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.

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.

NC’s McCory concedes defeat

Pat McCrory on Monday conceded to Democratic challenger Roy Cooper in the North Carolina governor’s contest after his margin of defeat only widened amid a weeks-long canvassing of provisional and absentee ballots.

“Despite continued questions that should be answered regarding the voting process, I personally believe that the majority of our citizens have spoken and we should now do everything we can to support the 75th governor of North Carolina,” McCory, whose support of a controversial religious liberty proposal became a fixture of the general election, said in a video message.

Cooper led McCrory by more than 10,000 votes in the latest tally Monday.

After religious liberty flap, ACC moves games from NC to GA

The ACC announced Tuesday it would relocate to Georgia a trio of collegiate championship games from North Carolina, whose Republican governor signed into law earlier this year a contentious religious liberty measure similar to one vetoed by his GOP counterpart here in the Peach State.

The games’ reassignment–two in Atlanta and a third in Rome–seemingly validates the decision by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to veto House Bill 757, which suffered an avalanche of criticism from big business and gay rights groups nationwide.

In a press conference announcing the April veto, Deal said he believed the legislation “could give rise to state-sanctioned discrimination” of the sort that would drive business–and tourism–from the state.

The ACC announcement follows a similar decision in September by the NCAA, which withdrew seven championships from North Carolina in protest over the state’s religious liberty bill.