Senate GOP outlines 2012 legislative priorities

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's Senate Republicans outlined an agenda Wednesday that focuses on limited, accountable government, parent choice in education, creating a business-friendly environment and protecting the state's children this legislative session.In announcing the caucus' agenda, Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers said the issues arose from conversations with voters around the state and will be addressed through new and existing legislation.

"These are the items that we want at the top of our list and these are the items that Georgians need to know that we're working on," Rogers said, calling those the "common themes Georgians are concerned with."

Rogers, R-Woodstock, said the Senate will again take up zero-based budgeting, which has come up repeatedly but fallen short in recent years in the Legislature. Rogers said that unlike years' past, 2012 is the year the legislation could become law.

"We don't really have a disagreement over the language," Rogers said. "Perhaps in the past, there were some ownership issues ... I don't think that's a question any longer."

The Senate will also revive a constitutional amendment to cap state government spending. Rogers said excess revenues would not be spent on new programs, but would be used to replenish the state's rainy day fund.

Senate Education Chairman Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, said he plans to propose a constitutional amendment that would let local communities vote on whether to allow charter schools in their districts. Last year, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned a law that allowed for the creation of state-approved and funded charter schools over the objection of local school boards. The high court concluded that only local boards of education have the power to open and pay for public schools.

The ruling does not apply to students currently attending charter schools approved by their local school districts. GOP senators called the ruling "erroneous." Millar said the issue is parent choice, not school board choice.

"Here in Georgia, our charter schools have been very, very successful," Millar said. "We need to create more of these schools."

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, plans to revisit legislation she successfully championed three years ago addressing mandatory reporting of child abuse, prompted by the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. Unterman said she will propose expanding who will be required to report child abuse; currently, mandatory reporting is limited to seven professions. The only exceptions would be members of the clergy, counselors or attorneys.

Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, is also addressing child sex abuse with legislation that would extend the statute of limitations on sex crimes. For victims of a sex crime who are under 16, upon turning 18, the statute of limitations would run 10 years, and the statute would remain 15 years for forcible rape.

"The simple truth of it is, we have situations where victims of these crimes have no recourse in Georgia's courts," said Bethel, adding that he plans to file the legislation Monday. "What we want to send is a loud and clear message that those who hurt Georgia's children will be held accountable."

Rogers also predicted a late March end to the 40-day session, which would be earlier than in recent years. All 256 members of the Legislature are up for re-election this fall and head to the campaign trail after adjournment.