From the AJC
The 2008 edition of the Georgia General Assembly, which opens in Atlanta this morning, faces a host of serious election-year issues, from long-range water planning and funding for Grady Memorial Hospital to the proposed elimination of property taxes to fund schools.
An overview of the top topics:
Water is back as one of the Legislature's top priorities, nearly two years into one of the worst droughts ever recorded in North Georgia.
Whatever gets decided will not happen soon enough to address metro Atlanta's current water crisis. Only rain and the federal government, which operates the region's major water supply reservoirs, can fix it.
But top leaders already have promised state funds to help build more reservoirs for the future. And legislators will vote on a 92-page policy guideline and to-do list that lays out how the state —- acting through 11 water districts —- will spend the next three years determining how to divide Georgia's lakes, streams and underground aquifers.
Just as important as the document will be the funds attached to it. One estimate for the work needed is $36.5 million, to be spent on a variety of data gathering.
Top Republican leaders, including the governor, and the business community are leading the charge, but they expect a fight. More than almost any other issue in Georgia, water is a true dividing line between metro Atlanta and the rest of the state.
—- Stacy Shelton
Grady officials are hoping the state Legislature creates and funds a statewide trauma care network, which could contribute millions of dollars to the financially-strapped hospital.
Grady officials, who operate the state's busiest and most sophisticated trauma unit, want to see as much as $30 million from the passage of permanent funding for the state's trauma units. In December, House Speaker Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram) proposed to help fund the trauma network with a $10 annual fee on vehicle registrations.
Also, Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed additional fines on "super speeders" to help fund the network.
—- Craig Schneider
Property taxes will be one of the most debated topics of the 2008 session, especially during the early part of the session.
House Speaker Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram) is pushing a plan to eliminate most school property taxes and replace the lost revenue with a sales tax that covers more goods and services. Richardson's plan is expected to be considered early in the session by the House.
Its chances of passage are iffy at best because it includes a proposed constitutional amendment. To get the proposed amendment on the ballot, Richardson would need two-thirds of the House and Senate to support it. He also is seeking legislation to freeze property values at tax time. That would essentially freeze property taxes unless local cities, counties or school districts raise millages.
Several other similar proposals are being floated by lawmakers. Meanwhile, Gov. Sonny Perdue will continue to promote his bill to eliminate taxes on retirement income for upper-income retirees. The Senate has passed the bill, but the House has held off because it wants more broad-based tax reform.
Speaker pro-tem Mark Burkhalter (R-Alpharetta) is backing Richardson's proposal. If it doesn't pass, however, Burkhalter wants lawmakers to look at his bill to eliminate property taxes on cars.
—- James Salzer
One of the biggest transportation votes is expected to come at the beginning of the session: the payback attempt against two members of the state Transportation Board by House leaders furious because of their votes for the new transportation commissioner. Mike Evans and Raybon Anderson, who voted for the governor's candidate over the speaker's candidate, are among five DOT board members up for re-election by caucuses of state legislators.
In legislation, to tax or not to tax is still the question. Two big transportation funding bills last year —- one regional, one statewide —- went into a study committee. The committee's recommendation is expected soon, but it not only is an election year but also a year in which some local officials will be trying to protect their own special purpose local option sales taxes that are up for renewal.
Among other possible bills, safety officials are girded against attempts to repeal red-light camera laws, which they say save lives.
—- Ariel Hart
The debate whether sex offenders can be barred from living and working within 1,000 feet of churches, schools and day-care centers returns to the Georgia Legislature.
State Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) wants to reinstate the distance requirement that the Georgia Supreme Court struck down in November.
The high court ruled the ban unconstitutional because it could deprive an offender of the right to own property. Before the court's ruling, a homeowner listed on the state's sex offender registry could be forced to move if a church, school or day-care center opened within 1,000 feet of his house.
Ralston, who chairs the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, proposes exempting such property owners from the residency restriction.
But civil libertarians say Ralston's proposal also is unconstitutional because it doesn't exempt renters or institutionalized people. Thus, offenders could be forced out of half-way houses and hospices if a children's center were to open inside the 1,000-foot buffer.
—- Ben Smith
Sunday sales of beer and wine are being pushed again by stores, but the chances of getting a bill through the General Assembly this session are not good.
Last year, officials for grocery and convenience stores pushed legislation that would have allowed local voters to decide on the sale of beer, wine and liquor at stores on Sundays.
Conservative Christian groups opposed it, as did some prominent liquor store owners who do not want to have to pay Sunday payrolls while facing competition from groceries and convenience stores. The measure stalled in the Senate, with supporters blaming a liquor store owner with ties to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the Senate.
Proponents note that Georgia is one of just a few states with a total Sunday sales ban, and they say more and more of their customers shop on Sundays.
However, it will be a tough sell in an election year, when most lawmakers try to avoid the issues that rile up key groups of voters.
—- James Salzer
A battle over gun bills is sure to erupt in the legislature this year, with the National Rifle Association throwing its full support and resources behind one bill and Georgia gun owners and some lawmakers backing another.
The NRA is backing a bill that would allow employees to keep handguns in their cars at work. Rep. Tim Bearden (R-Villa Rica) filed a broader bill that would expedite firearm permits and allow gun owners to carry concealed weapons in many more places.
—- Andrea Jones
Always a major issue, education funding will receive renewed attention this year as advocates of public schools try to protect campuses from potential changes in Georgia's tax structure and in the way state funds are distributed.
Educators are waiting to see if Gov. Sonny Perdue will continue cutbacks, first started in fiscal 2003. Metro Atlanta school systems lose millions of dollars every year to Perdue's "austerity reductions" —- losses they make up for through property taxes.
The governor's Education Finance Task Force, charged with redoing the k-12 funding formula, is suggesting that systems be allowed to spend state money where needed, rather than where told. If legislators can't remedy the finance problem, a judge could step in. A lawsuit by rural systems, which claims that state officials are not adequately funding schools, is scheduled for trial in September.
—- Bridget Gutierrez