Thursday, December 4, 2008

General Assembly Session Rapidly Approaching

After a year dominated by difficult and hard fought elections, January will see a new President, Congress and Georgia General Assembly sworn into office. The challenges resulting from our current economic condition that are facing both the federal and state government are daunting. It will be important that elected officials on all levels of government leave the acrimony of the campaign trail behind to focus on the critical issues facing our state and nation. In Georgia, the gavel will come down on a new session of the General Assembly on January 12.

The number one issue that we will be confronting when the legislature convenes is the state budget. Due to the economic downturn in recent months, the revenues have been much less than anticipated by the Georgia Department of Revenue, meaning a significant budget reduction will be necessary. Depending on how the revenue numbers look in November and December, it will likely be somewhere between 6 and 12 percent out of a $21 billion state budget. No doubt, this will be a difficult process and hard decisions will have to be made. However, there is some good news. Georgians should take heart that they live in a state that lives within its means. Just like all of our families and businesses, when less money comes in, less money is spent. Georgia does not borrow money to engage in deficit spending and heap debt obligations on our children like the federal government does year in and year out. Our constitution requires that that the budget be balanced and that is what Georgia’s government will do. In a time when we read almost daily about huge taxpayer bailouts and an ever increasing federal deficit, we should all be proud to live in a state that coded fiscal responsibility into its constitution.

I am personally working on several pieces of legislation for introduction this session. I am working closely with Senator Ronnie Chance and other legislators on a bill addressing the metal theft problem that has become endemic in Georgia in recent years. Individuals, churches, businesses and other property owners are suffering thousands of dollars in property damage at the hands of copper thieves. Our goal in crafting this legislation is to give law enforcement the additional tools they need to help stem the tide of this problem.

I am also working on a law clarifying the definition of child molestation in Georgia. Our Supreme Court, in a close decision in a recent case, significantly limited the scope of the child molestation statute in Georgia in a way that severely limits efforts to prosecute child molesters using new technologies such as web cams to target our children. We cannot let the law fall behind the times as the proliferation of new technology gives predators more ways to prey on Georgia’s children. In my opinion, the majority of the Court in this decision ignored both the legislature’s intent and the plain meaning of the statutory language and the issue needs to be clarified through legislation.

I have also pre-filed legislation to ban cell phone use by drivers subject to graduated license restrictions (under 18) in Georgia. Studies show over 50% of all 16 and 17 year olds text while driving and over 90% talk on cell phones while driving. Another study showed that 16 year old drivers were 4.5 times more likely than adult drivers to fail to identify and react to dangerous situation on the road due to the distraction of cell phone use while driving. The focus of our graduated license law that was passed in 1997 is to provide teens with a training period, absent distractions, to more safely learn how to drive. Eliminating cell phones is the next logical step in this law. I believe there is certainly merit in considering limiting cell phone use by all drivers, but frankly, I would not be optimistic it would pass this year. Given the incredible success our graduated license law has had on reducing crashes in young drivers (37% reduction in fatal crashes for 16 year olds), the case is more compelling to address the issue with the most inexperienced and vulnerable drivers first. If the law is enacted and proves successful it will bolster the case for further efforts to reduce distractions among all drivers. Over 100 teens were killed in traffic accidents in Georgia last year. That is unacceptable and we can and must do better.

In addition to the budget, there will be significant debate this year on issues such as transportation, trauma care and education policy during the legislative session that begins in January. I look forward to interacting with the residents of Fayette County throughout the session on all issues pending before the General Assembly. It is my intention to again write regular columns updating the community on legislative matters (hopefully they won’t all be as long as this one). In the meantime, I hope everyone has a merry Christmas and my family and I wish you all nothing but the safest and happiest holiday season.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

WWII Remarks

On April 26, the Dixie Air Wing in Peachtree City hosted World War II Heritage Days, an annual event commemorating World War II and honoring its veterans. I was honored to be asked to give the remarks during the opening ceremony. The ceremony was attended by over 80 WWII veterans and their families, along with many citizens from our area. It was a wonderfully attended celebration and it is a credit to our community to host such an event. With Memorial Day coming up next Monday, I thought it appropriate to submit the text of the speech I delivered thanking and honoring this incredibly brave generation of veterans for their sacrifice.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is truly an honor to speak to you this morning. Since being invited to give these remarks I have been wrestling with what to say. It is a difficult task I’ve been given. What can I say to you? I who never served? To you, who did? I have known only the fruits of your sacrifice; I have lived only in safety and comfort, which you bought so dearly. What can I say to you, you who served in uniform and saved the world?

That's right. I believe the veterans, the heroes, of World War II did nothing less than save our world. All military service is noble, and all wartime service has a special nobility beyond anything I will ever likely achieve. But the men who scaled the cliffs at Normandy, who flew the missions over Hitler's Fortress Europe with little hope of survival, and who took the Pacific back from Imperial Japan island by island -- these can lay claim to a special distinction. They saved us all. Never have the stakes been higher. Never has the call to duty, to honor, to valor, been answered more resoundingly.

I have always relished hearing the stories of the battles that were fought and the great victories that were won in Europe and the Pacific. Just the other day, in my office, a man told my law partner his personal story of how he ran away from home at the age of 14, enlisted in the Army, and flew more than two dozen missions over Europe as a belly gunner in a B-17. When his mother eventually discovered his true whereabouts, she ratted him out. He received a dishonorable discharge, which was rescinded several years later and changed to an honorable discharge. And what did he do when his discharge was changed to honorable? He reenlisted and went on to fly missions over Korea. Just an incredible story from an incredible person. However, what is truly incredible is that this is but one example of millions in a generation that sacrificed and risked everything to save the free world.

I've heard these stories my whole life, for my family was touched by World War II. My great grandfather, Russell West, was killed during the Battle of the Bulge and lies buried in France. Both of my grandfathers served in combat -- one in the navy in the Pacific and the other as a pilot who flew numerous missions over North Africa and Europe.

Both my grandmother and grandfather that told me stories of those fateful days during my youth have passed. It is a scary thought to me that one day, all across our great nation, there will be only silence where there was once the sound of grandfathers, like mine, telling children, like me, upon their knee the stories of those great victories. This realization gives me a deep sense of sadness, and a powerful appreciation for the need to treasure our relationships while we can.

You, having left so many of your fallen brothers on a far away shore, understand this only too well. Though it has been so long since you have seen their faces -- which stay frozen in youth even now all these long years later -- you still feel bound to them, as if no time had passed at all. They live on forever in your hearts, as all of those who pass will in ours.

Douglas MacArthur said that “old soldiers never die; they just fade away." As the father of two children, I can promise you that the story of the Greatest Generation will never be allowed to fade from their memories, or from their children's. The story will be told and retold, and will endure long after we are all gone from the earth. How dare we ever forget the unforgettable? We can not and we must not and we will not.

