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Our Views: Vying for votes
Despite some successes, much of this years legislation was aimed at election
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

This being an election year, we all knew the 2012 session of the General Assembly would produce its fair share of "hey, look at me" bills designed more to impress voters than to solve their problems.

And when the final gavel hit Thursday, there were plenty of these bills that did little more than take a stand. Mixed in were some solid reforms that actually will help improve the lives of Georgians. Expect to hear a lot about both when campaigns for re-election rev up later this spring.

Take the big tax package that passed in the final week. The proposal was all the rage leading up to the 40-day session. But it barely showed up in time to cruise through both chambers and reach the governor’s desk in the blink of an eye. Skeptics ranging from liberals to tea partyers were suspicious of the bill’s quick passage and remain unsure of its impact.

There’s no doubt the bill has some good stuff in it. The changes increases the tax deduction for married couples; cuts taxes on energy used in industry, which could lure new business and create jobs; and eliminates the "birthday tax," the ad valorem you pay on your vehicle every year, in favor of a one-time 7 percent fee.

A possible downside of the bill is a sales tax on certain goods sold on the Internet. The goal, some say, is to keep out-of-state retailers from undercutting Georgia businesses by avoiding sales taxes on what they sell. But businesses that sell online won’t be as thrilled, nor will consumers.

Whatever the bill’s net effect, legislators will always seek to pass some kind of tax reform so they can head back to their districts and tell folks there, "I voted to cut taxes." That’s never a losing issue at the polls.

But while the tax reform plan was hastily drawn and passed, an issue that received nearly endless discussion was charter school funding. Lawmakers worked nearly all session on a plan to circumvent Georgia’s Supreme Court, which previously struck down the notion that local school districts can fund charter schools but be denied control over how the money is spent. After massaging the bill nearly all session, legislators adopted a plan that puts it to voters in a fall referendum for a Constitutional amendment.

We usually favor letting voters decide matters that control their lives and provide more freedom, not less. We’re just not sure this is one in which voters can make a fully informed choice. Amending the state constitution often is used a backdoor dodge to avoid judicial review, a sneaky way for legislators to slip laws past the courts by using voters to do the work for them.

Charter schools are a good idea, in general, but proponents fail to mention that students there have not achieved higher standards than those in other public schools. Pilot programs and innovative techniques should be encouraged, but school officials need to be able to control how money is spent in their districts’ schools.

Among other statements lawmakers made was their failure to limit gifts lobbyists can shower upon them. That tells us they have no intention of pulling their faces out of the trough when the goodies get doled out, leaving Georgians to wonder who is buying their representatives’ support with meals, vacations and sports tickets.

And a last-minute amendment sneaked into a hunting and fishing bill nearly allowed the ethics commission to keep private some investigation records on public officials and ease penalties for breaking disclosure rules. It passed the Senate but, thankfully, failed in the House, yet another end-run attempt to keep secrets from us.

Yet not everything lawmakers produced was self-serving. One bill worth applauding will reform the state’s criminal justice system by seeking to defer more nonviolent offenders into rehabilitation and accountability courts. Diversion programs for drug violators and others have worked well in Hall County. Our courts were a model Gov. Nathan Deal used in promoting the idea.

The change should save the state money by easing overcrowded prisons and help drug violators get the treatment they need to live productive lives. Locking them up turns many into hardened criminals who commit more crimes when they get out. This was wise, forward-thinking reform.

Another welcome change strengthened sunshine laws to keep government activity open and accessible to the public. The changes, pushed by Attorney General Sam Olens, increase penalties for violators and cut costs for procuring documents.

The bill also allows governments to keep negotiations over big development projects secret until a deal is struck. That is understandable to a point, though any exemption that closes the doors to public review needs to be watched closely to make sure officials don’t abuse that privilege to keep other matters under wraps.

Lawmakers now leave the Capitol bound for the campaign trail to boast of their accomplishments. They have a right to, if the new tax plan works as expected to raise revenues while easing individual burdens. But some of their boasted legislation clearly was aimed merely to earn votes.

Let’s make sure we know the difference when we head to the polls July 31, and again Nov. 6. Then it’s time for us to speak our piece.

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