Transportation funding, water management and tax reform are the headline issues of this year's state legislative session, which begins Jan. 14.
With these issues in mind Newton County's four-person delegation to the Capitol is preparing for what is shaping up to be one of the toughest and most heated sessions Georgia has experienced in a while with Gov. Sonny Perdue, Lt Gov. Casey Cagle and Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson all pushing their own agendas and seemingly uninterested in compromising.
A preview look at the 2008 session and what bills your legislature will be introducing follows.
Sen. John Douglas
Sen. John Douglas (R-District 17) has pre-filed one bill, Senate Bill 335, which if passed would prohibit any state agency from requiring an employee to speak or to learn any language other than English in order to be employed, maintain employment or to be eligible for a promotion.
"My bill is a result of a state agency or local agency in northwest Georgia requiring their personnel to take 80 hours of Spanish language instruction in order to be eligible for promotion within their agency," Douglas said. "My bill would prevent that."
The local agency in question is a northwest Georgia police department. SB 335 is expected to face opposition from local governments wishing to retain as much control as possible over their hiring and promoting practices.
Douglas will also see his committee duties expand, as the Veteran and Military Affairs Committee, which he chairs, will take over the Homeland Security Committee as well. Douglas said this expansion would greatly widen the scope of the committee. He is also to be added to the Public Safety Committee.
Douglas said is in support of using the state's surplus to stave off the Georgia Department of Transportation's funding crisis. GDOT is facing a $7.7 billion shortfall in funding.
"Rather than raising taxes, I think we ought to devote our surplus to transportation projects," Douglas said.
Other funding mechanisms have been debated to provide more funding for GDOT including a regional Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, a statewide SPLOST and an increase in the state fuel tax.
Douglas also said he anticipates a lot of debate in the Capitol as to how GDOT is managed. As for Speaker Glenn Richardson's GREAT Tax Plan (House Resolution 900), Douglas said he hasn't been able to form an opinion on it because it keeps changing.
In its essence, the GREAT Plan proposes to eliminate most state and local taxes and to replace that lost revenue with a wider sales tax.
"I hope in 2008 that the House, Senate and governor can get along better," Douglas said. "We had some rough times last year and I think that people in Newton County and Covington expect us to be able to work together to solve problems."
Rep. Doug Holt
After a very busy 2007 session spent fighting for the passage of his Fair Annexation Act (passed at the very end of the session) Rep. Doug Holt (R- District 112) is anticipating an equally busy session for 2008.
Holt said he plans to file a bill dealing with the circumstances in which a superior court can overturn a local government's rezoning decision. Holt said he decided to pursue the matter after a rezoning decision was overturned in a county Superior Court based on existing legal precedent. Holt said he feels there is also legal precedent backing the decision of a county or city government to approve or deny a rezoning request.
Holt said his bill would strengthen that legal precedent by incorporating it into the Official Code of Georgia. Holt said he believes there is a widespread problem of the rezoning decisions of local governments being overturned by the decisions of Superior Courts. Holt said he expects the bill will face opposition.
"When it comes to land use law there usually is," Holt said.
Water and the statewide water management plan are also front and center for Holt this year.
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Holt said he is concerned that the statewide water management plan up for consideration by the General Assembly this year will penalize counties that have taken actions to safeguard a reliable drinking source in favor of counties that haven't.
"I know that this is going to turn into some extent a battle of the haves versus the have-nots," Holt said. "I don't want to see Newton County punished for going through the time and trouble of making sure that we had good water."
Holt said he hasn't formed an opinion on the GREAT Plan because of its still-changing nature. Holt also said he believes a number of different approaches will have to be taken to deal with GDOT's funding crisis.
For the second year in a row Rep. Robert Mumford (R-District 95) will introduce legislation to split the Alcovy Judicial Circuit (currently comprising both Newton and Walton Counties).
If adopted, the legislation would have Superior Court Judges Sam Ozburn and Horace Johnson remain in Newton County while Superior Court Judges Eugene Benton and John Ott would go to the new Walton Judicial Circuit. Newton County would retain the Alcovy Judicial Circuit designation.
Currently the four judges split their time traveling between both counties to hear cases. District Attorney Ken Wynne, who also splits his time trying cases in both counties, is anticipated as staying in Newton County if the legislation is adopted.
"We think it would be the most efficient use of resources," Mumford said.
Should the resolution to split the circuit fail; Mumford said the Alcovy Judicial Circuit is first in line in the state to receive a new judge. The cost of splitting the circuit is estimated at $640,000 a year. The cost of adding a new judge to the circuit is estimated at $600,000 a year.
On Wednesday, Mumford, along with Rep. John Lunsford, met with Gov. Perdue to discuss splitting the circuit.
"He's interested in the figures regarding how much it will cost to split," Mumford said. "We are hopeful that we can get the circuit split. If the circuit does not split the Alcovy Circuit is number one on the list for getting another circuit judge."
Rep. John Lunsford (R-District 110) has pre-filed four bills for this year's session. One of the bills (House Bill 907) would create a Public Authority Ethics Board. Lunsford said this ethics board would hold appointed officials to the same standards as elected officials.
"I think an appointed person is actually scarier than an elected person," Lunsford said.
Another bill that Lunsford has pre-filed, HB 906, would take away the non-profit status of nonprofit hospitals which do not provide a certain level of uncompensated indigent care or require them to pay into the Indigent Care Trust Fund and retain their non-profit status.
"They're just taking advantage of a tax break without giving back at all," Lunsford said of the nonprofit hospitals that don't fulfill their indigent care requirements.
Nonprofit hospitals that provide less than 6 percent indigent care will be required to pay back the difference to the Indigent Care Trust Fund under the proposed legislation said Lunsford.
"I think it's still a pretty fair swap, and it's a choice they get to make," Lunsford said.
Lunsford said he philosophically agrees "100 percent with the GREAT Tax Plan" but doesn't know that he agrees with the plan in its present form. as it is still being reworked.
"I think it's the fairest thing in the world to take some of the burden off of the taxpayers for ad valorem taxes. Now do I have a fix for it? No," Lunsford said. "Do I agree 100 percent with the GREAT Plan? No, but I am looking forward to the conversation and the committee process as we work through it. I think it has merit."