Key measures pass Georgia legislative deadline
Working late into the evening, Georgia lawmakers on Friday went through nearly 100 bills before their self-imposed deadline for legislation to pass one chamber and be eligible to become law this year.  With the prevailing focus on filling Georgia?s foreboding budget gap, much of state legislators? focus was on ways to generate revenue through fee increases and new taxes, along with specific tax cuts intended to bolster the economy.  Any bills passing either the House or the Senate must still be approved in the other chamber, and measures not making the Crossover deadline can still be added as amendments to other viable bills.

Elimination of state property taxes
While a constitutional amendment eliminating the state?s portion of the property tax was blocked by Senate Democrats, one of the last actions on Crossover Day in the upper chamber was the passage of a bill in favor of removing the state ad valorem tax on property, on the premise of providing relief to homeowners struggling through the recession.  SB 517 stipulates that the state?s portion of the tax would be eliminated upon Georgia?s reserve funds reaching $500 million.  The elimination of the state one-quarter mil would not affect local governments? budgets, including school funding, and communities would continue to set their own millage rates.

Hospital tax, increases in state fees
The Georgia House approved a 1.45 percent tax on hospital revenues that is intended to generate funds for Medicaid, allowing the state to avoid deeper cuts to the health insurance program for the poor. Hospitals around Georgia eventually came on board to support the bill, and despite lengthy and at times heated debate, the measure passed by a vote of 141 to 23.  The plan will purportedly raise more than $175 million for the state.

House lawmakers also passed on Friday a collection of fee increases that proponents described as a way to generate needed income by modernizing outdated fee amounts, some of which had not been altered in decades.  Opponents of the increases argued that the fee increases were in reality tax increases, with one legislator taking the well to call the names of lawmakers who had pledged not to raise taxes.  The bill includes larger fees for specialty license plates, airport inspections, and day care centers, among other fee increases, along with a new $300 annual fee for lobbyists.  Another new fee approved by the house requires payment of fees to file civil litigation in the state.

The state is dealing with a projected $1.1 billion deficit in the state?s budget, and a $785 million budget hole for the upcoming fiscal year.  There was an outcry earlier in the legislative session when lawmakers asked Georgia?s colleges and universities to come up with $300 million in cuts, and University of Georgia administrators came back with the potential closure of programs, discontinuation of majors, larger class sizes and lower caps on enrollment, among other cuts.

Graves? Jobs Act
HB 1023, offered by Representative Tom Graves (R-Ranger), was approved by the Georgia House on Friday.  The final version of the bill had little opposition, as its cut in capital gains was altered to only become effective once the state has at least $1 billion in reserves.  Governor Perdue vetoed a similar measure in 2009, but is supportive this year because of the reserve fund protections.  The bill also provides a $2,400 tax credit for businesses that hire workers who are unemployed at least four weeks.

Texting-while-driving ban
HB 938, which would ban texting while driving, was approved by the Georgia House of Representatives in a 134 to 31 vote on Friday, with the final House version including an amendment applying a ban on texting while driving to all age groups.  The bill also bans teens from talking on a mobile phone while driving.  The bill now heads to the Senate.

Re-creation of Milton County
House leaders chose not to take up a resolution that would allow for the creation of Milton County out of the northern part of Fulton County by the end of Crossover Day.  House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones (R-Milton), a key supporter of the measure, chose just before midnight not to bring up HR 21 to a floor vote, as the two-thirds vote needed for passage was not present.  The measure would have permitted the re-creation of historically merged counties at the direction of voters.  The former Milton and Campbell Counties were merged with Fulton County during the Great Depression as a way to cut local government costs.

Transportation hangs in the balance
One critical area that did not see movement on Friday was transportation.  While the House did not advance its regional sales tax initiative (HB 1218), a six-member joint committee is meeting to examine the issues and develop a workable compromise. The Governor had threatened to veto a plan that allowed local governments to opt out of the agreements.
Federal healthcare act riles Georgia officials
The new health care act that emerged in Washington a week ago and that was signed into law by President Obama last Tuesday has created uproar among some leading Georgia Republicans. Governor Sonny Perdue and a number of Georgia legislators have called for Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker to join fourteen other states in filing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law signed by the President. However, last Wednesday Baker announced that he would not litigate objecting to the bill, citing the need to save taxpayer dollars and that the suits would likely not be successful. Governor Perdue is still authorized by Georgia law to appoint a special Attorney General, and on Thursday Perdue announced he would consider doing so.

