ATC CAPITOL UPDATE – Week 5, February 13, 2012   Leave a comment

By Michael L. Sullivan

After a long Valentine’s Day weekend back home in the district with their “most important constituents,” the General Assembly will return for the 19th legislative day of the 40 day session on Wednesday and will also be in session Thursday and Friday this week.

That means we will pass the halfway point this week and the prevailing pattern of the past few legislative sessions continues to hold true for this one – focusing on a few core legislative priorities and not letting time and attention get wasted on narrow or peripheral issues…or on difficult issues for which a politically viable solution (i.e. one that can garner enough votes to pass) has not yet emerged. That seems doubly true with this being an election year when issues like addressing the impending HOPE scholarship funding shortfall or trying create unified transit governance bill for the Metro Atlanta region appear destined to be put off until next year’s session. But keep in mind that just because a bill isn’t flying through the legislative process that does not mean that legislators aren’t working diligently on finding a solution to that problem behind the scenes. Better to take the time to deliberate and enact a good solution next year than to rush to pass a really imperfect solution this year in the name of acting quickly. After all, the law that causes more problems than any other at the Capitol is the law of unintended consequences.

TRANSPORTATION INVESTMENT ACT

Last Tuesday, Rep. Ed Setzler of Cobb County finally introduced two bills designed to scuttle the Transportation Investment Act process currently scheduled to culminate in the regional transportation referendum vote on July 31, 2012. HB 938 would instead propose to allow two or more counties to enter into an intergovernmental agreement to create a “special transportation district” within which a sales tax could be levied. The tax would have to be approved by the voters of those counties and would pay for a specific list of enumerated transportation projects within those counties (essentially, amulti-county SPLOST). HR 1350 is the proposed Constitutional amendment that would authorize these “special transportation districts.” Legislative leadership and Governor Deal have been steadfast in their commitment to the process begun by the Transportation Investment Act in 2010 and it appears these bills are destined to die a (hopefully) quiet death in the House Transportation Committee.

TRANSIT GOVERNANCE

As we mentioned a few weeks ago, the Governor’s Transit Governance Task Force issued a report recommending that the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA) become the agency to coordinate transit operations within the 13 county Metro Atlanta area (actually, a 35-member subcommittee of GRTA that would be made up primarily of mayors and county chairmen from all of the counties in the region). The draft legislation in that report has generated plenty of commentary from various transportation advocacy groups, with most of the disagreement surrounding what role the state should play in local/regional transit governance. While some leaders have expressed the hope that a transit governance bill will pass this session, it appears more likely that the complexity of doing transit governance “right” will require more time and effort than the remainder of this legislative session is likely to provide. Remember that even with all of the passion behind passing a transportation funding bill, it took three sessions of intensive effort (and well more than three very different versions of legislation) before a transportation funding bill was finally passed in 2010. Creating a unified transit governance structure for Metro Atlanta will likely require a multi-session effort as well.

CHARTER SCHOOLS

On Wednesday, a Constitutional amendment to allow charter schools to be approved by the state over the objection of local school boards (HR 1162) fell 10 votes shy in the House of the necessary two-thirds vote (120 votes) required to approve Constitutional amendments. On Thursday, the House voted to reconsider the vote on HR 1162, which allows it to be brought back before the House at some point (presumably, once backers have managed to wrangle the necessary 120 votes). Under the current proposal, 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. That part of the bill actually has broad bipartisan support. The controversial part is the question of whether such approval should entitle a charter school to only the state portion of school funding or if should also entitle the charter school to local school funding (which opponents argue is a usurpation of local control). 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: Passed out of House Education Committee on February 2, 2012. Failed to pass by the required Constitutional 2/3 majority on February 8, 2012. House voted to reconsider on Thursday, February 9, 2012. Pending in House.

ETHICS REFORM

On Wednesday, Sen. Joshua McKoon introduced SB 391, which would substantially revise the Ethics in Government Act in a number of ways, including: (1) placing a $100 cap on gifts from lobbyists to public officials and a cap of $750 for travel to a meeting or conference paid for by a lobbyist, (2) expanding the disclosure requirements (and the proposed caps) to include disclosure of gifts from lobbyists to family members, employees and staff of public officials, (3) renames the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (formerly the State Ethics Commission) the State Accountability Commission, and (4) imposes a one year “cooling off” period during which former employees of the Governor’s Office and Lt. Governor’s Office would be prohibited from lobbying. Status: Pending in Senate Rules Committee.

HB 889 – By Rep. Joe Wilkinson (Chairman of the House Ethics Committee) with the full support of House leadership. The bill would restore the authority of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (formerly known as the State Ethics Commission) to make, interpret and apply rules governing lobbying activities and campaign finance (authority which was taken away in 2009). Speaker of the House David Ralston also indicated that he supported an increase in the budget for the long underfunded state agency. Status: Pending in House Rules Committee.

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 could be 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 allow local governments to exempt business inventory, making 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. Passed the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, February 7th. Pending in Senate Rules 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 12, 2012. 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: January 12, 2012. Passed the full House on January 24, 2012 by a vote of 162-1. 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 make a recommendation if they should be consolidated, privatized or abolished. STATUS: Passed the House (by a 120-56 vote) and Senate (by a 42-9 vote) last year. Senate Conference Committee version was passed by the Senate on January 30, 2012 by a vote of 37-12. Senate Conference Committee version pending acceptance, amendment or rejection by the House.

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 321 – By Sen. Renee Unterman would make it much harder for thieves to sell stolen scrap metal by imposing stringent new requirements on metal recyclers who purchase scrap metal, including (1) prohibiting cash payments in scrap metal purchase transactions, (2) require recyclers to keep on file a copy of the seller’s valid photo ID and thumbprint, VIN number of the vehicle used to deliver the metal, digital photo of the metal items, thumbprint of the seller (all of which would be provided to the sheriff of that county), and (3) prohibiting recyclers from purchasing copper or aluminum coil from non-verified sellers (such as licensed contractors). STATUS: Approved by the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee on February 9, 2012. Pending in Senate Rules 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. Pending in Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Week Ahead

The current legislative calendar calls for the General Assembly to return after Valentine’s Day to be in session Wednesday, February 15th through Friday, February 17th.  Next week, legislators will be in session Tuesday, February 21st through Friday, February 24th.

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