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Georgia Capitol notes through Day 27

HEADLINES:

Sweeping water conservation legislation is on its way to Gov. Sonny Perdue. The House gave the Georgia Water Stewardship Act final approval with a 153-8 vote. The measure is expected to give Georgia a tool in water negotiations with neighboring Alabama and Florida by showing that sprawling metro Atlanta is working to control its thirst. Perdue helped author the bill, and he's expected to sign it into law in the coming days. The bill puts in place a wide-ranging series of conservation measures. It requires high efficiency toilets, shower heads, and faucets in new construction and limits most outdoor watering between the hours of 4 p.m. and 10 a.m., which is expected to save millions of gallons of water lost through evaporation.

ODDS & ENDS:

- The House Ways and Means Committee approved a bill that would hike dozens of fees in Georgia. The bill would also put in place six new fees, including a $100 fee to file a civil lawsuit. The legislation is expected to raise about $90 million to help the state close a huge budget shortfall.

- The leadership of the House and Senate are pushing for the creation of two panels that would offer suggestions for revamping Georgia's tax laws. House Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle say the state's tax code is outdated. The tax reform council would include three economists. Outgoing Gov. Sonny Perdue and former Gov. Zell Miller could also be on the panel.

- The Senate has unanimously approved a bill that would ban texting while driving. The legislation would prohibit the practice for all drivers. Violators would face a fine and driver's license penalties. Friends and family of 18-year-old Caleb Sorohan, who died in a car crash while texting, were on hand to witness the vote.

- First-time juvenile violators of a school's zero- tolerance policy would no longer be designated felons under a measure that was unanimously approved by the Senate. Under the proposal, items ranging from keychains to grooming kits, which can now be classified as weapons, would carry that designation only when used in an assault.

- Georgia's top judge warned state lawmakers that deep cuts to the state budget are making it "increasingly difficult" for the courts to do their constitutionally mandated duties. Carol Hunstein made the remarks in the state of the judiciary address, her first as the Georgia Supreme Court's chief justice, before a joint session of the Legislature. Hunstein said the court system's backlog has grown as state money flowing to the judicial branch has dwindled.

- Some low-risk sex offenders would be able to get off the state's registry under a bill that cleared the House by a vote of 165-1. The legislation would give certain inmates the ability to petition the courts to remove them from the registry after completing their sentences. Among those who would be eligible are the disabled, those confined to a hospice and so-called Romeo and Juliet statutory rape cases, in which the teens are close together in age.

-- State senators gave unanimous approval to a proposal to create a statewide alert system to catch criminals who kill or seriously injury law enforcement officers in Georgia. Similar to the Amber Alert law, the legislation from Sen. Jeff Mullis would activate Georgia Department of Transportation message boards to notify the public when an officer has been killed or seriously injured and the perpetrator remains at large.

-- The House has voted to outlaw the use of gas chambers to euthanize pets at animal shelters in Georgia. Under the bill -- approved 115-46-- animals must be put to sleep through lethal injection. The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Tom Knox, said lethal injection is more humane. Only 10 or 11 counties still permit the use of gas chambers, he said.

-- Georgia's open records law would ban the release of crime scene photos showing dismembered body parts or nude genitalia under legislation approved unanimously in the House. The bill was prompted by Hustler Magazine's request for graphic crime photos of Meredith Emerson, the hiker whose naked dismembered body was found in January 2008 in the north Georgia woods.

-- A Republican-backed proposal opposing President Barack Obama's push for health care overhaul was narrowly defeated in the Senate. Its sponsor, Sen. Judson Hill, says it would have preserved citizens' freedom to choose their own health care. A constitutional amendment, it failed to reach the needed two-thirds majority.

-- The Senate approved a bill that would allow online voter registration for Georgians with a valid driver's license or identification card.

Supporters say the proposal would modernize the registration process.

Critics blasted the measure as unnecessary, potentially harmful to minority voters and unlikely to pass muster with the Department of Justice.

-- The House has voted to give state revenue officials more muscle to collect overdue taxes. One bill would streamline the process the state uses to garnish wages from residents who owe taxes. Another would give eight state Department of Revenue agents law enforcement powers to obtain subpoenas and collect late taxes.

-- Senators have cleared the lane for local street races, touted as an economic development initiative for cash-strapped Georgia. The chamber voted 41-9 to approve the bill from Sen. Jim Butterworth. It would allow racing on highways or streets when the race is sanctioned by the county or municipality.

-- Business leaders have offered dozens of suggestions on how to streamline Georgia state government but most won't help this year's budget crisis and some would be political nonstarters. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle acknowledged that the majority of the 50 ideas the group offered could not be immediately implemented but said they could be a road map for savings down the road.

-- Speaker David Ralston urged a House panel to get moving on a bill that could provide new money for roads. Ralston offered the pep talk to the House Transportation Committee before they began considering a new funding bill that would allow Georgians to vote on a a one-cent sales tax hike for transportation projects.

-- The Senate has unanimously approved a proposal that would stiffen penalties against operators of illegal massage parlors, especially in middle Georgia, which seems to be a hub for the establishments. Under the proposed law, the offense would become a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000 upon a person's third offense.

-- Shelters must scan animals for a microchip before euthanizing them under legislation that cleared the House unanimously. If one is detected, officials must make a reasonable effort to locate the owner. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Gene Maddox, a Cairo Republican who's also a veterinarian.

-- Several North Georgia lawmakers introduced a bill that would require a permit for interbasin water transfers, the costly practice of shifting water from one river basin to another. Such transfers have been criticized by environmentalists worried over the potential damage to ecosystems and rural Georgia residents concerned about Atlanta's interference with their water supply.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK:

"I know that you hear push-back on fees but to not enact some of those increases is really to condone government subsidies" -- House Speaker David Ralston urging legislators on the House and Ways and Means committee to approve a bill hiking dozens of fees to help close a budget shortfall. Ralston said some existing user fees don't pay for the services they are supposed to.

DAYS IN SESSION:

Thirteen remain in the 40-day session.

LOOK AHEAD:

Thursday will be crossover day in the state Legislature. That's the deadline by which a bill must pass one chamber or the other in order to be considered this legislative session. It's expected to be a busy week as lawmakers rush to get their bills through the needed committees and onto the floor for a vote in either the Senate or the House.