Following Baker?s refusal to sue, State Representative Mark Hatfield (R-Waycross) began gathering signatures for a resolution to have Baker impeached. The Articles of Impeachment against Attorney General Baker are based on a Georgia constitutional provision that the Attorney General carry out state matters in court at the direction of the Governor.  The resolution at this time does not appear to have support from Republican leadership, though it received around 30 signatures and was moving forward until Hatfield agreed to wait until lawmakers could meet with Governor Perdue to discuss options.  Additionally Representative Austin Scott (R-Tifton), a candidate for Governor, introduced a resolution that would compel the Attorney General to join other states in the lawsuits.  The resolution had not emerged from committee in the House as of Friday evening.
House Speaker introduces ethics reform package
House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) unveiled his long-awaited ethics reform legislation to the House last Thursday. Changes offered include increasing transparency by requiring lobbyists to report spending on legislators more frequently, creating an abuse of power provision for state officials, and banning email and other electronic communications between lobbyists and legislators while the legislature is in session or committees are meeting. The proposal falls short of some previous expectations, as groups have called for caps on gifts from lobbyists and a ban on transferring campaign funds between committees.  Representative Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), who had filed an ethics bill on behalf of Democrats, worked with the Speaker on the legislation and supports the bill. House leaders avoided the Crossover Day deadline for the package by using a Senate bill as their vehicle in the House.
Water conservation measure approved by legislature
The Georgia House voted on March 18, 2010, to approve legislation that had previously cleared the Senate on March 10 regarding one of Governor Perdue?s top priorities: a comprehensive water conservation bill. The bill requires the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, its Environmental Protection Division, and other agencies to examine their practices in order to develop programs and incentives for voluntary water conservation, along with other provisions. Intended to send a message to neighboring states regarding the use of water from the Chattahoochee River basin, the legislation provides a plan to include low-flow plumbing fixtures (shower heads, toilets, faucets etc.) in new buildings and the use of sub-metering in multi-tenant buildings in order to more accurately monitor water usage. Slated to be effective in July of 2012, the bill coincides with a previously established deadline set for Georgia by a federal court decision regarding Georgia?s plan for water conservation. Some private observers feel that the bill is not aggressive enough to address the issue of water conservation in Georgia including the vast amounts of water consumed by power production.
Motor Vehicle Franchise Bill passes Georgia House
Georgia House Bill 1072 has now moved to the Senate and will be heard by the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee after Crossover Day. The bill would work to strengthen the position of vehicle dealerships in Georgia that may face closure in the future. This is a direct response by the Georgia legislature to the decision by both General Motors and Chrysler to close thousands of dealerships last year due to their economic hardships. The bill would require a franchisor to pay a dealer terminated as a result of a bankruptcy or industry reorganization the fair market value of the terminated franchise as of the notice of termination. The bill also prohibits a franchisor from assessing a surcharge against a dealer for warranty repairs. The bill is ultimately expected to pass the Senate and be signed into law by the Governor.
Special Elections Slated for May 11
Governor Sonny Perdue has called for a special election on May 11, 2010, to fill the 9th Congressional District seat vacated by Nathan Deal. The special elections will also include the state legislative seats being vacated in Georgia House District 12, and Georgia Senate Districts 42 and 49.   Deal (R-Forsyth) resigned from the United Sates House of Representatives minutes after voting against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Deal had been in office since 1992, and is running for Governor.

Both Representative Tom Graves (R-Ranger) who represented the 12th House District and Senator Lee Hawkins (R-Hall) who represented the 49th Senate District resigned their respective seats last Tuesday in order to run in the 9th Congressional District.  Also to be decided on May 11 will be State Senate District 42. This seat was previously held by Senator David Adelman (D-DeKalb), who resigned his seat after being confirmed by the United States Senate on March 19 to become the new United States Ambassador to Singapore.

The 9th Congressional District of Georgia is a heavily conservative. Graves is seen by many as the more conservative candidate, which is in his favor. However, Hawkins comes from a more populous region of the District. Other candidates for the 9th Congressional District seat include: Chris Cates (R-Union County), Mike Cowan (R-Whitfield), Jeremy Jones (R-Ringgold), Bert Loftman (R-Pickens County), Representative Bobby Reese (R-Gwinnett County), Former Senator Bill Stephens (R-Forsyth County), Danny Benton(R), Tom Dooley (R-Ringgold), Mike Freeman (D-Hall), Eugene Moon (I-Gainesville), and Steve Tarvin (R-Chickamauga). If necessary for any of the races, a run-off election will be held on June 8.
2010 Election Schedule
Nearly every elective office in Georgia state government will be decided by voters in 2010, including Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, State School Superintendent, Agricultural Commissioner, Insurance Commissioner, and Labor Commissioner. Additionally, Senator Johnny Isakson?s U.S. Senate seat, all 13 U.S. House of Representative seats, and all 256 seats in the Georgia State Legislature will be on the ballot in November of 2010.

March 29 - Qualifying begins for Special Election for House District 12 and Senate Districts 42 and 49
March 31 - Qualifying ends for Special Election for House District 12 and Senate Districts 42 and 49
April 30 - Candidacy deadline to be placed on the Primary Ballot
May 11 - Special Election for 9th Congressional District, Georgia House District 12 and Georgia Senate Districts 42 and 49
June 8 - Run-off for Special Election for 9th Congressional District, Georgia House District 12 and Georgia Senate Districts 42 and 49 (if necessary)
July 20 - Primary Election
August 10 - Run-off for Primary Election (if necessary)
November 2 - General Election
November 30 - Run-off for General Election (if necessary)
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