The Georgia General Assembly session is less than five weeks away, and local lawmakers are expecting a busy but brief 40 days at the state Capitol.
State Sen. Jack Hill and state Reps. Jon Burns and Bill Hitchens discussed what the potential issues for the session will be at the annual Effingham Chamber of Commerce Eggs and Issues breakfast last Wednesday at the Effingham College and Career Academy. The next session begins Jan. 11
“We have one of the shortest sessions in the country,” said Burns, who will begin his new duties as House majority leader. “That won’t be any different this year. We will be very considerate of the ideas brought up and we will be very thorough. But we won’t waste any time. It’s good for us and good for the people of Georgia.”
Hitchens said that last year’s session was about “pot and potholes” — the effort to get medicinal use of marijuana passed and the push to get a new avenue for transportation funding. Both initiatives passed, though the medicinal marijuana proposal may come back before the lawmakers. The state transportation funding bill, HB 170, also may undergo some refinement this session.
“We may not agree with every aspect of it,” Burns said of HB 170, “but it’s a good policy and will serve us well in this state. We are one of the envies of the country that we were able to come through with good legislation that addresses the transportation needs of Georgia for many years to come.”
The law, which changed the state’s fuel taxes to an excise tax, brought in $152 million in revenue for the state Department of Transportation in October. The new funding mechanism is expected to generate $1.6 billion to maintain and improve the state’s roads. The previous motor fuel taxes produced about $1 billion for the fiscal year, according to Hill, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Burns added that the federal transportation bill, enacted for five years, will help in the state’s planning.
One change that may come to HB 170 is the $5 surchage on hotel rooms each night. A similar tax on rental cars was scrapped in favor of the hotel room fee — and hotel and motel associations wasted no time in burning the ears of lawmakers, Hitchens said.
“It is a massive bill with a lot of provisions,” Burns said of HB 170. “We probably have heard more talk from hotels than any industry that was affected by the bill. We’re working on a compromise.”
The bill also attached fees to heavy trucks in an effort to offset the wear and tear from those vehicles, Burns said.
“If you travel our roads, you deserve to pay more,” he added. “It’s hit me in my business and it’s hit some others. But we felt it was a fair way to do it. If you use it and you cause the deterioration of that, you need to have some input in paying for it and keeping it up over the years.”
Hitchens, the former commander of the Department of Public Safety and state director for homeland security, said the medical marijuana law likely will be brought back before lawmakers.
“There’s no place to procure it,” he said. “We don’t have the ability to grow it here in the state. There are going to be some issues here with that.”
Education funding to come up for debate
Several study committees have explored changing the state’s education funding formula, and Hill said it appears the recommendations will favor Effingham County’s system.
“Effingham stands to come out ahead about $2.3 million,” he said. “I think it’s a positive for our area and for Effingham County. It gives local systems more flexibility, so if you’re growing, that formula will grow even more.”
Other proposals include improving salaries for pre-kindergarten teachers, bringing those compensations closer to those for other school teachers, and also increase the days for pre-k.
Burns also backed spending on early childhood education.
“If they don’t get a good start, we spend a lot of money down the road getting them to recover,” he said.
Hill extolled the state’s Move On When Ready program, which allows students to earn a high school diploma while taking college-level classes and simultaneously earning either an associate’s degree or a technical certificate.
“We’ve removed all the obstacles for students to learn in high school and at technical college,” the senator said. “We basically have made that system seamless. It ensures people have a chance to go to work or learn a trade before they leave high school.”
The state is paying full tuition for students in some programs deemed economically strategic for the state, such as truck driving, information technology and some medical fields. Savannah Technical College is asking for $5.5 million in the fiscal year 2017 budget to double the size of the driver training track at the Effingham campus.
“There are a multitude of jobs out there for people willing to drive,” Hitchens said.
Hill noted that Georgia has one of the shortest sessions of any state legislature and that Peach State lawmakers did something not many of their neighboring colleagues accomplished.
“Several states have had trouble passing a budget,” he said. “Florida, North Carolina, Alabama all had trouble passing budgets.”
