Friday, February 27, 2009

Death of a newspaper, but not newspapers

Still, no one should wonder who that bell tolls for.






















The Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado, has printed it's final edition. The fate of the online service is less certain:
Scripps said it will now offer for sale the masthead, archives and Web site of the Rocky, separate from its interest in the newspaper agency.
Good luck to journalists.

Speaker Richardson: Not much to say on DOT firing

Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson didn't put out a statement on former DOT Commissioner Gena Evans' firing, but this is what his spokesman says when asked:
"The Speaker's primary concern has been and will be how to improve the transportation system for the people of Georgia."
Not a lot there. Richardson, it was reported at the time, was no fan of Dr. Evans' when she was hired. He preferred House Transportation Committee Chairman Vance Smith for the job. Smith is now carrying legislation calling for a statewide referendum and a new penny sales tax for transportation.

That tax wouldn't flow through G-DOT, but through the new STA Gov. Sonny Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Richardson say they want to create. But, if the STA gets shot down, the money still would't go to the DOT.

It would flow through the State Road and Tollway Authority which, as Ariel notes in the last sentence of her article, one Gena Evans is still the executive director of.

Keen: No plans to change session schedule

There's been a lot of talk in the halls that the legislature may change its schedule up. House Majority Leader Jerry Keen said yesterday that he's had "no discussions" on that.

The plan is still to wrap things up March 25, with the option of coming back in June. Keen said spending three days a week in session, with lots of committee meetings on Mondays, has worked so well it may become a model for future sessions.

UPDATE: Well, that's not what state Sen. Chip Rogers says.

Legislators not paying their taxes: Why the list doesn't have names

This story by Jim Tharpe deals with a list of 19 state legislators who are behind on their taxes, according to the Georgia Department of Revenue.

But there are no names on the public version of that list due to privacy laws, according to DOR spokesman Charles Willey, whom I spoke to this morning. The list simply notes whether they are senators or representatives.

You can look up delinquent taxpayers by name online through the DOR's site, but those are folks whom liens have been filed against.

Willey said he did not believe any of the legislators' debts had been unsettled that long.

Thanks to Peach Pundit for calling my attention to the story. I await their next post, accusing the mainstream media of failing to report on it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Gena Evans has been fired at DOT

Dick Pettys at Insider Advantage did the first reporting on this that I saw, but it has been officially announced: The Georgia DOT Board voted to fire Commissioner Gena Evans today.

She was about 14 months into her tenure, and hardly a month went by that some problem didn't come to light at the department. She had developed a reputation as a reformer and often clashed with the 13-member board.

She also married the former board chairman who helped put her in charge of the department in the first place. He resigned from the board some time after the two began seeing each other in secret, saying they were in love. They married soon after.

She has been seen as Gov. Sonny Perdue's choice to lead at the department, and his possible choice to lead the new state transportation agency Perdue and other state leaders are trying to form now. That agency, laid out in Senate Bill 200, would essentially replace the Department of Transportation and strip the board of most of its power.

UPDATE: Comment from the governor's office:
“Sadly, today the State Transportation Board proved that a majority of its members are more concerned with personal vendettas and politics than delivering value to citizens in transportation. While I am not privileged to the reasons behind their decision, I believe they have fired a competent Commissioner for no reason other than her commitment to put the needs of Georgia’s citizens ahead of board members’ personal agendas of spending taxpayer dollars on their individual projects. The Lt. Governor, Speaker and I are committed to creating a transportation system that allows the citizens to hold us accountable for moving Georgia where we need to go in transportation.”
Presumably he was all red faced and angry when he said it, then added "and thanks for giving me a massive stick to beat you with as I try to strip you of all your power." I can't confirm that, though.

UPDATE 2: Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle certainly didn't pull any punches:
"Every Georgian in this state should be out-raged today. ... Every proposal to reform DOT... they have rejected. Those days are gonna be over. ... This will be their last hurrah."
UPDATE 3: The DOT Board puts a decidedly different spin on the news. The bolded headline of their press release: Georgia DOT Board Appoints First African-American as interim Commissioner.

While we're discussing firsts, Evans was the first female DOT commissioner. She is now the first female commissioner to be fired from a cannon. From the DOT:
On Thursday, February 26, 2009, Gerald Ross was named Interim Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation by the State Transportation Board, to succeed Dr. Gena L. Evans while a national search to fill the position is conducted. Mr. Ross most recently served as Chief Engineer where he was responsible for the Divisions of Planning, Data & Intermodal Development; Pre-construction; Construction and Operations. A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Mr. Ross is a Registered Professional Engineer in Georgia. He is married and has one daughter.

HB 233 (the 2-year assessment freeze) has passed

It passed easily, 42-5. The "Don't Destroy Bibb County" amendment survived. Presumably the House will pass the amended version too, since the initial House sponsor didn't object to the amendment.

SB 31 has passed 107-66.

Story on the main site.

Meanwhile, you can read the federal budget

The White House just sent out a blast email: The 2010 budget outline can be read now online.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

If you generally trust large corporations, I wouldn't worry about any of this at all.

The House should vote Thursday on Georgia Power's Senate Bill 31, which you might as well just read.

And then there's this, just around the corner, which seems to be moving even faster through the state legislature than the Georgia Power bill. From The Insider:
But after the meeting, (state Sen. Kasim) Reed declared what he thought to be at work in the governor’s bill — an attempt, by eliminating low-bid requirements, to create road construction packages big enough to attract multi-national companies. At the expense of local road-building companies — who’ve had a rocky relationship with Perdue.
Which of course brings to mind this trip to Spain and a company called Cintra.

UPDATE: On the other hand, I am often reminded of a quote from Van Etheridge, an engineer in Macon for major DOT contractor Moreland Altobelli. I believe I asked him why another contractor's road project was taking so long.

Said Etheridge: "I wouldn't want to go to the moon on one of them low bids."

DOT Board calls special session for tomorrow

They have also announced a 2:30 p.m. press conference. The meeting agenda has the board discussing various budget issues and federal stimulus money.

But Mr. Pettys says they may very well fire DOT Commissioner Gena Evans.
----
UPDATE: Commissioner Evans, approached after a department head meeting with the governor, declined to comment, saying she'd just do her job the way she has for 14 months.
----
Tomorrow is shaping up to be a busy day. The House will take up the 09 budget as well as SB 31, easily the most controversial big bill of the session.

It's also Macon Day. Bed, Bath and Beyond if there's time.


Featuring Glenn Richardson as Frank the Tank?

SB 31 on the House floor tomorrow, 09 budget too

The fiscal 2009 amended budget passed committee this morning and will be on the House floor tomorrow.

Senate Bill 31, the Georgia Power nuclear bill, continues to rocket along. It was added to the Thursday House calendar just now by the House Rules Committee.

I spoke to Appropriations Chairman Ben Harbin, who is carrying SB 31 in the House. My questions began with some version of "Why are you moving so fast on this?"
ME: It seems like new things are coming out about that bill all the time.

HARBIN: If they're ready to move it I'm ready to move it. I think we've got all the answers on it. A lot of the information, I think, that is coming out, I think, is some misinformation. People trying to stretch things. I think it's a simple bill. ... It's a big issue, I'm not trying to belittle that. But we're ready.

ME: The issue with the profit, or equity, do you feel like that's been fairly portrayed?

HARBIN: I think that's a little unfair because the Public Service Commission requires 50 percent debt, 50 percent equity to build the plant. ... No one's willing to invest to help build a plant if they're not getting some return. ... But it saves $300 million ultimately to the rate payers if we allow them to do this early.

ME: It would seem that this would impact the (state) budget significantly and would require a fiscal note. ... The state pays power bills.

HARBIN: You could say that every time that there's a rate increase, PSC has to do a fiscal note first.

ME: But they're not asking the PSC to do this. They're asking y'all.

