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Legislature making progress this session
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Benita Dodd

As the legislative session reached the halfway mark for 2015, there are signs of promising action from the General Assembly.

For novices: The Legislature has two-year sessions of 40 days each year. Crossover day for legislation is Day 30, which means a bill must have passed at least one chamber for a chance to become law. (Convoluted amendments sometimes skirt this requirement.) If it does not pass in the first year, it has another opportunity to continue in the second year; if not, it must be introduced all over again.

Bearing in mind that a part-time Legislature has little time and few resources to get acquainted with policies, precedents or philosophies, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation distributes a Guide to the Issues. It serves as both foundation and platform for elected officials and candidates, providing limited-government principles and market-oriented, individual-responsibility policies for Georgia.

Paramount to Georgia’s progress is education, which is why it leads off our legislative “progress report.” Access to a quality education enhances individual and economic opportunity and the overall quality of life in Georgia. The ability for parents to choose can improve the odds of a child’s academic success.

Education: Legislation in the House would increase the amount that Georgians can donate to fund private school scholarships under the tuition tax credit scholarship program. Donations are currently capped at $58 million annually; Rep. Earl Erhart proposes raising the cap to $250 million. The Senate is considering Sen. Hunter Hill’s proposal for education savings accounts to give parents control over funding their child’s qualifying education expenses. Already in the House is the Senate’s unanimously approved “Move On When Ready,” legislation streamlining graduation requirements for high school students simultaneously enrolled in college programs.

Meanwhile, Gov. Nathan Deal is proposing an opportunity school district to turn around failing schools, which would allow successful charters to easily expand. Deal has also indicated support for a weighted student funding model, sometimes called “backpacking,” in which the funding follows the child, not the school administration.

Health care: Sen. Judson Hill has proposed a small tax credit program for donations to charity care networks. Georgia already has one of the nation’s best free clinic networks providing a much-needed service and bridge to care. It’s a start as the state continues to grapple with a full-fledged alternative to Medicaid expansion that is patient-focused and consumer-driven. (The Foundation has proposed such an alternative.) Medical malpractice reform, in the form of a patient compensation system, is a difficult step because special interests trump pragmatism; a stalwart Sen. Brandon Beach has proposed the legislation to compensate patients for medical injuries. Again.

Criminal justice: The Foundation’s role as an architect of criminal justice reform was acknowledged by the governor; unfortunately, proposals for civil asset forfeiture reform have faced resistance from some in law enforcement. This year, Georgians have a better chance of protection from unfair seizure of their property.

Transportation: The Guide to the Issues proposed dedicating existing gas taxes to transportation, prioritizing projects, embracing public-private partnerships and user fees, and enabling local governments to use a fractional sales tax mechanism. Legislation is in the works in the House.

Business: Several reforms are needed to make Georgia more attractive for jobs and business.

Professional licensing requirements can be a hindrance; a “right to work” standard would provide a defense for an individual, giving them the right to challenge the government on an onerous licensing requirement.

Lowering personal income tax rates will improve job creation; many small business owners file taxes as individuals; keeping more of their money would help them expand their businesses, add jobs and stay in Georgia. It would also improve Georgia’s competitiveness against its neighbors.

Implementing a defined contribution system in the Teachers’ Retirement System is less punitive for the younger, more transient younger generation and puts the profession in line with the private sector’s movement to 401(k)s.

Other policies are just out of touch with the 21st century, held in place by protectionism, special interests and, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” Fortunately, many legislators see no reason to hold back the craft beer industry by preventing retail sales at craft breweries; Georgia’s wineries already sell for consumption off-premises.

Similarly, Georgians have shown they want Uber, Lyft and similar auto services, and these should not be unduly burdened. And, in an era where everything from wine to furniture can be ordered off Amazon, it’s backward to seek restrictions on the “Tesla” model of doing business.

Legislators are making progress on Georgians’ pocketbook issues. The Dickensian joke about starting out with, “Great Expectations,” and ending up with, “Hard Times,” may yet apply, but at the halfway mark, the Foundation remains hopeful of a happy ending.

Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.