ATC Georgia Capitol Update – Week 2, January 23, 2012   Leave a comment

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By: Michael Sullivan, head of ATC’s Zoning, Land Use & Governmental Relations Group 

The Georgia General Assembly was not in session last week, both in observance of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday on Monday and to devote the remainder of the week to the budget presentations before the House and Senate Joint Appropriations Committee.

But that doesn’t mean that important work was not being done. Certainly the work that was done on the budget by the Joint Appropriations Committee is among the most important work done in any legislative session and as anyone who has sat through even part of them can attest, just enduring almost 20 hours of budget presentations over three days is definitely hard work in and of itself.

The Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses separately unveiled their legislative agendas for the session last week. The Senate Republican Majority Caucus agenda was presented at a Capitol press conference on Wednesday (by a group of senators that included Gwinnett Sen. Renee Unterman and Sen. Fran Millar) and includes:

  • Zero-based budgeting for all state agencies. SB 33, sponsored by Gwinnett’s own Sen. David Shafer (and which already passed the full Senate last year) could be the legislative vehicle to bring “zero-base” budgeting to Georgia’s budget process, requiring every state program, agency or department to submit a zero-base budget once every four years. A zero-base budget would require every budget to start at zero and for every line item for a particular program or agency to be justified, rather than the current scenario where the starting point for budget discussions is the previous year’s budget amount and the discussion is how much that amount will be raised or lowered. A similar zero-based budget bill (SB 1, also by Sen. Shafer) easily passed the General Assembly in 2010 but was vetoed by then Governor Perdue (the Senate overrode that veto in 2011 but the House chose not to act). With Governor Deal already unilaterally implementing zero-based budgeting for 10% of state agencies on his own (fulfilling his zero-base budgeting campaign promise), this looks like the year zero-based budgeting may finally pass into law.  
  • Cap on state spending. SR 20, filed last year, would place a cap on state spending, with increases limited to the previous year’s budget amount plus inflation and population increase (if any). Any excess revenues would be funneled to the Rainy Day Fund. SR 20 passed the Senate last February and is pending in the House Ways & Means Committee.
  • “Sunset legislation.” SB 223, filed last year, would create a “Legislative Sunset Advisory Subcommittee” that would regularly assess all state programs, departments and agencies (each agency would be reviewed at least every 8 years) to determine if they should be consolidated or abolished. Different versions of SB 223 have passed both chambers and SB 223 is currently in a House/Senate conference committee.
  • A Constitutional amendment to allow for charter schools to be approved by the state. Proposed charter schools would first apply to the local board of education in the jurisdiction in which they are located and if denied, they could then apply to the Georgia Charter Schools Commission for a charter which, if granted, would entitle that school to state and local school funding. This Constitutional amendment is in response to (and would overturn) the May 2011 decision of the Georgia Supreme Court which declared that only local school boards could approve charter schools. Constitutional amendments must be approved by two-thirds (2/3) majority of both the House and Senate and must then be subsequently ratified byGeorgia’s voters in a general election.   
  • Abolish the “65% rule” for K-12 spending (see HB 705, below) which currently requires 65% of all school system funds to be spent in the classroom.
  • Elimination of all state and local sales and use taxes on energy used in manufacturing, agriculture and mining.
  • Child protection bill that would require mandatory reporting of child abuse by anyone (other than clergy and attorneys bound by attorney-client privilege) to report evidence of possible child abuse (currently only seven specifically defined types of professionals, such as teachers, are required to report evidence of child abuse). The bill would also extend the statute of limitations on crimes against children to the victim’s 18th birthday plus 10 years (or plus 15 years, in cases of forcible rape). The bill will be sponsored by Gwinnett’s own Sen, Renee Unterman, who has long been one of the leading champions at the Capitol for more forceful child protection laws.

The Senate Democrats’ agenda includes:

  • Three year moratorium on new High Occupancy Toll lanes (HOT lanes).
  • Online voter registration and same-day voter registration on Election Day.
  • Creating an independent State Ethics Commission, appointed by the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and Chief Judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals (rather than the Governor, Speaker of the House and Lt. Governor, as it is currently) and creating a dedicated funding level of 0.01% of the overall state budget.
  • Require all fees collected by the state to be dedicated to the programs for which they are collected.
  • Comprehensive review of all “tax breaks” and subsidies in the tax code.
  • SB 175, filed last year, would create an independent “Citizen’s Redistricting Commission” to draw Georgia’s congressional and legislative districts (rather than the General Assembly drawing the maps).  

