Legislative wrap up

Published 11:50 am Tuesday, June 7, 2011


State Representative

Republican from Cairo

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The Georgia General Assembly’s 2011 legislative session began on an icy Monday in January and ended on a warm Thursday in April.

During the 40 legislative days that fell within the months between, your state legislature successfully passed 267 pieces of legislation. As stipulated in our state constitution, this legislation was sent to the governor, who had 40 days to sign or veto each of the 257 bills and 10 resolutions. Tuesday, May 24, marked the governor’s 40th and final day to consider legislation passed during this year’s session. Any bills or resolutions not vetoed by the governor automatically became law. With that in mind, I would like to tell you about some of Georgia’s new laws that will affect education, health care, water resources and public safety within the state.

Perhaps no single piece of legislation impacts Georgians more than the annual state budget. The Fiscal Year 2012 state budget enacted through House Bill 78 totals $18.3 billion in state funds. This legislation directs state spending from July 1, 2011, through June 30, 2012.

While our state economy seems to have stabilized and state funds have experienced a net increase of 2 percent, total state spending for FY 2012 decreased by more than 14 percent. This decrease is due to expiring federal stimulus funds. Although significant cuts were made to account for these reductions, we were able to preserve critical services and programs in areas such as health care, education and state infrastructure.

While the FY 2012 state budget affects all areas of state government, I would like to specifically highlight budget adjustments that were made to the lottery funded pre-kindergarten program. Because Pre-K is outpacing its lottery funding, HB 78 enacts necessary adjustments to ensure Georgia’s Pre-K program remains financially stable in the coming years. These adjustments will reduce the Pre-K year from 180 days to 160 days and add two more students to each Pre-K class, moving the class size from 20 to 22. Further, Pre-K providers will receive 94 percent of their current operating funds, and Pre-K teachers will receive 90 percent of their current salaries. These adjustments were decided after consulting parents, Pre-K teachers and Pre-K providers. Though unfortunate, the changes implemented by HB 78 ensure that Pre-K remains a full-day, six-hour instruction program that will provide full nutritional and educational opportunities for 86,000 children next year.

Similarly, Georgia’s popular HOPE Scholarship programs have also out paced their lottery funding. Just as Pre-K required adjustments, the HOPE programs also required funding adjustments to ensure their continued financial stability. Under HB 326, next year, merit-based HOPE scholarship students attending public colleges and universities, as well as technical college students, will receive 90 percent of 2011 tuition amounts. HOPE scholarship students attending private colleges and universities will receive $3,600 for tuition.

The HOPE Scholarship will continue to require a 3.0 grade point average, but will no longer cover books, fees or remedial college classes. Additionally, students will only be allowed to regain the scholarships one time if they lose it.

Finally, HB 326 will also phase in new eligibility standards, one of which limits students’ eligibility to the first seven years after they graduate from high school.

HB 326 also creates the Zell Miller Scholarship, which will offer full tuition to Georgia’s public colleges to students who graduate from high school as a valedictorian or salutatorian. Students will also qualify for the Zell Miller Scholarship if they graduate from high school with a minimum 3.7 grade point average and 1200 on the SAT or 26 on the ACT. To continue receiving the Zell Miller Scholarship, these students will have to maintain a 3.3 grade point average while attending college.

Home school students will be able to receive the HOPE Scholarship, HOPE Grant and Zell Miller Scholarship just like their peers in public and private high schools. Also, the HOPE Grant will continue to cover remedial classes at technical schools. This law went into effect on March 15, 2011, but will not affect students until the fall semester.

In light of the necessary funding changes required to save our Pre-K and HOPE programs, it seems only natural that the state should also look at our current K-12 education formula. House Bill 192 creates the State Education Finance Study Commission, which would study and evaluate the costs and resources needed to educate a child in Georgia. The Commission’s findings will be used to develop a comprehensive K-12 educational funding formula reform that would allow the state to meet the modern needs of our elementary, middle and high schools. This process is important because the state’s current K-12 funding formula has not been sufficiently updated since 1985. This bill went into effect on May 13, 2011.

Health, other issues

The Georgia House also passed legislation this year that uses proven market based principles to lower the cost of health insurance for Georgians. House Bill 47 does this by giving Georgians the option to purchase less expensive health insurance plans by allowing insurance companies licensed in Georgia to sell accident and health insurance policies that are approved for sale in other states. This simple change will create a more open insurance market with greater competition, ultimately resulting in less expensive health insurance options for Georgians. This bill will go into effect on July 1, 2011.

