Tuesday, March 31, 2009

H.R. 1: Back from the dead again

House Resolution 1, which calls for a statewide referendum to add annual limits in property value reassessments to the Georgia Constitution, went down twice already this session in the House of Representatives.

It takes a two-thirds majority to call a referendum. That means Democrats would have to vote for it. They didn't. Now the legislation is back. The House Rules Committee pasted it into Senate Resolution 1, state Sen. Chip Rogers repeated effort to get some sort of TABOR amendment into the state constitution.

I wasn't at the rules meeting to see it happen, but have confirmed this with the speaker's office. It doesn't sound like there's any kind of deal brewing to get the Democratic votes it would take to actually pass this thing. It's just the House leadership taking another shot.

Or, as Marshall Guest, the message-disciplined spokesman for Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson said: "We're giving Democrats a fifth chance to give Georgians property tax relief."

Translation: Here's your last chance to vote the way we want you to, or we're going to send out a bunch of campaign mailers next year saying you love property taxes and hate old people who own homes.

This is the fifth chance, by the way, because House Democrats also helped block two attempts to pass Senate Bill 83.

Transportation funding and governance definitely intertwined

The on-again, off-again intertwination of Gov. Sonny Perdue's effort to rein in the Georgia DOT and House/Senate efforts to find more transportation funding is on again.

The Senate sent a messenger to the House yesterday to say that they won't appoint a conference committee to work out differences in the funding bill until the House moves on governance.

I got that from two House sources today, though I could have just read Dick Pettys' article yesterday. The House's version of the governance bill is scheduled for a floor debate tomorrow, as Pettys will tell you.

It sounds like some of the changes that have been made will give the governance bill a chance in the House. State Rep. Calvin Smyre, the House minority caucus chairman and an appointed member of the House's conference committee, said he senses movement on the issue after weeks of unwillingness among House members.

"It's something that may be palatable to us," he said.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Georgia General Assembly today: I don't know what to tell you

Except for about a minute there when it looked like we might see a floor vote on Sunday Sales, you'd be hard pressed to find a busier, but more boring day at the Georgia General Assembly.

Friday, March 27, 2009

House plan on transportation governance revealed

Here are the basics of the House's new bill on transportation governance (aka "Who controls billions of tax dollars), as described by state Rep. David Ralston, who is speaking to the House Transportation Committee now:
  • The money still flows through the Georgia Department of Transportation. No new agency is created.
  • DOT board members are elected "in the same manner" as they are now. But they have less power over the allocation of funding to projects.
  • A new planning division and director are created at DOT. The director is appointed by the governor, not the board, and will serve only as long as the appointing governor serves.
  • The planning director will put together a statewide transportation plan, which is essentially a list of projects. The governor has to approve this plan, which he submits to the General Assembly.
  • The General Assembly makes appropriations to the DOT like any other state department. It can appropriate money to specific projects on the governor's list, giving legislators more control over what projects do and don't get done. Said Ralston: "those spending items that survive that process are going to be included and those that do not will not be."
  • The DOT commissioner will be tasked with implementing the plan, "subject to appropriation."
  • The DOT commissioner will gain the power to hire and fire direct subordinates, such as the chief engineer. This has taken board action in the past.
  • Changes the public-private initiative (PPI) rules. Basically anything in the state transportation plan that doesn't get funded by the state would be available for private bids, at the discretion of the DOT.
Having a planning director would "accomplish the goal of having someone outside of the day-to-day, perhaps, political pressures of the department in charge of giving us a statewide perspective," Ralston said.

I haven't seen the bill itself yet. When I do, I'll update. The above is based on my listening to Rep. Ralston's presentation, without the opportunity to ask questions yet.

UPDATE: Here's a good explainer quote from Rep. Ralston: "Ultimate approval or disapproval of spending decisions will rest with this General Assembly."

UPDATE: From Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams: “I am very encouraged that the House passed the DOT governance bill, Senate Bill 200, out of committee today. Improving the governance structure of transportation in Georgia is critical to our state. While I still have reservations about the House’s changes, this is an important step.”

