in 2013 after years of trying to award Word $400,000 in compensation.

A Lesson in Politics and Patience

For what, you ask? Word spent 11 years incarcerated in a Georgia prison for a robbery he didn’t commit [For those keeping score at home, Georgians paid to house him in prison wrongfully for more than a decade and now have to pay to apologize for the mistake].

But in a lesson in how things work at the Capitol, lawmakers stripped the $400,000 out of the budget at the last minute. Carolyn Hughley, a Columbus Democrat, explains how it all went down.

“We lost the money for it in the last few minutes of last year’s session,” she said in an interview Wednesday in the House budget committee room. “It was taken out in conference at the last minute.”

She continues, “We got the resolution passed but it was not funded. So that funding is in the amended budget and I’m really pleased about it.”

Word was released in 2013 after spending most of his 20s behind bars for another person’s crime. Somehow, he’s picking up the pieces of his life.

“He’s doing pretty good,” Hughley said. “He has a job with the Muscogee County School district. So he is working. He has a new baby and he’s real excited about that. And he’s in college. So he is really trying to rebuild his life. He has been very patient about this whole process. I guess one of the things he learned waiting for so long for his conviction to be overturned is patience. He’s teaching me lessons in patience.”

He might be able to teach us ALL a lesson in patience.

We Are On The Story, Y’all,

GPB has launched a new show this legislative session called On The Story. It airs Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. Host Bobbie Battista and the crew are covering this week’s top issues and breaking news, including gun rights expansion legislation and Gov. Nathan Deal's announcement Monday that he wants to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the grounds of the Capitol.

For Wednesday night’s debate on expanding gun rights, the On The Story team took the maverick step of retaining Dr. Mark Rosenberg, the CEO of the Taskforce for Global Health and a longtime advocate for gun safety measures. According to the show’s executive producer, Bill Nigut, when Dr. Rosenberg served as a top executive at the Centers for Disease Control, he headed the effort to gather statistics on gun violence because he believed it was a public health issue.

Bill says Rosenberg was fired in 1999 when gun advocacy groups protested that this was inappropriate research for CDC. But Dr. Rosenberg remains one of the most respected national leaders in the effort to curb the spread of guns.

His debate partner is John Monroe, one of the leading lawyers working to protect Second Amendment and gun rights laws. He is the chief spokesman for Georgia Carry, the organization working to expand gun carry venues.

Thursday’s night show will feature a weekly political roundtable panel with political insiders Eric Tanenblatt and Leo Smith on the Republican side, Democrat Buddy Darden and AJC political analyst Jim Galloway. They will be talking about new interest among conservatives in looking at whether to legalize medical marijuana, and the political implications of moving Georgia’s primary elections from July to May.

Judging A Book By Its Cover

Tuesday’s discussion of a possible tribute to Dr. King on the grounds of the state Capitol has your GPB News Now correspondent thinking about favorite portraits in and around the Capitol. One such favorite is a little Lady Liberty statue on the grass near the Capitol steps.

Another favorite is the picture you see here, which is located on the third floor of the Capitol. Your correspondent has long admired this portrait because of the posture of the subject as he lounges rather casually on a chair. On closer inspection, however, the painting is none other than Tom Watson, the subject of a controversial statue that was removed from the Capitol steps in November. Watson may look intriguing in an oil painting but in real life he was a segregationist and an anti-Semite. I was, needless to say, a bit surprised.

Gov. Deal caught some off-guard Monday when he announced he wants to finalize a way to honor Dr. King on the grounds of the Capitol this session. You’ll hear more about that Thursday on GPB’s On The Story.

Now For A Little Housekeeping

The House passed a resolution setting the legislative session schedule through Feb. 18. Lawmakers will work five-day weeks until then – a rarity – and House majority leader Larry O’Neal said he hopes the House will take up the 2014 budget before Valentine’s Day. Sounds like a sweetheart of a schedule.

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