Monday, March 30, 2009

Group Urges Lawmakers to Fix Transportation Before Time Runs Out

Local governments leaders, businesses owners and environmentalists all came together Monday in Atlanta, urging lawmakers to cross the finish line and pass some kind of transportation reform.

The Get Georgia Moving coalition is a group of about 100 businesses and local governments from across the state. Members of the group came to the Capitol to try and push legislators to fix the state's crumbling transportation network before time runs out in the session. Lawmakers only have two more days left.

House and Senate leaders are still at odds over how to govern and fund the transportation overhaul. House lawmakers are pushing for a statewide penny sales tax while Senate leaders prefer a regional approach to funding. And Governor Sonny Perdue's plan to create a new state agency to oversee transportation projects appears to be fading.

Doug Hertz is co-chair of Get Georgia Moving coalition. He says it doesn't matter which plan passes. His group just wants both sides to come to some type of an agreement - and fast.
"We're on the one yard line. We have got to cross the finish line. We've got only a couple more days left to get that done."
The last day of the session is scheduled to be Friday.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

House Committee Rejects Gov. Perdue's Transportation Plan

The House Transportation Committee today said "no" to a plan unveiled earlier this year by Governor Sonny Perdue for remaking transportation in Georgia.

When the Governor introduced Senate Bill 200, he said he wanted to dismantle the Georgia Department of Transportation, create a new state agency, realign transportation construction responsibilities and fold the DOT into the appropriations process.

The much leaner plan approved by the committee today does only the last. It ensures the DOT, like every other state agency, must face the General Assemby when budget time rolls around. But the bill, among other things, keeps the existing DOT in place as lead transportation construction agency and keeps GRTA and SERTA operating.

Republican Representative David Ralston describes the measure approved today as a balance between the two legislative bodies.

"I think what it does is allow us to reach a compromise on a bill we can get passed. And it still retains the ability for the General Assembly to appropriate funds."

In previous committee meetings, some House members expressed concern that the original bill stripped the General Assembly of its power to elect board members.

But amendments made today keep that procedure in place.

"There was some concern amongst some members about doing that, I think. And some people were a little reluctant to do that and create a new authority and create a board having that relationship," says Ralston.

The measure will make its way back to the Senate where members will likely disagree with the changes. That will force the bill into a conference committee, where lawmakers from both chambers will try to hash out their differences.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Georgia Drives Closer to English-only License Testing

Georgia is moving towards becoming the first state in the country to mandate English-only tests for driver's licenses. And members of the business community are worried that the proposal could cost the state money in commerce.

The plan would require English only tests for permanent driver's licenses. Right now, the state offers individual driver's license tests in 12 languages other than English. But Republican Senator Jack Murphy is concerned that people who can't read the signs written in English are driving in harm's way. He says that's all Senate Bill 67 aims to fix.
"It is purely a safety issue. It has not a anti-immigrant bill and I take exception to the people that're saying that."
One of the people criticizing the bill is Peter Isbister, who's with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He says the bill could have a chilling effect on economic development in Georgia, tempting businesses to look elsewhere for expansion. Issbisster points to the city of Nashville, Tennessee, where a similar proposal was rejected.
"When we see foreign investors comparing and evaluating where they want to where to go, where they want to invest, I think the message that Nashville is sending is a much more attractive one than Georgia will be sending with this bill."
That's why Issbister and other opponents of the bill wore stickers that read "SB67 equals Kia, Go Home."

Korean auto-maker Kia Motors plans to open a 2,200-acre manufacturing plant in West Point later this year.

Helen Kim is with the Korean American Coalition in Atlanta. She says the bill is sending the wrong message to:
"...hard-working families and individuals that live here - Korean and other immigrant citizens and residents, but especially to these international companies like Kia and Sandy Corporation that have been courted actively by the state to come here, bring jobs, invest money."
Right now, about 5,000 people per month request testing in a language other than English, according to the Georgia Department of Driver Services. If the bill does become law, temporary driving permits could still be given in another language.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Georgia House Sends 2010 Budget to Senate

Georgia’s 2010 budget passed the state House Thursday, but not without some help from Uncle Sam.

The proposed budget calls for more than $18.5 billion in state spending and includes about $1.4 billion in federal stimulus dollars.

The aid from the White House could help fund some of the $29 million for school nurses Governor Sonny Perdue wanted to eliminate. It could also plug a $200 million hole in the state’s Medicaid program.

Republican Ben Harbin says budget-writers looked meticulously at every agency’s spending.

“We’ve had to make some tough decisions, and those tough decisions didn’t come with just a willy-nilly reaction to what we thought was way a to get this budget balanced…”
But some Democrats are crying foul because the budget doesn’t include funds for the Homeowner’s Tax Relief Grants. They’re calling it the biggest tax increase in Georgia’s history.

The budget now heads to the Senate.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

House Considers Changing Unanimous-Jury Requirement for Death Sentences

A bill that would allow prosecutors more options in imposing life-without-parole sentences is in jeopardy because some want to make amendments.

The state House was set to take up a Senate bil that would allow prosecutors to seek life without parole sentences. Currenlty that is only possible if they first ask for the death penalty. But the bill was sent back to committee before reaching the floor.

Motivated by the Brian Nichols case, leading House Republicans want to add an amendment to do away with Georgia's unanimous-jury verdict-requirement in death penalty cases.

The proposed changes have bill sponsor Senator Preston Smith irate. He says the measure was supposed to be a victims' rights bill and House members are quickly turning it into something new.

"This late in the session a bill should not be hijacked that hasn't even come through a committee in either chamber. And so I'm very disappointed and I hope they reconsider that action."

Smith says that if the bill doesn't pass, families of murder victims could see the convicted killers back on the streets. Lawmakers have just 9 legislative days left to pass the bill.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Senate Passes Bill Requiring HIV Testing in Prisons

The state Senate passed a bill today that requires HIV testing for inmates before being released from state prisons.

Right now, Georgia law already requires HIV testing when inmates enter the prison system.

But Democratic Senator Kasim Reed says he wants to protect people who are around those infected with the virus once released from jail. He says knowledge is power.

"The data suggests that when people know their status, they change their behavior."

But some lawmakers, like Republican Senator John Douglas, question whether testing inmates who go back into the community will protect others.

"Once these people are released from prison, there is no, there is nothing to force them to tell their partner that they have HIV."

The AIDS tests, which cost about $4.00, would not be required unless the state decides to fund them. The bill now goes to the House.

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Georgia House Votes to Move Sine Die to April 3

The state House voted today to adjust the legislative calendar for the rest of the 2009 session.

Sine Die was set to be at the end of June, just before the end of the 2009 fiscal year. But House Majority Leader Jerry Keen says the legislature has more information on the federal stimulus money coming to the state and there is no longer a need to prolong the session.

The state Senate is expected to adopt the new schedule soon.