UPDATE: I haven't had time to read the bill carefully. Go see what Dick Pettys wrote about it.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

And then there's the matter of $20 billion

I imagine we'll be talking about the 2010 state budget soon.

By the way, I would reference you to this episode of The Simpsons.

I'm afraid I must insist. You see, my wife, she has been most vocal on the subject of the pretzel monies."Where's the money?" she asks. "When are you going to get the money?" "Why aren't you getting the money right now?"

And so on.

Speaker drops game changer on DOT governance

Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson, flanked by his speaker pro tempore and the House majority leader, just announced a major overhaul to Gov. Sonny Perdue's transportation governance bill.

The details are not clear, but Richardson said the bill has been paired down from more than 100 pages to about 20. More importantly, it "does not change the DOT Board," Richardson told members of the House Transportation Committee a few moments ago.

The new legislation is being printed and will be discussed by the committee tomorrow at noon, Chairman Vance Smith said. It's not known whether the governor and the Senate will be on board with these changes.

State Senate President Pro Tempore Tommie Williams, who sponsored the governor's initial legislation on this issue, said he hasn't seen the House's changes yet.

Perdue had sought to create a new transportation agency that he, the speaker and the lieutenant governor would have more control over. Most transportation dollars would flow through this agency instead of the DOT Board.

That bill was having trouble getting through the House, and Richardson said changes were made in response.

"We understand that you don't want to create a new agency," Richardson told the transportation committee.

Richardson and his entourage left the committee meeting without answering questions from the press. Williams shook hands with the speaker and the two spoke briefly as the speaker and his group got into an elevator.

But Williams, who sponsored the governor's initial bill, couldn't predict whether a new deal was in the offing.

"We haven't even seen it, so I have no idea," he said.

UPDATE: The governor's office got the new bill late this afternoon, spokesman Bert Brantley said. They are going over it and wouldn't comment on its contents. But Brantley said the speaker has been "very willing to sit down with us and work through some of the concerns and issues."

They didn't draft it with us, but we've been given input. ..." Brantley said. "It's moving forward. That's good... We'll dig into the details, but everybody's working together."

UPDATE: Dick Pettys says "the real offer isn't on the table yet." Also has lengthier, direct quotes from the Speaker, sees movement.

UPDATE: Insider says this all but kills the Governor's new transportation agency. Note mention of a "power play" near the bottom. That was all a little odd when the Speaker mentioned it.

There's definitely a lot going on at the Georgia State Capitol.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Well, something's moving on transportation

There's a lot of inside baseball, and I question some of the details in all this, but it will probably change six more times before nothing gets done at the end of the session anyway.

So here's the latest on transportation funding and reform:

The House wants to hold its statewide referendum on its version of the transportation penny SPLOST first, in 2010. That's the $25 billion tax with the list of projects.

If that fails, the Senate's local T-SPLOST plan would be on the table. Then local governments could band together and hold their own referendums.

Don't know yet what the Senate response is to that. Earlier today, the Senate pasted Gov. Sonny Perdue's transportation governance bill into a MARTA bill and sent that sucker over to the House with a bow on it.

Bottom line: They're going to keep talking, albeit by amending and transmitting pieces of legislation.

Super Speeders passed, homestead exemption increase failed

Look for breaking coverage on the main site. The House is at lunch. The Senate is still going.

As of Jan. 1, 2010, you might want to slow down, because that Super Speeders extra fine is no joke at $200.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hatfields, McCoys to discuss transportation policy Wednesday

I had a lot of trouble with this post title. But I thought, who else who be really likely to disagree about transportation policy on Wednesday?

One of the funny things about the politician-reporter relationship is that they will look you straight in the eye and tell you something you both know is ridiculous. They smile, and you usually print it

Now, I am not in any way saying that makes any of the following ridiculous. As a reporter, you're supposed to present the comments in an accurate context, which will allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

This can be pretty difficult without using adjectives, such as "ridiculous," but I am a seasoned professional of nearly two legislative sessions now.