It is not only in our memories that your works are commemorated. The brave and selfless acts of our uniformed men and women in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere do their predecessors proud. Last month, when Michael Monsoor was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for throwing himself on a grenade to save his comrades, I could not help but think of those who went before him, who committed similar acts of extraordinary valor, who fought for the same flag, and who made the same sacrifice, in the words of Lincoln, “upon the alter of freedom.” When such men are struck down in the flower of their youth, I take comfort in knowing that God is just, and that the scales will be made even; though we in this fallen world cannot see how.

Ladies and gentlemen, all men in their hearts long to do something great. Some of us still await our chance. Until then, we have to make due with moments like these, when we can be near greatness. World War II was one of the most significant events in the history of mankind. When it mattered most, this generation of Americans showed the best qualities our country is all about. This group of men and women gave some of the best years of their lives to the most important mission this country has ever accepted. And for that I thank you -- America thanks you -- and generations not yet born, in every corner of the globe -- thank you for your service, and your greatness. And let us pray that such exertions as you endured will never be necessary again.

Thank you again for this incredible opportunity.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Transportation Key Focus of General Assembly Session:

Over the past two decades Metro Atlanta has faced explosive population growth that is currently choking the region’s infrastructure. Fayette County has not been immune from these issues. Every year, as more people have moved into our county, the congestion on our roads has only increased. The time it takes to go to our jobs, or drive to the store or to drop our children off at school increases by the year. Every single minute we are on the road is one less minute we have to spend with our families. I believe addressing transportation congestion in Fayette County and Metro Atlanta must be one of the top priorities in the legislature.

Transportation in Georgia is largely funded by a tax on gasoline purchases. This funding mechanism becomes less sustainable every year as cars get more fuel efficient and more individuals are changing to hybrid cars and alternative fuels are becoming more of a reality. It is clear that our current funding model in Georgia will need to be revamped in the very near future. However, before we begin the process of fixing the funding model, I believe we need to ensure the government entity that is responsible for administering the funding, the Georgia Department of Transportation, is capable of efficiently performing such a task. Currently, I have serious doubts that the DOT has such capabilities.

During the session, the House and Senate both considered measures to provide regions of the state with the ability, through a referendum, to increase sales taxes for the purpose of funding transportation infrastructure projects. The money collected would have then been funneled through the DOT to spend on projects designated by each region, in collaboration with the DOT. The DOT would then have been tasked with designing, managing and delivering each project. Depending on how many regions of the state participated, this would have potentially routed billions of new taxpayer dollars through the GDOT. The legislation was put forth as part of a collaborative effort by a broad spectrum of interest groups including; local governments, business groups and the environmental community. While I appreciate these groups’ hard work on this legislation, I simply believed this action would have been premature at this time. For that reason, I voted against this measure that ultimately died in the Senate on the last night of the session.

The DOT’s new Commissioner, Gena Abraham, is doing great work to reform the DOT, however, it is a work in progress. When she came on board in recent months the book keeping was so poor, her staff could not even tell her how many projects they had scheduled. In the last month, state auditors determined they could not even audit the books because they were in such disarray and asked the state to fund a private sector audit. I simply do not believe this is an agency that needs to be tasked with spending billions of new taxpayer dollars, until its house is put in order. I support Commissioner Abraham’s reform efforts and believe she is making important steps. I was also pleased to support legislation that passed this session requiring a comprehensive progress report from the DOT on the Statewide Strategic Transportation Plan by June 30, 2009, and annually thereafter. The report must include costs, funding sources, and timelines for current and future DOT projects. Further, the General Assembly enacted legislation that requires the DOT Commissioner to develop and publish benchmarks detailing a realistic time frame for completion of transportation projects. This measure requires annual reports to be submitted to the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker of the House for any project above $10 million and explain discrepancies between benchmarks and actual performance. All of this will help ensure DOT is acting as good stewards of Georgia’s tax dollars.

This session, the General Assembly also enacted a program that has worked well in numerous other states. HB 1019 establishes a state revolving loan fund for infrastructure projects. This “infrastructure bank” will provide local governments with the opportunity to access low interest loans for their local projects. As the debt is repaid on these projects the money will then be available to be loaned again for additional projects in other localities. This program is subject to available annual appropriations, which will ensure close tabs are kept on the success of the program.

I am committed to working to find a solution to our transportation gridlock in metro-Atlanta and Georgia. Our funding mechanism is antiquated and needs to be overhauled. I believe it is incumbent upon office holders to work collaboratively to address our state and region infrastructure needs. However, I also strongly believe we must ensure any solution ensures that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and efficiently. I look forward to working with all groups in the coming years to address the issue of traffic congestion and infrastructure funding needs.

As always, please do not hesitate to contact me if I may be of assistance (404-656-0109).

Community News You Can Use
Peachtree City, Fayetteville, Tyrone

Friday, May 2, 2008

Great Session for Education

Over the last twenty-five years our County has seen explosive growth, with our population multiplying close to five times in that time frame. Our population growth has partly been a product of our close proximity to Atlanta and the airport, however, the quality of life in our community is what has brought most of the decent and caring families that have moved here over the last quarter century and now call Fayette County home. One of the cornerstones of our high quality of life in this community is our outstanding public schools. Thousands of parents have elected to raise their children here because we have had some of the best schools in the state for many, many years. While other counties around Atlanta have not dealt with the growth well and have seen a significant degradation in their children’s educational opportunities, our schools have continued to thrive and remain among the best in Georgia. This is because we have had and continue to have active and involved parents, conscientious school officials and hard working and talented teachers and administrators. However, we must all do our part to ensure our children continue to have the best schools in the state now and in the years to come.

My charge in the State House is to work with my colleagues to enact legislation that will benefit our schools and prevent the enactment of legislation that would do our schools harm. This session of the General Assembly was very good for education in Georgia and, in turn, good for schools in Fayette County. Much of our focus locally this session was on legislation dealing with Clayton County’s potential loss of accreditation. Like all citizens in Fayette County, I was extremely concerned when I learned an amendment was added to Senate Bill 458 during the Senate’s floor debate on the measure that could have potentially forced our schools to accept students from failing school systems. When this legislation arrived in the House, our effort to remove the amendment that was added in the Senate was successful, ensuring Fayette County would never be forced to accept students from failing schools. Even after the most offensive provision of the bill was stripped out in committee, the legislation simply had too many problems and thankfully died without ever even receiving a vote on the floor in the House of Representatives. I am proud to have been one of the leaders in defeating this legislation that would have jeopardized the quality of our schools.

Lost in the furor over SB 458 were some important pieces of legislation that will be of great benefit to Georgia’s and Fayette County’s schools. This session, the General Assembly enacted legislation resulting from the Governor’s IE2 initiative. One of the most frequent criticisms I hear from our school officials is the overwhelming number of mandates in federal and state law. Title 20 of the Georgia Code is a laundry list of education rules and regulations that must be followed by every school in the state. This is classic one-size-fits-all government and often leaves our school officials in straight jackets when they attempt to try anything new or creative in educating our youth. What is right or works for Fayette County, will not necessarily work in another area of the state. House Bill 1209 will give school systems the ability to hold public hearings, and in collaboration with parents, develop a strategic plan to opt out of some of these onerous bureaucratic rules and regulations. The school systems will then enter into a contract with the state and in exchange for the enhanced flexibility, will accept additional accountability measures in the event the system fails to meet the goals of their strategic plan. It should be also noted, that participation is 100% optional and systems can continue operating under the current system of rules and regulations if they determine it is working for their community. I strongly believe our teachers and school officials should be able to focus 100% of their efforts on educating our youth, rather than on jumping through government red tape and bureaucratic hurdles and this legislation is an important first step in accomplishing that goal.

