This week’s Courier Herald column:
The state legislature completed crossover day last Thursday, entering the home stretch towards a close of business on midnight March 29th. All that is certain between now and then is that a balanced budget will be passed by both chambers. That is, after all, the minimum requirement for their annual meeting.
The bills that have passed either chamber thus give us a glimpse into the priorities of both chambers, as well as a glimpse of battles to come in this year’s elections. While the legislature resumes business this week, candidates will also qualify for election. It will get harder and harder from this point forward to distinguish between those legislating and those campaigning.
What has already been settled is an income tax cut for Georgians. Standard deductions will be raised for this year, and top income tax rates will be lowered from 6% to 5.75% next year. Presuming the state continues to meet pre-set financial metrics, the rate would be further lowered to 5.5% the following year. Consider the top line of GOP campaign pledges met.
Other high profile legislation that remains alive for the remainder of the session sets up a grand bargain between rural Georgia and urban/suburban Atlanta. Both chambers have passed bills that address transit governance in the Atlanta region and rural broadband in underserved parts of Georgia.
The transit bills have their roots years ago with bond funding earmarked for transit included in 2015’s transportation funding bill. A follow on study committee by Senator Brandon Beach of Alpharetta noted a four-hour trip time across three separate agencies to travel from Kennesaw in Cobb County to Gwinnett Place Mall. The goal is for a seamless, single brand for transit travel within the region.
The House has also been working on a high level transit governance structure that resulted in a House version of a transit bill, led by Transportation Committee Chairman Kevin Tanner of Dawsonville. There are some major differences between the two bills in terms of board structure and operation, but the spirit of the two bills is largely the same. Both bills passed their respective chambers with overwhelming majorities indicating that there is political will to find an agreement in order to solve Atlanta’s congestion problem.
Meanwhile, both chambers have also been addressing the problems of rural Georgia on separate but parallel paths. Senator Steve Gooch of Dahlonega who carried the 2015 transportation funding bill, has sponsored two bills (SB 232 and 426) to facilitate the expansion and upgrade of reliable high speed broadband service in rural Georgia. Senator Gooch has remained active in the transit discussion while also trying to find solutions to get much of Georgia’s broadband service up to 21st century levels.
Meanwhile, the Georgia House has established a two year “Rural Development Council”, with the first recommendations from the committee resulting in bills sent to the Senate for consideration this year. House Bill 887 takes a similar approach as in Senator Gooch’s bill allowing rural Electric Membership Corporations to deliver broadband service.
House Bill 951 would create a “Center For Rural Prosperity and Innovation” to focus specifically on economic development opportunities within rural Georgia – opportunities and challenges that often look far different from those encountered in Metro Atlanta. The bill would also create a Deputy Commissioner of Economic Development to spearhead rural initiatives under the existing Economic Development Commissioner.
There are quite a few other bills that will make headlines throughout the session including bills dealing with distracted driving and making hand held cell phone use illegal, sex trafficking, and charter school funding parity. Many others will never generate headlines but will mark change for many Georgians.
The overall theme of the remainder of the session, however, will be major bills that show needs in very different parts of the same state. It’s an approach that says we’re not going to solve a “transportation problem” or an “internet access” problem. Instead, both issues are treated separately, but together. Whether in transportation or in communication, that’s the best way to connect Georgians to each other far and wide.