The 2015 session of the Georgia General Assembly is set to begin on Jan. 12. The Citizen asked the members of the Fayette legislative delegation two general questions: what they see as the statewide priorities for the upcoming session and what they see as the local (Fayette County) priorities for the 2015 session.
The members of the Fayette legislative delegation include Sen. Valencia Seay of Riverdale (Democrat – District 34), Sen. Marty Harbin of Tyrone (Republican – District 16), Rep. Virgil Fludd of Tyrone (D-Dist. 64), Rep. Ronnie Mabra of Fayetteville (D-Dist. 63), Rep. Matt Ramsey of Peachtree City (R-Dist. 63), Rep. David Stover of Newnan (R- Dist. 71) and Rep. John Yates of Griffin (R-Dist. 73).
• Sen. Marty Harbin (at right, above) — “When I gather with my colleagues in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, we will discuss and debate important legislative issues facing our state,”Harbin said. “We have a number of potential topics that are likely to arise throughout the session.”
Harbin in his comments said those potential topics include:
— Education and youth
Common Core: In 2011, Georgia joined 46 other states and the District of Columbia in adopting the Common Core Standards in the fall of 2012. These standards define the knowledge and skills students should gain throughout their K-12 education in order to graduate high school prepared to succeed in entry-level careers, introductory academic college courses and workforce training programs. Some states, such as Alaska, Texas and Virginia never adopted the standards. As of now, three states have passed legislation to withdraw their states out of Common Core Standards. We may see legislation regarding the status of Common Core in our state.
Fractional Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax: Currently local governments can only levy a 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) in Georgia. In the past, legislation has been proposed that would authorize local governments to request from its voters a fraction of a full penny for SPLOST revenue. House Bill 153, which passed the Senate and the House last session, but failed in the late hour of Day 40, would have allowed counties to enact multiple fractional SPLOSTs up to one percent simultaneously. We may see another attempt to pass fractional SPLOST legislation.
— Health and human services
Medical Cannabis: Last session, legislation that provided for research on the benefit of medical cannabis for certain patients with cancer, glaucoma or seizure disorders was introduced. Although the legislation didn’t pass, the Joint Study Committee on Prescription of Medical Cannabis for Serious Medical Conditions met over the summer to hear testimony from the medical community, law enforcement agencies and patient advocates on the issue. They discussed the pros and cons of legalizing and regulating possession of cannabidiol oil (CBD oil), cultivating, and distributing CBD oil for medical purposes in Georgia. Expect to see legislation regarding CBD oil to be presented this session.
— Insurance and labor
Insurance coverage for the treatment of autism: Although thoroughly discussed during last session, we can expect legislation requiring health insurance plans to provide coverage for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The bill from 2014 would have required plans to cover children six years of age or younger who are diagnosed with ASD and cover applied behavior analysis (ABA) up to $35,000 annually. There are currently 37 states with some form of an autism mandate requiring insurers and employers providing healthcare coverage to provide coverage for ABA therapy for autism.
State-level religious freedom laws: After the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) highlighted the ongoing debate over the degree to which someone can object to compliance with a law on the basis of religious beliefs. The previous proposed state legislation would’ve given RFRA-like limits on the government’s ability to enforce laws over religious objection, but both bills failed. Georgia does not currently have a RFRA statue, nor a court precedent that establishes a RFRA-like test in evaluating claims of religious liberty. We could see legislation with specific statues or constitutional amendments that provide RFRA-like protections.
— Natural resources
Aquifer storage and recovery: Our state does not currently use aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) as a water management tool. ASR is the process by which water is recharged through a well into an aquifer and later withdrawn in a time of need. Since 1999, Georgia has had a moratorium in place on ASR projects in the coastal region; however this expired on July 1, 2014. Legislation may be introduced regarding the future potential use of ASR in Georgia.
— Science and technology
Autonomous vehicles, otherwise known as driverless cars, were discussed in the 2014 session with the introduction of Senate Bill 369. If the bill would have passed, the measure would have authorized the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads if they met a list of standards and complied with federal regulations. A study committee over the summer examined the practicality of testing and eventually deploying these vehicles in Georgia. Legislation may come about regarding the future of autonomous vehicles in Georgia.
Ride-sharing services: Last session a bill was introduced that would have required transportation referral service providers such as Uber and Lyft to obtain a permit from the Department of Public Safety. As these businesses continue to rise, state and local governments must continue to review the legalities of their operations, safety conditions, insurance requirements and driver qualifications. The House Study Committee on For-Hire Transportation Services examined the manner in which government regulates existing and new forms of for-hire transportation services. Legislation may be introduced based on the findings from this committee.
— Transportation funding:
Georgia currently operates the nation’s tenth largest road system and fourth busiest container port in the U.S. We are now faced with a growing dilemma of funding construction, repair and maintenance of our infrastructure. In order to address the potential funding shortfalls, the Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure met to review ongoing transportation needs in various regions of the state and discuss new or alternative funding mechanisms for state and local transportation projects. Legislation regarding the future of funding our transportation system will probably make its way to the General Assembly sometime this session.
In terms of issues on the local level that maybe in discussion are:
— Regionalism: with the strong defeat of the SPLOSTs, it would seem that the people want more of a local voice on how their tax dollars are going to be spent on road and other projects and not on pet projects with which they have no input or control.
— Autonomous vehicles: It is my understanding that there have already been groups expressing interest in this area of the possible uses and adaptation of this new technology.
— Growth of our local colleges in the district: The district is blessed with many great local colleges with opportunities that can provide economical tuition and excellent education for our young people. These local resources need to be used and developed to their maximum potential.
