The General Assembly is taking some heat in the media this year for having one of its least productive sessions ever, in terms of addressing issues that really affect the lives of Georgians. Legislators still have one last shot at redeeming themselves in the closing days, however.
As last week came to a close, there was actually some progress made on two of those vital issues: the state's traffic congestion dilemma and the upgrading of Georgia's woeful network of trauma care facilities.
On the issue of trauma care, lawmakers finally passed HB 160, Gov. Sonny Perdue's proposal to increase the fines on motorists who are caught speeding more than 15 mph above the posted limit (an extra $200 in most cases). Perdue will surely sign the bill, which is expected to generate about $23 million a year that would be allocated to the state's trauma commission.
The bill has its faults; critics argued that it would be difficult for many low-income drivers to come up with the money necessary to pay the higher fines and have their licenses reinstated. There are also some doubts as to whether the new law will really generate as much as $23 million annually in revenue. The state has to figure out how to raise even more money for trauma care.
Even so, it's the first time in years that lawmakers have been able to pass something that provides a regular source of funding for an urgent state need. There are other trauma care bills still pending and it's possible that more can be accomplished before the session's end. That would be a win for Georgians.
There were also indications last week that the governor, the House and the Senate may - and I emphasize the word "may" - be able to work out some sort of solution to the state's transportation funding needs.
House leaders still want to enact a statewide, 1-cent sales tax increase that would raise an estimated $25 billion for transportation needs over the next decade. Senate leaders are still backing a proposal to allow smaller groups of counties, most likely the ones in metro Atlanta, to band together and collect a 1-cent sales tax for highway projects.
The two sides have been far apart on that issue for the last two sessions, but the House bent a little last week and piggybacked both proposals into one bill. It would have provided for a statewide referendum on adding another penny to the Georgia sales tax.
If that vote in November 2010 did not pass, then the Senate proposal for a regional sales tax would be available starting in January 2011 for groups of counties that wanted to work jointly on highway improvements.
The Senate did not accept that proposal, but there was no shouting and screaming by senators either. Instead, the legislation was quietly sent to a conference committee where three senior House members and three veteran senators will try to negotiate a compromise in the last week.
There's no guarantee, of course, that the negotiations will be successful. But they do provide a constructive venue for at least trying to work out an agreement, rather than watching bills die on the floor of the House and Senate in the chaos of the session's final day.
On a related issue, it appears that legislators may also work out some issues regarding the governance of the Department of Transportation without having to make radical changes. Perdue wanted to junk the DOT and create yet another state transportation authority over which he would have much more control. That did not go over well with lawmakers who are still a little queasy about giving up so much power to the governor.
The House leadership is working on a compromise that would essentially retain DOT and the State Transportation Board in their current form, but give the governor and the legislature more of a say in the planning and project lists for transportation improvements.
It's not a "perfect" bill, as Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, conceded, but it's something all sides could probably live with and it gives the General Assembly a chance to tick off yet another accomplishment for this session. We will see if wiser heads prevail.
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact's Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia.