January 16, 2015

After all the “pomp and circumstance” with the swearing in ceremonies, speeches, and patriotic music on Monday, the General Assembly convened on Tuesday to take care of its regular business, like reading and assigning proposed legislation. However, the committee chairs and members hadn’t been announced, so there were no Chairmen to whom the House Clerk and Senate Secretary could send these proposed bills. Committee assignments were complete on Thursday and can be accessed on the Senate and House sites. The House and Senate have agreed to a preliminary schedule for the first 15 legislative days as outlined in the adjournment resolution, HR 19. They will be working mostly four-day weeks and taking Fridays off to allow more committee meeting opportunities.

Governor Deal gave his “State of the State” speech on Wednesday, focusing on transportation, education, criminal supervision, and medical marijuana. He heralded the 319,000 private sector jobs created since he became governor, the increase in home prices since last year, and the growing economy. He revealed his idea of an Education Reform Commission that will study education issues in the state and report on improvements that can be made; much like his Criminal Justice Reform Commission has done over the last two years regarding changes to the criminal justice system. The Education Reform Commission will focus on expanding access to early learning programs, hiring and retaining quality teachers, increasing school options for families, and modernizing the state’s QBE formula for funding school systems. He is also proposing a constitutional amendment creating an “Opportunity School District” that would allow the state to take over failing public schools. Governor Deal noted the redundancy and uncoordinated efforts between agencies regarding probation. He has recommended creating a new entity, the Dept. of Community Supervision, which would combine the supervisory roles of Dept. of Corrections, Juvenile Justice, and the Pardons and Paroles Board. And, he is recommending an increase of 278 case workers for the Dept. of Family and Children’s Services (DFCS). While he has endorsed the decriminalization and use of cannabis oil for medical purposes, he has not agreed to the cultivation of marijuana in Georgia. He instead supports a study committee to examine these issues and make recommendations. The governor ended his speech on the important subject of transportation and expounded on the need for infrastructure improvements for roads, bridges and congestion relief as well as to prepare for more businesses and freight-hauling with the increased amount of goods coming through the Port of Savannah. He did not tell the General Assembly members how to fund these transportation needs, but he pointed out that the per-gallon excise tax has not been increased since 1971. He also noted that some experts have predicted it will cost more than $1 billion per year to maintain our current roads.

One consideration for boosting state funds is to raise the tobacco tax which hasn’t increased since 2003. Sen. Chuck Hufstetler (R-Rome), vice chair of the Senate Health & Human Services committee, noted that Ga. would be at the national average if tobacco taxes were increased by $1.23 per pack. If it were to pass, the state could gain up to $624M per year in new revenue. This tobacco tax legislation is expected to be introduced soon.

Governor Deal’s FY 2016 budget is now available and can be viewed on the OPB website. The legislature will be off next week for budget hearings, so our updates will resume the following week. As always, please do not hesitate to contact any of us if you have questions or need information on any legislative issue. All bills can be found on the state’s legislative web site, and live action can be watched in the House and Senate chambers when they are in session.

 

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