Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Rep. Ramsey to Introduce “Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011”

There is no country in the world more welcoming to immigrants than the United States of America. While we offer immigrants an opportunity to improve their employment, standard of living, and personal freedoms, perhaps the greatest opportunity we provide is a chance for immigrants to join the American melting pot of cultures and become American. Only in America does the stranger become, not simply a permanent resident, but one of us; every bit as American as the descendant of a Mayflower pilgrim.

With this great privilege, however, comes responsibility. The most basic responsibility, shared by us all, is to obey the law. The rule of law is the keystone that holds together our orderly society. Unfortunately, it is clear that we have experienced a complete breakdown of America’s immigration law.

Though long ignored by Washington, Georgia literally cannot afford to ignore the economic burden created by our unsecure borders. The economic downturn caused Georgia’s unemployment to rise to record highs and state revenues to plummet to new lows. We continue to see huge reductions to every segment of our state budget, meaning state services are stretched thinner than ever before. School classrooms are more crowded, our healthcare system is at its limits, transportation infrastructure is overburdened and our law enforcement community is working feverishly to do more work with fewer resources. It would be patently irresponsible not to address the issues posed by Georgia’s estimated 400,000- plus illegal aliens.

With this in mind and after a great deal of study, the members of the Special Committee on Immigration Reform are introducing the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011.” This legislation includes numerous common-sense reforms aimed at addressing the social and economic consequences in Georgia resulting from the federal government’s inability to secure our nation’s borders.

This legislation will require the use of the federal E-Verify system by private employers in this state. This is a common sense step towards ensuring that available job opportunities are afforded only to our legal residents and that employers stay within existing law.

The legislation will also protect citizens from an unlawful burden on taxpayer-funded services by requiring the use of only secure and verifiable identification documents for any official purpose, including the dispensation of public benefits. Further, it will provide greater incentives for law enforcement agencies to apply for participation in federal partnerships that provide for faster and more efficient identification and transfer of illegal aliens.

In addition, the bill provides important new tools for law enforcement officers and provides them greater latitude in handling immigration issues during a lawful stop or detention. The bill also creates criminal penalties for any individual that encourages an illegal alien to come to Georgia or that transports or harbors an illegal alien once they arrive. This is not an exercise in scapegoating. Our nation’s illegal immigration crisis ultimately represents a failure of government. The federal government’s failure to secure our borders serves as an open invitation for illegal immigration. The employers who encourage and reward illegal immigration are certainly not blameless. Make no mistake: those here illegally did not act alone. However, violation of the law cannot be simply ignored, particularly when the enormous costs of those violations weighs so heavily on Georgia taxpayers during these difficult economic times.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Week 1 Legislative Update

Last week saw the 2011 term of the Georgia General Assembly gavel into session. However, it was certainly the most unusual start to a legislative session in my short career. There was tremendous uncertainty with the weather on the eve of session as snow and ice began to fall. However, the Georgia Constitution does not have any provision for bad weather and states we SHALL convene on the second Monday in January. With that in mind I set off for what turned out to be a four hours plus roundtrip commute to Atlanta on Monday to be sworn in myself and to see the inauguration of Georgia’s 82nd Governor, Nathan Deal, which had to be hastily moved inside to the House chambers due to the bad weather. Governor Deal gave an excellent speech which set out many of his goals and aspirations for his impending first term.

Governor Deal’s inaugural speech on Monday was followed on Wednesday by his first state of the State address before a joint session of the House and Senate. The state of the State address is historically primarily focused on the Governor’s budget recommendations and this year’s speech by Governor Deal was no different. Taken in the aggregate, his budget calls for an average spending reduction of roughly 7 % per agency, however, his recommendations certainly did not call for straight across the board cuts. Governor Deal in his speech underlined his intention to hold state funding for K-12 education harmless. Governor Deal’s budget also calls for the elimination of 14,000 state government positions, many of which are already vacant. This is definitely a good step in continuing the efforts the General Assembly have advanced in recent years to reduce the size of state government. Now that the Governor has unveiled his suggested FY 2011 amended and FY 2012 full year budgets the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will begin this week holding agency by agency hearings to review his requested budget and begin the process of authoring the appropriations bills for the General Assembly to consider in the weeks ahead.

Wednesday was the General Assembly’s second and final legislative day of the week and I introduced my first bill of the session before we adjourned that afternoon. The measure is House Bill 47 and is very similar to legislation I authored last year to allow health insurance companies to offer health insurance products that they sell in other states to Georgians. The measure passed the House last year mostly along party lines, however, stalled in the Senate Rules Committee before it could be considered by the full Senate before the end of the session. In my opinion it is a critical free-market oriented reform that will provide the hundreds of thousands of Georgians that only have access to insurance through the individual market a much greater opportunity to find a policy that fits their specific needs. This is particularly important in light of the Obama Administration’s health care reform measure that imposes a mandate on every American to buy health insurance. It is critical that we as state policy makers remove barriers to competition and put more power in the hands of the Georgia insurance buying consumers.

Due to my position in House leadership I serve on the Committee on Assignments which is tasked with making committee assignments for every member of the State House. Much of my time at the Capitol last week was spent in meetings with that Committee working to get House standing committees set for the next two years. On Friday Speaker Ralston announced the slate of Committee Chairmen and Committee positions for 2011-2012. I was honored to be appointed to serve as the Vice-Chairman of the House Reapportionment Committee. I look forward to working with the Chair of that Committee, Roger Lane (R-Darien), and all of its members over the next year to do the constitutionally mandated once-a-decade process of redrawing Georgia’s State House and Senate and Congressional legislative lines to reflect population shifts that have occurred over the past ten years. I was also appointed to serve as the Vice-Chairman of the Special Rules Committee and as a member on the House Appropriations and Ethics Committees. In addition, I will continue to serve on the House Judiciary Non-Civil and Regulated Industries Committees, as I did last term.

Next week the House and Senate are out of session so that joint Appropriations Committee hearings can be held. Over the next few weeks the legislative pace will pick up as more legislation is introduced and committees begin to meet. I look forward to providing regular legislative updates so that the citizens of this community remain informed on the goings on at their State Capitol. As always, I encourage any feedback or questions and hope citizens will call on me if I can be of any service to them.

1/17/11 - Majority Caucus Vice-Chairman Ramsey Announces Legislation Aimed at Providing More Options in the Health Insurance Market

Today House Majority Caucus Vice-Chairman Matt Ramsey (R-Peachtree City) announced the introduction of House Bill 47. This legislation is aimed at providing Georgians with more options in the health insurance market.

“We are convinced that the best way to provide Georgians with more affordable and varied health insurance options is to unlock the forces of the free market and put more power in the hands of the health insurance buying consumer,” said Rep. Ramsey. “In light of the Obama Administration’s imposition of a mandate to buy health insurance on every single American through his healthcare reform package, it is absolutely critical that we break down the barriers to competition in the health insurance marketplace in Georgia.”

Similar legislation to HB 47 passed the House last year before stalling in the Senate. HB 47, like its predecessor, would allow insurance companies licensed in Georgia to sell health insurance products that are approved for sale in other states.

Joining Representative Ramsey in introducing the measure were House Insurance Committee Chairman John Meadows (R-Calhoun), House Retirement Committee Chairman Howard Maxwell (R-Dallas), House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta), House Majority Caucus Chairman Donna Sheldon (R-Dacula), House Majority Caucus Secretary/Treasurer Allen Peake (R-Macon) and more than a dozen other majority caucus Representatives.

1/7/11 - 2011 General Assembly Session Set To Convene

With the recent flip of the calendar from 2010 to 2011, it is almost time for the Georgia General Assembly to convene again for its annual 40 day session beginning on January 10th. I wanted to take the opportunity to give a preview of some of the prominent issues that will be considered by the State House and Senate this year. Before I do that, however, I would like to wish all of the readers of this column a very blessed and happy new year. I would also like to again say thank you to the citizens of Fayette County for giving me the opportunity to serve our home in the State House. I will be sworn in as a member of the Georgia General Assembly for my third term on January 10th, and please know I continue to believe the greatest honor of my professional career is to serve a wonderful community like ours.

