Legislators discuss upcoming session

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The increases in state revenue will be going to education, according to members of the local legislative delegation.
State representatives David Knight of District 130, John Yates of District 73, and State Senator Marty Harbin of District 16 spoke and took questions on the upcoming General Assembly session at the annual Eggs & Issues breakfast Thursday morning. Each one was given five minutes “to share with us what they think will be coming up this session,” said Will Doss, of the Griffin-Spalding Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs Committee, which hosts the annual event.
It was held at Southern Crescent Technical College and SCTC President Randy Peters said the college was “pleased to be able to host this,” and noted, “in Griffin and Spalding County, when they do things, they get everyone at the table.”
The legislators also took questions from the audience, which included local city, county and community leaders.
Harbin noted the 6 percent increase in state revenue, which Knight noted was not a surplus. Knight said based on the governor’s proposed budget that money will be going in two places — education and healthcare — with the governor asking for a flat budget from all departments.
Knight said “a new education formula is being proposed to replace the antiquated QBE. The new formula will be student-based, not system or staffing based.”
Harbin said voters will be asked this year to approve a constitutional amendment to allow for the creation of an opportunity school district, which authorizes the state to temporarily take over chronically failing public schools. Harbin expressed concerns about the state being able to get out once it got in and the creation of another level of state bureaucracy.
Knight shared some of those concerns but noted the importance of not failing the children in failing schools.
“If we fail them at K-12 level,” he said, “we’re never going to get them back as productive citizens.”
He also emphasized this was for continually failing schools that don’t meet standards for three consecutive years. He cited the accreditation problems with Clayton County and DeKalb County, and Harbin said most of the failing schools were in Atlanta, Macon, Columbus and Augusta, with none is his district.
Harbin said, “I’d rather see us do one school at time,” said “doing it with a constitutional amendment is what concerns me, as it gives power to the governor and future governors.”
Knight said some of the issues are family and poverty issues, “but we can’t ignore the fact people running the schools are not making the tough decisions.” Those decisions could include closing the schools, folding them into surrounding schools or districts, “but the issue is the kids we’re failing. It is a big issue but a very important issue.”
The legislation for the constitutional amendment passed the House and Senate in the 2015 session. It now requires a majority approval by Georgia voters in the 2016 general election.
Knight also predicted this would be an abbreviated session, as it is an election year. “If you’ve got issues not already in a study committee, it will likely be put off to next year.”
Yates provided a list of all of those current committees, encouraging people to contact their representative to find out when the committees meet. “You can attend those meetings,” he said.
The House committees include Adult Day Services; Annexation, Deannexation, and Incorporation; Children’s Mental Health; Fibroids Education and Awareness; Grandparents Raising Grandchildren & Kinship Care; Health, Education and School-Based Health Centers; HOPE Scholarship Program Award for Critical Field Fields; Intellectual and Developmental Disability Community-based Services; Life Insurance Consumer Disclosures; Post Secondary Education and Employment Options for Individuals with Disabilities; Preservation of the HOPE Scholarship Program; Saltwater Intrusion into Coastal Aquifers; School Counseling & Role of School Counselors; Short Term Rental Providers; Use of Drones; and Welfare Fraud.
Some of the questions at Eggs & Issues included asking for an update of the situation at the Griffin Area Resource Center. Yates said this was very close to him as his brother had helped first set it up. He said the audit and huge fine is based on signatures left off, “which seemed ridiculous to me.”
Knight said the fine was close to $500,000 dollars and both he and Yates noted they have hired Mike Bowers, the former attorney general as their attorney.
“They understand some of the audit issues are a problem,” Knight said, “but the agency did what it was supposed to do. It’s more of a paperwork gaffe.”
There were also questions about proposed local legislation, including the increase in county’s hotel/motel tax to 8 percent, and making the State Court solicitor a full-time position. Knight was not familiar with the solicitor vote by the county commission and said he’d need to sit down with the county.
The county hotel/motel tax increase was supposed to be approved last session, when the city’s was, but there was a misunderstanding, as Harbin thought it the city and county requests were the same and only put through the city request. Yates said he supports any local legislation supported by a majority of the commissioners.
Newly-elected city commissioner David Brock and Bill Johnston asked about commuter rail. Yates said “it would be a good thing if people would use it. It’s a tough one to get people to ride.”
Knight said, he hasn’t seen any movement lately on it, and said the issue is it is split in two regions — “metro Atlanta and our region. We have to have both get together to make it happen. Any chance would need a funding mechanism.”
Johnston said there had been a story on it on WSB, and he claimed it said it would be going through McDonough and not Lovejoy and Griffin. City Commissioner Dick Morrow said, “the other line through McDonough is slammed with freight, and with the port in Savannah, that will only increase.”
Morrow also noted some of the funding is there, with Clayton County passing a 1 cent transportation sales tax. Half of that will go to the expansion of MARTA, and Phase 2, he said, runs commuter rail down through Jonesboro and Lovejoy.
Yates said one of the issues coming into Spalding will be controlled crossings with only three of the 21 crossings currently controlled with signals. “That will be a big expense to put in signals,” he said.
County Commissioner Raymond Ray asked about the statewide GCIC program and the large backlog of years of data not being entered. Harbin said, “if you’ve got issue, let me know. The data should be available. We’ll get together.”
Another question was about getting the Georgia Department of Transportation to execute contracts more quickly. Harbin said to call him about it. “One thing I learned is that a call from a Senator will get returned, where as one from a citizen will not.”
Yates also encouraged people to contact him, noting his “stock and trade” is being in contact with people and trying to help people. He also appreciated the opportunity “to let people know what’s going on and what I’m doing. It’s a great way to do business.”
Ray Lightner
Griffin Daily News