HARBIN: And I understand that. ... I don't think that's required just because paying power bills are part of every day and we all benefit from the nuclear power reactors being built because it provides the power we're going to need as our state continues to grow.
Georgia Power stock generally rose from the start of the session until about the start of February, and now it's back where it was on Jan. 12.

I am able to draw no conclusions from that.

UPDATE: House Minority Leader DuBose Porter said he does not expect Democrats to vote as a block on SB 31. He also declined to say how he will vote, or to comment on the merit of the bill itself.

Is Robert Brown going to run for lieutenant governor?

Straight up speculation...

State Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, has really amped up his his political profile this year.

The Senate minority leader took to the senate well several times last week for some fiery speeches, that were also a little odd. Used to be, Sen. Brown seldom heard a question that couldn't be answered with "no comment."

He's also chairing a committee on stimulus spending, which is interesting because as a member of the minority party he's not in a great position to set state spending. He was in the House gallery tonight in Washington D.C. for President Barack Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress, according to his office.

He's also taking his stimulus committee on a bus tour Friday to two sites, neither of which is in his senate district. His office said the two sites were chosen largely because of their economic problems.

Hancock is a poor county and was hit hard by the storms last week. Baldwin County has had several some serious manufacturing plant layoffs recently.

Both are relatively rural areas, and both counties went for President Barack Obama in the November election, Hancock by a wide margin.

Sen. Brown said he was ready to leave the Georgia Senate in 2007 to run for the mayor's office in Macon, but health problems kept him from making the move. His health is obviously much better now. Anyone who knows him can see that.

And I'm beginning to wonder: Is Sen. Brown contemplating a run for statewide office?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

You keep bags of gold and silver handy, right?

State Rep. Bobby Franklin, who is perhaps best known for trying to attach an anti-abortion rider to all other legislation, has filed a bill that would require everyone in Georgia to pay their taxes in gold or silver coins.

The state, in turn, could only use gold and silver coins to make its own payments, and banks would have to keep gold and silver on hand for customers. From House Bill 430:
... the state shall not make anything but gold and silver coins as tender in payment of debts. Federal Reserve Accounting Unit Dollars, having no redeeming value in gold or silver coin, shall not be made a tender in payment of debts by the state.
The bolding is mine. You might note Franklin's choice of phrase for the federal reserve notes appears to spell out "FRAUD" when you look at just the first letters.

Said Franklin: "That was not my intent."

Pure coincidence then. Odd that the the first letter of each word was capitalized in all three references in the bill, but I digress.

Asked if it's reasonable to expect people to pay their taxes in gold and silver, Franklin replied, "absolutely," since banks will be required to make such coinage available. His legislation does allow "other forms of currency" to be used in other transactions if both parties consent.

Franklin then pulled out a pocket copy of the United States Constitution and turned to Article I, Section 10, which does indeed say that:
No state shall enter into any treaty, alliance, or confederation; grant letters of marque and reprisal; coin money; emit bills of credit; make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts; pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts, or grant any title of nobility.
"This has never been amended," Rep. Franklin said.

I'm not a Constitutional scholar (thank goodness!), but Wikipedia thinks paper money is Constitutional, so it must be true.

Franklin said he hopes his bill will get a fair committee hearing and that perhaps a study committee will be assigned. I will keep you posted.

Rep. Franklin, by the way, represents a portion of the state's best county: Cobb County. But he's way up in north Cobb, not in the awesome part where Smyrna is.

Monday, February 23, 2009

SB 31: At the moment, Lucid Idiocy is pretty damn glad to own Georgia Power stock

How is it that, as Georgia Power's nuclear plant bill flies through the legislative process like a cannonball through Popsicle stick walls, I'm still learning things that make both eyebrows raise?

Makes you wonder what we'll learn after this thing becomes law. From Margaret Newkirk at The AJC:
As Georgia lawmakers push forward with a nuclear financing bill this week, their counterparts in Florida are scrambling to undo a similar measure approved three years ago.

In the past two weeks, Florida Republicans, including the state Senate president pro tem, drafted two bills aimed at a 2006 law requiring power customers to pay early for new nuclear reactors.

The bills are a reaction to public outrage, after those nuclear fees had an unexpectedly expensive and politically disastrous debut this winter.
And here's the part where you think, huh? Again from Ms. Newkirk:
Most of the $1.6 billion in early financing fees that Georgia Power wants to charge customers for additional nuclear reactors would go to the company’s shareholders, and not to finance debt.
"Popsicle stick walls." I'm not sure how accurate that is, but I sure do like the metaphor.

HB 233 just got amended for Bibb County

House Bill 233, which would enact a 2-year moratorium on property value increases in an effort to keep property taxes down, was amended this afternoon to avoid penalizing Bibb County, which is about to finish a county wide reassessment.

The amendment would push the bill's enactment date back one year for counties currently undergoing such a reassessment, which appears to include only Bibb and Gordon counties. That should give them time to finish ongoing assessments.

Bibb County has spent some $2 million to get its assessment done and was in danger of wasting that money if HB 233 passed without the change. That's because the legislation would freeze values where they are. For Bibb County, that would lock in values that hadn't been updated since 2001, which would probably keep taxes artificially low for some property owners.

The amendment and the bill itself easily passed the Senate Finance Committee this afternoon. House Bill 233 will likely be debated on the Senate floor this week.

"Hopefully Thursday," said Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, who is also a member of the finance committee.

Which is the most hated tax?

I'm beginning to think it's whichever one you're trying to get rid of on a given day...

Lat year when Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson and others were pushing the GREAT plan to do away with property taxes, we heard all about how much people hated property taxes. Sales taxes, we were told, were the way to go.

It is now 2009, and apparently people hate sales taxes now. This is from a House press release quoting state Rep. Harry Geisinger. His House Bill 480 would do away with sales taxes on automobile sales as well as the annual car tag tax you pay on or around your birthday:
“Two of the most hated taxes in Georgia are the sales tax and the ‘Birthday Tax’ or ad valorem tax on cars,” said Rep. Geisinger. “This legislation is a smart change for Georgia tax payers.”
There is a consistency to point out here, though: People hated the car tag tax last year, too.

HB 480 has quite a bit of support and is being discussed in a Ways and Means subcommittee right now.

Committee budget vote may be Wednesday

That's the word for now, that the House Appropriations Committee may pass the fiscal 2009 amended budget out of committee Wednesday. Several sub-committee meetings on the budget were scheduled for today, but they've been canceled.

The innovative young minds of the Georgia DOT: Will Perdue be able to push them out?

The average age of a Georgia DOT board member is 62.4 years old. That's 811 years of life experience among 13 members. The median age is 67.

Five board members are younger than 60. Two members, Brandon Beach and Dana Lemon, are younger than 50. Lemon is the youngest member, at 45. She is also the only woman.

The newest soon-to-be member, state Rep. Bobby Parham, is 67. He beat out over several candidates last week to represent the 12th congressional district on the board. One of them was Charles Tarbutton, a railroad vice president, former chairman of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and co-chairman of the Get Georgia Moving Coalition.

According to some, Tarbutton was Gov. Sonny Perdue's choice to join the board. A few years ago Perdue appointed him to the state Board of Economic Development. Tarbutton is 42, and last year co-wrote an editorial that ran in The AJC in favor of new transportation funding:
Make no mistake --- we support reforms at GDOT and a much-needed forensic audit. But neither is a substitute for funding.
Compare that with Parham, who said after his election that he was going to the department to see if something was wrong, not with the presumption that there was something to be fixed.

