Changes coming to transportation funding proposal
The House Transportation Committee held its first hearing this week on the proposed Transportation Funding Act, which is intended to provide an additional $1 billion per year in revenue to shore up and improve the state's transportation system infrastructure.
Sponsors of HB 170 said the measure is a work in progress, and the legislation is already undergoing changes to its first draft. One specific concern that is being addressed is the effect on local government revenues that would be caused by combining the current excise tax and sales tax formula on motor fuels into a 29.2-cent-per-gallon excise tax, with the revenue dedicated to transportation.
The report of a special Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding, which concluded that Georgia needs a minimum of $1 billion to maintain the state's existing roads, bridges, air and transit system infrastructure. Georgia currently ranks 49th in terms of state spending per capita on its roads, and additional investment is needed to relieve costly highway congestion and prepare for continued growth and increased use of freight and shipping lanes. Transportation needs in the metropolitan areas are also unique from those of rural Georgia, and the state is not able to rely on money from the federal government to meet these challenges.
However, we are hearing the concerns loud and clear over the first draft of HB 170 and its effects on city and county governments and local school boards, all of which depend on sales tax dollars to provide their services. These and other concerns will be properly addressed before the approval of any legislation by House members as we seek the most effective funding method for maintaining and improving our transportation system to meet the state's needs.
Economic Development Appropriations: As a member of the House Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee, I am pleased to report we are working to include several significant additions for economic development and job creation in the fiscal year 2016 state budget proposal. Some of these include an appropriation of $20 million in grants toward job-creating economic development projects through the OneGeorgia Authority, as well as $20 million for Regional Economic Business Assistance grants. OneGeorgia and Regional Economic Business Assistance are two of our state's most effective economic development tools for attracting new jobs to Georgia.
Health Insurance for School Workers: The House Appropriations Committee is also working to restore funding to continue providing health insurance coverage for part-time school bus drivers and cafeteria workers, which had been eliminated in the original budget proposal presented to the committee. These employees are tasked with the essential functions of providing transportation and nutrition for students in our public schools. Health insurance coverage is vital to keeping competent individuals in these part-time positions, and I am hopeful that we can restore this funding to the House version of the FY 2016 budget.
State of the Judiciary: On Feb. 4, Chief Justice Hugh Thompson of the Supreme Court of Georgia delivered the annual State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the House and Senate. Declaring the judicial system in Georgia as sound and strong, Chief Justice Thompson praised the state's successful expansion of specialty courts, also known as accountability courts, represent a cost-effective justice alternative for non-violent offenders.
Some specialty courts, such as drug and mental health treatment courts, hold offenders accountable through court-supervised treatment programs. Veterans' courts match military veterans who are non-violent offenders with supportive volunteers who are dedicated to keeping our veterans on the right path by mentoring them through the program. More than 5,000 Georgians have had their cases handled by a total of 116 accountability courts to help reduce the taxpayer burden of incarceration.
Chief Justice Thompson also reported that some areas of rural Georgia are facing challenges regarding access to justice. Six counties have no lawyers at all, and 20 counties have fewer than five lawyers, resulting in a growing number of citizens coming to court without legal representation. The Chief Justice asked the General Assembly to support newly introduced legislation (HB 236), which would create a pilot program to assist law school graduates with repaying their college loans if they agree to work in an underserved county for at least five years.
Education Committee Action: The House Education Committee has favorably reported legislation that would waive certain residency requirements so that children of active duty military personnel in Georgia will be able to receive special needs scholarships. HB 62 addresses the fact that military families are often required to relocate across the country and would ensure that these children would not be denied certain educational opportunities as a result.
The Education Committee also voted to approve HB 65, which is designed to increase transparency in local school boards by requiring the boards to hold at least two public meetings before adopting any budget. This would give taxpayers, parents and other citizens the opportunity to see and provide input as to how education dollars are being utilized.
HB 62 and HB 65 now await action by the full House of Representatives.
Monday, Feb. 9, will be the 12th legislative day of the 2015 session of the General Assembly. Please feel free to contact me throughout the session with your thoughts on these and other issues, or whenever I can be of service. My legislative office is located at 508-A Coverdell Office Building, Atlanta, GA 30334; phone 404-656-0213 or email email@example.com.