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.

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.

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.

Georgia General Assembly closes out week one: Deal’s State of the State and budget proposal, and House and Senate sync calendars

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal delivered his final State of the State address Thursday, using the occasion before the General Assembly as something of a victory lap: an unemployment rate at its lowest point in a decade, industry accolades as the best state in which to do business, significant investments in education and transportation, and criminal justice reform.

Declaring Georgia “not just strong” but “exceptional,” Deal, who became visibly emotional throughout the speech as he reflected on the work of the previous seven years, was pointedly light on his administration’s priorities for the new year.

Instead, some clues can be found in the budget proposal he submitted to lawmakers shortly after his address. The proposed spending blueprint for fiscal year 2019 doesn’t contain any radical reorganization of the state’s priorities, but instead provides for a little more of the same from years before:

  • $361.7 million for the Teachers Retirement System;
  • #127.6 million for K-12 enrollment growth, training, and experience;
  • $30 million to assist low-wealth school systems;
  • $54.3 million for resident instruction at University System institutions;
  • $5.9 million for operations for the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center;
  • $34.4 million for growth in the Dual Enrollment program;
  • $255.9 million for Medicaid to fund growth and offset the loss of federal and other funds;
  • $28.8 million for child welfare services to fund out-of-home care growth and foster care per diem increases;
  • $22.9 million to implement recommendations from the Commission on Children’s Mental Health;
  • $5 million for accountability courts to implement new courts and expand existing courts;
  • $31.7 million in new motor fuel funds for transportation; and
  • $100 million in bond funds to repair and replace bridges throughout the state.

The challenges of passing a balanced budget—the General Assembly’s lone constitutional obligation—are complicated this year by federal action on the recently passed overhaul of the US tax system, which could decrease state revenues, and whether the US Congress renews the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known locally as Peachcare.

Elsewhere in the state capitol, the Senate remedied a lingering procedural issue Thursday by passing an adjournment resolution passed three days earlier by the House that would sync the two chambers’ legislative calendars. And the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a version of an adoption reform package without a controversial  religious liberty provisions that doomed the bill in the final hours of last year’s session.

The two actions represent significant concessions by Senate leadership and Lt. Governor Casey. Last year’s poison pill amendment that would have allowed adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples was removed although a provision allowing for transfer of child custody through a power of attorney to a close relative or friend was attached. Whether this satisfies House leadership or Governor Deal, who have called for a clean adoption bill is yet to be seen.

Notably, the adjournment resolution is important to Lt. Governor Cagle, who is eager to finish the legislative season as soon as possible so  fundraising can resume, which is barred during session for ethics reasons, in his campaign for governor later this year.