From the desk of Representative Jeff Jones
Fourth Week of Session – February 6, 2015
On Monday, February 2, 2015, we returned to the Gold Dome for another important and busy week. My colleagues and I spent much of our time this week in committee and subcommittee meetings to review various pieces of legislation that have been introduced in the House.
I now have a better understanding of how important it is that we carefully “manage” the 40 days the General Assembly is in session to avoid making hasty decisions resulting in poor legislation with unintended consequences. There is important legislative work that needs to be taken care of that affects us both state-wide and locally that must be completed including:
1) transportation funding; 2) passing a 2016 balanced budget that deals appropriately with the myriad of issues facing our state and our local communities; 3) re-establishing an appropriate marsh buffer that also protects personal property rights; 4) protecting our pristine Floridan Aquifer, and 5) reigning in the whole Common Core issue. And these are just a few of the issues the General Assembly must deal with this session.
Transportation Funding Act (TFA) of 2015
Last week, the Transportation Funding Act of 2015 (HB 170) was unveiled by Transportation Committee Chair Jay Roberts. While there are actually a number of good provisions in the proposal, there are also several provisions that are troubling. The most troubling portion of the proposal, as currently drafted, appears to put our local school boards, cities and counties in the difficult situation of having to increase local taxes to make up for the loss of local sales tax revenue being generated from the sale of motor fuel; this tax revenue can currently be spent on items other than transportation. This is going to take some careful analysis and some different answers before I will agree to this provision.
Rep. Jason Spencer, District 180, has prepared a chart (below) that attempts to analyze how the TFA proposal calculations are really derived. The chart analyzes the excise tax conversion that the proposed excise tax of 29.2 cents/gallon is calculated based on a $3.39 four year look back average. However, that average did not exclude state taxes. As the debate continues, we will get a clearer understanding of the impact of the proposal.
**Proposal is based on an average 4 year look back on the price of gas/gallon. However, the total average price of $3.39 does not exclude state sales tax, local sales tax and state excise tax when included in the conversion. Therefore, the 4 year look back average price is actually $3.097 ($3.39 - $ all included state taxes.) when you remove the state and local sales tax from the stated 4 year look back average of $3.39. Using $3.097 (GA Dept of Revenue number) as the 4 year look back average, then the total excise conversion is a result of additional 2.8 cents per gallon. However, it would result in a 7.7 cent per gallon gas increase with today’s lower gas prices. It is unclear as to why a 2.4% statewide local sales tax average is used in some calculations and not in the proposal. If a 3% statewide local sales tax average is used, then it becomes a 6.4 cent per gallon increase in gas under today's current average prices, rather than a 7.7 cent increase. Similar calculations have not been crunched on diesel, but it stands to reason that the arithmetic would result is a similar increase in the price per gallon of diesel.
Local governments and school systems have voiced their strong opposition to the current proposal. This opposition will likely result in changes to the bill as it goes through the committee process. Rep. Spencer also noted that “There is a constitutional question that is raised as to whether taxes collected by the state on motor fuel can be applied to public transit and rails as proposed in HB 170. Under The motor fuel provision in the Georgia Constitution Article III, Section IX, Paragraph VI (b), it states that an amount equal to all money derived from motor fuel taxes received by the state…is hereby appropriated for the fiscal year beginning July 1, of each year following, for all activities incident to providing and maintaining an adequate system of public roads and bridges in this state…”
There will be a great deal more information coming out that I will share with you regarding transportation funding. To help you understand some of the issues, we have posted a link to a Transportation Funding Act (TFA) of 2015 “fact sheet” Click here.