As a legislator from the 12th district, Parham was also in on the interviews for the potential board candidates:
"One of the candidates, matter of fact... he was telling us all this stuff that he was gonna do and I said, 'do you understand the reason that the Board of Regents and the university system and the board of transportation were set up in a special form that kept the governor out of the day-to-day operations of the two agencies?' And, to me, this was very important. ... Just about every governor we've had, if we got in an economic slump, they wanted to go in there, so see if they could raid (the DOT's budget)."
During Perdue's press conference about stripping the DOT of most of its funding and moving it to a new entity, the governor was sure to say existing DOT board members are some of the best citizens in Georgia. But the process is all screwed up, he said.
"And it's frankly nearly impossible to determine who's responsible, in a context in which no one, not even the legislature, can get basic information how money is actually being spent. ... It is a process that leads to no value, or little value."
Sure sounds like he has a high opinion of the folks running that show to me. Later, Perdue was specific about one of his issues with the board:
"With the revenue situation that we have in Georgia, and we have board members say that we are committed not to changing our workforce at all. In fact we need to add jobs not cut jobs. And we need to give less value, rather than more value. Then we've got a problem."

Shorter Perdue: These are great Georgians. Out of touch, but great.

What am I saying with all this? I don't know. You ever try to convince your grandfather to change?

I had a seasoned lobbyist tell me Parham's election was the first major sign that Gov. Perdue's re-organization plan will be defeated. We shall see. Dick Pettys has a piece about legislators opposing the governor's plan, but you need a subscription to read it.

Petty's also noted this in another report, which is available for free:
Every governor I’ve covered, dating from the first days of Jimmy Carter, has had problems with the road agency. And no doubt every governor has wished for just the power Perdue would like to have.
By the way, you can read Gov. Perdue's bill revamping transportation in Georgia here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I don't know where Glenn Richardson is, but I miss him

Regretfully, it doesn't look like we're going to get the old speaker back any time soon. Speaker Richardson this afternoon, at a press conference with the governor and lieutenant governor:
"For the last 21 days I haven't said too much about things going on around here. And it seems to be working pretty smoothly, so I see no reason change that. I look forward to working with the governor and the lieutenant governor as we take this transportation idea through the process. And I really do want to thank the governor for thinking openly and outwardly and differently about government."
C'mon! I am trying to sell newspapers here, damn it, and 35 inches of tax reform analysis and everyone getting along just isn't getting it done.

By the way, those who have noticed the speaker has been wearing glasses lately, that's because he's a candidate for that laser eye surgery the kids love so much. Should that surgery require him to wear an eye patch at any point during this session, it has been decided that the press corps will refer to him as Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson, RRRRRR-Treasure Island ...

UPDATE: Who am I kidding? This only makes him more intriguing.
It takes a helluva man to change, and you did it.

HB 86: Providing a precinct-by-precinct count of early votes. And a bunch of other bills, too.

MONDAY UPDATE: HB 86 just passed committee unanimously. So it's available to go to the House floor this week.
----
As early voting has become more popular in Georgia, it has become more difficult to analyze voting patterns by precinct. That's because people who vote on election day are counted in their individual precinct, but early voters are all lumped in together regardless of geography.

The result is, that if you're trying to draw conclusions about voting patterns, whether they be along partisan, racial or other demographic lines, you're working with skewed data. That may only matter to political junkies, reporters, politicians and campaign workers, but it does matter.

House Bill 86, sponsored by state Rep. Fran Millar, would require local election offices to report the early votes (identified as absentee in the law) as being cast in the precincts where the early voter lives.

Millar said that, in his last election, 48 percent of the people who voted for him voted early. That makes precinct-by-precinct counts nearly worthless.

"When it was less than 10 percent of the vote (being cast early), it didn't really matter much. ..." Millar said. "When people get comfortable doing this, we're going this route."

UPDATE: This bill is due for a committee hearing Monday at 1 p.m. in room 406 of the Coverdell Legislative Office Building. It will probably be overshadowed by legislation requiring people to show proof of citizenship when they register to vote, contained in House Bill 45 and House Resolution 12.

That's what Senate Bill 86 also does, except HR 12 would call for a statewide referendum and write this into the Constitution.

Also in the same committee meeting: Discussion of House Bill 122, which would require local governments with budgets over $1 million to establish a searchable Web site breaking down their budget. Also, House Bill 209 would allow students to use their student I.D.s as proof of identity when they vote.

FY 09 amended budget ready to go next week

It was just announced in the House that the fiscal 2009 amended budget should be voted out of committee on Monday, meaning we should see floor debate next week and, presumably, a vote to move the budget over to the Senate.

MONDAY UPDATE: No committee vote today, and the budget subcommittee meetings were canceled. It's looking like Wednesday.

Another transportation day

From the governor's office: Sonny Perdue, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle, and House Speaker Glenn Richardson will hold a press conference TODAY, THURSDAY, February 19, 2009 at 3 p.m. to discuss transportation reform.

In a very small twist of irony, the DOT Board they'll be talking about replacing is having its regular meeting today as well.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Georgia Republicans: Cut taxes for stimulus

REWRITE: This is the story I wrote:
ATLANTA — Georgia Republicans proposed massive changes in Georgia’s tax system Wednesday, calling for a dozen new tax breaks meant to spur business growth in what supporters termed a homegrown stimulus package.
Here is the governor's press release describing his proposals.

The other proposals are contained in House Bills 481 and 482.

Rep. Jim Cole polling folks on trauma, transport and alcohol

State Rep. Jim Cole, a Forsyth Republican who was recently promoted to be Gov. Sonny Perdue's chief floor leader, is emailing supporters a four question survey:

1. Which of the following options do you feel is the best way to provide funding for the trauma care network in Georgia?
- Provide for trauma network using money from cigarette taxes
- Provide for trauma network by collecting fines from "Super Speeders"
- Provide for a trauma network by adding a $10 tag fee per vehicle

2. Which of the following ways do you feel will best serve Georgia's transportation needs?
- Allow a referendum for a Regional 1% sales tax to fund individual /county district transportation projects.
- Allow a referendum for a Regional 1% sales tax to fund individual /county district transportation projects.
- Impose a Statewide 1% tax on fuel with a predetermined list of projects.

3. Do you favor amending Georgia law to allow the puchase of alcohol in stores on Sunday?
- Yes
- No

4. Do you favor a cap on property tax reassessments at 3% or the rate of inflation, whichever is less, for both residential and non-residential property?
- Yes
- No

From Rep. Cole:
This is all just from my desire to see where my constituents and other contacts are on some key issues. Yes, the first question does relate to the "Super Speeder" legislation I am carrying for Governor Perdue. The other questions are just trying to get a pulse on how people feel.

The Governor has always allowed his Floor Leaders the ability to vote our convictions. Even if it was contrary to his view. However, I believe that our current law (on Sunday sales) is fine just as it stands.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Nixon on stimulus money: It damn well better work

I knew that, if I avoided actual work long enough, I could come up with a Matt Groening cartoon clip that fully explains the political ramifications of the stimulus package.

You will need sound, 10 seconds and a basic understanding of this particular episode of Futurama.

Bonus points if you decide to refer to anyone who voted for, or against, the bill as your "silver honky."

UPDATE: Perdue lowers revenue estimate, signs off on HTRG

You can read a short version of the story here:
ATLANTA — With federal stimulus money providing some budgetary breathing room, Gov. Sonny Perdue announced a deal with House and Senate leaders Tuesday to fund a property tax break for homeowners this year, avoiding a statewide round of re-billings.
----
ORIGINAL POST: The governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the house have called a 1:30 press conference, and Dick Pettys seems to know what it's all about:
Gov. Sonny Perdue has reversed course and now plans to keep the HTRG tax grants in the fiscal ’09 state budget, sources are telling InsiderAdvantage. That’s one of the announcements that is to come at a 1:30 p.m. news conference with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker Glenn Richardson.

Lucid Legislation: A resolution prohibiting Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss from telling that story again

After hearing U.S. senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson speak a few minutes ago at Isakson's re-election announcement, I'm moving this right to the top of the Lucid legislative agenda.

