Week 11: Working on SB 458

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 4. 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.

Representative Matt Ramsey (R-Peachtree City)

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