Hill said the state weathered the recession by bringing its expenditures in line with its shrinking revenues.
“That’s the only way you can do it,” he said. “I’ve never believed that you can tax your way out of a recession. Our revenues dropped by $3.5 billion; we cut our expenditures by $3.5 billion.”
Said Burns: “We’re spending less per capita than 10 years ago. We’re pretty proud of how we have managed our state fiscally through some tough times. Things have gotten better in this county and in the Coastal Empire. We’ve managed to maintain ourselves as the No. 1 state in the nation to do business.”
The economic signs for the state and the Coastal Empire are favorable, Hill said.
“Georgia now has the lowest unemployment rate it’s had in seven years,” he said. “And it appears Georgia will do better than most or all of
the national numbers.”
Michael Toma, the director of Armstrong State University’s Center for Regional Analysis, said in his latest Coastal Empire Economic Monitor that there are more positive signs than negative indicators for the local economy, Hill pointed out.
Other changes in the offing
The General Assembly also may be asked to change the composition of the state’s Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.
“The last couple of sessions we’ve taken on the tough issues,” Burns said. “We’ve not kicked that can down the road. We’ve taken on criminal justice reform to provide effective and efficient criminal justice to the folks who are offenders in this state. If you commit a crime, you pay for that crime but we’ve done it in a way that saves dollars and cents, and to make sure they have the best opportunity to come back and be productive members of society but they pay for what they’ve done.”
Lawmakers enabled private citizens to install solar panels and sell their excess energy back to power companies. How much that will be expanded remains a question.
“I’m all for solar,” Hitchens said. “I worry sometimes about how much we can draw out of this earth. I’m all for selling it but I don’t think we ought to make Georgia Power buy it back at a certain rate.”
Burns added he had worked on solar power use bills for a while without success.
“We tore down some of that resistance and allowed our utilities to build the financing that is important, so that power can be sold to Georgia Power and the EMCs,” he said. “That is a supplement to the power generation investment we’re making.”
The aquifer — and whether local governments can inject into it — may come up for discussion in the upcoming session.
“That local option has the potential to impact people a long distance from you and impact them in a very significant way,” Burns said.
Burns also called attention to an Environmental Protection Agency proposal that could make drainage ditches on farm property fall under federal water rules. According to the Georgia Farm Bureau, if the proposal is adopted, drainage ditches could fall under the Clean Water Act and could severely restrict routine planting operations.
“We want the EPA to listen to us and have some rational perspective on this before it is forced down our throats,” Burns said.
The state lawmakers said the issues of Syrian refugees coming into Georgia is essentially a federal matter. Hitchens pointed out the federal government has warned the state there would be repercussions if Syrian refugees are refused food stamps or Medicare.
While the state has little say in the a pre-filed state Senate measure would prohibit issuing driver’s licenses to illegal aliens.
“It’s not clear that will actually work,” Hill said. “We’ll look at that bill this session.”
Hill said he supports idea and cautioned misinformation is likely to be rampant as the legislators debate the bill.
“As with a lot of things, when you introduce legislation, groups take a position on it and in some cases, inaccurately portray what the effect would be,” he said. “We deal with that all the time. Sometimes you have to work through all those arguments before you get to the nut you’re trying to crack on the inside of the bill.”
Burns called on the federal government to create a cohesive and comprehensive immigration policy.
“We in Georgia have not shucked our responsibility and make sure we have restrictions on driver’s licenses,” he said. “That is important to what we do and how we’re able to get to places. We need to make sure our security in this world that is changing that the people who receive driver’s licenses are entitled to them. We need to make sure everybody follows the law.”
Hitchens asked why someone in the country illegally should obtain certain legal rights and privileges. He said he was in Turkey last year and all seemed peaceful then, but the third-largest Iraqi national population lives in DeKalb County.
“There were people dancing out in the streets after 9/11,” he said.
“I’m all for people trying to better their lives. My grandparents were Swedish immigrants,” Hitchens added. “I have a special place in my heart for immigrants. That’s what our country is made of. But we need to be careful in how we move forward. It could be detrimental to us as a country and as individuals.”