Business Lobbyists Gear Up for Session Close Scrutiny Kept on Legislative Bills

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ATLANTA -- Business lobbyists say environmental, tax and insurance issues will top the list of bills they will be watching to support or oppose during the legislative session beginning Jan. 8.

December is when concentrated lobbying begins as newly elected and re-elected lawmakers meet in committees to determine the shape of the coming 40-day session. Only about two dozen bills have been filed for introduction so far out of an estimated 1,500 expected, and veteran corporate lobbyists say their predictions of the hot bills could be easily blown off course by surprise legislation.

"If you go back and look at who gives money to campaigns I think you will find that business is pretty well represented, so I think we'll do OK," said Earl Rogers, representative for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. "You never know what's going to happen."

Rogers said the chamber hopes to see adoption of a concept it worked on with environmentalists to create a regional board to plan for the Atlanta area's water needs. That board would serve as a model for similar bodies to be created in other regions of the state.

The chamber also agrees with the Environmental Protection Division's request for more staff as long as no fees are imposed to pay salaries. The trade group opposes letting local governments take up the task of enforcing state environmental regulations.

The EPD request isn't the only agency proposal likely to win chamber members' endorsement next month. A draft agenda includes supporting the Department of Community Health's goal of greater Medicaid payout for coverage of the 1.3 million uninsured working poor and strengthening struggling rural hospitals around the state.

And the chamber's draft even advocates raising the benefits from worker's compensation from $375 per week to $400 and creation of a fund to help injured workers of uninsured employers.

Other business groups are a little leery of changing worker's comp.

"We will be watching that very very closely, as will the rest of the business community," said Steve McWilliams, lobbyist for the Georgia Retail Association.

Taxes, though, outrank all concerns for the merchant group. One returning proposal introduced too late to succeed last year calls for a brief period in which school supplies would go on sale without a sales tax.

Eight states offer such tax holidays, including Florida and South Carolina.

"We don't want Georgia to be in the position where we are an island and states around us draw our consumers out for a nine- to 10-day period," McWilliams said.

At the same time, McWilliams hopes Georgia will join other states in streamlining its sales-tax-collection procedures so that enforcing compliance from online transactions will be possible. …