The first time I heard the Casey Cagle / Senate line that a transportation funding deal was pretty much done, all the House has to do is agree, it was presented as a joke. A Cagle staffer said it to another reporter and they both chuckled.

Turns out, it was in the official news release. There's even a glossy flier.
CORRECTION: Lt. Gov's office says it wasn't a printed flier. Just an e-mail. But if e-mails can be glossy, that one is.
Of course it's just a message to the House of Representatives.
"With today’s vote, we are very close to finally getting a transportation funding option to the voters of Georgia. We are hopeful that the House will agree to this bill and allow Georgians to soon decide how they want their transportation dollars spent."
Translation: Glenn Richardson needs to be a man.

Now, on to the House.

Their alleged belief that a 10-year, $25 billion tax (with a list of projects they picked out) will pass in a statewide referendum is interesting, to say the least.

And, yet, I think it's even less likely this plan will pass the Senate.

So to conference committee we go. And, due to General Assembly policy of waiting until the last five days of the session to do that, they waited until the last five days of the session to do that.

By the way, we're getting $931 million in federal stimulus dollars for road work no matter what, and all these referendums probably wouldn't be until 2010, so consider that for context.

Here for further context is the House's map of projects:

This much construction would take a hell of a long time. But I digress from context-ua-less opinions.

When I used to cover beautiful Houston County in Middle Georgia, there was a very strong feeling from some that growth was not always good. And when I get the chance, I ask Georgia policy makers about the long-term growth plans behind our transportation plans.

Given water supplies and other quality-of-life issues, how many people can the metro Atlanta area support? How many should Georgia support, and in what parts of the state?

I don't think the question gets asked very often.

For context, I offer you fired DOT Commissioner Gena Evans' answer in December:
Georgia has taken the perspective of we're going to grow everywhere all the time. And, so, at what point do you, at what point do you break that cycle? You know, some of us move out of metropolitan Atlanta because we want to live in a small town. Well, my small town... now looks like Duluth and Alpharetta. I now have a Kohls and a Dillards and, you know, everything on every corner. Every food chain you can think of. And I live in a little town, Sharpsburg, Georgia. Well, it was a beautiful little town and now I have all of the development. I'm 36 miles from metropolitan Atlanta and now it looks just like metropolitan Atlanta. you know I grew up in Newnan, so seeing all those changes has definitely made me think about land use. ... I think you bring up an important question that we need to look up and address as a state.
When I asked the House Transportation Committee Chairman, he looked at me like I was developmentally challenged in some damaging way he could not understand. The Senate Transportation Committee Chairman asked if I was writing a news story or an opinion piece, then told me he'd seen a study projecting the state to double in population within the next few decades.

That would be 18 million people. We'd have to maintain the 1990-2000 growth rate of 26 percent for 40 years to actually accomplish that.


As for the current negotiations, as well as Gov. Sonny Perdue's DOT governance legislation, Galloway and Ariel Hart say talk has hit on:
... a package deal that gives everyone something, even Democrats. Move a single bill to conference — which one hardly matters. Then the sales tax, governance — and MARTA funding — all become part of a midnight-hour solution.
Who can say? The $931 million in stimulus money keeps a lot of contractors happy and lets voters see a lot of orange cones. That sounds like added cover to wait until next year, something the House has been hinting toward since Speaker Glenn Richardson started the session saying it.

Dobbs: Private planes aren't always bad

With the Gulfstream tax break coming under fire from time to time here in Georgia, I thought this piece that Lou Dobbs did on CNN last night was interesting:
Well JPMorgan Chase under fire tonight for standing by its $138 million plan to buy two new Gulfstream jets and a planned major renovation at its West Chester (ph), New York airport hanger. Chase -- JPMorgan Chase spokesman tells CNN the company has not yet spent a dime for the planes or the hangar and will not do so until its 25 billion in TARP funding is repaid.

