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.