Today’s Courier Herald Column:
If all goes as planned, the Georgia General Assembly will wrap up its work this week on Thursday. Legislators can then quickly turn their attention to fundraising for re-election in new districts, as there will be but a few short weeks between Sine Die and qualifying for the July 31st primary elections. The November election will be mostly a formality for most legislative incumbents.
Before lawmakers break camp in Atlanta, quite a few bills remain to be decided. And, as is custom, last minute shenanigans cannot be ruled out. Bills that did not pass prior to “crossover day” and thus cannot be considered have fallen off most people’s radar. This does not prohibit these items – or brand new ones – appearing as last minute amendments to bills on track to pass. Lobbyists earn their retainers based on their abilities to accomplish such acts late in the game.
Lawmakers appear likely to end this session without tweaks made to the enabling legislation for the regional sales tax referendums to be held on the same day as their re-election primaries. Legislators are betting that a multi-million dollar public relations campaign will outweigh concerns expressed by outlying metro-Atlanta counties and questions of equity from Fulton and DeKalb residents that already pay a 1% sales tax dedicated to transit.
The closest bill that remains active which could address part of the metro T-SLOST grievances is HB 1052 which would change MARTA’s governance structure. While the bill has passed the house, it has been changed significantly in the Senate. The two bodies have this week to work out their differences and somehow convince Fulton and DeKalb taxpayers that their 40 years of investment in MARTA should now share governance with counties that have refused to fund transit in any form and are openly campaigning against it now.
The bill in its current form continues to place restrictions on how MARTA can spend its fare receipts. This continues the state’s tradition of “oversight” of MARTA, while also continuing the state’s tradition of not providing MARTA any operating support from the state budget. MARTA remains, by far, the largest transit authority in the country that does not receive state funding. But advice and governance? That’s free.
There are a pair of bills restricting abortion that will dominate talk of the final days of the general assembly. The bill more likely to reach Governor Deal’s desk is HB 954, sponsored by Representative Doug McKillip. McKillip has been a leader of the pro-life movement since at least January, but possibly as far back as when he resigned as the pro-choice Minority Leader of the House Democratic caucus about a year ago. The bill would eliminate abortions after 20 weeks, believed to be the time that the fetus can experience pain.
A bit more of a long shot is SB 438 which would eliminate abortion services from state employee health plans. Freshman Senator Mike Crane managed the bill through the Senate, but the House seems to be treated the bill as if it was an insurance claim. They acknowledge receipt of the paperwork, but can’t quite seem to articulate where it is in the process.
The bill that would dramatically alter Georgia sentencing laws is likely to pass the Senate this week and head to the Governor. HB 1176 passed the House last week without opposition, signaling agreement with the Governor who had expressed some skepticism when his concept appeared in actual draft language. The bill raises the threshold for some crimes to be treated as felonies, and creates different categories of some crimes with more lenient or more stringent penalties depending on the severity.
There are two bills that you will not see pass this session. Last week, three House legislators entered a resolution aimed at stating opposition to using public funds for a new stadium for the Falcons. They could have found more sponsors, but most legislators were checking on the availability of seats for next season.
Which brings us to the biggest bill that will not be discussed or debated this week – that of ethics reform. Despite the multitude of recent scandals, and despite Georgia being ranked dead last for its current ethics laws, legislators could not be bothered this session to find even one area where they could strengthen oversight over their activities nor restrict any form or amount of gift to be bestowed upon them.
By week’s end, it will all be over. What happens this week will represent some of the most significant changes to Georgia’s laws of the entire session. What doesn’t happen this week will reflect a continued satisfaction with the status quo, and a failure of leadership to actually address the “can’t fail” solution to be imposed on Georgia’s voters this July.