This year the General Assembly again passed a balanced budget, as is required by our state constitution. At around the mid-point of the session the Governor announced that state revenues were less than initially projected, which made the job of budget writers more difficult. However, I am very pleased to report that education was given the priority it deserves in the budget process and both the amended 2008 budget and the full 2009 budget provided important funding our state’s educational system. The budget includes over $100 million in new education funding, including restoration of $50 million of previous years’ austerity cuts. The budget also includes full funding of the Governor’s recommended pay raise for our hard working teachers in Georgia.

As long as I am in the General Assembly, one of my top priorities will always be to ensure our schools continue to be the best in the state. This session of the General Assembly was a positive one for education in Georgia. I grew up in Fayette County and received the benefit of a great education in our public schools. I will continue to work at the State Capitol to ensure my two young children and all the children of our community will have the same great schools in Fayette County for years to come.

Monday, April 7, 2008

General Assembly - Final Session Update

With my first session in the General Assembly now complete I am pleased to report that we passed many of the important pieces of legislation that I have outlined for you earlier and those are now on the way to the Governor’s desk for signature. The most important legislation that we take up every year at the State House is the budget. It is the General Assembly’s one constitutional obligation. I am pleased to report we have passed a 2009 budget that is balanced and provides funding for many important needs in Georgia.

Georgia has nearly 9 million citizens and a state budget of $21 billion to meet their needs. From education, healthcare, public safety, and transportation – legislators strive to meet all of those needs and balance them with fiscally conservative principles. This year, despite reduced revenues, we were able to meet the needs of our citizens for the coming year. Among other items, the 2009 Budget included pay raises for our teachers and state employees, funding for Georgia’s indigent defense program, full funding of the Governor’s recommended teacher pay raise and construction projects for our schools.

I am pleased to report Senate Bill 458 died on the last day of the General Assembly session without receiving any further consideration. This ill conceived legislation has been defeated. Its supporters could never make the case that the bill addressed the problem it sought to address. Nor, could they answer critical questions related to the impact of the bill on our local public schools. Upon receiving this bill in the House, I worked diligently with my colleagues to strip the bill of the most egregious provisions, particularly the language to force school systems to accept students from non-accredited schools. However, many of us made it known that regardless of how much the bill got amended, we still had many fundamental concerns with the proposal and would not support it in any form. In the end, the supporters realized there was not sufficient support in the House to bring it forward for a vote.

While the session included many successes, I was extremely disappointed we were unable to reach consensus on a tax cut. Both the House and Senate passed significant tax relief measures earlier in the session, with the House advocating elimination of the car tax and the Senate advocating a reduction in income taxes. Over the last week, House and Senate conferees negotiated but could not reach an agreement on a final package. During that time, the House passed several versions of tax relief measures, including a compromise bill that blended the House and Senate proposals, in the hopes the Lieutenant Governor would allow a vote in the Senate. In the end, no such vote occurred. The positive news is that there is a general consensus that we must reduce the tax burden on Georgia’s citizens and we have a great deal of momentum heading into next year. It is my sincere hope that the General Assembly will take this momentum and translate it into meaningful tax relief for Georgia’s citizens.

One of my top priorities this session was to work to bring some sanity to the budget process in Georgia and shine a light on the spending by our state government. I am excited to report we were able to pass important new legislation that will do just that. The Transparency in Government Act (SB 300) will require a report by every single agency each year that details the tax revenues and operating revenues received by the agency during the immediately preceding fiscal year, the expenditures by that agency the immediately preceding fiscal year and details on every contract entered into by that agency. In addition to these comprehensive reporting requirements, the state is directed to set up a publicly available audit website that will provide Georgia’s citizens easy access to every single one of these reports. This will ensure the taxpayers have an accessible means to keep tabs on the State’s use of their tax dollars.

With the 2008 session of the Georgia General Assembly now at a close, I want to again say how honored I am to serve this great community at the State House. My goal in writing these columns each week was to keep Fayette County updated on what was occurring at the Capitol during the session. I hope it has helped to shed light on the legislative process and keep the community informed on the important debates in the legislature this year. My intention is to follow up with a more comprehensive update in the coming weeks that will include more information on other measures that passed the General Assembly this year. As always, please call me if I can be of any service or answer any questions you or your families may have.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Week 11 Update

Our work at the Capitol is coming to an end for this legislative session and I happy to report that we have already accomplished many of the goals we set forth in January.

We have adopted two fiscally responsible budgets that fund our priorities, a statewide water management plan and a plan to make it easier to build new water reservoirs, and a plan to eliminate the car tax for every Georgian forever. The major item up for debate this past week in the House was a bill to address Georgia’s transportation funding mechanism. Also, myself and several other legislators spent a great deal of time working to amend a provision in Senate Bill 458 that potentially threatened our school system’s ability to refuse students from other failing school systems. I also was appointed to a special three member subcommittee convened for the purpose of holding a public comment hearing on ethics legislation pending in the House.

Much has been said and written this past week about Senate Bill 458 and our efforts to remove a provision from the bill that potentially would have forced school systems to accept students from other failing school systems. The effort to fix this legislation was a true team effort by several members of the General Assembly, our local school officials that worked to mobilize the community and all the caring parents that responded. This situation was also a prime example of why the legislative process is deliberative and has many checks along the way.

When this legislation was transmitted by the Senate to the House and the provision in question was given further scrutiny it became clear that the legislation needed to be amended. Several of us in the House and Senate from potentially affected communities successfully were able convince Chairman Amos Amerson, members of the House Science and Technology Committee and the bill’s author to amend the legislation and remove the provision that potentially threatened our schools. I want to again say thank you to all the parents of Fayette County for responding to the call! The citizens made our job easy by arming us with thousands of emails, calls and letters to use as tangible evidence to show our colleagues in the General Assembly how important it was to amend this bill. We are truly blessed to live in a community that cares so deeply about our public schools and the education of our children. As an additional bit of information, at our request the Chairman of the House Rules Committee, Earl Ehrhart, has pledged that if and when this legislation is brought to the floor for a vote it will be done so under a rule structure that will prevent floor amendments to the bill. This will ensure no further efforts are made to amend the bill and reinsert the offensive provision that started the furor.