Whereas everyone has already heard the story, but that doesn't seem to stop Georgia's honorable senators from telling it at nearly every public event, be it now resolved that United States senators Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, while within the geographic boundaries of the great state of Georgia, be prohibited from mentioning that:
1. They are best friends.
2. They met at the University of Georgia in 1962.
3. They met and married members of the Phi Mu sorority from said University.
4. It is an honor for two best friends to sit next to each other in the United States Senate.
Isakson has officially announced his intention to seek re-election to the United States Senate, by the way.

"I'm re-applying for the job," he said.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Legislators to tax exemptions: I wish I could quit you. Wait, no I don't.

There are more than 100 tax exemptions for various special interests on the books in Georgia. And, while legislators may be against them as a concept or say they want a closer look at exemptions as an issue, they tend to vote individual exemptions right on into law.

Even Democrats. Less than a week after party members took the well of the House to criticize a tax exemption on jet fuel, we have House Bill 129 and House Bill 349.

HB 129 provides a sales tax exemption that would help the Atlanta Zoo expand and build a new animal hospital, which, among other things, is used to train veterinarians.

HB 349 provides an exemption for the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which is scheduled to be built in Atlanta.

Both have Democratic co-sponsors. In fact, House Majority Leader DuBose Porter and Democratic House Caucus Chairman Calvin Smyre have signed on to the civil rights museum exemption.

So it's all in the eye of the beholder. One man's economic development stimulus is another's corporate welfare, and one man's profound contribution to culture and society is another's... well, I actually can't think of the argument against a civil rights museum. I'm sure there is one.

Both HB 129 and HB 349 have had a first hearing, but haven't been voted on. No one spoke against either bill during a Ways and Means subcommittee hearing on them Monday, so we'll see if that translates to easy passage. There were some relatively pointed questions about the zoo exemption.

By the way,
another bill did pass out of sub-committee Monday. House Bill 106 allows a property tax exemption for commercial vehicles owned by someone outside the state, but being built or maintained inside the state.

That's similar to an exemption approved a couple of years ago to make it easier for airplanes owned by non-Georgia residents to be worked on in a Georgia facility.

UPDATE: GBPI did a 2-pager on this issue recently. You can download it here:
Between 2005 and 2008, 35 tax bills were passed and signed into law with expected revenue consequences for the current fiscal year. The combined effect of these tax bills will be an estimated $291 million state revenue loss in the current fiscal year and $333 million in FY 2010, according to the fiscal notes attached to each bill.

While some of these tax breaks serve a sound policy purpose, it is notable that Georgia ranked 41st in state taxes as a percent of personal income and 43rd in state taxes per capita in 2007, the most recent data available.

Details emerge on the Gov's transportation bill

You can read the story on our main site.

UPDATE: Interestingly, the governor's office, speaker of the house's office and lieutenant governor's office have all declined to comment on all of this, despite the fact that it's their bill.

All three have simply said that the bill is still being worked on, won't say when it will be dropped and declined to comment on any of the details.

Makes you wonder how happy those folks are that Sen. Williams shared so many details with the press this morning.

Friday, February 13, 2009

How much money could we make if Georgia legalized weed and taxed it?

I smell some more Lucid legislation...

Not really. I read The Wall Street Journal Thursday so that you don't have to. Sensationalistic headline due to to Lucid Idiocy policy of writing sensationalistic headlines.

Editorial smack downs are awesome:
In 2003, amid debate about the Bush tax cuts and a budget deficit of merely $400 billion, Maine Senator Olympia Snowe demanded that any tax cuts be capped at $350 billion. "At a time of growing federal deficits," the Republican declared to much media praise, "it is especially important that this plan be right-sized without putting our future at risk."

Flash forward to Tuesday: Ms. Snowe provided one of three crucial GOP votes that helped Democrats pass $838 billion in new spending and "tax cuts" -- often for people who pay no taxes. The deficit for 2009 even before this stimulus? $1.2 trillion.

If nothing else good comes from this exercise, at least Senators Snowe, Susan Collins and Arlen Specter should be laughed out of town if they ever fret about a budget deficit again.
Yes, you should have:
Should Wall Street have spoken up?

That is a key question to emerge from the Madoff scandal: whether Wall Streeters should more-readily report concerns about possible fraud to regulators. Since Bernard Madoff's December arrest on allegations of a Ponzi scheme, some people in the investing world have said they questioned his performance numbers. But few have said they brought those concerns to regulators.
No violence? We wouldn't want that.
... a commission led by three former Latin American heads of state blasted the U.S.-led drug war as a failure that is pushing Latin American societies to the breaking point. ... The panel recommends that governments consider measures including decriminalizing the use of marijuana. ...

The report warned that the U.S.-style antidrug strategy was putting the region's fragile democratic institutions at risk and corrupting "judicial systems, governments, the political system and especially the police forces." ...

"If the drug effort were failing there would be no violence," a senior U.S. official said Wednesday.
Positive economic news? Suweet.
In the U.S., Europe and China, separate surveys of manufacturers' purchasing managers all inched upward in January, suggesting that the contraction in manufacturing activity could be slowing.
And if that leaves you needing something new to worry about...
A commercial satellite owned by a U.S. company was destroyed in a collision with a defunct Russian military satellite in what NASA said was the first such accident in orbit, raising new concerns about the dangers of space debris. ...

Industry officials say Iridium has identified the Russian craft as a Cosmos series satellite launched in 1993, weighing more than a ton and including an onboard nuclear reactor. ...

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Pentagon track more than 10,000 pieces of high-speed debris, some no larger than a football. ... a near-collision with the space shuttle the same year; and another that crashed into Canadian wilderness in 1978.
If you happen to be be looking for a charity to donate to:
Aid organizations are feeding about half of the country's 11 million people. Inflation is soaring.
Have a pleasant Valentine's Day weekend. I will be back Monday.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Could HB 233 actually raise taxes in some counties?

As of right now, the General Assembly's Web site hasn't been updated with the version of House Bill 233 that the House actually voted on today. But, trust me, the language is in the bill.

Along with a 2-year moratorium on property value increases, House Bill 233 contains this clause: Each parcel of real property in this state shall be reassessed subject to the requirements of this Code section at least one time during the time period specified in this subsection.

The time period is from Jan. 1, 2009 through Jan. 9, 2011. The idea is that, since property values are generally down right now, homeowners would get the tax benefit of a lower assessment.

But revaluations can take a long time. Generally speaking, an appraiser actually visits every property in the county to reset its value. In a lot of Georgia counties, assessors' offices may not have the manpower to do that, and the other machinations required, and run day-to-day operations, in the timetable set by HB 233.

Consider Bibb County, where massive problems with our tax assessors office eventually led the county to hire a private contractor to help with the reassessment. That cost the county nearly $2 million, and it's been a year and six months since the contract was signed. The assessment is supposed to be done at the end of March, but apparently wouldn't count if HB 233 passes because, based on my reading, the legislation invalidates it.

There are 159 counties in Georgia. What happens when every one of them has to perform a complete reassessment in the same year-and-a-half window instead of on their normal, and staggered, schedules? It would certainly be a good time to be appraisal firm.

The question is, will the benefit of potentially having your property value lowered outweigh the extra taxes your government ends up charging you to pay for a revaluation?


And I say "potentially" because the General Assembly would be depending on the same tax officials that have, according to many legislators, been setting the values too high for years. If they couldn't get it right then, why would expect them to do so now?

2:13: HR 1 has failed. 5:47: HB 233 passed.

The constitutional amendment to cap property reassessments failed. The 2-year moratorium on property value increases passed and will move now to the Senate.

