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.