Joint Session – State of the Judiciary Address
The House and Senate went into a joint session on Wednesday in the House Chamber for the State of the Judiciary delivered by Chief Justice Hugh Thompson wherein he proceeded to update us on the current state of our judicial system in Georgia. These types of events are important traditions and procedures for how we run our state. Georgia’s judicial system is sound and strong, according to the Chief Justice and head of the state’s judicial branch of government. In his address, Chief Justice Thompson applauded the successful expansion of specialty courts in Georgia. A specialty court, also known as an accountability court or problem solving court, is a cost-effective criminal justice alternative for non-violent offenders. Specialty courts, such as drug and mental health treatment courts, hold offenders accountable through court-supervised treatment programs. In his speech, Chief Justice Thompson shared success stories from some specialty courts in our state. He recognized Superior Court Judge Reuben Green, who oversees a veteran’s court in Cobb County that matches participants with supportive volunteers who are dedicated to keeping our veterans out of jail and mentor them through the program. I was pleased to hear that the 116 Georgia specialty courts have helped guide more than 5,000 Georgians towards the right path by avoiding incarceration. It is great to see the positive effects that our criminal justice system has had on many Georgians, and I look forward to hearing more success stories out of our specialty courts in the years to come.
While Chief Justice Thompson touted the state’s judiciary achievements over the last year, he also spoke of the challenges that lie ahead. One challenge that we face in Georgia is access to justice. He reminded us that six counties in Georgia are without a single lawyer and 20 counties have fewer than five lawyers. As a result, judges are seeing a growing number of people who come to court without a lawyer and attempt to represent themselves. Chief Justice Thompson explained that when people are unrepresented in court, their interests are not championed because judges do not have the information they need to make just decisions. All Georgians deserve to have access to justice, regardless of their place of residence, or socioeconomic status.
To address this challenge and expand access to justice in our state, Chief Justice Thompson asked for support of newly introduced legislation to encourage attorneys to work in underserved rural areas of Georgia. This legislation would create a pilot program in which a small number of law school graduates would receive college loan payment assistance for agreeing to work in an underserved county for at least five years. This bill was introduced in the House this week as HB 236 and will now make its way through the legislative process.
Education Measure Affecting Military Families Plus Other Education Issues
We saw several bills pass out of their respective committees this week. The House Education Committee voted ‘do pass’ on an important measure in House Bill 62. This legislation waives certain residency requirements so that children of active duty military personnel in Georgia have the ability to receive special needs scholarships. Military families are often required to relocate across the country, and these children should not be denied certain educational opportunities as a result. House Bill 62 honors our men and women in uniform by allowing their children the chance to obtain the world-class education that our state has to offer.
Another piece of legislation that passed out of the Education Committee this week was House Bill 65. This legislation is designed to increase transparency in local school boards by requiring the boards to hold at least two public meetings before adopting any budget. This would give parents and taxpayers the opportunity to see how their education dollars are being put to work and to provide input. Both HB 62 and HB 65 will now be sent to the Rules Committee before making their way to the House floor for a vote.
While the House Education Committee was busy passing these important bills, our colleagues in the Senate passed another bill that will strengthen our education system. Senate Bill 2 passed the Senate unanimously and would provide high school students with alternative ways to earn their high school diplomas. SB 2 would allow high school students who have met the necessary requirements to enroll in college courses upon completion of their freshman and sophomore year coursework. Under this bill, students can earn their high school diplomas and start their postsecondary degrees simultaneously. Now that this legislation has passed the Senate, it will go through the committee process in the House as my colleagues and I review the details of the bill.
Savannah Harbor Expansion Project
Finally this week, we received some exciting news out of Washington D.C. about the future of The Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. In his 2016 budget proposal, President Obama requested that Congress designate $42 million for dredging the river channel that cargo ships use to reach the Port of Savannah. This funding, in addition to the $266 million from the state of Georgia, will help the expansion stay on schedule to be completed by 2020. This investment in the Port of Savannah will ultimately boost our economy and bring hundreds of jobs to our great state.
In the coming weeks, we will be reviewing even more pieces of legislation in committees and on the House floor. If you have concerns or questions about proposed legislation, I hope that you will contact me. I am always eager to hear from you, so that I can better understand what issues are most important you and your family. Please stop by and visit me at the capitol if you are in Atlanta during the legislative session, or call my office at the State Capitol and let me know what I can do for you. The phone number is 404-656-0126 or you can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for your prayers and your continued support.
Brunswick, GA 31525