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Top issues in legislature
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Georgia lawmakers approved a $39.5 billion budget plan for the coming financial year that earmarks roughly $100 million in last-minute money for infrastructure.

House and Senate lawmakers voted last week to approve the spending plan for the financial year starting in July. It awaits the governor’s signature.

Under the plan, Georgia would spend roughly $39.5 billion in state and federal money to fund its operations. That includes $19.4 billion of money generated by the state.

Georgia is still collecting billions of dollars less in funding compared to before the recent recession.

The compromise plan adopted by the House and Senate would use about $100 million from a mortgage fraud settlement to pay for infrastructure and other perks meant to lure employers and new jobs.

Voters will now decide whether to change Georgia’s Constitution and allow the state to create charter schools, following the approval of hard-fought legislation this session.

Charter schools receive public funding but are freed from regulations like class size and teacher pay schedules in exchange for promises of improved student performance.

The proposal dominated much of the legislative session, stealing the spotlight from priorities including taxes and criminal justice reform and the state budget. It divided not only Republicans and Democrats but also led to infighting within both parties.

Gov. Nathan Deal has pushed for the legislation and met personally with some lawmakers to persuade them support the bill. He is now encouraging voters to support the proposal.

Other education legislation that awaits the governor’s signature includes a measure that allows the state schools superintendent to hire and fire some employees without the approval of the state Board of Education and a bill that would require educators caught cheating on tests to return any bonus money they received.

Health care
State legislators declined to make a decision on federal mandates to create health insurance exchanges. As part of the Affordable Care Act of 2010, states are required to set up a regulated health care marketplace for residents to compare options for health insurance.

However, with lawsuits pending before the Supreme Court and Republican presidential candidates promising a repeal to the new health care law, those calling for stalling the process won out this session, despite warnings from supporters that if Georgia doesn’t come up with some plan, the federal government could form a plan for the state without state lawmakers’ input.

Georgia lawmakers only toyed with further immigration reform this year after landing in the national immigration debate last year, when they joined other states that took up their own laws to discourage illegal immigration.

One bill, seeking to bar illegal immigrants from public colleges in Georgia, made headway in the Senate, but died in the House last week.

Some parts of the state’s 2011 law have been, at least temporarily, blocked by a federal judge. Others have been deemed an “unfunded mandate” by local government officials across the state who feel the law places an undue burden on them to ensure their employees or their beneficiaries are not in the country illegally.

Open records
Georgia Sunshine Laws got a makeover this session, pending the governor’s signature.

The General Assembly passed HB 397, which largely served to broaden and clarify rules on open meetings and open records.

However, the new bill would also exempts economic development projects still being negotiated from public records request.

Currently, state agencies must reveal the identity and terms of agreements during the negotiation process of bringing in new businesses.

Opponents to such an exemption had argued those negotiations should be open to guarantee the public won’t suffer from any closed deals.

Lawmakers made changes to Georgia’s tax code this year that would allow married people to keep more income and phases out property taxes on motor vehicles as people buy new or used cars and trucks in the future.

Lawmakers also agreed to phase out a sales tax charged to manufacturers for their energy use.

The package awaiting the governor’s signature would give tax cuts to ailing manufacturers and to companies that bring new jobs to Georgia and create sales tax holidays for residents buying back-to-school and energy-efficient goods. Those perks cost money. Budget analysts estimate the tax breaks will create a roughly $50 million deficit next year, a gap equal to less than 1 percent of the current budget.

It also eliminates the annual property tax paid on motor vehicles purchased after March 1, 2013. Instead of the annual tax, motorists would pay a one-time fee based on the vehicle’s value that tops out at 7 percent in 2015.

People who purchased their cars and trucks before the proposed change in the law would continue paying annual property tax bills until they buy another new or used vehicle.

Married couples could claim $1,000 to $2,000 more in money exempt from the state income tax under the plan.

In a sign of the last-minute push, lawyers worked into early Tuesday morning to revise the bill and address concerns raised by county governments. The legislation would phase out the sales tax that manufacturers pay on the energy used to produce their goods, a move that would align Georgia with neighboring states. But that decision would also eliminate a source of income that local governments use to support schools and other services.

Under the bill, local governments have the option to impose a new tax replacing the income they lose from the existing tax on manufacturers.

House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican, has promised more tax changes in the coming years, including an examination of tax rates for individuals.

Criminal justice reform
Lawmakers approved an overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system, finally sending the legislation to the governor’s desk on the final day of the legislative session.

The reforms were one of Deal’s priorities for the year.

Political leaders from both parties say their goal is to steer nonviolent offenders, for example, drug addicts, into treatment rather than prison.

Money was the key motivator for getting formerly tough-on-crime lawmakers to vote for the bill. The state’s prison population has more than doubled in the last two decades to more than 56,000 inmates and costs about $1 billion annually. Every dollar spent on prisons means less money for schools, roads or new initiatives.

Juvenile justice
An effort to rewrite the state’s juvenile code never made it out of the Senate, due to questions on costs.

House lawmakers did pass the bill, which was largely focused on procedures within the Division of Family and Children Services relating to the transitional care of children age 18 and older who are no longer required to remain under the state’s care.

The code has not been updated in more than 40 years and is spread among multiple sections of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated.

For the first time in years, water was not one of the highest priorities for Georgia’s legislative leaders. Water security did, however, get a nod in budget plans passed by the House and Senate. A 2011 federal appeals court ruling bodes well for future access to Lake Lanier as a source of water.

And as state leaders await decisions from the U.S. Corps of Engineers on how that supply should be divided among stakeholders and a ruling from the Supreme Court on Alabama and Florida’s appeal to the 2011 ruling, they’re going to focus on other issues that impact Georgia’s economy this year.

Providing a stable water supply has ranked at the top of Deal’s agenda since he came into office last year.

Last year, legislators paved the way for private investment in public construction of water supply infrastructure.

In 2011, as one of his first acts as governor, Deal set aside $300 million in an effort to provide alternatives to Lake Lanier throughout the course of his term as governor.

The budget passed by lawmakers this year included the first installment of those funds.

This year, little happened in the way of transportation funding. Legislators have said they’re waiting on the outcome of a July 31 vote on a proposed 1-cent sales tax for road and transit projects before coming up with any other transportation solutions.

Voters statewide will decide whether to tack on a penny to their county’s sales tax, but the tax will be decided in 12 established districts around the state.

The tax, for example, could pass in the 13-county Georgia Mountains district that includes Hall County but fail in Atlanta, or vice versa.

Supporters have hailed the tax as necessary to fix traffic congestion woes and boost economic development.

Critics decry it comes at a bad time, piling on more financial burden for Georgia’s residents during an economic downturn.

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