A preview of the 2012 Georgia Legislature

What Will Happen Under the Gold Dome for 2012?
By Phil Kent

Look for transportation, economic development and education to be key issues when the Georgia General Assembly begins its 2012 session. There will also be some headline-grabbing bills like drug testing for unemployment recipients and putting “In God We Trust” on license plates.

It has been a shameful disservice that the General Assembly delayed addressing major transportation and mass transit overhauls for at least a decade. So has it chosen the wrong year – an election year— to now make headway? A regional transportation referendum to be funded by an extra penny sales tax is scheduled for July, but some lawmakers would like to move it to November to improve chances of passage. In any event, if it passes it will face a legal challenge. Some lawyers maintain that the statewide referendum is unconstitutional because if a region’s voters approve it then no county within the region would be able to opt out of the tax.

State Rep. Donna Sheldon, R-Dacula, chairs a task force preparing legislation to finally coordinate metro Atlanta’s varied mass transit agencies. The goal is to finally create an agency over local transit operations such as MARTA and Cobb County Transit. How the mass transit legislation will be structured, however, is the big question mark.

Education reform has also taken a back seat in recent years, the shining exception being charter school promotion by Republican legislators. A priority now will be revising the funding formula for public schools. A task force also has recommendations ranging from resuming funding for school nurses to greater spending on classroom technology.

There will also be recommendations by University of Georgia Chancellor Hank Huckaby to merge some of the state’s 35 public colleges and universities. It is a cost-saving measure to cut bureaucracy and duplication, but battles will occur as lawmakers maneuver to protect their local school turf. Legislation also should be passed banning illegal immigrants from all University System institutions. Only the “big five” universities require documentation of legal status, while the others let illegals pay out-of-state tuition (and thus steal slots that should go to legal student applicants).

What about the future of the popular HOPE scholarship for college-bound high school students? By 2013 there will be no money left in the scholarship reserve. It is already difficult for high school graduates to obtain the scholarship and those who do receive it get a smaller benefit. This is why new revenue sources ought to be found to bolster HOPE coffers, especially if we are to assist Georgia’s neediest students. Serious consideration ought to be given to proposals ranging from allowing video lottery terminals in Underground Atlanta to local option pari-mutuel horse racing.

House Speaker David Ralston, R- Blue Ridge, says that the Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act (H.B. 87) will remain basically untouched. It passed overwhelmingly last session and is one of the toughest laws in the nation with its mandatory e-verify requirement for new hires by most businesses. However, there could be minor tweaks. Secretary of State Brian Kemp, for example, would like to see the law amended to require applicants that administer public benefits to provide verifiable documents only for new business licenses, not renewals.

Another advisory body with excellent advice is Gov. Nathan Deal’s Competitiveness Initiative. State Commissioner for Economic Development and Tourism Chris Cumiskey, Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Clark and their task force have prepared specific economic development approaches. Job creation is all-important, so look for enhanced incentives for companies considering locating in Georgia to be implemented by the Republican-controlled body. Also look for the elimination of inventory taxes and removal of the stifling sales tax on energy used by manufacturers.

Legislators ought to bear in mind, however, that they can pass all the job- and industry-friendly legislation possible– but if there is not a well-educated workforce then their laws will mostly be for naught. For example, when is the appalling high school dropout rate going to be aggressively addressed? Indeed, the governor and State School Superintendent John Barge have a tremendous opportunity to propose radical reform.

The diverse Gwinnett County public school system, named by the respected Broad Foundation as the best in the country, serves as an excellent model. Its hallmarks are tough curriculum and testing, backed by strong classroom discipline. But since radical education reform isn’t a top legislative priority for 2012, one can only hope it will be the next year.
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Phil Kent is an Atlanta-based media consultant, CEO of the American Seniors Association and a political pundit on Fox5 WAGA-TV’s “The Georgia Gang.”