Balfour: Billboard bill dead in General Assembly

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comApril 2, 2009 

ATLANTA -- The senator who is pushing a bill that would allow billboard companies to cut more trees on the state right of way said late Friday night the effort was "dead."

"It's dead," said Sen. Don Balfour. "We got real close, but did not get there."

With an army of environmentalists ready to fight the bill all day, it never made it to the House floor.

The House narrowly defeated the bill on Wednesday, but a call for reconsideration passed. Balfour, R-Snellville, pushed most of the day to get the bill back up for a vote in the House.

Earlier in the day, Balfour was more confident he could get the bill to the floor.

"It is a good bill and it was a close vote," Balfour said about 5:30 p.m. "I think we have moved 15 or 20 people. The only question is will they take it up for a vote."

The bill passed the Senate several weeks ago.

A coalition of 20 environmental groups across the state have fought the bill. A lot of that opposition is coming out of Columbus, where Keep Columbus Beautiful and Trees Columbus are part of the group. Columbus consultant Bob Hydrick, a former mayor, helped put the group together. Hydrick has been in the Capitol this week.

Hydrick said his role was as a "strategist, not a lobbyist." He is not registered as a lobbyist.

Balfour credited Hydrick with the strong opposition.

"They are well organized and have done a good job," Balfour said. "I don't agree with them, but I respect them. Your former mayor has done a good job working on this."

Hydrick said he Balfour was giving him too much credit.

"It's not me, it's all these other people," Hydrick said. "I guess he singled me out because I took him on in his office."

About a month ago, Hydrick said he and Balfour had a "very frank exchange."

Those against the bill say it will give too much power to cut state trees. The bill allows companies to pay a $4,500 fee and cut all the trees on the right of way that block a sign's view.

Hydrick, standing outside the House door, responded, "You're kidding me," when told of Balfour's comments. "My mama told me not to count my chickens before they hatch."

Balfour said he will try again.

"It will be sitting there next year," he said.

General Assembly approves $500,000 for Meriwether County man wrongly convicted

The General Assembly authorized $500,000 to a Meriwether County man wrongly convicted of rape in 1979.

John Jerome White spent 20 years in state prison after the conviction. DNA testing later concluded he was innocent. He was convicted on the strength of being picked out of a photo lineup.

Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-COlumbus, sponsored the resolution.

The resolution passed the Senate 29-21. It needed 29 votes for a majority. Both Columbus senators -- Republican Seth Harp and Democrat Ed Harbison -- voted for it and spoke in favor of it.

Harp was one of about a half dozen Republican senators who voted for it.

"I absolutely believe they owe him because they took 20 years of his life," Harp said.

Some Senate Republicans fought the measure, pointing out that White was convicted of other crimes, including armed robbery and possession of cocaine. It was also argued the state should not make this payment in light of the more than $3 billion budget shortfall.

"I am surprised about the rancor over a man robbed of his freedom," Harbison said.

The Senate put several provisions on the resolution. White, 48, will have to stay felony free, submit to drug testing and hold a job or do volunteer work. He will not receive the money in a lump sum, instead he will get it in annual payments.

The House voted 118-42 to accept the Senate changes.

Hugley recommended the House take it. "At this late juncture, it is the best we can do," she said. "...It is not a perfect situation for Mr. White."

Kasim Reed: "MARTA is one of the things that keeps us from being Mississippi”

MARTA has now become a "political football" in the debate on transportation funding.

Metro's Atlanta's train and bus authority has threaten to reduce service if the General Assembly does not free up some of the $65 million in reserves for capital projects to cover operating shortfalls.

Sen. Kasim Reed, D-Atlanta is one of three senators on the transportation funding conference committee that is trying to work out an 11th-hour deal that would bridge the differences between the House and Senate transportation bills.

He is also a candidate for mayor of Atlanta, as the billboard across from Turner Field tells you. With MARTA funding and possible reduction of mass transit services woven into the transportation bill, Reed considered an interesting question. Why is MARTA important to people who live outside Atlanta in the “other Georgia.”

“The people in the other Georgia should be concerned because MARTA doesn’t cost them a dime. But people in the other Georgia like to come to Atlanta, stay in a hotel and take the train to a Braves game or a Falcons game every now and then. ... MARTA is one of the things that keeps us from being Mississippi.”

Harp says he will seek statewide office -- not sure which one

Sen. Seth Harp, R-Columbus, said Friday morning he will run for statewide office in 2010.

Only Harp won't say which one.

He had been considering a run for Insurance Commissioner, which is being vacated by John Oxendine's bid for governor. This week Attorney General Thurbert Baker said he, too, will run for governor.

The Columbus family practice said when the General Assembly session ends today, he will go home and make a decision on which office he will seek.

"It will be attorney general or insurance commissioner," Harp said shortly after speaking on the floor of the Senate.

He would not say which way he is leaning. He said he will talk to people in Columbus who have been urging him to run for insurance commissioner before making a decision.

"I am going to talk to my friends who brought me to this party," Harp said.

Asked who those friends were, Harp smiled.

"The folks at Aflac, the leadership in Columbus and the Columbus Chamber of Commerce," Harp answered.

Harp would run in the summer Republican primary. If he won the nomination he would be on the November ballot.

Quote of the day

Augusta preacher Reginald Jones this morning to the Georgia House on final day of session: "Keep in mind you are legislating people's lives. Behind that legislation is vibrations that real people will feel."

Transportation tops final day agenda

The final day of the 2009 General Assembly session has started and the top priority seems to be working out a transportation funding plans.

Two Columbus-area lawmakers are in the middle of that issue.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Vance Smith, a Pine Mountain Republican, and Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat, are on the conference committee that is trying to reach a compromise on the differences in the House and Senate versions of the bill. The House wants a statewide sales tax to fund transportation improvements and the Senate wants a regional sales tax that would likely favor Metro Atlanta.

The six-person conference committee met three times yesterday without substantial movement.

This morning, Smyre said if a deal is not reached it will "cripple the state" economically.

"We are staring to feel the pressure," Smyre said 16 hours before the deadline for a deal.

That pressure is coming from state business leaders, Smyre said.

The talks are also lined with serious political ramifications. Last year, a transportation funding bill failed and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who leads the Senate, took much of the blame. Cagle, a leading candidate for governor in 2010, has a lot riding on the outcome of today's transportation talks.

If no deal is reached, "the politics of 2010 changes dramatically," Smyre said.

Smith said there has been some movement, but he was not ready to say a deal was anywhere near being done.

The committee started meeting at 9.

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