The Senate has passed it's require-seat-belt-in-pickups legislation. It also passed SR 1, which would feed extra money into the state's rainy day account.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Thursday at the Capitol: A ripple in still water

Thursday looks like a busy day in the General Assembly. The House is scheduled to take up property tax reassessment caps, via HR 1 and HB 233.

The Senate has all kinds of things on its schedule, including the ever popular seat-belts-in-pickups bill, something about nurse licensing requirements, a change to penalties for driving on a restricted license (I think), the governor's Aviation Authority act and the so-called Taxpayer Protection Amendment, which would route state surpluses to education, the state's reserves or back to the taxpayers.

Then there's a bill that certainly sounds complicated enough to be important: SB 63: Insurance; multiple employer self-insured health plan; independent nonpropriety institutions of higher education; not subject to requirements.

Nonpropriety does not appear to be a word. I believe they mean nonproprietary, but I'm no less confused. I think I need a moment.


Special thanks to the Senate Press Office and the Grateful Dead.

The Georgia Power bill passed the Senate, 38-16

That is all.

Freezing property reassessments without a referendum? Backup plan cooking on HR 1.

It looks like there's a secondary protocol cooking on property tax assessment freezes.

The House Rules Committee just put House Resolution 1 on tomorrow's debate calendar. That resolution calls for a statewide referendum to ask voters if they would like to amend the Constitution and limit property value reassessments to 3 percent a year.

If HR 1 passes, which will require bi-partisan support and a 2/3 margin, House Bill 233 becomes the enacting vehicle for HR 1.

But if HR 1 does not pass, HB 233 could still fulfill it's initial intention: Enacting a two-year moratorium on "all increases in the assessed value of real property" except in the cases of new construction, re-zonings, or in counties that have millage rate caps.

That could be done without a statewide referendum, according to House Rules Chairman Earl Earhart and state Rep. Ed Lindsey, the sponsor for both HB 233 and HR 1.

"(We can do that) in the short run, with very tight restrictions," Rep. Lindsey said.

There is disagreement on that point. Said state Rep. DuBose Porter, the House Democratic Minority Leader: "233 is unconstitutional."

HB 233 would also require that all properties be reassessed at least once during the two year moratorium. That's to ensure that, if property values have decreased because of the ongoing economic and real estate crisis, tapayers get the benefit of that decrease on their tax bills, Lindsey said.

UPDATE: As I'm sure the careful Bibb County readers have already noticed, yes, this would hit the city of Macon, Bibb County Commission and Bibb County Board of Education budgets extremely hard. That's because we haven't managed to get our act together long enough to pass a new tax digest since 2001, so we're working with out-dated values.

Though local legislators are working to address this, there's no exception for Bibb in the bill as it's written now, nor much sympathy on the issue from sponsoring Rep. Lindsey.

How come DFACs workers are taking furloughs and the governor isn't?

Fire and Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine may be the biggest media hound of all public officials in Georgia*, and this email from his commission's media office, and not his campaign, may seem kind of gubernatorial campaigny. But he suggests a fair question:
Atlanta – Saying that thousands of state employees could be furloughed shortly and other Georgians are losing their jobs daily, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine called on Gov. Sonny Perdue, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and other constitutional officers today to take a voluntary salary reduction.

Oxendine, who has voluntarily taken a five percent pay cut since the fall of last year, said our state’s leadership should set the standard in this economy.

“I've taken a five percent pay cut and I challenge the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and other Constitutional officers to go there with me,” Oxendine said. “We may be in for one or two rough years with the state budget and now is the time to lead.”
Constitutional officer is kind of a vague phrase. The job of county tax commissioners is listed in the Georgia Constitition

But Section III of Article II of the Constitution lays out the removal process for "public officials," which it defines as "the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the State School Superintendent, the Commissioner of Insurance, the Commissioner of Agriculture, the Commissioner of Labor, and any member of the General Assembly.

General Assembly members make about $17,300 a year, I can never remember whether that includes their per diems and other reimbursements. Also, upper-level members make more a little more and the Speaker of the House makes about $99,000.

These are the other state Constitutional officers's salaries, according to www.opengeorgia.gov. I'm not including travel/expense allowances, since the governor basically has his own helicopter and the lieutenant governor can get someone to buy him dinner pretty much any time he likes.
Gov. Sonny Perdue: $137,310
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle: $90,275
Secretary of State Karen Handel: $128,890
Attorney General Thurbert Baker: $135,784
Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox: $128,528
Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine: $118,641
Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin: $119,786
Commissioner of Labor Michael Thurmond: 119,799
It's worth noting that, as CEO of a $20 billion business (more like $40 million when you add in the federal money that flows through state government) Gov. Perdue is probably underpaid. You could make the same argument for these other top officials, as well as department heads managing mutlti-billion-dollar budgets.

As more budget cuts are rolled out, it will be interesting to see if some of the more political jobs — direct administrative staff, press offices, legislative assistants — are hit with furloughs.

* Uh, no offense, Mr. Commissioner.

UPDATE: State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, said this issue has been discussed in the Republican caucus. He said there's a Constitutional prohibition against lowering the salaries of elected officials. But he also said there's talk among General Assembly members of simply writing checks to the state treasury to get around this, particularly if more state employees are furloughed.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Poythress: Our children deserve incandescent lighting*

Perhaps not ironically, saying something in ridiculously hyperbolic language is a good way to ensure coverage on a blog called Lucid Idiocy.

Which brings us to this line from a David Poythress for Governor campaign update email:
While tough economic times demand bold action, offering private school vouchers doesn't address the critical challenges facing our public schools. I believe we need to truly reform the way we teach in Georgia. Unfortunately, too many of our leaders haven't had the vision or judgment to realize that we are limiting our teachers to teaching using the same methods used since just after the Civil War.
Since I attended public schools in Georgia, and clearly remember all of them having electricity, I called the campaign for... let's call it clarification.

Poythress, a Macon native and retired adjutant general of the Georgia National Guard, called back himself.

"The point is that the teaching function as it exists now, it's still bascilly one teacher speaking directly to a class of students," he said. "And the technology that I'm talking about.. is some of the software and some of the hardware (available now). ... Even Smart Boards, we don't even have that in most of our schools."

That kind of technology would help teachers tailor their lessons to children who learn at different levels, Gen. Poythress said. He added that the state "clearly" does not spend enough money on education.

As for the 2010 governor's race, Gen. Poythress said it's still a question in his mind whether former Gov. Roy Barnes will join him and state Rep. DuBose Porter in seeking the Democratic nomination. Poythress said he has discussed this with Barnes, and that he "absolutely" plans on running no matter what Barnes decides.

"I think that is still an open question. ..." Poythress said. "I'm not sure Roy knows at this point. But he's still being talked about. If you go back and read, Roy really has not said much at all."

*Lucid Idiocy: Paraphrasing you in an almost fair way since 2007ish.

Perdue to counties: Abandon hope on HTRG

Gov. Sonny Perdue, in speaking to the Association of County Commissioners Georgia this afternoon, was pretty blunt about the prospects of funding the Homeowners Tax Relief Grant, even in an amount that would cover the break it funded on last fall's property tax bills.

Perdue continually called the program "ineffective," as he has in the past. He said that, despite the legislature's desire to fund the tax break, House and Senate leaders have yet to figure out how. And even if they try to force funding for the HTRG into the budget, "the end result will be less money for education, health care, public safety and other programs vital to your communities."

Perdue said the fat is gone from state government, more cuts would start to hit "vital organs." He also said he may have to lower the state's revenue estimate this year, which would lead to more cuts on top of the $2.2 billion already proposed.

"I don't have a time line (to finalize the estimate), but I'll try to do that sooner rather than later," he said.

Combine that with the fact that the House hasn't been able to force Perdue's hand on a veto of HB 143, which would set up a potential override, and it's looking more every day like local tax offices will be re-billing taxpayers, asking for a little more money to cover fiscal 2009 budgets.