Senate Resolution 845 is a constitutional amendment that would allow a ‘Regional Commission Area Transportation Tax’ which was debated this week in the House and ultimately passed with 136 votes. I voted against the bill as I believe it is premature and addresses the wrong problem. Under SR 845 Rural Development Commissions (RDC), which are made up of regionally grouped counties, would be given the ability to call for a 1 percent sales tax to be spent on transportation infrastructure projects in that region. This money would be funneled through the Department of Transportation and spent on projects designated by the RDC and DOT. Depending on the number of RDCs that choose to participate, this legislation could result in a tax increase in the billions to Georgia’s citizens. While I do like the fact that regions will determine which projects get top priority, rather than a centralized state authority, I simply think the legislation is premature.

My primary problem with the proposal is that it will result in billions of new dollars being sent to the Georgia Department of Transportation, which I believe is a fundamentally broken bureaucracy. The DOT Board recently approved new Commissioner Gena Abraham. When she took over she asked for a list of current projects on the books and her staff was unable to give her a precise answer. Based on media reports, they estimated somewhere between 1,000 and 9,000 projects. That is but one indication of a Department in bureaucratic chaos. I simply do not believe the DOT is in any position to efficiently manage an infusion of billions of new dollars when they cannot even determine what projects their current budget is funding. Commissioner Abraham is working hard to reform the agency and all early indications are that she is doing a great job. This session the House has also passed measures to bring further accountability and reporting obligations to the Department.

While I believe our current transportation funding model is outdated and we must work as a State to address our transportation infrastructure needs, I believe we must do so in a way that ensures we are good stewards of taxpayer dollars. Increasing taxes for the purpose of sending money to an agency in bad need of reform does not meet that test. My preference would be that we give the new Commissioner and reporting measures passed by the General Assembly at least one year to work and hopefully get the DOT’s house in order and then assess our transportation funding needs. I believe we will find that better management will result in significantly more dollars for infrastructure by making more efficient use of existing resources.

This past week I was appointed to a special three member subcommittee of the House State Planning and Community Affairs Committee that was convened to hear public comment on SB 372 and report back and make recommendations to the full Committee’s Chairman, Tommy Smith. This is legislation sponsored by Senator Kasim Reed that has passed the Senate and proposes important new ethics reforms. Currently, a governing body exists to receive and investigate ethics complaints against all federal and state office holders. During the hearing, it came out that less than one-third of counties, cities and school boards in our State have a mechanism in place to receive ethics complaints against its elected officials. This legislation would require that ethics panels be created and a system put in place by local governments to ensure citizens have a forum in which to bring ethics complaints against their elected representatives. The recent situation with the Clayton County school board provides a clear example of why the public needs a mechanism to raise complaints against those that violate the public’s trust while in office. While there are some technical changes that need to be made to the bill as it moves forward, all three members of the subcommittee have reported our findings and unanimously recommended to Chairman Smith that this legislation move forward as quickly as possible.

It is expected that our work here will be completed on Friday, April 4th. In our final days, we will finalize the FY09 budget, hopefully reach an agreement with the Senate on a tax cut, and still be home to spend Spring Break with our families.

I will continue to keep you up to date on our actions as the legislative session progresses. Should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me at my Capitol office at (404) 656- 0109. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ramsey on Senate Bill 458

Senator Ronnie Chance and Representative Matt Ramsey talked to a packed house regarding controversial Senate Bill 458. To view Senator Chance's talk, click here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Week 10 Update

With Spring finally here, tax cuts continue to be a topic of discussion in the Capitol halls. This week, the House and the Senate finally reached an agreement on the Fiscal Year 2008 Amended Budget and the House passed our version of the Fiscal Year 2009 Budget. I am happy to report that we were able to restore equalization grants and the majority of the austerity cuts to education that have been made in recent years.

Our work on the state budgets this year has been difficult due to a decreased revenue estimate. We found ourselves in a position of having to make some difficult mid-stream revisions to the budget, while still funding our state’s priorities, especially in education. Nationally, Georgia ranks 49th in per-capita spending but 9th in overall per-capita education spending. I believe this is evidence of the legislature’s continued commitment to fiscally conservative policies while funding our educational needs. I can tell you that my colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee worked tirelessly on these two budgets and I am proud to report to you that we have succeeded in funding our priorities.

In the FY08 Amended Budget, the original House proposal included $30 million in equalization grants for Georgia’s school systems. Our final agreement did include $20 million for those grants and we have funded the additional $10 million in the FY09 budget. We also funded over $50 million for trauma care to help hospitals like Grady in Atlanta that treat the critically injured, and $40 million for reservoir projects to meet Georgia’s future water needs. This midyear budget also included $210 million in bonds for school construction projects around the state. This budget was adopted by both the House and the Senate last week and signed by the Governor last Friday.

Earlier this session, I laid out for you the priorities of the House as we moved through the budget process. We have remained committed to funding education, healthcare, public safety and natural resources despite a $245 million downward revision in estimated revenue. Our top priority was to restore the $141 million in austerity cuts to education that have been made in recent years and after many weeks with long nights, we did restore $90 million of those cuts. While we have passed the House version of the budget, I and my colleagues will continue to work with the Senate in the last days of the session to restore the remaining $50 million in austerity cuts. I am also happy to report that the House fully funded the recommended 2.5 per cent pay raise for our teachers and state employees. Our teachers in Georgia are a critical resource and vital to the future of our state and we must continue to ensure we can recruit and retain high quality individuals to the profession. The budget also included a pay raise for our public safety officers. The measure was immediately transmitted to the Senate for consideration.

Both of these budgets are fiscally conservative and meet the needs of our citizens. The Governor must act within six days on the FY08 Amended Budget, and I hope the Senate moves quickly on the FY09 Budget and works with the House to fully restore education austerity cuts.

You may recall that last week the House adopted House Resolution 1246 that would allow Georgians to vote to eliminate the ‘birthday tax’ on personal vehicles over a two year period, eliminate the state’s portion of the ad valorem taxes on personal vehicles and property, and cap assessments on personal property at 2% per year and commercial property at 3% per year. Tied to this was a measure that would have provided for a $10 fee on every vehicle registered in Georgia to fund a statewide trauma care network. Also, the legislation required the dollars from the car tax received by cities, counties and school boards be refunded to these entities by the state, putting the burden of the tax cut on the state and not our local communities.

This week the Lieutenant Governor and members of the Senate announced a different tax plan that involves a reduction in the income tax paid by Georgians, rather than an elimination of the car tax. Based on the significant feedback I and my colleagues have received, I believe that Georgians strongly support the House’s plan to eliminate the car tax. It would permanently eliminate a tax on our citizenry and ensure Georgia’s families get significant and permanent relief. However, I am extremely encouraged that both the House and Senate agree that Georgians need tax relief in some form to help spur the economy and now the only question is how best to provide that relief. I look forward to the discussion and to bringing meaningful economic relief to Georgia’s families.

I will continue to keep you up to date on our actions as the legislative session progresses. Should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me at my Capitol office at (404) 656- 0109. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Senate Bill 458 Amended; Allows School Systems to Determine Whether to Accept Students from Non-Accredited Systems!