Now JPMorgan plans to purchase two new Gulfstream 650 jets. They'll will be paying about $120 million for the two aircraft. The hangar work doesn't start until 2010. Now, here's the thing and I want to be really clear about where I stand. I wasn't so thrilled about a Citigroup deal because they were bailed out with taxpayer money and those folks were wanting to buy a Falcon jet made in France.

Now, we're talking about an American company and American jobs when you're talking about Gulfstream -- Gulfstream employees 9,000 American workers in this country. It's entire worldwide workforce, some 10,000 people, all of Gulfstream's large cabin aircraft are made in American facilities. There are 11 U.S. service centers for the maintenance of those aircraft.

The economy, the bad press surrounding the business aircraft industry is taking its toll. So far this year, Gulfstream has announced it will lay off 800 of its part-time workers, 1,500 employees to be furloughed for a five-week period this summer. The industry as a whole has announced 10,000 layoffs so far this year.

So if you hear someone reflexably call themselves a populist and say you know we can't have these companies flying private aircraft, remind them, there are a few things to consider. Like economics, the well being of the nation and the fact that despite everything that's being attempted in Washington, D.C., it's still a free enterprise democracy. Well, Democratic Republic, at least a good part of our country is still a Democratic Republic, so I fully support JPMorgan Chase.
That kinds of goes with something I've been thinking as I hear complaints about items included in the stimulus package. There's a fine line between pork and stimulus, if there's any line at all.

I'm pretty sure you could go to downtown Atlanta and throw cash in the air, and that'd be stimulus. It would probably cause a riot, but hot dog purchases at the Varsity would probably increase, too.

Monday, March 23, 2009

This blog is on strike until someone shows me an example of statesmanship in Georgia

UPDATE: Well, the strike is over before it even got started, I'm afraid. What great example of statesmanship did I find to renew my faith in Georgia politicians?

Well, none. They're still fighting about pretty much everything up here at the Capitol and back home in Macon. But I met a homeless guy from Pulaski County a few minutes ago on the streets outside of Atlanta's City Hall.

We spoke for a few minutes, and though we didn't go into my seemingly bottomless lack of faith in politicians, but he did offer some good advice.

"Whether you're homeless or not, don't ever give up."

Is there anyone unemployed out there who cares whether the Georgia House of Representatives honors President Barack Obama with a resolution?

Is there anyone wondering whether they'll be able to retire like they hoped who finds it helpful when two Macon City Council members call each other names in public?

Is there anyone sitting in traffic out there who likes watching state leaders at loggerheads over how to fund new roads? That's a March 4 story. it's still accurate today, except the Senate is voting on it's plan instead of the House voting on its plan.

Can someone explain to me how state Sen. Robert Brown putting up a picture of Mao Tse-Tung and a noose up in the Georgia State Senate is helping things?

Click to enlarge.

Brown's point: The Georgia State Senate passed Senate Resolution 459 earlier this year.

Senate Resolution 459 honors China by naming March 17 as China Day.

Sen. Brown, D-Macon, does not like Communist China. But Brown voted for the resolution because resolutions the Georgia General Assembly votes on "fundamentally are regarded as meaningless."

I can't disagree with that. There have been more than 1,300 of them introduced this year.

Because of this, Brown said, the Georgia House of Representatives should have simply voted for a resolution honoring President Barack Obama, whether members agreed with it or not.

So far that I know of, neither Brown nor any other elected official at the state Capitol has suggested that the problem is how much time they spend debating and voting on things deemed meaningless.

Georgia Supreme Court: Hotels.com, others might have to pay sales tax

From the Georgia Supreme Court's opinion's summary:
The City of Atlanta’s lawsuit against Hotels.com and other online travel companies is being sent back to the trial court under a ruling by the Georgia Supreme Court. In a 5-to-2 decision, the high court has thrown out an opinion by the Georgia Court of Appeals and remanded the case with instructions. In 2006, the City sued 17 online companies, which also included Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. The City claimed that as sellers of Atlanta hotel rooms, the companies operate as hotels and therefore must collect hotel and occupancy tax from their customers and pay it to the City. The companies moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the City rushed into court before exhausting certain administrative remedies, as required by state and city laws. The Fulton County trial court agreed and dismissed the City’s complaint, based on the “doctrine of exhaustion.” The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal.

