By Diane Glidewell
Georgia State Senator Johnny Grant took time during the legislative recess to visit Butts County and address the monthly luncheon meeting of Partners for Smart Growth on Wednesday, April 7 regarding the bills which have come before the State House of Representatives and the Senate this year. Grant is a native of Milledgeville and represents District 25, which includes Butts County.
He is chairman of the State Institutions and Property Committee, vice chair of the State and Local Governmental Operations Committee, and a member of the Health and Human Services, Governmental Oversight and Appropriations committees. In introducing Senator Grant, PSG Chairman Bob Ryan noted he will soon be returning to the Georgia Senate to vote on the state budget for the upcoming year.
Senator Grant began by characterizing the changes in the legislature this year, beginning with the new speaker David Ralston, who brought a new sense of cooperation to the beginning of the session. Currently there are two vacancies in the Georgia Senate due to one member being appointed ambassador to Singapore and Nathan Deal resigning to run for governor. These changes and vacancies have affecting the voting on bills under consideration.
Facing the Georgia House and Senate upon return from recess is their legislative mandate to produce a balanced budget; the current fiscal year 2009 budget was $29 billion but the current budget is $15 billion.
"Monthly revenues for March were up for the first time since November 2008," said Grant. "Hopefully we are starting on the road to recovery."
Four state agencies make up 80 percent of the budget for the State of Georgia: K-12 education, Department of Corrections, the University system, and Medicaid. Of moneys that can be moved around in the budget, 40 percent are for K-12 education, and 80 percent of that is teacher salaries. "We've tried to protect those four by cutting other significantly, like the Department of Labor and the Department of Community Affairs, cutting grants available to local governments," said Grant. "There is never the right place to cut."
Regarding House Bill 307 which proposes a hospital provider fee, the Senate has worked on the plan and reached an agreement with hospitals. It funds indigent care and creates a trust fund which would allow drawing down Medicaid. The bill exempts critical care hospitals and thus should protect smaller hospitals.
House Bill 1055 brings a number of fees which have not been adjusted for years up to market rates. This bill is basically voluntary in that it does not affect every citizen. Bill 1023 is a jobs bill passed by both the House and Senate which gives a tax credit to employers for hiring the unemployed. The Angel Investor Tax Credit would reward those who invest in start-up industries. The idea is to help keep entrepreneurs with bright, innovative ideas in Georgia instead of forcing them out of state to seek funding.
Bill 308, known as the Lawful Carry Bill, effectively repeals Georgia's 140-year-old public gathering law and allows individual churches, universities, and private property owners to decide whether to permit the carrying of weapons on their facilities. Permits for weapons will still be issued at local probate courts. Sheriff Gene Pope said the bill should require that individuals have the permit on their person and be required to show it to law enforcement personnel upon request. Pope said that the way the law is currently written, one is not required to produce the gun permit, even though one must produce a fishing license or drivers license upon request.
House Bill 1030, which would have combined parole and probation field offices, failed and is dead for the year. The bill dealing with performance pay for teachers also failed, needing more study, and study also continues on transportation.
Senate Bill 370 regarding water conservation passed both houses. "It shows strong steps in conservation and should be an arrow in our quiver in disputes over water," said Grant.
Bill 306 makes property tax assessment more transparent and makes it easier to appeal assessments. Owners will have the right to see how the county tax assessors arrived at values. Values must be based on current use of property and sales in the area, including distressed sales.
Bill 908 allows flexibility for local boards of education in the number of school days in the year, calling for instructional hours rather than days. It also eliminates class size restrictions and other state mandates on a temporary basis. It includes an amendment to allow certain funds to be spent on maintenance and operations. Senate Bill 84 allows the state to deal with school board ethics before accreditation is lost.
Senator Grant also spoke about Georgia's tax code, stating the elimination of sales tax on food had been a major factor in the wide fluctuation of revenue. Another factor has been the move from manufacturing to Internet sales. He hopes for a broadbased tax code which will take some of the pressure off of property.
Sheriff Pope asked about rumors the bill to adjust fees would include fees charged the counties for crime lab work and autopsies. Grant did not recall any such fees included in the bill.
In response to a question from Greg Landon about why the legislature did not seek a balanced self tax, Senator Grant said he hoped for a change in the tax scheme to make it more suitable. Grant has proposed elimination of the tax exemption on food, but the vote locked down along party lines. Several members of the Senate would not vote to eliminate the exemption unless a revenue reduction was added on.
"Any tax is difficult to pass in this economic and political environment," said Grant.
Chairman of the PSG Board of Directors Bob Ryan thanked Grant for addressing the group. He encouraged everyone to get involved in one of the five functioning committees created at the Economics of Education Summit on March 11 and to attend PSG's First Annual Celebrity Roast on May 1. The roast of Luke Weaver, which will begin at 7 p.m. at Macedonia Baptist Church, will take the place of the PSG Open Meeting for May.