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Issues for the Legislature
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As we move toward the not-much-awaited “Ten Reasons to be Optimistic About 2012” column now in the development stage, here are some other issues besides the state budget that will be on the legislative agenda as the General Assembly convenes Jan. 9, 2012.

1. The Criminal Justice Reform Special Council Report is out and it looks as if reform of sentencing and other needed reforms will happen, not necessarily because of a broad-minded view of the misdeeds of others, but because it can be explained by the potential savings in prisons costs in a state that ranks fourth in the number of people incarcerated.

Can a state that embraced not “Three Strikes and You’re Out” but a Zell Miller inspired “Two Strikes and You’re Out” agree that not all who commit crimes get to that place the same way and don’t need or deserve the same imprisonment sentence?  When the number of the mentally ill is taken into account, a case for a “Mental Health Court” can certainly be made.  The success of drug courts, DUI courts and even veteran’s courts make the case that there may be alternatives that can keep the public safe that are not as costly and counter-productive as prison.

While legislation has not been introduced as yet, it is likely that attention will be given to giving judges more latitude on “mandatory” sentences and looking at thresholds on theft and other non-violent drug crimes. Additionally efforts will probably be made to incentivize shortening of probation and parole periods for “good” time.  Accountability courts would be institutionalized with standards and a certification review process to insure compliance and fairness.

2. Georgia’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund Debt Repayment—Georgia and its businesses currently owe the federal government over $700 million in benefits that were paid out to the unemployed during the recession when the state’s Trust Fund ran out.  It is normally kept up by fees charged to businesses, but the fees were reduced and suspended during the booming economic times of the recent 10 years.  Georgia just had to make a $21 million payment from state revenues for interest on the fund and will owe a full 12-month interest payment in 2012 on whatever the debt has grown or been reduced to.   Legislation will be considered to set in place the repayment of the debt to the federal government.  Ideas which may be considered include reducing the $330 maximum weekly benefit amount, delaying the start of unemployment payments for a week, reducing the present 26 weeks of state benefits and increasing the administrative assessment that the Department of Labor presently collects from businesses.  A complicating factor amid the recession recovery is the fact that many businesses who have had to lay off employees due to the economy are already paying a higher assessment due to that “experience” level.  The federal assessment on employers will increase steadily until the debt is paid so Georgia has to begin to meet this repayment obligation.

3. Drug Testing Requirements for Unemployment Benefits, Welfare Benefits and Candidates—A proposal to join Florida and require a test for some state benefits such as welfare benefits has led to other proposals , such as requiring a test for unemployment benefits (federal issue?) and brought a response from opponents.  The “good for the gander” would call for drug tests for candidates running for state office.  Remains to be seen where all of this will lead, but I do remember having to get a drug test to run for the state legislature back in the 1990s until a judge threw out the practice as unconstitutional.

4. Internet Sales Tax CollectionEfforts will continue to find a way to collect the “use” tax due on Internet sales not presently collected.  State law holds any item bought or “used” in the state to be taxed on the sale.  Federal courts have prevented states from forcing large internet retailers from being required to collect local and state sales taxes unless the seller has a “physical” location in the state. is the 400-pound gorilla of that business not collecting sales taxes but recently agreed to a deal with California to begin collecting the tax. Federal legislation requiring larger retailers to begin collecting state and local sales taxes has been introduced and appears to have a good chance of passing and apparently supports this nationwide approach. The question that remains is how Georgia would approach this and whether the state will have to wait until federal legislation passes to address it.  This is a big issue with local chambers of commerce and with large chain stores who do Internet business and presently collect sales taxes.

5. Tax Reform—Currently there seems to be widespread support for extending the sales tax exemption to energy used in manufacturing, mining, publishing and agriculture. Beyond this, there is little common ground.  Some legislators are pushing for more reliance on sales tax while bringing down the income tax.  Removing the exemption on food has been revived as has increasing the cigarette tax.  Tax reformers believe that businesses filing as individuals will greatly benefit from reducing the income tax rate and that these savings will translate into investment and jobs.  They also believe moving towards consumption-based sales taxes replacing income taxes stimulates the economy and helps Georgia compete with “no income tax” states such as Texas, Florida and Tennessee. 

Senior citizens through special interest groups like AARP are flooding legislators with emails opposing extending the tax on groceries idea.  Seniors are faring better than any other age group currently with a $35,000 Georgia income tax exclusion per spouse in effect and the next phase of the ending of all Georgia income taxes for 65 year-olds due to increase to $65,000 per spouse in 2012.

There are a number of issues sure to be considered this session and of course there will be some that crop up that nobody saw coming. Additionally, every bill that was introduced in the 2011 session and not passed last year is still in committee in one body or the other and can be considered in 2012. Other issues include possible cell phone restrictions while driving, whether the state will institute Health Care Exchanges as the national health care bill requires, possible expansions of weapons carrying and possible changes to Georgia’s industry recruitment efforts following the Governors Competitiveness study. Also, the time may have come for local elected county elections to be non-partisan if there is local support. Permissive local legislation would be allowed for all county offices to be non-partisan.

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