But in today’s majority decision, written by Presiding Justice Carol Hunstein, the high court has sent the case back to the Court of Appeals and ordered it to direct the trial court to decide whether the companies are subject to the hotel occupancy tax.

The sound that disturbs you

After careful listening and much thought, I've decided that this song explains all politics, the current economic situation and the grassroots backlash against it all.

Plus, it's a traffic song, and they're talking about transportation today at the General Assembly.

The percentage your paying is too high a price, when you're living beyond all your means. And the man in the suit just bought a new car on the profit he's made on your dreams. And today you just read that the man was shot dead by a gun that didn't make any noise. But it wasn't a bullet that laid him to rest.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Yes, please tax me $25 billion for a list of projects you won't explain the genesis of.

The AJC looks at some of the projects on the House's $25 billion list of transportation projects, and finds a couple connected to big-time GOP donors. This thing would have to pass in a statewide referendum, which makes the italicized section extra hilarious:
The state DOT recently called the project unnecessary — twice. The ramps would benefit a proposed massive mixed-used development by a Florida company that donates liberally to Georgia Republicans and to pro-business political action committees.

How the projects got on the list is a bit of a mystery because the list was drawn up behind closed doors. No one involved will answer how these projects leapfrogged roughly 9,000 others to land in the legislation.

Smith (R-Pine Mountain) would say only that he drafted H.B. 277 in his office with eight to 10 other people he declined to identify, beyond saying they were industry and government officials. He did not disclose the criteria for making the list, but he did say they wanted to include projects statewide so the bill to add a penny to the state sales tax might attract broad support.
Nothing gets the voting public in your corner like refusing to explain yourself.

UPDATE: The House's transportation sales tax legislation is on the Senate floor Monday.

Of course I should have noted that they stripped out all the House's stuff and made it their own Senate plan. Generally speaking, this is known as "square one."

Friday, March 20, 2009

America, America

For most of the years I've been at The Macon Telegraph, we had this photographer named Nick Oza.

Nick is originally from India, and he is by far the hardest working photojournalist I've ever met. And a lot of those guys work hard.

And that's just at the paper. Some of the stories about him working and going to school and learning English and learning his trade in Chicago would make your jaw drop.

Nick left The Telegraph a couple of years ago for The Arizona Republic. And now the man is a United States citizen. One hell of a good addition.

He's the one in the suit, with the camera strap. Always with a camera. Not sure who to credit for the photo, but it was provided to The Telegraph.

The News Gorilla returns

Former Telegraph staff writer Mike Donila, who Kenny B used to refer to as "Mike Donila The News Gorilla," is back in Macon and has a blog through The 11th Hour.

Not inappropriately, it's called Screams from the Porch. Mike is the guy whose reporting got a local grand jury, and eventually the feds, interested in city hall finances under Macon Mayor Jack Ellis.

His blog won't focus just on politics, but he's got two political posts up right now. One's about state Sen. Robert Brown's tax situation, and the other is an interview with Macon finance director Tom Barber.

He also has a letter to his son, and that is worth your time.

I've added him to the links. If anyone has a Middle Georgia based political blog they'd like to see added, drop me a line at tfain@macon.com.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Speaker: Special session may be coming

With the economy the way it is, this was bound to happen. But, in speaking on the budget a few moments ago, Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson broached the possibility of a special session to consider massive state budget cuts.
"I'm afraid this won't be our last visit to this building this calender year," he said. "I'm afraid this economy is dragging down faster than we can even calculate. I'm afraid it's coming apart at the seams."
UPDATE: Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle says no thanks to a special session. He said the Senate will cut deeper into the budget before this session ends.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Looking ahead to January 2010: Hope is now a plan

As state leaders have addressed the budget situation, GOP legislators have repeatedly referred to the budget crisis as an opportunity, a chance to "right-size" state government.