"I'm holding out hope, but what I heard today was not encouraging," Houston County Commission Chairman Ned Sanders said after hearing the governor's lunch time remarks.

How much will the Georgia Power bill cost Georgia?

There's a new argument floating around against Senate Bill 31, which would allow Georgia Power to charge customers more to offset the cost of expanding it's nuclear facilities near Augusta.

Namely: The state can't afford it. The state of Georgia is one of Georgia Power's biggest customers, and it's not clear how much its power bills would get jacked up if this measure passes.

A lot of bills like this would have a fiscal note attached to them, which tells legislators how a bill would affect the state's bottom line. This one does not, and apparently the issue was raised relatively late in the process.

"We would have considered (the lack of a fiscal note) had it been timely raised," Regulated Industries and Utilities Chairman and state Sen. David Shafer said this morning.

State Sen. Don Balfour is the measure's sponsor, and he noted the bill would save the state — and other customers — money over the long haul. That's been a major argument for the bill: That it will be cheaper to all of Georgia Power's customers if the company can raise the money it needs to fund construction up front, rather than having to cover higher interest costs by waiting until the plant is under construction to increase rates, as the law now allows.
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CORRECTION: I need to double check, but I believe I was wrong on this. The rules currently allow the company to raise the rates once the new power stations are in service, not simply under construction.
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This has been the main argument against it.

Balfour notes that there will be no impact on the state budget for the next three years, then the extra fee would kick in, costing the state more for a few years. Then the benefit of paying for the work up front would have a positive effect on the state budget, he said.

"There's a huge amount of positives and there's not a lot of negative," he said.

Potential veto showdown on HB 143 delayed

House Bill 143, which is meant to fund the Homeowners Tax Relief Grant this year but tie it to state revenue surpluses in the future, has passed both the House and Senate.

But it was not transmitted immediately to Gov. Sonny Perdue, which would have forced the governor to sign off on the bill or veto within the next week or so. And since he has said the HTRG is essentially impossible to fund this year, the odds favored a veto.

The House voted to transmit immediately, the Senate did not. So the bill "rests with the clerk until such time as the governor calls for it or we adjourn Sine Die," Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson said this morning.

That's not scheduled until June, and the House and Senate wouldn't have a chance to try and over-ride the governor assuming he does not call for the bill and decides to veto it after the legislature adjourns.

You might remember the House's willingness to over-ride gubernatorial vetoes last year, and the Senate's reluctance. That theme seems to be holding.

"(Gov. Perdue) asked us to hold off on (transmitting) so we could work with him. ..." Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers said. "We would rather work with the governor and the House rather than create a scenario where people are defensive."

Monday, February 9, 2009

Voter: Can I get the same deal as Georgia Power?

A man identifying himself as a veteran with hopes to open a business sent this email to state Sen. Eric Johnson, and he copied me. Pretty brilliant for a guy who doesn't have a lobbyist.

By the way, the Senate floor vote on Georgia Power's bill has been delayed beyond tomorrow, presumably because supporters don't have the votes they need.
Senator Johnson,

I am looking at starting up a business. Since I’ve spent 40+ years in the military and recently retired, and had little chance building my cash flow, I’d like to know if I (and the rest of the little people community), can obtain a loan like you and the Ga. Congress are currently voting to approve for Ga power. If y’all can give approval, I can use it to pay the interest to my bank, if indeed it will take a few years to get my business going. It will also save me a bunch of taxes over the next few years. If, when it gets going, I can add the cost to the products I envision selling. Another plus is I can pay back any person or entity whom I can convince to loan me startup money even before we start turning out product. And in addition, I can bypass all the state and federal financial regulations that will require me to hire legal help, since I ‘m not a lawyer.

I and the current small business community, and future entrepreneurs will really appreciate your and your colleagues’ help on this.

Thanks,

John J. Eddington,

Georgia registered voter, and retired military veteran

Declaration / Instant Tax Refunds / illegal voting

Three press releases. What do you want, reporting, analysis and wit? Check back tomorrow.

From the Secretary of State:
Atlanta—Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel today announced that Georgia’s recorded copy of the Declaration of Independence will be available for viewing at the State Capitol on February 12, 2009, in honor of Georgia Day. The document will be on display in the Capitol Rotunda from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Royal Charter that made Georgia a colony in 1733 will also be on display.
From state Rep. Rob Teilhet:
Today State Representative Rob Teilhet (D-Smyrna) announced he will introduce legislation to reform the practice of “refund anticipation loans,” which are high-cost loans sold to consumers as "instant tax refunds." Teilhet’s bill will require marketers of the high interest loans to fully disclose the terms of the loan and make customers aware that they are entitled to receive their tax refund free of charge from the Internal Revenue Service in eight to fifteen days by direct deposit without the need for a loan.
Finally, state Rep. Tom Graves wants the rules requiring voters to produce a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship when they register written into the state's constitution. The details are provided by House Resolution 12 and House Bill 139.

OIG: DHR should keep closer eye on hourly employees.

The Office of the Inspector General has published its report on Department of Human Resources Commissioner B.J. Walker's hiring of an associate of hers from Chicago. You can download the report here. From the executive summary:
Although our investigation revealed that Commissioner Walker and Dr. Tate had a previous working relationship, we found that her hire was based on qualifications and pursuant to established policy. However, we did find that Dr. Tate billed a substantial amount of hours during her three years at DHR. Because of the lack of “real time” documentation, such as billing entries typical of many professionals, we were unable to conclusively determine Dr. Tate’s exact hours. Had DHR required Dr. Tate to record her hours on a real time basis and report her time entries to the state, there would have been a more accurate record from which we could have verified her hours worked. In addition, we found that DHR lacked internal controls in reviewing and verifying Dr. Tate’s hours.
UPDATE: This AJC story has more details of Dr. Tate's arrangment with the state:
After earning $33,300 in fiscal year 2005, Tate earned $121,900 in fiscal 2006 and $127,050 the next year as a “support services worker” for the DHR, according to state Department of Audits and Accounts records.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Split session to affect fundraising

It was just noted on the floor of the Senate that, though the prospect of coming back to finish the legislative session in June was initially presented as an option, the House and Senate will have to come back June 22 to formally "Sine Die," or close the session.

Otherwise the legislature can't hold those 5 extra legislative days in its pocket while waiting on new revenue numbers, federal stimulus details and anything else that comes up.

Legislators and most candidates for statewide office can't raise campaign funds during the legislative session. And, technically, the session won't end until June. So consider the start of fundraising season delayed.

January state revenue numbers down massively

UPDATE: The numbers have been released officially now:
ATLANTA – Governor Sonny Perdue announced today that net revenue collections for the month of January 2009 (FY09) totaled $1,575,265,000 compared to $1,837,297,000 for January 2008 (FY08), a decrease of $262,032,000 or 14.3 percent.

The percentage decrease year-to-date for FY09 compared to FY08 is 4.8 percent.
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The Department of Revenue hasn't released the figures yet (my bet: they come out 30 seconds before 5 p.m.), but state Sen. Tommie Williams told the Georgia Senate a few moments ago that they are down $262 million.

Presumably he means this January compared to last January, which is normally how monthly numbers are reported.

James "I'm the only AJC reporter who can do math" Salzer notes
that this is a 14.2 percent decrease when you compare January 2009 to January 2008.

House, Senate to slow down the schedule

UPDATE: It is also possible that the General Assembly will go back into session in June, though apparently they intend to pass a budget — the only thing they are statutorily required to do — by the 35th day.

"The intent is to go ahead and adopt a budget before we leave in March, but if we need to amend it (we can do that in June)," Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson said.

"This will give us the option of doing that if we need to," House Majority Leader Jerry Keen said.