The General Assembly has been forced to deal with some challenging issues in recent years brought on by the historic economic downturn and the resulting unemployment. I have written much in recent years about the state’s budget difficulties that have resulted in billions in spending cuts and a large reduction in the size of our state government. This has not been an easy process, but the good news is that our state maintains its balanced budget and we remain among the three lowest per-capita spending states in the country. While the state’s economy is beginning to show some signs of stabilization, we will have another session of very difficult choices, with many predicting we will need to make well in excess of $1 billion in spending reductions to keep our budget balanced. It is critical we continue to balance our budget by reducing spending and the size of government rather than look to Georgia’s families and businesses for additional revenue through the enactment of broad based tax increases. Further, we must continue the process we have engaged in over the past three years to scrutinize every dollar that is being spent by the state government to ensure taxpayers are receiving the greatest value possible for their hard earned state tax dollars.

Along those lines, I am very hopeful that a measure I have strongly supported and co-sponsored in recent years, the Zero Based Budgeting Act, will be brought up very quickly in the legislative session for consideration by the State House. The measure passed both the House and Senate last year but was ultimately vetoed by Governor Perdue. It will give current and future legislatures another tool in the effort to ensure agencies are spending tax dollars in the most efficient manner possible.

The Georgia unemployment rate continues to hover above 10 percent, and it is vital that we continue to promulgate policies that promote job creation, business expansion and business relocation to Georgia so that Georgia’s 650,000 unemployed can get back to work as soon as possible. Relatively speaking, Georgia is an incredibly well managed state considering the fact we are one of only a small handful of states to maintain its AAA bond rating through the current fiscal crisis and are among the lowest tax states in the country. However, we must continue to look at our tax code to ensure we are poised as a state to remain an economically vibrant and competitive state for generations to come. In that regard, last year the General Assembly created a Tax Reform Council whose mission was to comprehensively study our state’s tax code and provide recommendations to House and Senate on potential reforms. The Council will be releasing its findings in the coming days, and I very much look forward to reviewing the product of their months of study and public input. I strongly believe that we, as a state, need to move our tax code to one that is more consumptive based and less reliant on the taxing of individual and corporate income. Numerous states have moved in this direction and it is already bearing fruit for those states from an economic development standpoint. This is an issue that will surely receive serious consideration this session.

Another issue that must be addressed this session is the financial solvency of the HOPE scholarship program. HOPE has been very successful over its almost two decades of existence and has helped tens of thousands Georgia students continue their education beyond high school. Unfortunately, the program is becoming a victim of its own success in that its annual benefits are exceeding the amount it is collecting in lottery receipts, its primary source of revenue. Over the last several years the state has been forced to withdraw significant sums from the program’s reserves to fund benefits. In fact, the House Budget Office recently estimated that the amount that will need to be drawn down from HOPE reserves in 2011 will be approximately $250 million. The fund’s reserves peaked in 2009 at just over $1 billion, but if current projections are accurate the fund will drop to just over $300 million in 2012, a $700 million decrease in just three years. Clearly this is a trend that cannot be allowed to continue. The House Higher Education Committee has been meeting throughout the summer and fall analyzing potential solutions to this critical issue. At the moment, all options are on the table to ensure the financial stability of this important program. Although no legislation has been filed to date, this will certainly be an issue that receives a great deal of attention this session.

Finally, an issue I have been personally involved in that will undoubtedly be hotly debated this upcoming session will be that of illegal immigration reform. Georgia has passed aggressive laws in recent years seeking to address the social and economic problems that have resulted from the federal government’s failure to secure our nation’s borders; however, more needs to be done. In that regard, Speaker Ralston and Lieutenant Governor Cagle created a Special Joint Committee on Immigration Reform this past fall, and Speaker Ralston honored me by appointing me as the House Chair of the panel. We have engaged in an exhaustive study process over the past several months in anticipation of the upcoming session and will have legislation ready to be introduced in the first two weeks of the session. I will certainly write a great deal more about this topic upon the introduction of the legislation and look forward to interacting with constituents on this important issue.

As we are set to embark on another session of the Georgia General Assembly, I again very much look forward to interacting with constituents from Fayette County. Please know how much I depend on and appreciate feedback from the citizens of this great community. As always, please never hesitate to call on me if I may be of service.