I am pleased to report that the House Committee on Science and Technology has amended a provision in Senate Bill 458 that would have potentially required school systems to accept students from non-accredited school systems. The amended version of the provision is now permissive and says that the receiving school system “may” accept such student, leaving it to the sole discretion of the receiving County, as was the intent in the original legislation. As now amended, the County may refuse a student for any reason and it is completely in the discretion of the school system that would accept or deny such student’s request to attend. I spoke in Committee today and thanked the Chairman and author of the bill on behalf of Fayette County for hearing and addressing our concerns.

I and several colleagues worked diligently over the last several days to convince members of the Committee that this amended provision would have seriously detrimental consequences for school systems forced to accept an influx of students from failing school districts. The underlying legislation proposes options for students that are in a school system that loses accreditation. Among the options in the original language was for students to attend school in other school systems and it provided that other school systems “may” accept such students at their discretion. However, this language was amended on the floor of the Senate, prior to the bill’s passage, to provide that other school systems “shall” accept these students, subject to space availability. I am thankful that the House Committee has agreed to change “shall” back to “may” to make crystal clear that the receiving County could refuse students from failing school systems in their sole discretion.

I would like to specifically thank all the parents that have contacted me and other members of the General Assembly in opposition to this provision. The outcry of our community made it easy for me to make the case that this was bad public policy. I am so proud to represent a district that cares so deeply about the education of our youth. We now must vigilantly track the progress of this bill to ensure further efforts to amend this legislation are defeated. As a parent of two young children about to start in our local schools, I will always fight to protect the quality of Fayette County’s schools for them and all the children of our community. As a product of Fayette County public schools, I believe it is my charge to work to ensure current and future generations of local school children have the same excellent education I was afforded.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Georgia State Representative Matt Ramsey (R-Peachtree City) today applauded the defeat of a measure that proposed to impose a change to the system by which the Fayette County Commission is elected over the objections of Fayette County's locally elected officials. The House rejected House Bill 1307 by a bipartisan vote of 91-48.

“I am pleased that the House today recognized that this proposal was not appropriate for local legislation, as it does not have the support of the local community it would affect,” Ramsey said. “This is not a debate that should occur on the floor of the House by politicians from all over the state of Georgia, this is a decision that should be made by the local citizens of Fayette County and their locally elected officials.”

HB 1307 proposed to segment Fayette County into voting districts for the purpose of electing County Commissioners in Fayette County. Currently every voter in Fayette County gets to vote for each of the five County Commissioners. This proposal would allow each voter to only vote for one Commissioner from their own geographic segment of the County. Ramsey and Representative John Yates (R-Griffin) each made parliamentary inquiries pointing out to the House that this legislation has been publically opposed by the entire Fayette County Commission, the Mayor and City Council of Fayetteville, the Mayor and City Council of Tyrone, and the Mayor of Peachtree City.

Crossover Week Update

Last week, the House has crossed the 30th day of our 40 day legislative session. This is the day that a bill must have passed at least one body in order to have a chance of becoming law. With some changes to the legislation that fell short last week the House of Representatives had a second opportunity to vote for the largest tax cut in Georgia’s history.

You may recall that last week an effort in the House to allow Georgians to vote to eliminate the tax on personal vehicles fell ten votes shy of the necessary two-thirds for placement on the ballot as a constitutional amendment. Fortunately, the House Republican leadership felt so strongly that this was the right thing to do the measure was brought back for further consideration in another piece of legislation. The legislation was amended to reflect changes in the original proposal that failed last week. However, the two most critical parts of the tax reform, the freeze on property values for taxation purposes and the elimination of the car tax remain in the legislation that passed the House 166-5 on Wednesday with overwhelming bi-partisan support.

The new tax cut bill will give Georgians the chance to vote to eliminate the ‘birthday tax’ on personal vehicles over a two year period and cap assessments on residential property at 2% per year and commercial property at 3% per year, until such time as a property is sold and revalued at the sales price, which is the true fair market value. This will ensure properties are being taxed at their actual market value and bring needed reform to the property assessment process. The proposal also includes a provision for the state to refund to local communities all revenues that each governmental entity would have derived from the car tax, putting the tax cut on the back of the state. If enacted by the Senate and approved by Georgia’s voters in November, our State’s citizens will save more than $1 billion the first two years the law is in effect, making it the largest tax cut in Georgia’s history.

With the economy lagging now is the time for real tax relief. This is exactly what Fayette County and our State needs. It has been proven over and over again that the economy grows when government taxes less and taxpayers get to keep and spend more of their hard earned money as they see fit. When the economy grows, jobs are created, home ownership increases, salaries go up, all of which contributes to an increased tax base. Significant tax relief is precisely the stimulus our State’s economic needs. I am strongly encouraging my colleagues in the Senate to take up this measure and give our citizens the right to vote on this important tax relief in November.

Atlanta has Grady Hospital, a Level 1 Trauma Care Center, and if you are seriously injured in Fayette County it doesn’t take long to get there. But there are large areas of our State that are hours from a trauma center. In fact, Georgians have the worst access to Level 1 Trauma Care of any state in the southeastern United States. If Georgians vote in November to eliminate the car tax, a separate measure passed this week would provide that a $10 fee would be included in the vehicle registration process to help fund a state-wide trauma care network. Rather than paying hundreds on the car tax, Georgians would pay the current $20 registration fee plus a $10 fee to fund a statewide trauma care network. It is imperative that we support the trauma hospitals we do have and provide for new ones, as they are vital lifelines for Georgians in need of immediate critical care. We have lost far too many citizens in our State due to a lack of an adequate trauma network and it is time to get serious about fixing the problem.

You may have heard this week that Governor Perdue has lowered the revenue projections for this state. For us in the legislature, this means that we must revise the budgets we have been working on. While this does mean there is less revenue in 2008 than projected, I again reiterate that the House remains committed to funding our education needs and restoring all “austerity” cuts that have been made in recent years. The House will continue to work diligently to get those funds to our schools soon and without strings attached.

I will continue to keep you up to date on our actions as the legislative session progresses. Should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me at my Capitol office at (404) 656- 0109. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Week 8 Update

As we enter March, our work at the Capitol continues. While we did many good things this week, I was disappointed when the largest tax cut in the history of the state failed by ten votes to receive the necessary two-thirds vote to be placed on the ballot as a constitutional amendment in November. On a positive note, we adopted legislation continuing our annual sales tax holiday weekends, to provide greater local control in education, and reforming Georgia’s indigent defense program.

This week, I voted with my colleagues in the Georgia House of Representatives to provide Georgians with the opportunity in November to vote for the largest tax cut in the history of our state. The legislation would have provided Georgians with the ability to vote to eliminate the car tax on a ballot referendum in November. The elimination of the absurd “birthday tax” would have provided more than $1 billion in tax savings to Georgians in the first two years after going into effect. The proposal also included a provision for the state to refund to the local community all revenues that the local community would have derived from the car tax, putting the tax cut on the back of the state. Further, the proposal would have provided reform to the tax assessment process by freezing the value of properties, with an annual escalator for inflation, until such time as the property is sold and revalued at the true market value. This would have ensured properties are taxed at their actual market value and brought needed reform to the property assessment process. The measure was approved by the majority of the House of Representatives, but fell ten votes shy of the necessary 120 votes (2/3rd majority) to be placed on the ballot as a constitutional amendment in November. With only 107 Republicans in the House, not enough Democrats joined us in voting to give Georgians the right to vote on meaningful tax relief in November.