More information about a federal stimulus package, and more up-to-date state revenue figures, would presumably be available in June.
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Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle just announced that, starting next week, the House and Senate will be in session Tuesday through Thursday instead of every day of the week through the 35th legislative day.

That would make March 25 the 35 legislative day, leaving 5 more legislative days before the 40-day session wraps up.

Of course, there will be committee meetings and other work will get done on Mondays and Fridays, they just won't hold full sessions in the House and Senate chambers.

I haven't decided yet if this makes my April travel plans more likely, or less likely.

It's 10 a.m. and the Senate should take up two bills dealing with local property tax breaks, House Bill 143 and Senate Bill 83, shortly.

Riiiiiiiiigggggghhhhhht

I heard a report from CNN Marketplace this morning that "once the recession is over economists predict that Americans will save more money and ease back on spending."

Change behavoir to solve the core problem? That doesn't sound like us.

In other news, the Senate is set to vote this morning on two property tax bills, one that will save taxpayers money last year and cost them more this year and next, and another that will just save them money.

Sort of. Both of them are going to hit local government coffers, which could lead them to raising millage rates. It's all very complicated. When that happens, generally speaking, assume you're going to get screwed.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Porter wants more mass transit funding

State Rep. DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, House Minority Leader, has introduced a resolution to change the roads-and-bridges-only section of the state Constitution, aka Article III, Section IX, Paragraph VI(b).

House Resolution 220 calls for a statewide referendum to amend the Constitution so that "25 percent of the funds derived from the state sales and use tax on motor fuels shall be appropriated for and grant made for any or all transportation purposes, including public transit."

Right now the motor fuel tax can fund roads and bridges only. Except, interestingly enough, "in the event of invasion of this state by land, sea, or air or in case of a major catastrophe so proclaimed by the Governor."

In that case, "said funds may be utilized for defense or relief purposes on the executive order of the Governor," according to the Constitution.

Just how bad are the January revenue figures?

They haven't been released yet, but apparently the answer is "real, real bad."

This is from the bottom of a routine column state Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, sends out: As the January Revenue figures begin to trickle in, our job is starting to look harder than ever before. This January might produce a record low for collected revenue.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Tax breaks keep flying

UPDATE: Salzer looked deeper at the issue.

UPDATE: And
Savannah looks at another tax break for planes.
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No surprise, I know, but House Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter's bill to re-up the sales tax exemption on jet fuel passed out of sub-committee today. It would extend the break through July 1, 2011, instead of allowing it to sunset this year.

There are more than 100 different sales tax exemptions on the books in Georgia, mostly aimed at promoting business growth. In fiscal 2004 these exemptions saved various categories of taxpayers $9.8 billion, according to a report done a couple of years ago by a legislative study committee that looked at the issue.

Legislators keep saying these exemptions need to be reviewed, keeping the effective ones and repealing others, but that keeps not happening.

Cagle: Jan. revenues "much lower than anticipated"

I couldn't get a question in for Gov. Sonny Perdue this morning at the Agricultural Council Breakfast. Understandably, all the T.V. stations wanted to talk about was peanuts.

I did catch Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle on some other issues. See, particularly, his comments about January's revenue numbers, him declining to be specific about what reserves he'd like to tap to help balance the budget, and the question of furloughs at the Capitol itself.

The last question was for my buddy Nick, an avid Lucid Idiocy reader and currently furloughed state employee, who has been wanting to know whether political jobs will also face furloughs.
ME: Where are we on HTRG negotiations and DOT / transportation governance negotiations?

CAGLE: Both issues continue to be moving along. We have some strategic meetings today to talk about both of those issues, the speaker and myself, and we'll also have a chance to visit with the governor, too. I would say progress is going well. The revenue numbers for January appear to be much lower than anticipated and we're having to take that into consideration through all of this. But I still remain steadfast that we have to fund the HTRG for 2009.

ME: There appears to be some room between what you've said about reserves and what the governor's office has said about reserves. They basically say "We raided it, ain't nothing left," and you have indicated there's more. Can you be specific about what reserves you're talking about?

CAGLE: Obviously I can't specifically tell you at this juncture. But we're going to have to be very creative, there's no doubt. And we can't raid certain reserves in a way that is going to leave a significant hole for the 2010 budget. ... But I will tell you that you're going to see additional furloughs of state employees. It's going to be fair, across the board. But that will be required along with finding some one-time money in the reserves.

ME: Will we see furlough of folks who work in the Capitol? Your staff, the governor's staff? Those kind of political jobs.

CAGLE: Well, the legislature will be furloughed after the 40 day session.

ME: Thank God.

CAGLE: Exactly. The legislature, along with the governor's budget, has taken the same cuts that many of the other agencies have. Of course, those are very, very small in comparison to the overall venture. Medicaid, education, the Board of Regents... those are the real big numbers.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Everything that happened at the Capitol Tuesday in 5 minutes — Now with hilarity.

Hey, I don't know how fast you read. Or what you think is funny.

It appears the epidemic of illegal immigrants voting in Georgia elections continues, because state Sen. Cecil Staton dropped another bill to deal with the issue.

Basically, it requires proof of citizenship when you register to vote. Secretary of State Karen Handel, who has worked with Staton on several voter fraud bills, including photo I.D., supports the bill.

Handel said this afternoon that this is not really a stricter requirement, it moves the requirement of proving citizenship up into the registration process, instead of after a vote is cast and challenged.

About 600 of those challenge ballots were cast during the November election and, of those, more than 200 didn't show back up with proof of citizenship, according to the Secretary of State's Office.
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Life without parole passed the Senate.
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The House took a picture of itself.
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Yay! School voucher debate.
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An effort to merge black and white colleges may have come to life.
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Coal was declared evil.
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Handel is also supporting a bill that would make sure victims of domestic violence can keep their names and addresses from voting rolls out of the public record.

Right now, you can't find out how someone voted, but you can find out if they voted, and get their address. HB 227 makes an exception for "individuals under protective orders or residents of family violence centers."
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A bunch of folks from Houston County visited the Capitol today. They heard from Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Secretary of State Karen Handel, Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, a guy from the Department of Labor, two Public Service Commissioners and most of their local legislators.

Based on what those folks said, there is apparently something wrong with the economy and it's affecting the state budget. But don't worry, because America is awesome.

Not Houston County awesome, but pretty awesome.


Not pictured: Gov. Sonny Perdue, who did not attend.

Lt. Gov. Cagle was miked up as he spoke and there was a two-man camera crew there. Now you, too, can listen to him say nothing of any particular news worthiness to visiting members of the Warner Robins and Perry area chambers of commerce.
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Speaking of Irvin, I did not know he suffers from Parkinson's disease. He spoke only briefly, thanking people for their support, then making way for former Speaker of the House Terry Coleman, who is Irvin's deputy commissioner.
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Coleman assured everyone that, despite the salmonella outbreak (I know - I hadn't heard about it either), all the name brand peanut butters you've actually heard of are safe.

So go buy some. Please. Please buy peanut products.

Coleman also noted the difficulty in making people do the right thing, no matter how many inspectors you have.

"If someone is willing to be negligent, intentionally negligent, there's absolutely nothing any inspector, or any police officer, can do, if somebody wants to be a criminal," Coleman said.
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The Senate easily approved it's regional T-SPLOST legislation. I will let you know when you need to pay attention to that, and to the House version, which is a statewide penny tax complete with a list of projects.

Namely, I will let you know when the governor drops his bills exploding the DOT as an entity and replacing it was something else... assuming he actually does that, which is kind of what folks expect.
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File this under "Things that would have been good to know four years ago..."

In September of 2004 a bunch of rural school systems banded together as the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia and sued the state, saying rural systems weren't getting enough state funding for education.

Four years later the state decided to see if whether the consortium could actually exist and sue as a legal entity. And today it has decided that, no, it can't.

