Republicans Feeling Confident After November Elections

After an election on November 7, 2006, in which not one incumbent state legislator was defeated, Republican members of the Georgia General Assembly are in an optimistic mood.  The party?s leadership in Georgia feels validated by the election returns, seeing it as proof that Georgians think the state is on the right track.

Republicans will now hold 106 of 180 seats in the Georgia House, six more than in the last session.  The majority includes four former Democrats who ran and were re-elected as Republicans.  With Democrats holding 74 seats, the party does not have the power to pass legislation, which requires 91 votes, but is still able to block constitutional amendments, which require 120 votes.

In the Senate, Republicans will hold 34 seats to the Democrats’ 22 seats, the same as in the previous session.  29 votes are required to pass legislation in the Georgia Senate, while 38 are needed to pass constitutional amendments.

The election results indicate that Republican power in the state has been solidified, and could serve to bolster the confidence of the state’s leadership to pursue larger and more difficult objectives this year.  The General Assembly convenes January 8, 2007.
Governor: Priorities for Session Should be Limited

Governor Sonny Perdue has outlined his top priorities for 2007, and they are limited.  Perdue laid out his goals in a speech that closed the Biennial Institute held for legislators in Athens.  Perdue said that education, jobs and affordable healthcare should be the main areas of focus for the legislative session.

"The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,? Perdue said.  He continued by saying, "Your being here tells me that you already know the secret of governing right, and folks, its not really coming up with whatever tax cut a focus group or poll says is popular.  It?s not even cracking down on crime or illegal immigrants... and its sure not producing a big, brash program funded by the people of Georgia."  The Governor has warned that the costs of vital government services such as health care and education are growing faster than revenue, in his view leaving little room for new initiatives.  That said, the state did show a $600 million surplus in the fiscal year that ended June 30, and lawmakers as well as various groups across the state understandably may believe the time is ripe for new programs or initiatives.

Perdue is expected to renew his push for two constitutional amendments - one to allow the state of Georgia to contract with faith-based organizations that serve the needy, the other to guarantee that lottery funds be used only for the HOPE scholarship and pre-K education programs.  He has also said that the first order of business in the new session should be to eliminate the state?s income tax for Georgians age 65 and over.

Often, the speech concluding the Biennial Institute is used by governors to set forth key programs for the coming session.  Perdue kept mostly to generalities.  On the whole, the speech served as an admonition to state legislators to not go after large initiatives, such as elimination of the state income tax, too hastily.  However, given the results of the November elections and the fact that Perdue has now achieved his second term, it is likely that Republican leaders in the General Assembly will be looking to test their own political power by pursuing goals beyond the limited agenda Perdue has laid out.
Few Leadership Changes Expected in Senate

Despite rumors that Lieutenant Governor-elect Casey Cagle may seek to punish former Senate colleagues who gave their support to Ralph Reed in the contentious race for his new office, Cagle has indicated that he is not interested in political payback.  However, the full power of the lieutenant governor?s office is expected to be returned, restoring what Senate leaders stripped of Mark Taylor after they won control of the Senate four years ago.  

Cagle is expected to have the power to name committee chairs through the committee on assignments, but is not likely to make many substantial changes.  He has hinted, however, that a few Democrats could be named to committee chairs.  Among the only other possible changes, Senator Mitch Seabaugh (R-Sharpsburg) will likely lose his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee; Seabaugh was a supporter of Reed in the lieutenant governor?s race.  Additionally, Senator Don Balfour (R-Snellville) is not seeking the position of Republican caucus chairman; he also backed Reed in the primary.  Both Senate and House committee chairmanships and assignments are expected to be announced just as the legislative session begins January 8.

Cagle will be the first Republican to occupy the post when he takes office in January.  Declaring that education is his top priority, he is expected to propose measures to expand charter and trade schools in the state, and to push for more local control of education choices and a new funding formula for education.
DOT Launches Campaign for Enhanced Transportation Funding

Citing continual and substantial shortfalls in funding for transportation projects, the Georgia DOT and state transportation advocates have begun a full-court press for new transportation dollars.  The DOT says the state faces a $7.7 billion shortfall over the next six years, which has caused 510 projects to be postponed.  To demonstrate the gap in funding, the agency has created a Web site that makes the case for more funding and allows viewers, including legislators, to find exactly what projects in their counties are being delayed.  The site may be viewed at www.whatsthebigidea.us.

Proponents of increased funding say that the state is in a crisis heading for a catastrophe because the 7.5 cents-per-gallon fuel tax and 3/4 of the sales tax on gasoline produces far from the amount of funding needed for transportation projects.  Congestion in the metro-Atlanta area represents one of the worst problems in the entire country, while the state ranks 47th in actual spending on transportation.

Two major proposals are being floated and advanced by the DOT along with transportation and business groups.  The first would create an additional statewide sales tax for transportation needs; the second would allow two or more counties to band together to impose regional special purpose sales taxes to benefit specific projects of cross-jurisdictional importance.  The regional special purpose taxes would have sunset provisions and would direct funds to be allocated only to the specific projects in question.

However, there appears thus far to be little appetite among lawmakers for the changes.  Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga) has flatly said, "There will be no tax increase."  Lieutenant Governor-elect Casey Cagle has said that he is wary of the idea of a statewide tax increase, but might be willing to allow local governments to impose special regional sales taxes.  Cagle has said that he has never voted for a tax increase in his entire career, and doesn?t plan to start endorsing tax increases as lieutenant governor.

The idea to allow local governments the option to create regional special purpose sales taxes may indeed have the best chance of the two proposals.  Proponents of the idea say that it would allow local control of taxation decisions, and would require two affirmative votes of the people: the first to ratify a new constitutional amendment allowing the option to localities, and the second for the individual taxation proposals.  It also has the advantage of allowing voters to be confident that the tax dollars collected from them would be spent in their communities, something a statewide sales tax increase would not necessarily provide.