TAX REFORM

Legislative leaders confirmed assumptions last week that there will be no comprehensive tax reform in this year’s legislative session and even Governor Deal’s proposal to eliminate the sales tax on energy used in manufacturing began to get some pushback from local governments that don’t want to lose the local portion of the sales tax on energy that they currently collect. Estimates are that the local sales taxes collected on energy by all cities and counties in Georgia total more than $100 million and that kind of money at a time when local government budgets have already been slashed by decreased sales and property taxes generally, means that counties and cities (and their lobbyists) will be fully engaged in trying to keep legislators from eliminating the local portion of energy sales taxes. Legislative leaders, however, seem intent on eliminating all sales taxes on energy used in manufacturing, agriculture and mining to maximize the value of the incentive for those industries. Sen. Bill Heath, the chairman of the joint committee that will be dealing with these issues, indicated that he wants to see the tax eliminated completely as well as his belief that a compromise with local governments on the issue would ultimately be reached.  

HOPE

As I mentioned last week, the Georgia Student Finance Commission (which administers Georgia’s HOPE scholarship & grant program) has projected that Lottery revenues are not increasing as fast as the number of HOPE eligible students requires and that a $107 million shortfall is projected in FY 2014, increasing to $163 million by FY 2016. Under those projections, current high school freshmen can expect HOPE to cover less than half of their tuition at UGA or Tech by the time they enter college. If you are a legislator or Governor who doesn’t want to soon become a former legislator or former Governor anytime soon, those are projections that you are going to want to address. This Wednesday the process of addressing that funding gap will begin in earnest at a meeting of the Joint House & Senate Higher Education Committee. Despite having just passed sweeping changes to HOPE last year, look for more comprehensive HOPE reform in this year’s session as legislators try to find ways get HOPE back on sound fiscal footing.   

 

EDUCATION

HB 705 – The House Education Committee recommended do pass for a bill that would eliminate the requirement that was imposed on school systems a couple of years ago that 65% of all school system funds must be spent in the classroom. The change was recommended by the K-12 finance commission based on research finding no evidence of the 65% rule having any impact on student achievement (and the reality that at least 40 school systems in Georgia have already been granted exemptions from the rule).

HB 713 – The House Education Committee also recommended do pass for a bill that will delay until 2013 the implementation of the college and career readiness initiatives that were scheduled to go into effect this fall. These initiatives include requiring some level of career awareness education for students in all grades (K-12) as well as the “career pathways” program in which career focused programs of study in at least 16 defined career areas would be created for all high schools and students would follow a course schedule partially focused on the particular career interest they select beginning in 9th grade. Department of Education officials indicated that more time was needed to make sure that these programs are implemented in the right way.

GOVERNOR LOWERS HOT LANE TOLLS

Thursday, the State Road and Tollway Authority Board approved Governor Deal’s request to lower the minimum toll for the HOT lanes in I-85 down to 1 cent per mile during off-peak traffic periods. While the HOT lanes are at capacity during weekday morning and afternoon rush hours, the move was intended to increase utilization of the lanes during non-peak periods. Also, for those of you who access I-85 at Sugarloaf Parkway, there are plans to add a southbound access point near Boggs Road by the end of January.    

PEACH PASS – THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT

While working on lowering those HOT lane tolls, the State Road and Tollway Authority also announced a new free app “Peach Pass Go” which Peach Pass users can utilize to change their status from paying the toll to being a carpool with three or more passengers (carpools of three or more passengers do not have to pay the toll but DO have to have a Peach Pass sticker). The status change still has to be accomplished prior to entering the lane (and if you’re driving, let one of your passengers handle that task) but was previously only available via the Peach Pass website

The Week Ahead

The current legislative calendar calls for the General Assembly to be in session Monday through Thursday this week in addition to a flurry of House and Senate committee meetings that are scheduled as legislators put the MLK week off behind them and the legislative process kicks into full-swing.

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