Last minute debt deal a day late and $4 trillion short

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April 3rd, 2010
Wendell Willard / In The Well

D-Day At The Gold Dome: What Is Cross-Over Day?


"Crossover Day," as it is known, occurs on day 30 of each year's Georgia General Assembly session...

"Crossover Day," as it is known, occurs on day 30 of each year's Georgia General Assembly session. By constitution, the Georgia legislature can only meet for 40 days, so this all important sunrise to midnight sprint marks the final day of the year that bills must be passed by one chamber or the other to have a chance at becoming law.


If a bill does not make it to floor for consideration by the witching hour, it's dead, save the rare occasion its resurrected as a rider on another piece of legislation.


In this "last chance," atmosphere, things get a little crazy. This year was no different. The House passed some 32 bills and resolutions.


ONE BILL THAT MADE THE CUT WENT ON LIFE SUPPORT


One bill I reviewed and the House, HB 307, will provide additional revenue for balancing a very tight budget by helping to fund indigent health care. At the time the House approved this bill, we thought we had an understanding from both Senate leadership and our Republican Caucus that the bill, cynically dubbed the "sick tax" by opponents, would be quickly considered and sail through the upper chamber.


However, when it came up for Senate consideration, members of the House leadership became aware that several GOP senators were balking -- and refusing to support the measure on philosophical grounds -- while labeling it as a tax increase.


The House was not going to consider passing a 2011 budget unless funds collected from fees included in HR 307 were a part of the equation to balance the budget.


APRIL FOOLS DAY TURNS INTO SPAGHETTI WESTERN STANDOFF


On April Fools Day we had a real standoff; no passage of HB 307 by the Senate meant no consideration of a budget by the House. At last, late in the day, the Senate did finally muster enough votes to approve the measure. Had it failed, I believe the only option left would be a special session, as the proposed budget required roughly $168 million to be generated by this measure to balance the budget. A budget can't be passed without it -- our state constitution mandates Georgia must operate under a balanced budget.


It was an intriguing event to watch.


GEORGIA JUMPS IN THE HEALTH CARE DEBATE, BUT PUNTS ON ETHICS


Another battle royal that erupted in the House was consideration of a bill to allow the purchase of health insurance across state lines. Sounds reasonable, but Georgia law is complex on this issue, with numerous mandates of coverage that must be included in Georgia policies. Some House members feared the bill's passage would undermine and otherwise circumvent these required mandates. After a spirited debate, HB 1184 passed by a vote of 105 to 54.


The House has not yet considered a bill addressing overall changes in our Ethics Law, but I believe one is coming, albeit, a rather watered down version from one I introduced with 41 House members as co-sponsors. But a constitutional amendment did come forward on day 30 to have House members who failed to either file a Georgia tax return or resolve payment of delinquent taxes be disciplined by the State Ethics Commission, or removed from office by the commission. This was the last measure considered by the House before adjournment on the big day, and after a lengthy debate, the issue failed to obtain the required 120 votes necessary to pass a constitutional amendment.


Personally, I felt the proposal was poorly conceived and fraught with pitfalls. Late hours of a session are not the best time to take up a debate on an issue patched together without appropriate thought, and I felt this was such an item.


JOBS, CRIME AND SAFETY


Looking to our substantial need to create jobs, HB 1023 was passed to provide tax incentives for employers who hire and retain individuals currently receiving unemployment benefits. A little nugget of information: beginning in 2008, the state held a sizable reserve of $1.5 billion for unemployment benefits (one of the best in the country). Today, our unemployment fund is running a $500 million deficit, and its not hit bottom.


We also passed several bills to protect Georgians.  House Bill 567, also known as the “Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights,” keeps crime victims informed of the justice process for their case. For example, HB 567 ensures that victims have an opportunity to be heard at a convicted offender’s pre-sentence hearing. It also helps victims receive restitution when required and expands victims’ rights to notifications pertaining to their offender, such as notice of the offender’s motion for a new trial or release.


Texting while driving is another rising problem in our state. Texting while operating a motor vehicle greatly endangers lives and often results in minor to fatal traffic accidents.  House Bill 938 would curb this by completely banning texting for all drivers.  It also outlaws all cell phone use by 16 and 17 year old drivers. 


We passed House Bill 1405, which will form the Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians. This special council will study Georgia’s revenue structure and make recommendations for a more fair and balanced tax structure. Knowing our current tax laws are convoluted and contain too many exemptions for special interests, I look forward to seeing the council’s recommendations during the next General Assembly and applying them to future legislation.


The legislature will be in recess all next week, so there won’t be a column next Sunday. But we’ll pick up on April 18.


Contact me at Wendellwillard@wendellwillard.com. I look forward to hearing from you.


SB 84


This bill clarifies and standardizes conflicts of interest policies, codes of ethics, the proper roles of the school board and superintendent, and school board qualifications. It also allows the Governor to remove and replace school board members in order to avoid loss of accreditation when a school board is placed on probation by an accrediting agency.

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