But very few layoffs have been proposed, with the governor and legislators saying they prefer to allow state departments to decide how best to cut their budgets. In many cases, those departments have chosen employee furloughs.

Furloughs are a temporary fix, not a way to "right-size" government.

The fiscal 2010 and amended 2009 budget are also balanced by taking hundreds of millions from various state reserve funds, particularly the state's rainy day fund and health benefit plan reserves. Those reserves and the federal stimulus, which contributes $1.4 billion to the 2010 budget, allowed the state to balance its budget without a major tax increase or massive spending cuts.

And I mean "massive" in a way that would make the cuts already contemplated in the '09 and '10 budgets look like fun.

But the thing about reserves is that you can only raid each dollar once, and we're taking them down pretty low, compared to an $18.6 billion annual budget.

So what happens next January, when legislators show up in Atlanta to work on the amended 2010 and fiscal 2011 budgets? Basically, one of two things.

Either the economy will have improved, and the hardest questions won't have to be asked. Or legislators will have to contemplate massive spending cuts and/or tax increases in an election year.

I changed my characterization of the reserves from "pretty close to zero" to "pretty low." I should be able to get hard numbers tomorrow, and they won't be zero. The point is, you have to have something in reserve. And I believe most experts agree we'll be getting down to the bare minimums with the way we're using the state's reserves.

UPDATE 2: And then there's this: Governor warns of Medicaid hole.

UPDATE 3: Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson is not particularly hopeful. This is what he told state legislators early Thursday afternoon:
"I'm afraid this won't be our last visit to this building this calender year," he said. "I'm afraid this economy is dragging down faster than we can even calculate. I'm afraid it's coming apart at the seams. ... You better start thinking about drastic actions. ... The cuts you see today are the tip of the iceberg."

Teachers furloughs was whipped this morning

The idea of furloughing teachers on some of their planning days during the next school year definitely has legs.

The Republican caucus whipped the idea this morning, meaning the leadership took the caucus' pulse. State Rep. Jan Jones, the majority whip, said there was good support for enacting legislation that would give local systems the option of furloughing teachers.

The idea has been that money saved from the furloughs (about $200 million if all teachers take six furlough days) could be plowed back into education, restoring some cuts to the QBE and equalization formulas. Jones called furloughs a potential "tool" in local systems' belt, not something the state would mandate.

"Overall members want to give school systems more flexibility, should the recession continue for a long period of time," Jones said.

Jeff Hubbard, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said he's hearing talk of anywhere from two to six furlough days. But he also said the legislature may wait to see the next few months of revenue figures (March, April and May) before making any decision. That would mean a special session.

If the economy doesn't improve, Hubbard said furloughs seem likely. But, as of now, none are included in the fiscal 2010 budget that passed the House Appropriations Committee this morning.

"Right now, we don't need it," Hubbard said.

Download the budget!

All the kids are doing it. The House Budget Office has the latest tracking sheets available for download.

Seth Harp: Not running for governor, considering insurance commissioner

A while back, in a campaign email blast, David Poythress intimated that state Sen. Seth Harp, R-Ain't scared, would be running for governor.

I ran into Sen. Harp this morning, and he said that he most definitely is not. But he said is considering a run for state insurance commissioner.

UPDATE: I don't get into too much so-and-so is running for such-and-such here beyond the governor's race, but Blake Aued has reported that state Sen. Ralph Hudgens is running for insurance commissioner.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

House to cut State Ethics Commission $$ in half

The House sub-committee on general government passed a budget this afternoon that halves the funding for the State Ethics Commission, which handles elected officials and lobbyists financial filings and investigates campaign finance issues.

Gov. Sonny Perdue suggested nearly $1.5 million for the commission in fiscal 2010. The sub-committee, which submits its budget to the full appropriations committee, which is expected to vote the budget into the full House Wednesday morning, recommended about $750,000.