According to Georgians for Better Transportation, a transportation industry association, the total transportation need is $19.2 billion over the next six years, but funding is present for only $11 billion of that need.  The group supports the proposal for the statewide sales tax.  The second proposal, for special regional sales taxes, is being backed by chambers of commerce in the Atlanta area, spearheaded by the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

Republicans will have tough decisions to make, as they attempt to balance their distaste for tax increases with the concerns of constituents stuck in traffic congestion on a daily basis.  Recognizing this predicament, state DOT Board Chair Mike Evans is hoping that when legislators? minds will be changed when they are educated on the need.  Watch for this issue to possibly become one of the main attractions of the 2007 legislative session.
State Income Tax Targeted for Elimination

House leaders have identified elimination of the state?s income tax as a top goal, albeit one that may take more than one session to achieve.  Going beyond Governor Perdue?s call for elimination of the state income tax only for seniors, leaders in the House are proposing the elimination of the tax for all Georgians.  House Majority Leader Jerry Keen (R-St. Simons Island) has said that this has been the major issue he has heard about from constituents, and that citizens across the state would back tax cuts.

In the Senate, Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) has said he doesn?t think the state can afford major tax cuts this session, while Lieutenant Governor-elect Casey Cagle has said that he would like to work with House leaders and the governor to cut taxes in some way.

Senator Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) reported that all income and state property taxes could feasibly be replaced by a statewide sales tax of 5.5 to 6.5 percent, and the elimination of most sales tax exemptions except for groceries.  Leaders in the General Assembly are recognizing that any changes in the tax code may take two or even four years to put into place.  The income tax brought in over $8 billion in the last fiscal year, close to half of the state?s revenues.
Spending Limits For State Government Under Consideration

After being pulled from the legislature?s agenda because of election year concerns, lawmakers are again looking at Taxpayers? Bill of Rights (TABOR) spending limits for Georgia.  The concept could be considered during this year?s legislative session.  A Senate study committee has been briefed that the spending caps, which would be tied to inflation and population growth, would have affected only three state budgets passed over the past eighteen years if they had been in place.

One concern about the TABOR restrictions is the state?s ability to provide for vital needs.  Proponents have said that their version of the concept would allow for an escape clause in which the cap could be exceeded if agreed to by 2/3 of the House and Senate.  The best-known TABOR case is Colorado; that state had to remove the spending limits after the caps prevented the state from meeting crucial needs.
Legislation Pre-Filed in Georgia General Assembly

Members of the House and Senate have been busy preparing legislation for the upcoming session, with several bills already filed.  Some of the notable pre-filed legislation includes:

HB 4, HB 5 ? Representative Mary Margaret Oliver (R-Decatur) has introduced two bills related to the use of cellular phones while driving.  The first would prohibit the use of mobile phones by holders of instruction permits and Class D licenses ? mostly teenagers ? while the second would add a point and monetary penalty for drivers who were engaged in a call during certain circumstances, such as at the time of an accident.

HB 17 ? Representative Rich Golick (R-Smyrna) has filed a bill to require that individuals leasing motor vehicles be notified of any requirements to hold particular levels of insurance coverage on the vehicles.

HB 21 ? Representative Timothy Bearden (R-Villa Rica) has filed legislation to designate English as the official language of Georgia, and to provide that government forms and documents be supplied only in English, with some exceptions.  Critics have said that English-only laws such as the one proposed by Bearden are designed to intimidate and frighten away immigrants, legal or otherwise, from residency in the state.

The bill follows a move by the Cherokee County commission to declare English the official language in the county.  The new ordinance stipulates that the government will not provide translations of any county documents and forms except for items related to public safety and health.  The commissioners also adopted restrictions on rental housing, requiring that landlords in unincorporated areas of the county check the citizenship status of those who rent from them.  Landlords found renting to undocumented residents could be blocked from collecting rent and could have their business licenses suspended.  Lawsuits are all but assured; similar ordinances passed by cities such as Hazelton, Pennsylvania, have been challenged by civil rights groups.

SB 2 ? Senator John Douglas?s (R-Covington) bill would strip any person in the country illegally of any entitlement to property tax exemptions.

SR 4 ? Senator Cecil Staton (R-Macon) has filed a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to require photo identification for voters.  Staton is proposing the amendment as a way to circumvent the courts, which have blocked the implementation of Georgia?s voter ID law.  The law was first passed in 2005, and then revamped in 2006.  A ruling by a superior court judge in September blocked the law from applying to the November 7 elections.  "In a day of frequent identity theft and even evidence of illegal aliens being registered to vote, this is the least we can do," Staton said.  Republicans generally view the voter ID law as preventing fraud, while Democrats have argued that the law is an effort by the GOP to suppress voting.
  
Citing privacy concerns, Senator Mitch Seabaugh (R-Sharpsburg) has proposed legislation to permit Governor Perdue to delay implementation of the Real ID Act until the Department of Homeland Security issues regulations that the Governor finds will protect the interests of Georgia citizens.  The Real ID Act requires the presentation of several secure and verifiable documents when driver?s licenses are issued.  

Senator Robert Brown (D-Macon) has announced that he will introduce a bill to increase the state?s minimum wage and to tie the wage to inflation so as to have automatic increases in the future.  A survey conducted by the University of Georgia Survey Research Center in September and October indicated that almost 90 percent of Georgians surveyed supported boosting the state?s minimum wage, which has stayed the same since 1997.  Republicans generally oppose the increase, citing that it could eliminate some jobs.  At the federal level, the United States Congress is expected in January to consider an increase in the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour.

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