ATC Georgia Capitol Update – Week 3, January 30, 2012   Leave a comment

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

Things are humming along under the Gold Dome, with several pieces of legislation passing out of either the House or Senate last week. Monday, January 30th is the 10th legislative day of the 40 day legislative session and the General Assembly will be in session Monday through Friday this week.

Transportation

Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee dropped an unexpected political bomb Tuesday afternoon in a Capitol press conference in which he requested that the Transportation Investment Act project list that was unanimously approved by the Regional Roundtable last October (and which is scheduled to be voted on by Metro Atlanta voters on July 31, 2012) be reopened by the General Assembly so that the $689 million currently allocated for a transit connection between Cobb County and MARTA’s Arts Center Station could be reallocated to the I-75/I-575 reversible toll lane project which was postponed by Governor Deal in December.

Chairman Lee had previously been a vocal champion of the transit project, despite vehement criticism from Tea Party activists, the Marietta Daily Journal and others who opposed it. Now Lee says that the I-75/I-575 reversible toll lanes project has always been a higher priority for Cobb and that “we would much rather have the managed lanes” than the transit project. The party line from Lee’s camp is that once the Governor postponed the higher priority I-75/I-575 project, that constituted a “substantial and material change” that altered the way the list would have been put together if it had happened before the final project list was approved. However, many of Lee’s biggest supporters in the Cobb business community were blindsided by the announcement and have been highly critical of the attempted project switcheroo. Many believe that Lee simply got scared that his defense of the transit proposal might cost him his reelection in the Republican primary (also on July 31). The reaction Chairman Lee got at the Atlanta Regional Commission meeting last week was even more critical, with many of his fellow Regional Roundtable members giving him an earful for an action they felt could undermine the credibility of a project list for which they all worked so hard to gain unanimous support. Regional transit advocates also weighed in, since the removal of such a significant project from the project list would tip what is essentially a 50/50 split between transit and roads into a list much more heavily weighted toward roads.

House Speaker David Ralston indicated that he maintains his oft expressed position that the project list (as well as the rest of the Transportation Investment Act) should not be opened back up. Governor Deal’s office reiterated that the Governor had merely postponed the I-75/I-575 project and was continuing to look for other ways to fund that project. The original I-75/I-575 project was a public-private partnership that would have involved granting the winning bidder the right to charge a toll for access to the reversible lanes that company would partially fund. The Governor was primarily concerned about a provision in the proposed project in which the State would have agreed not to construct any major alternate roadways in the I-75/I-575 corridor for at least 60 years (in order to assure the private company of a return on its investment), a condition to which Governor Deal was absolutely unwilling to agree.

Transit governance

The Governor’s Transit Governance Task Force issued its final report On Monday, January 23rd and as had been hinted at for a year, recommended that a reconstituted Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) become the agency to coordinate transit operations within the 13 county Metro Atlanta air quality non-attainment area (all of the 10 counties in the ARC, plus Coweta, Forsyth and Paulding counties). Gwinnett was well-represented on the Task Force by Rep. Donna Sheldon co-chairing the committee and by Gwinnett County Chairman Charlotte Nash (a former GRTA Board member). The recommendations call for a Transit Governance Council (TGC) to be created within GRTA, which would have policy-making and transit oversight authority. The TGC would be made up primarily of local elected officials (1 county chair and 1 mayor from each of the 13 counties, an at-large mayor and two at-large county commissioners, plus the Mayor of Atlanta and 5 GRTA Board members). At-large members would be appointed by the Governor and approved by the sub-group members of the TGC (county chairs would approve the at-large county chair, etc.).

Fifty-four pages of the 67 page Final Report were dedicated to a draft version of the legislation needed to enact the recommendations but no bill has been introduced yet. Most believe that legislative leadership wanted to gauge the reactions to the Report before dropping an actual bill. Many proponents of the Regional Transportation Referendum believe that some form of regional transit governance is critical to passage of the 1-penny sales tax in July. Stay tuned.

HOPE

Last week, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate jointly unveiled their proposals for modifying the HOPE scholarship & grant program, including:

  • SB 336 – Imposing a cap on eligibility based on family income, children from families with a household income of $140,000 or more would no longer be eligible for HOPE.
  • SB 334 – Eliminating the GPA requirement for eligibility for the Zell Miller Scholarship, which was created as part of last year’s HOPE reforms and which will pay full tuition for Georgia high school Valedictorians and Salutatorians as well as all Georgia high school students graduating with a 3.7 or better GPA and who also score a minimum 1200 on the SAT or 26 on the ACT. Democrats propose to eliminate any SAT or ACT requirement and offer full tuition to anyone graduating in the top 3% of aGeorgiahigh school graduating class.
  • SR 722 – Constitutional amendment to add a student representative to the Board of Regents (the composition of which is set by the Georgia Constitution).
  • SB 335 – Eliminating the GPA requirement which was imposed last year for students receiving the HOPE Grant to attend aGeorgiatechnical college. The HOPE Grant differs from the HOPE Scholarship, in that the HOPE Grant was intended to provide job training for adults seeking to obtain technical training and to increase the knowledge and skills ofGeorgia’s workforce.

The Governor and Republican leadership in both chambers have stated very forcefully that they view any sort of income cap on HOPE Scholarship eligibility as a non-starter. Majority caucus leadership response to the first three items above would indicate that none of these three proposals have much chance of being included in whatever form HOPE reform legislation ultimately takes.

Other legislation of note

HB 718 – Would create a Georgia Capital Acceleration Fund of up to $200 million (financed by the sale of insurance premium tax credits sold by the state over an initial 3 year period). The fund would be administered by a Georgia Capital Acceleration Authority and used as venture capital for Georgia-based start-up companies. STATUS: Pending in the House Insurance Committee.

HB 48 – Would expand Georgia’s existing freeporttax exemptions to make Georgiamore competitive with neighboring states which have no tax on business inventory. STATUS: Passed out of House Ways & Means Committee on February 24, 2011. Passed the full House on March 2, 2011 by a vote of 166-1. Pending in Senate Finance Committee.

HB 705 – 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 Georgiahave already been granted exemptions from the rule). Status: Passed by House Education Committee on January 12th and pending in House Rules Committee.

HB 713 – Bill 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. Status: Passed by House Education Committee on January 12th and by the full House by a vote of 162-1 on January 24th. Pending in Senate Education & Youth Committee.

SB 33 – 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 finally 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. STATUS: Passed the House (by a 135-38 vote) and Senate (by a 48-1 vote) last year. Pending in House-Senate Conference Committee.

SR 20 – 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. STATUS: Passed the Senate last February (by a vote of 42-7) and is pending in the House Ways & Means Committee.

SB 223 – “Sunset legislation” bill that 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. STATUS: Passed the House (by a 120-56 vote) and Senate (by a 42-9 vote) last year. Pending in House-Senate Conference Committee.

HR 1162 – A Constitutional amendment to allow for charter schools to be approved by the state was introduced on Tuesday by Speaker Pro-Tem Jan Jones. 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. STATUS: Introduced on January 24, 2012 and pending in House Education Committee.

HB 86 – Would eliminate all state and local sales and use taxes on energy used in manufacturing. Bill could be expanded to include agriculture and mining. STATUS: Introduced last session and still pending in House Ways & Means Committee.

SB 355 – By Sen. Renee Unterman, 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). STATUS: Introduced on January 26, 2012.

The Week Ahead

The current legislative calendar calls for the General Assembly to be in session Monday through Friday this week and Monday through Thursday next week. Image

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