The debate on tax reform began more than a year ago with Speaker Richardson’s announcement of his plan to eliminate property taxes in lieu of a consumption-based tax on services. I continually voiced my questions and concerns over how this plan would have affected our local schools. The Speaker ultimately determined the support was not sufficient to pass his property tax elimination proposal and substituted the version of the legislation that was considered this week. There is absolutely no doubt that the elimination of the car tax would have provided significant economic relief for Georgians. The legislation also included a guarantee by the State, backed by Georgia’s full faith and credit, to refund to local communities the dollars they would have received from the car tax. This would have put the onus on the state government to remain fiscally responsible to ensure sufficient revenues exist to make our local communities whole. In the remaining days of the session I will continue to work with my colleagues to provide meaningful spending reform and tax relief for Georgians.

On a positive note, we were able this week to ease your tax burden for two weekends. Every August, parents all over Georgia take their children shopping for back to school clothes and supplies. This is a big shopping weekend for our families and I was happy to again support a tax free shopping weekend to help them save a little money. The House approved House Bill 948, of which I was one of the five original sponsors, setting the weekend of July 31 through August 3 as the sales tax holiday weekend for school supplies, and October 2 through October 5 as the sales tax holiday weekend for energy efficient appliances.

In education this week, House members voted in favor of House Bill 1209 introduced by my colleague Brooks Coleman, Chairman of the House Education Committee. This legislation provides greater flexibility and local control of our schools systems. Working with the State Department of Education and through public hearings with parents and the local community, school systems would develop a five-year strategic plan. Upon approval of the plan, each school system may choose to enter into a five-year contract with the State Department of Education that will provide much needed flexibility to school districts in exchange for additional accountability. School systems would have greater flexibility by relaxing any number of state mandates that constantly put our County School Board and Superintendent in straight jackets as they attempt to chart a course for our schools. If the school system fails to meet their own agreed upon goals they would be subject to greater accountability pursuant to the contract. One-size-fits-all government never works and the leaders of our school systems need flexibility, while also being held accountable if the schools fail to meet the goals and standards they have pledged to meet. This legislation provides both and will help move our educational systems forward. Under the legislation, no school system will be required to enter into a contract with the state and adopt the strategic plan if they determine the current state law governing education works for their system.

Georgia’s indigent defense program is broken. For three years, one defendant and his attorneys have abused the system and wasted millions of taxpayer dollars defending a case that should have concluded long before now. The case of alleged courthouse killer Brian Nichols has tested the process by which we provide a defense for indigent defendants and has illuminated the flaws in the system. This week, the House adopted House Bill 1245 providing comprehensive reforms of Georgia’s indigent defense program. The bill establishes a fee sharing model where the state will share the financial burden of indigent defense with the county in capitol cases and stipulates that attorneys in conflict cases be paid a flat fee for their service. HB 1245 also states that only elected judges can preside over a death penalty case ensuring the judge is always responsive to the citizens of this state. Other reforms include audits of Georgia’s Public Defenders Standards Council and expanded membership to include locally elected officials.

I will continue to keep you up to date on our actions as the legislative session progresses. Should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me at my Capitol office at (404) 656- 0109. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Week 7 Update

The House convened this week on Tuesday, February 26th, for the 23rd day of our 40 day legislative session. On the floor, we adopted legislation addressing our continued transportation funding problems, education and local school boards and an adoption tax credit.

Several education bills were considered this week that will impact education in our state. New charter schools are opened every year in Georgia and House Bill 1065 was adopted allowing local education sales taxes to be used for a local charter school’s capital outlay projects. In communities that do not have the luxury of excellent public schools like we have in Fayette County, charter schools can sometimes be a life line to students. Unfortunately sometimes, educating our children means doing more than providing schools. It can also mean ensuring ‘bad apples’ aren’t teaching in the classroom. This week we adopted House Bill 250 enabling the Professional Practices Commission to more quickly and efficiently investigate complaints against educators involving illegal substances and sexual offenses.

Earlier this week I joined several colleagues in sponsoring House Resolution 956, The Taxpayer Protection Amendment. The Resolution proposes to cap state spending at the rate of inflation, adjusted for population increases. Families across Georgia are being forced to tighten their belts as our economy hits a soft patch and I strongly believe the state government needs to engage in some belt tightening of its own. This measure and House Resolution 1218, the Taxpayer Dividend Act, which I also cosponsored, would put some common sense back into the budget process and revolutionize the way our state treats taxpayer dollars. HR 956 would permanently cap the growth of spending in our state and HR 1218 would constitutionally require surplus dollars be returned to Georgia’s citizens in the form of a heightened tax exemption, rather that sitting in a bank awaiting someone in government to figure out how to spend it. I will work diligently to encourage the passage of these important measures.

With more children every year entering our foster system, I believe it is important that we do everything we can to support those families that give them a permanent home.
This week, I supported the adoption of House Bill 1159 providing a state income tax credit for families who adopt foster children. I hope that this measure will encourage more Georgians to open their hearts and provide these children with a permanent home.

As we continue to debate transportation proposals offered by our House and Senate Transportation Committee Chairmen, the House Transportation Committee passed several measures that I look forward to supporting. SR 781 calls on the Georgia Department of Transportation to create a state-wide strategic transportation plan and present it to the General Assembly by December 31, 2008. This is a necessary step to provide Georgia with a comprehensive map to address our transportation needs. HB 1189 would require the DOT to make an annual report to the Governor, Lt. Governor, Speaker and chairs of the House and Senate Transportation Committees. The report must include progress made on the Statewide Strategic Transportation plan plus a list of projects realistically expected to begin in the next 5 years, the cost of those projects, and the source of funding for those projects. I think it is vital that the Department of Transportation get its house in order and this reporting will help ensure all steps are being taken to efficiently deliver needed infrastructure projects to Georgia’s communities.

Last week, I told you about House Bill 455 which will help law enforcement officers track the over prescription of dangerous drugs. The measure was introduced in part as a result of the Chris Benoit tragedy that profoundly affected Fayette County. This week, that measure was adopted by the full House. The legislation will now be assigned to a Senate committee for hearing and hopefully passage by that body.

