With only one week left in the 2007 legislative session, the House has already completed many of the important issues we promised our constituents we would address. We have adopted two fiscally responsible budgets that fund our priorities in education, natural resources, public safety and health care. We have adopted a statewide water management plan and a plan to make it easier to build new water reservoirs. The House addressed transportation needs by enacting a plan to give regional power to raise funds for local transportation projects.
Senate Resolution 845 is a constitutional amendment that would allow a regional commission area transportation tax. Currently in Georgia, there are regional development centers that exist and under another measure would be changed to regional development commissions made up of local elected officials in a multi-county area. These commissions would meet to determine the top transportation needs of the region and then would be able to propose a ballot question to the region’s voters calling for a transportation sales tax not to exceed 1 percent and only for a specified time period. All funds raised will stay within each region to fund transportation projects in that region.
There were some concerns with the bill and so the House addressed those on the floor. We amended the bill to say that an individual county could choose to “opt out” of participation in the regional transportation sales tax. We also amended the measure to include certain exemptions to the tax including fuel for off-road heavy duty equipment, farm and agricultural equipment, locomotive, aircraft and water craft. The logic here was that these different vehicles do not use the traditional roadways. We also added one other key amendment. Currently, funds collected from our motor fuel taxes are deposited into the state’s general fund. We adopted an amendment that creates a special fund within the Department of Transportation to collect the motor fuel taxes so that those can then be used for transportation projects.
This bill addresses our transportation needs on a regional basis rather than attempt a “one size fits all” solution. This is a better solution because our rural communities have different priorities than metro Atlanta and we are empowering every corner of the state to address their own needs. We have also put the power of taxation at the smallest level of government — directly in the hands of the taxpayers. This bill gives those who would pay the tax the voice to decide if they want to pay the tax.
The biggest news in education was that the House budget restored $90 million to the “austerity cuts” that were in the governor’s budget. We also restored $1.3 million to Math Mentors – the superintendent’s No. 1 priority based on the overwhelming success of the Science Mentor program that the House of Representatives created to raise test scores. We also have added $305 million across the two budgets to fund K-12 school construction and equipment needs. We added $114 million in additional funds to fully fund the Regents formula for our colleges while creating a $60 million bond to start the construction of a new dental school to ensure an adequate supply of dentists trained in state-of-the-art procedures.
With trauma care being one of the most important topics here at the Capitol, our budget contains $5.5 million for equipment and $53,402,769 for distribution to aid existing trauma hospitals. Also on the health care front, over $80 million was added as provider increases for hospital, home health personal support, maternity, well-child care, ambulance, pharmacists, nursing homes, therapeutic resident care and dental services. This is for the 1.6 million Georgians receiving Medicaid and PeachCare services. We put in $2 million for four new community health centers, which provide primary care access in underserved areas of the state.
We provided just over $1 million for the Meals on Wheels program. Funds are needed to replace federally withdrawn funds (Paper Plate Initiative) from the Nutrition Services Incentive Program. Meals are served in-home and congregate places such as senior centers. This will provide over 200,000 meals to at-risk seniors and disabled persons. In the realm of public safety, we added $20 million to continue the House’s initiatives last year to retain and recruit public safety officers. This annualizes last year’s increases for law enforcement officers in public safety.
Our work here will be completed on Friday. In our final days, we will finalize the FY09 budget, hopefully reach an agreement with the Senate on a tax cut and still be home to return to our regular jobs and to spend with our families.
I will continue to keep you up to date on our actions as the legislative session progresses.