Monday, April 27, 2009

Session Wrap Up

The General Assembly adjourned for the year on April 3. I have previously written an update on several initiatives that were passed during the last week of the session. However, I wanted to follow up with information on some additional measures that were passed by the General Assembly and are on the Governor’s desk awaiting signature. Facing the toughest economic times in recent memory, the 2009 General Assembly Session proved to be a successful one for Georgians. In addition to passing a balanced budget and addressing the governance of DOT, the legislature addressed several important policy areas, including tax relief, education and our state’s trauma network.

Over the past year a statewide task force of educators, policy makers, school administrators and other education policy experts have worked to identify issues that need to be addressed in Georgia’s public education system. One of the most critical problems identified by the task force is a shortage of math and science teachers. In recent years, Georgia has beefed up its math and science curriculum to ensure our students come out of high school ready to compete in college and in the job market in a world that gets more levered to technology every day. However, currently there is a shortage of between 15%-20%, depending on the subject, of the number of teachers necessary to teach this new math and science curriculum. According to the task force, the shortage of math and science teachers is, by far, the greatest area of needs in terms of teacher recruitment. To underscore the problem, Georgia’s colleges last year only produced one physics teacher and nine chemistry teachers.

To address the issue, several legislators, including myself, introduced a measure to provide pay incentives to math and science teachers in an effort to encourage college students that excel in math and science to consider teaching as a possible occupation, rather than other opportunities. This is a market-based, common sense approach to employee recruitment that has been used successfully in the private sector forever. Simply put, if you have a need that is not being met at a given salary and benefit level, you must enhance the salary and benefits to incent additional prospective employees to consider the position. This will benefit all of Georgia’s students as they move out of high school and into college or the workforce. Further, this is an economic development issue, in that it will help make sure Georgia continues to have the kind of technically proficient workforce that will entice technology based companies to invest in and bring jobs to Georgia in the decades to come.

Tax relief for Georgians was a key issue for the General Assembly this year. It is critical in these difficult economic times that we provide measures aimed at helping financially strapped families and businesses, while encouraging economic activity, job growth and increased investment in our economy. The General Assembly passed a measure that will prevent property tax assessments from increasing at all over the next two years to help Georgians who are already struggling with out of control property tax bills. In addition, the House and Senate passed the Jobs Opportunity and Business Success Act (JOBS Act), which was introduced as a package of legislation to create, expand and attract jobs for Georgians. By combining a series of tax cuts, fee suspensions and incentives to hire unemployed Georgians this legislation actually encourages private sector economic activity, rather than the federal government’s version of a stimulus plan that seemed only focused on using taxpayer dollars to stimulate the growth of the size of the federal government.

Finally, the General Assembly worked to provide for a more robust trauma care system in this state. Georgia has the worst per-capita access to Level I trauma care in the southeastern United States. We are losing thousands of lives every year in Georgia because individuals involved in traumatic accidents are not treated quickly enough to mitigate the physical harm caused by the accident. In that regard, the Legislature and Governor Perdue worked together to craft the “Super Speeder” legislation that provides for enhanced fines for excessive speeding, reckless driving, habitual DUI offenders and other dangerous driving activities that are the leading causes of traumatic accidents on our roads. As one of Governor Perdue’s floor leaders, I was significantly involved in the passage of this legislation out of the House. The increased fines are intended to make drivers think twice before excessively speeding or engaging in other dangerous driving activities that endanger all of our families every day on Georgia’s roads. The additional funding derived from the violators of these laws will be used to help fund a statewide trauma care network that will benefit any Georgian that suffers a traumatic accident.

I believe the legislature implemented a number of common-sense measures this session that will benefit millions of Georgians. The information above is but a few of these bills. I welcome any questions from constituents on these or any other matters relevant to our state government. As I’ve said before, thank you so much for the opportunity to serve this great community in the General Assembly.

Matt Ramsey

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Final Report of the Current Session

The Georgia General Assembly adjourned the final day of the session on Friday night at 11:59 p.m. It was a hectic final week with several important pieces of legislation getting enacted, while several others were held over to next year. I wanted to give a brief overview about the final week of the session and follow up with a more comprehensive wrap up in the weeks to come.

First, the General Assembly passed the final $18.6 billion FY 2010 budget on Friday evening by an overwhelming bipartisan vote in favor of the House/Senate Conference Committee’s final budget. As I have constantly stated, it was a very difficult budget cycle as the state endeavored to deal with rapidly decreasing revenues that necessitated nearly $3 billion in cuts. However, we were able to balance the budget without raising taxes, unlike countless other states going through similarly difficult times, by making difficult choices and shrinking the size of government. While the cuts will certainly be felt throughout every sector of state government, I strongly believe the final budget document protects to the greatest extent possible critical state missions such as education and public safety, while focusing the largest reductions on other areas of the state budget. As I stated, I will provide a more detailed report on the final budget in the weeks to come and welcome any questions or comments.

Two of the most important pieces of legislation to pass the General Assembly were major restructurings of our state’s two largest agencies, the Department of Human Resources and the Department of Transportation. Since being elected in 2007, I have repeatedly written about my concern over mismanagement of the DOT. I strongly believe our current system is broken, which is partially evidenced by our hopelessly overburdened transportation infrastructure in Metro-Atlanta. The current system was set up several decades ago and provides an unelected Board of thirteen individuals, with no direct accountability to the citizens of Georgia, complete and total power over every aspect of planning, funding and project delivery. In my opinion, it is good ol’ boy politics at its worst and has led to the DOT over-obligating itself to the tune of several billion dollars. The legislation passed last week will provide those that are directly accountable to Georgia’s voters, the Governor and members of the General Assembly, a greater voice in our state’s transportation system. The planning and funding process will be completely transparent, rather than the current system where the process occurs in a Board Room and is often based solely on political favors and clout.

The General Assembly also provided for a significant reorganization of the Department of Human Resources, a department that provides for an incredibly wide array of services to Georgia’s most vulnerable citizens, including abused and neglected children and the elderly. The reorganization will help to ensure a more streamlined and transparent service delivery system by breaking the massive agency into three smaller more focused and targeted agencies. It is the result of a year long Health and Human Services task force that focused its efforts on determining a more effective way to serve Georgia’s citizens.

Finally, I have received a great deal of interest and wanted to provide an update on legislation I authored to add cell phone use to the list of restrictions placed on under-18, Class-D license holders. The legislation passed the House Motor Vehicles Committee unanimously, passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support, passed the Senate Public Safety Committee Unanimously, but got hung up in the Senate Rules Committee in the final days of the session without getting to the Senate floor for a vote. In the end, it was a numbers game whereby many bills didn’t make it to the House or Senate floor due to time simply running out on the session. To use a football analogy, we moved the football down inside our opponent’s five yard line but didn’t quite get it into the end zone. However, the good news for supporters of the legislation is that this is a two-year session, and the bill will still be on the five yard line when next year’s session convenes.

I am very proud to report that legislation I authored to address a gap in our child molestation statute is on its way to the Governor for signature. In addition, legislation I introduced to protect parties from costs resulting from meritless lawsuits was adopted and on its way to the Governor for signature. Also, legislation I worked on to provide our school systems greater flexibility from state mandates to help in the current economic crisis was also adopted by the House and Senate and awaits the Governor’s signature.

I look forward to providing additional information on this and other legislation addressed by the General Assembly in the weeks to come. Let me also say thank you to the numerous citizens that wrote and called me during the session. I truly enjoy the interaction with constituents and the input is absolutely invaluable.
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