Local Note**** This past week I was once again reminded how lucky we are in Fayette County to have such responsive and diligent law enforcement agencies in our community. My ever curious one year old son grabbed our cordless telephone on Saturday morning and dialed 911 on our speed dial feature before my wife or I could get the phone away from him. In a matter of seconds the 911 operator called our house back and we confirmed that it was not an emergency that prompted the call, but rather a mischievous toddler. Despite our best efforts to assure the operator all was well at our house, an extraordinarily courteous and professional Peachtree City police officer responded to my house in less than five minutes to make sure we were all safe and sound. This kind of rapid response should give all of us comfort in the event a real emergency occurs that affects our families. Due to their record of success, we have come to expect this kind of service from our Sheriff’s Department and the Peachtree City and City of Fayetteville Police Departments and we sometimes take it for granted. I just wanted to again say thank you to all of these men and women that are on the front line in the effort to keep our community safe.

I will continue to keep you up to date on our actions as the legislative session progresses. Should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me at my Capitol office at (404) 656- 0109. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Week 6 Update

The 2008 legislative session is now more than half-way complete but much important work remains. Key issues that we still must address are tax reform, a budget that is fiscally responsible and meets the needs of our citizens, transportation, and trauma care. We continue to debate tax reform in committee but with tax reform must come spending reform. This week, the House laid out our spending priorities for the Fiscal Year 2009 budget.

At a press conference this week, members of the House Appropriations Committee laid out spending priorities for the Fiscal Year 2009 budget. Among other things, my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee announced that the House is committed to fully restoring $141 million in austerity cuts in education. This will put education money back in the hands of local communities, rather than sending it to our schools with bureaucratic strings attached, or worse with unfunded mandates without the resources to pay. The budget also funds priorities such as health care, public safety and natural resources, such as water. The 2009 budget will also be one of the forums for the debate on our overburdened trauma care system in Georgia. Georgia’s citizens have the worst access to Level 1 trauma care of any state in the southeast. Georgia should be a leader, not a follower in protecting the lives of our citizens. We have lagged behind other states for far too long in providing access to trauma care. Our budget will focus on righting this long overdue wrong.

Georgia’s method of funding transportation infrastructure has come under attack this session by cities, counties and a variety of private organizations. These groups have argued that the motor fuel tax is an outdated and insufficient mechanism by which to fund our transportation system which has led to a shortfall in resources and system-wide gridlock. The House and Senate Transportation Chairmen have both unveiled plans that would give all Georgians the ability to vote on a ballot initiative in November that provides an alternative funding source for transportation. I will keep you updated as more details about the House plan are unveiled and the debate ensues. Different regions of the state have different priorities and I think it is prudent to put any such proposal before the voters so they can decide if it best suits the collective needs of our state.

This week in the House Judiciary Non-Civil committee we voted to send House Bill 250 to the full House for a vote. This legislation would authorize the Professional Standards Commission to open an investigation when it has received a written complaint from a local school board, the state school board or an individual resident of Georgia alleging an educator has been convicted of possessing or selling a controlled substance or has been convicted of a sexual offense. We must protect our students when they are in the classroom and this bill provides additional methods to do just that.

In recent months we have seen stark examples of the dangers of abusing prescription drugs. Most recently, the professional wrestler Chris Benoit took his own life after taking the life of his wife and son. News accounts tell us that prior to this tragedy, Benoit’s doctor supplied him with a 10-month supply of testosterone every three to four weeks. As a result of this and other similar tragedies, the House Judiciary Non-Civil committee passed House Bill 455 establishing the Georgia Prescription Monitoring Program. The program would require pharmacists that dispense Schedule II, III, or IV drugs to submit weekly reports containing specific information regarding when a prescription was filled, the quantity dispensed and the number of prescriptions filled to each individual patient. All information would be submitted to the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency. Hopefully with this level of reporting in place we can give law enforcement the tools necessary to monitor and identify irregularities in the prescribing of these potentially dangerous drugs.

I will continue to keep you up to date on our actions as the legislative session progresses. Should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me at my Capitol office at (404) 656- 0109. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
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Monday, February 18, 2008

Effort to Impose District Voting on Fayette County Would Supersede Local Control

I was disturbed to learn that my colleague in the General Assembly, Virgil Fludd, is once again attempting to change the way our County Commission is elected in Fayette County through the use of “Local Legislation” in the State House. Currently, all five members of our County Commission are elected at-large by the voters of the entire County. Representative Fludd proposes to break Fayette County up into geographic districts and have some, or all, of our Commissioners elected by districts.

The local legislative process exists in the General Assembly because of the limited constitutional authority granted to counties to frame, adopt and amend their own charters, powers and laws. Such legislative changes are referred to as “Local Legislation” in the General Assembly and are put forth by each county’s legislative delegation, which is made up of all legislators that represent any portion of a given county. In the Georgia House, the Fayette County delegation consists of me, John Yates (R-Griffin), Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale), Virgil Fludd (D-Tyrone) and Darryl Jordan (D-Riverdale). The rules of the House are such that only a majority of our delegation (3 members) needs to sign onto a local bill to move it out of committee and the House.

The local legislative process does not exist to impose controversial top-down changes on a local community without that community’s support and against the will of the locally elected officials. The process exists to give local officials an efficient and accessible process by which they can bring proposed changes that have community support to their General Assembly delegation and constitutionally change the political subdivision’s laws or ordinances. Not one of our County Commissioners has called me in support of creating a district based voting system in Fayette County. Further, I have not heard from one of my constituents in favor of this change and have heard from dozens that oppose it out of concern for Fayette County’s future. This effort is nothing more than an attempt by a few individuals at the State Capitol to impose their will on Fayette County without the support of the community at-large or our locally elected officials.

Year in and year out, Fayette County is at or near the top of the Georgia rankings in school performance measures such as graduation rates, SAT and ACT scores and percentage of graduates going on to college. Fayette County has one of the highest median household incomes in not only Georgia, but the nation. The value of new and existing homes continues to be among the highest in the State. Crime statistics indicate Fayette County’s crime rate is one of the lowest in metro-Atlanta. By any measure Fayette County has historically and currently is one of the most prosperous and well run counties in Georgia. Our success is owed in large part to the conscientious leadership of the current and past members of the County Commission, all of which have been elected at-large, by the voters of this County. It strikes me as tremendously irresponsible to risk the success we have enjoyed by making such a major change to how our leaders are selected without the support of the community or the very Commissioners this would affect. Unlike the proponents of this change, I am not willing to gamble our County’s future by imposing such a major systemic change without being certain it is supported by our community and locally elected officials. Based on the significant feedback I have received, this proposal simply does not have the support of Fayette County.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Weekly Update

As the halfway mark of the 2008 legislative session approaches, we continue to move legislation through the General Assembly and key initiatives continue to be heard in committee prior to consideration by the full House. Tax relief has been a key issue for many months and this week I joined some of my colleagues in introducing a tax measure that could reduce the income tax burden of our citizens, while reining in spending. On the floor of the House, we adopted House Bill 919 creating oversight of the Georgia Lottery Corporation to protect the future of HOPE scholarships. In the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee I continued to work with my colleagues to ensure the safety of all Georgians.