From Gov. Sonny Perdue's office:
ATLANTA – In September, Governor Sonny Perdue requested an official opinion from Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker on the legality of a consortium of school districts using taxpayer dollars to fund a lawsuit against the state regarding education funding. Attorney General Baker issued an opinion late yesterday with the even stronger conclusion that the creation of the consortium in the first place violated state law.
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Interestingly, the lawsuit at issue has actually been withdrawn, though there's an expectation that something similar to it will be refiled. So why did the state wait so long to make this argument?

Said Bert Brantley, the governor's press secretary: "Only thing I can tell you is the issue of whether or not it was legal to create and fund the consortium is one that the lawyers have just brought up."

By the way, as to the substance of the attorney general's opinion, the consortium disagrees, obviously.
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Speaking of education, the governor's office dropped five education bills. Most of them you might already know about, since they were discussed at the beginning of the session.

They'd give bonuses to good principals and teachers (SB 93 and HB 282), give math and science teachers more money (HB 280) and provide for a school board code of ethics and removal of Clayton County... er, bad school board members (SB 84).

The fifth measure is new. From the governor's office. HB 278 would waive various state education requirements for two years to save money. That includes allowing districts to hold fewer days of classes if they choose to.
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Finally, it was firefighter appreciation day at the Capitol Tuesday. Bagpipers played beneath the golden dome.

How'd Sonny spend the money?

A bunch of folks from Gov. Sonny Perdue's home of Houston County were in Atlanta today for a luncheon. I spoke to several of them, and no matter how many questions there are this year about state government, there's one question everyone wants an answer to.

What did Gov. Sonny Perdue spend that $21 million loan on?

I used to work in Houston County, covering government there. And when Alan Judd at The AJC broke the story on Gov. Perdue's loan I shook a lot of the trees I knew of down there.

And no one knows anything. But they all want to know. And they want to know how he managed to get the loan on significantly more generous terms than they could get for themselves. And these are his friends.

Today I spoke to one man who I consider just about as plugged into the business establishment in the Warner Robins area as you can be. And he said he's talked to everyone he can think of, and can't get a whisper of fact about what that loan was for.

I told him that, if he can't find out, I'm going to stop trying.

Monday, February 2, 2009

House transportation money would bypass DOT

UPDATE: Full story on the main site.
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House Transportation Chairman Vance Smith has announced the details of the House's penny sales tax bill.

It would:
  • Ask voters if they would like to institute a statewide penny tax to raise $25 billion over 10 years that expires in 2020. The vote would be in 2010, if both the House and Senate can agree to this bill.
  • Fund dozens of projects in metro Atlanta and in other parts of the state. The projects would be listed ahead of time, so that when people approve the tax, they also approve the projects. That's basically the way a local SPLOST works.
  • Bypass the Georgia Department of Transportation by running the money raised through the State Road and Tollway Authority or some as-yet-unnamed authority that may be created by separate legislation now being discussed by the governor and other state leaders. Also, an 11-member oversight committee would "ensure the funds are disbursed as approved by Georgia voters," according to a House press release. The governor would appoint three of those members, the lieutenant governor and speaker of the house four each.
  • Though the project list would be set, the oversight committee would have the power to reshuffle projects. If a project "just cannot be accomplished," Smith said, it could be moved to the next 10-year period, when presumably voters would approve another penny tax to pay for it and other projects.
  • You can get the project list here, a little later today. It's not up yet. The bill is being filed, probably as I type this. It will be available later today or tomorrow through the General Assembly's Web site.

House transport list includes 16/75

UPDATE 3: This was a breaking item that is pretty much irrelevant now. Full story is up at the main site.
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At 1:30, House Transportation Committee Chairman Vance Smith will unveil the House's version of a new transportation sales tax. Not only will it propose a new penny tax statewide to fund projects, it will include a list of projects.

The House leadership won't say what's on the list until this afternoon's press conference, but has hinted that construction of the new I-16 / I-75 interchange is included.

That would likely move the project's construction timetable up, assuming the tax actually passes the assembly AND passes muster with state residents in a statewide referendum. Currently, construction on the $300 million project isn't supposed to start until 2018.

But state Rep. David Lucas, D-Macon, just said the I-16 / I-75 project is indeed included in the House's version of the bill.

"The bill we've got coming out, we're No. 2 on the list." Lucas said.

UPDATE: Rep. Lucas didn't want to be the one announcing this, preferring to let Rep. Smith be the first to announce it in his press conference. So let me be clear: He didn't say it to me, I overheard him say it to a group of local folks visiting from Bibb County today.

UPDATE 2: Chairman Smith has made it official, and I-16 / I-75 would be funded under his plan. You can read the basics on his bill here. Please check our legislative page for more details later.

More and more, it's furloughs

Transportation is likely to be the topic of the day at the Capitol, with state Rep. Vance Smith rolling out the House's version of a new penny tax to help pay for projects.

But the big question continues to be the budget, and how legislators are going to find $428 million in it to keep the homeowners tax relief grant, and another $240 million or so to keep from having to apply the governor's 1.6 percent tax on hospitals and insurance plans.
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CLARIFICATION: The $240 million figure includes revenue from the governor's super speeders proposal. But that ain't real popular either.
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With Perdue already cutting $2.2 billion from the FY 2009 budget, and tax increases off the table, according to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, someone, somewhere has got to be putting together a list of cuts that will total significantly more than another half a billion when you look at 2009 and 2010 together.

From state Sen. Tommie Williams, the Senate Presient Pro Tem:
"We are working on lists. ... I can't give you that entire list now, but you can't get to $428 million without furloughs. And, frankly, many of the agencies are already furloughing. We will probably not double up on those, but those that are not being furloughed — obviously you can't furlough correctional officers, we can't furlough law enforcement, but we can furlough administration. So we'll look throughout the budget, and those we can furlough, we will. There are no good answers. But we'll look for any reserve funds that are available to us. And, frankly, any line item that doesn't have merit."
That's similar to what Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has said. One point to make: This idea that there is more money to get from various state reserve accounts is at odds with what Gov. Sonny Perdue has said.

Perdue promised legislators — repeatedly — during his state of the state speech that there is no extra money squirreled away in hidden reserves. And yet, Cagle and Williams both list reserves as a place to look for more funding.

Something to watch.

Woke up, it was a Monday morning

Why do we teach cursive in elementary schools? It's a second way to write the same language. Are we sure we need that?
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The latest bailout is a lot of money per person. How much was it when we bailed out the bankers who still aren't making loans?
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Ruh-Roh. Twelfth District DOT Board Member Raybon Anderson has resigned. Two other seats were already up, and local legislators elect board members, so look for an election soon.

How'd you like to be the new guy on a board that might get overhauled by the governor?
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Is the Internet going to fundamentally change the Sunday newspaper? At the moment we put our best stuff in there.

You might sit down with the paper over Sunday breakfast, or after church, but does anyone want to sift through a bunch of computer links on a Sunday afternoon?
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I hear from environmental super lobbyist Neill Herring that Houston County state Sen. Ross Tolleson's Senate Bill 78 has some environmentalists concerned, to say the least:
(a) It is declared to be the public policy of the State of Georgia to encourage the voluntary and timely investigation and remediation of properties where there have been releases of regulated substances into the environment for the purpose of reducing human and environmental exposure to safe levels and to ensure the cost-effective allocation of limited resources that fully accomplish the provisions, purposes, standards, and policies of this part.
(b) The General Assembly declares its intent to encourage voluntary and cost-effective investigation and remediation of qualifying properties under this part and that provisions of this part shall apply and take precedence over any conflicting provisions, regulations, or policies existing under Part 2 of this article with regard to any properties properly enrolled in the voluntary remediation program created under this part.
It's been my experience that people voluntarily do the right thing all the time.
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With all the talk of changing the way we handle property taxes in this state, at least one legislator is calling for a Constitutional convention to talk about it.