The recent economic recession made us all take a look at our budgets and evaluate how we can best stretch our limited funds. For the state, that meant cutting spending and restructuring services. These measures worked, but they also revealed the need for further changes, including changes to our immigration and criminal justice laws.

While I welcome and encourage legal immigration, the recent economic recession made it clear that our reduced state budget literally cannot afford to support illegal aliens who unlawfully take advantage of taxpayer-funded services.

House Bill 87, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011, seeks to close legal loopholes and put an end to the incentives that bring illegal aliens to Georgia. HB 87 will do this by requiring employers with 10 or more employees to ensure that their new hires are eligible to work in the United States. The new law will also require secure and verifiable identification for official purposes and help local law enforcement agencies handle issues associated with illegal immigration. This law will not affect existing programs that provide legal avenues for foreign workers to lawfully come to Georgia and work in our state. This bill goes into effect on July 1.

Further, our reduced state budget has also made it clear that Georgia must develop a more cost effective corrections system. Our state currently spends more than $1 billion a year on our corrections system and has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the nation. However, recent studies suggest that an estimated three-fourths of the state’s prison population is believed to have some type of drug addiction, which could be treated at much lower costs than imprisonment. For example, Georgia pays $49 per day per inmate housed in a state prison, compared to $1.50 per day for probation supervision or $16 per day for community treatment at a Day Reporting Center.

HB 265 seeks to find solutions to this issue while ensuring the public’s safety. This process will be done through the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians, which will study criminal justice reform during the interim and make legislative recommendations to a joint legislative committee before the 2012 session. This bill went into effect on April 22, 2011.

The growing rate of prescription drug addiction and its devastating impact on our communities made it clear that the General Assembly must act this year to stop the illegal trafficking of prescription narcotics into Georgia communities.

Senate Bill 36 does this by giving doctors and pharmacists the tools needed to stop prescription drug abuse. Specifically, SB 36 creates an electronic database of the prescribing and dispensing of Schedule II, III, IV and V controlled substances in Georgia. With this secure database, doctors and pharmacists will be better able to identify prescription drug abusers. In turn, prescription drugs will have less of a chance to end up in the wrong hands with potentially dangerous outcomes. This bill will go into effect on July 1.

While the General Assembly has taken a leading role in cutting waste and implementing cost-saving efficiencies, we have also worked to create methods for funding necessary infrastructure investments.

Senate Bill 122 is one example of this. SB 122 allows local governments to partner with the private sector to build larger water projects such as reservoirs. The bill also puts procedures into place for selecting private partners for these water projects and allows local governments to sign contracts outsourcing management of these facilities with private companies.

SB 122 further provides for participation by the Water Supply Division of the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority in certain local water reservoir, facilities and system projects. These measures will allow private corporations to complete water infrastructure projects faster and at lower costs, while providing local governments with the necessary oversight. This bill went into effect on May 2.

Finally, I would like to tell you about Senate Bill 10. After years of discussion, this legislation allows local communities to decide whether they want to allow Sunday sales of alcohol. SB 10 accomplishes this by allowing city councils and county commissions to call for referendums on whether Sunday alcohol sales should be allowed at stores in their cities and counties.

The state already permits the purchase of alcohol at bars, restaurants and special events on Sunday, but does not allow for the purchase of alcohol at retail stores. SB 10 simply gives our community the opportunity to directly decide Sunday alcohol sales for ourselves. This bill went into effect on April 28.

While this year’s annual legislative session and the governor’s signing period have both come to an end, there are still several ongoing legislative projects. Tax reform, zero-based budgeting and revising our juvenile justice code remain issues that the General Assembly may take up next year.

In the meantime, the House and Senate are currently holding a series of joint reapportionment hearings throughout the state to hear from the public their thoughts on how their community should be represented in the Georgia General Assembly and the U.S. Congress. I strongly encourage you to attend one of these hearings.

For hearing locations and information, log onto www.legis.ga.gov, then click on the link for the Joint Webpage of the House and Senate Reapportionment Committees. If you have any questions about reapportionment or any of the new laws, please feel free to contact me. You can reach me at my capitol office at (404) 656-0152 or in my district office at (229) 377-1812.

Thank you for allowing me to serve as your representative.