• Sen. Valencia Seay (below, left) — “I see re-opening open enrollment state employees and teachers who signed up for insurance managed by Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Georgia under the assumption BCBS would continue to cover treatment at ‘Grady’ Hospital, Georgia’s top trauma hospital as a statewide priority,” Seay said.
In terms of local priorities, Seay said, “Fully fund QBE (state tax dollars) for public schools so Fayette can continue providing quality education for the children and teachers will not be furloughed.”
• Rep. Virgil Fludd (at right)
“As usual, the list of statewide issues will include education, the state budget and economic development. In addition to those, I believe the focus should be on three other issues,” Fludd said.
Fludd said those issues include:
— Transportation: Several years ago, we voted down T-SPLOST as a funding mechanism for transportation. Since then traffic and congestion has gotten worse, federal funding has declined and repairs and maintenance takes longer. There must be a new approach to paying for this growing problem. The legislature must offer a range of options that will spread the cost to those of us who benefit from the state’s roads and bridges. More importantly, the solution should be broad enough to address the problems and not simply a token gesture.
— Healthcare: Georgia remains one of the most unhealthy states in the country. More rural hospitals have closed or are on the cusp of closing. Larger hospitals are burdened with more indigent care. The right thing to do is to expand Medicaid. According to a report from Georgia State University, the expansion brings over $40 billion in healthcare spending and adds over 70,00 jobs.
— Employment: Georgia still lags the rest if the country in job recovery. Our unemployment rate is the highest in the nation. While we have been touted as being the number one state for business, we must do more to stimulate job growth with small and medium sized businesses. The success we have had with tax credits for film and television production could be used as a model for other industries.
Fludd also addressed issues pertaining to local priorities.
— Education: Fayette has a great reputation for our public school system but we can not rest on our laurels. We should invest more in technical and career education to give our students the tools they need to start work right after high school if they wish. There are quite a few jobs available in Fayette but their is not a sufficiently trained workforce to take on those positions. aJob preparedness would also keep more of our young adults in the county and not have them be forced to live and work elsewhere. Also, we need to pay competitive salaries to teachers and staff and reward excellence in the classroom.
— District voting: A federal judge ruled over a year ago that at-large voting was discriminatory and should be replaced with district voting. We had an election in November and the voters made their voices heard. The Board of Commissioners and School Board have spent over $500,000 of taxpayers’ money to appeal a decision that will not likely be overturned. It is time to move on and end the wasteful spending.
Fludd also noted issues involving the Fayette Visioning Project. Those include jobs/economic development, housing and education.
• Rep. Ronnie Mabra (below, left) — “On the state level we must prioritize legislation that protects Georgians from individuals and practices that would cause harm to our state and its citizens. For example, in July my first piece of legislation, which cracks down on ‘ambulance chasers,’ became law. Now, citizens injured in car wrecks will have time to research and select the right lawyer and doctor without worrying about unscrupulous, profit driven practitioners knocking on the door,” Mabra said.
”I am currently working on a bill that would provide counseling and education for those taking prescription pain killers. According to the CDC, there were 41,340 drug overdose deaths in 2013. Of these deaths, 55 percent were related to prescription drugs; 74 percent of the pharmaceutical overdoses involved opioid analgesics. This is the number 1 injury killer in the country and nothing is being done. I believe it is time we enact smart measures that will curb this deadly trend.”
— On the local level, Mabra said, “We must continue to focus on education funding for K-12. Fayette County schools (public and private) have a rich history of graduating top scholars. Increased financial support from the state will help our educators, school administrators, and school board continue this rich tradition of student achievement. Producing quality graduates helps to attract new businesses and families to Fayette County thus growing the economy and providing for an enhanced quality of life for all.”
• Rep. Matt Ramsey (At right, below) — “The 2015 legislative session is almost upon us and this session will undoubtedly be filled with robust debate about issues of critical importance to Georgia’s citizens,” Ramsey said. “As always, the most important responsibility we have is to manage the hard earned tax dollars of Georgia’s citizens through the annual state budget process. This year, budget and tax related issues will again be among the most significant issues on the legislative agenda.“
Ramsey’s priority issues include the budget and taxes.
About the budget, Ramsey said, “The Georgia Constitution mandates that the General Assembly pass a balanced budget every year. In the years prior to 2013, our budget efforts were primarily focused on making major budget cuts as a result of declining revenues, while also protecting critical services such as education, public safety, and infrastructure. Over the last two years revenues have begun to increase as Georgia’s economy has improved. Last year we were able to make significant new investments in core services such as education by making the largest single education funding increase in seven years with 72 percent of the $916 million in new revenue dedicated to K-12 and higher education. Over the past year revenues have continued to improve and this session’s budget process will again be focused on funding critical services and eliminating any fraud, waste or abuse within our state government.
On taxes, Ramsey said, “I also believe there will be a serious discussion about tax reform this session, particularly around efforts to reduce the state income tax from its current 6 percent. I strongly support efforts to simplify the tax code and reduce the tax burden on Georgia’s citizens in a way that helps both state and local economies grow. Through that process, it is important that we preserve important tax incentive programs, such as the Georgia film tax credit, which is resulting in significant economic expansion and jobs, particularly here in our home community. I look forward to a robust discussion regarding our state’s tax policy as we seek to maintain an economic climate that promotes jobs growth and prosperity for all of our citizens.”
• Rep. John Yates (below, left) —
Comments by Yates were brief, noting that the budget supersedes all other issues.
“The budget outweighs all other items combined. As a member of the Higher Education Subcommittee of Appropriations, I always concentrate on college and technical school education, particularly those in Spalding, Fayette and Henry Counties and somewhat in Clayton County,” Yates said. “In regards to Fayette County, I work toward accomplishing whatever the local officials request.”
• Rep. David Stover — The Citizen did not receive Stover’s comments by press time.