I was pleased to co-sponsor House Resolution 1216, the Taxpayer Dividend Act, with a bi-partisan group of my colleagues. Currently, Georgia has the highest budget surplus in our State’s history. This is the hard earned money of Georgia’s taxpayers and there should be a mechanism in place to ensure responsible stewardship of surplus revenue dollars. This legislation proposes limitations on how excess revenues could be spent, rather than leave it to the unbridled discretion of the General Assembly and Governor. In years of a budget surplus, the Act proposes to first fund education shortfalls, then the state reserve “rainy day” fund, at 8% of the budget, and the remainder would be returned to the taxpayers as an income tax deduction. This combination of spending reform and tax reform is long overdue in Georgia.

Georgia’s lottery has funded the HOPE scholarships and pre-K programs that have benefited our students for many years. Recently, questions have been raised about how the Georgia Lottery Corporation has used lottery funds for excessive staff bonuses rather than for scholarships and new pre-k programs. This week I joined my colleagues in the House in voting to approve House Bill 919 to create a legislative oversight committee to ensure that we continue to use lottery funds to benefit our students above all else.

This week in the House Judiciary Non-Civil committee we voted to send House Bill 336 to the full House for a vote. This legislation would increase penalties for a DUI conviction to include mandatory jail time for repeat offenders and would make the fourth DUI offense a felony conviction, rather than a misdemeanor. This legislation was strongly supported by prosecutors, solicitors and Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. Georgia is one of the last states in America without a felony DUI statute and I was proud to vote in favor of this measure aimed at protecting the driving public. Habitual DUI offenders put our families at risk every time they drink and drive and Georgia needs to be a leader in cracking down on these individuals.

I will continue to keep you up to date on our actions as the legislative session progresses. Should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me at my Capitol office at (404) 656- 0109. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Feb. 7 Update

It seems like only last week the 2008 legislative session got underway and here we are now in February. Our committee work on the Amended Fiscal Year 2008 Budget is now complete and we are ready to move forward with our proposals. On the House floor this week, we expanded the Georgia Higher Education Savings Plan, changed the dates allowed for special elections to increase participation, and officially recognized February 12th as ‘Georgia’s birthday.’

As legislators, our one constitutional obligation is to provide a budget for the state of Georgia. I have worked diligently with my colleagues to ensure that we employ conservative fiscal principles in this process. This year, we were presented a budget that used an “income factor” inconsistent with current education funding mechanisms as a basis to reduce education funding to schools across Georgia. These reductions would have had a negative impact on 16 of our school systems and nearly 30% of our student population statewide. If the cuts are not restored, the negative impact grows to effect 134 school systems and 62% of our student population.

This was unacceptable to the House and in the Amended FY 08 budget, we were able to restore $30.7 million to our schools. There will always be differences of opinion among elected leaders as to how tax dollars can best be spent, but the members of the Georgia House remain steadfastly committed to funding education in Georgia.

House Bill 1014 is a win-win for grandparents and their college bound grandchildren. We expanded the Georgia Higher Education Savings Plan to allow grandparents to make tax deductible donations to qualified 529 college savings plan.

Special elections in Georgia to approve local tax increases for specific projects have historically been held on various dates throughout the year with often low turnout. By requiring that special elections to present a question to voters, such as to approve a local option penny sales tax, must be held on the primary or general elections dates, House Bill 296 will hopefully increase turnout for these important ballot questions.

On a lighter note, the House did adopt House Bill 387 officially recognizing February 12 - ‘Georgia Day’ - as the anniversary of the landing of General Oglethorpe and the first colonists in Georgia. Without the bravery and wisdom of these early Georgians, that once small colony would not have become our now great state.

This week, I received the honor of being named a Deputy Whip for the House Republican Caucus. Deputy Whips are assigned to receive input from members of the Republican Caucus. When key legislation is presented for consideration on the House floor, Deputy Whips will assist the Majority Whip in gathering information about the leanings of caucus members.

I will continue to keep you up to date on our actions as the legislative session progresses. Should you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me at my Capitol office at (404) 656- 0109. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

General Assembly Update, Week 1

It was with great excitement and an overwhelming sense of responsibility that I took my seat on Monday in the State House as the 2008 General Assembly session was gaveled in by the Speaker of the House. In the first week of session I had the opportunity to work on several issues that are of great importance to Fayette County and our State. I plan to write periodic updates during the legislative session in an effort to keep the community informed as to what is going on in the General Assembly this year.

As I said would be the case during my campaign, the first and most pressing legislation to be taken up by the General Assembly this year is a comprehensive statewide water management plan. This week I joined my colleagues in the House and Senate in voting overwhelmingly to pass a water plan. We are one of the last states in the country to put a statewide management plan in place and the current drought underscores how badly we need to take a comprehensive approach to water policy in Georgia. The plan calls for a complete assessment of our current water sources in Georgia, along with economic and population forecasts to determine how much water is currently available and how much water will be necessary in the years to come.

After completion of the assessment, which will identify water needs around the state, regional water councils will draft and implement water plans. These plans will identify the management practices local governments in each region will employ to ensure that regional water and wastewater needs are met now and into the future. The water plan describes a number of management techniques regional water councils and local governments can use in meeting long-term water needs. These include better management of demand for water (e.g., water conservation), adding supply and storage capacity (e.g., reservoir construction), and more efficient methods of returning water to our rivers and streams.

The Speaker of the House has also announced his full support of follow-on legislation to be taken up this session, which will provide significant new funding for the construction of reservoirs, along with a streamlining of the permitting process. While the water plan is not a silver bullet that will bring immediate rain, nor will it fill our lakes and reservoirs overnight, it does mark an important beginning of a process of establishing a state water policy that will prepare us for future droughts. Needless to say, such a policy is long overdue.

Upon being sworn in, I was assigned to several committees, including the House Judiciary (Non-Civil) Committee. I am honored to receive this assignment and excited that it will give me an opportunity to work directly on the type of criminal justice legislation that will have a real impact on efforts to keep our community safe. Last Tuesday at my first committee meeting, we took up legislation to impose residency restrictions on sexual offenders in Georgia. The measure provides that individuals on the sexual offender list will be barred from living or working within 1000 feet of places where minors congregate, including schools and day care centers. The law was originally passed in 2006 but was later struck down by the Supreme Court. The legislation approved by our committee Tuesday is crafted to answer the concerns of the Court and pass constitutional muster if challenged again. The committee heard from the law enforcement community, which testified that the bill would be an important tool in keeping our children safe from sexual predators.

I have personally spoken to our Sheriff and District Attorney and both strongly support this legislation, as do I. As a parent of young children, I am convinced that this is good policy that will help protect the children of our State. I actively participated in the debate and voted with the majority in passing the bill out of committee and look forward to working with my colleagues to quickly bring the legislation up for a vote on the floor of the House.

During the same hearing I also joined my colleagues on the Committee in unanimously approving tough new penalties for individuals involved in dog fighting in Georgia. We need to end this barbaric practice in our State and this legislation will send a strong message to anyone involved that Georgia will not tolerate these type of inhumane activities.

It was an eventful first week with some important accomplishments, but there is still much work to do. I hope this update has been informative.