2012 legislative session set to begin Monday, January 9
At the beginning of the 2011 legislative session, Gov. Nathan Deal called on the Georgia General Assembly to address problems in the criminal justice system by adding probation and treatment options for offenders with drug addictions.
When the 2012 session gets under way Monday, Jan. 9, lawmakers will consider the recommendations of a Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform for Georgians, which we established at the governor’s request in an effort to find solutions that will allow the state to ensure public safety while decreasing the cost of our corrections system.
The council’s proposals would allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in certain circumstances, expand the use of Drug, DUI and Mental Health Courts and change many traffic offenses from misdemeanors to violations. The council is also urging lawmakers to consider a number of sentencing options for offenders whose criminal conduct is largely driven by drug addiction, including probation for most drug possession convictions, an increased dollar threshold for felony offenses and other options.
Speaker David Ralston has said criminal justice reform will be a major issue to be addressed by the House of Representatives during the 2012 session. Other major issues that are expected to be addressed include revisiting a number of tax reform proposals held over from last year, as well as new requirements for drug testing of individuals receiving certain government benefits and community service for those receiving unemployment compensation.
The state budget is a major piece of business for lawmakers every session, and for the past several years, Georgia has had to deal with decreasing state revenues. That situation has turned around to some extent during the current fiscal year, which began July 1, 2011. Through November, total tax collections for the five-month period showed an increase of 6.8 percent.
However, we are still a long way from where we were revenue-wise before the economic recession began in the fall of 2008. Georgia’s unemployment rate in November was 9.9 percent, marking the 52nd consecutive month our state has exceeded the national jobless rate, which is now 8.6 percent. We are still dealing with a distressed economy, calling for a continued conservative approach to the state budget. A proposal to implement zero-based budgeting, which fell by the wayside last year, needs to be revisited.
Meanwhile, I am working on legislation to address the growing problem of metal theft in our state. Copper, aluminum, brass and bronze are in high demand among criminals because of rising prices, despite the enactment of a new law in Georgia in 2007. The problem is especially severe in rural Georgia, where criminals are stealing air conditioners from churches and ripping wires off irrigation equipment on farms, according to the Georgia Farm Bureau. My bill will be a comprehensive proposal with stiffer penalties on thieves and additional regulations on the sale of scrap metal. I am working on the final details of the legislation so that it can be introduced early in the 2012 session.
In other news, Georgia’s newly redrawn congressional and legislative district lines cleared a major hurdle when the U.S. Department of Justice gave its initial approval to the new maps in late December. While legal action is still pending in the federal courts, it appears the redistricting plan is closer to becoming effective for the 2012 elections. As a result, our current House District 176 would continue to include all of Lanier County and the northeastern portion of Lowndes County, while adding all of Atkinson County and the northern section of Ware County as well. Berrien County, presently in the 176th, would move into the 170th District, and Clinch County would move from the 176th to the 174th.
Another noteworthy announcement at year’s end was that Gov. Deal has signed off on the recommendations of a water supply task force, which establishes guidelines for spending $300 million in state money over the next four years to expand current reservoirs and build new ones. The governor said state and local governments as well as citizens share a mutual interest in making sure Georgia has an adequate and sustainable water supply for the future. The task force’s final report recommends the funds be spent to build new reservoirs, expand existing reservoirs and drill wells.
Finally, I would like to wish you and your family a happy and prosperous new year. I am at your service. Please contact me with your views and concerns about any of the issues we will be addressing at the State Capitol during this upcoming session.