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.