Compared to the commission's initial fiscal 2009 budget (passed before the economy tanked), this is a cut of about $1 million.

Shannon McCaffrey with The Associated Press is sitting next to me and she's on the phone with Commission Executive Director Rick Thompson right now. Mr. Thompson says the cut would mean staff layoffs, but he's not sure how many.

The commission has 19 positions, 17 filled, he said.

Many thanks to the alert reader who noticed the cut and called it to my attention, as well as to The Associated Press.

Six furlough days for teachers?

UPDATE: Please see this related story, which notes some of the cuts restored in the state education budget, including funding for school nurses.
State Rep. Ed Lindsey, who chairs the House Appropriations Sub-Committee on Education, just floated a proposal: teachers across the state might be asked to take six furlough days during fiscal 2010.

The furloughs would potentially fall on six planning days and they would save the state about $200 million, said Lindsey, R-Atlanta. It would essentially wipe out the pay raise teachers got in fiscal 2009 and the savings could be sunk back into the state's education funding formula, he said.

Because contracts were already signed, teachers were the only state employees to get their regular 2.5 percent raise this year. Lindsey said furloughs may help the state and local systems avoid the prospect layoffs, which some systems are already discussing.

"Over the next two weeks or three weeks, we would be remiss... (if we) did not consider (furloughs)," Lindsey said.

Georgia Association of Educators President Jeff Hubbard was present for Lindsey's remarks, which came shortly after the sub-committee's budget vote Tuesday. Hubbard said furloughs aren't ideal, but he didn't reject them out of hand.

"It's an economic reality," he said. "And we realize that all of Georgia's citizens are having to play their part right now."

Hubbard said a couple of school systems, Gwinnett and Forsyth, are hiring staff right now. Others have freezes on. But "the majority" are cutting staff, whether teachers or other staff, such as paraprofessionals, he said.

"We understand (the legislature is) in a tough spot," Hubbard said. "Hopefully this will help save some positions."

House to fund school nurses, graduation coaches, health benefits. But $100 classroom cards endangered.

UPDATE 2: Please see this related story, which deals with the possibility that Georgia teachers will have to take furloughs on many of their planning days.
The House Appropriations sub-committee on education is about to vote on its portion of the fiscal 2010 budget.

According to Chairman Ed Lindsey, R-Atlanta, the sub-committee restored the nearly $30 million in state funding for school nurses. Gov. Sonny Perdue recommended cutting that funding, but there was something of an uproar against the cut, which quickly became a top priority for legislators.

Graduation coaches would also be funded as its own line item in the 2010 budget. Gov. Perdue had moved the money into the state's Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula. That essentially made the coaches optional - individual systems could either fund the coaches or use the money for other expenditures.

"Now is not the time to back-track on that program," Rep. Lindsey said.

The $100 gift cards the state has given teachers to buy school supplies for students didn't make the cut, though, Lindsey said.

"It's a good idea. ..." Lindsey said. "But it's something that we cannot afford."

The sub-committee has restored some funding for health care benefits, Lindsey said. This will maintain the 75/25 percent split for health care funding, he said.

It's not clear where the money to pay for the cuts that are being restored will come from. After the vote, I'll ask Rep. Lindsey to clarify and update this post.

The fiscal 2010 budget still has to clear the full House Appropriations Committee, and the changes detailed above deal only with the K-12 education portion of that budget. Then the budget has to pass the full House and the Senate. Then Gov. Perdue has to sing it.

So there's a long way to go still before we know what is, and is not, funded.

UPDATE: They have now voted. As for where the money came from to restore the cuts, Rep. Lindsey said much of it came from federal stimulus funding. There were also cuts to other education programs, as well as other state programs outside the education budget.

"It's nipping and tucking here and there," he said.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Desperate Money Explosion continues

UPDATE: I ended up writing a full story about the confusion surrounding stimulus spending. But don't worry. I'm sure it won't translate to waste.
The Georgia Department of Transportation has posted its list of local projects that are eligible for the $932 million that Georgia will get in federal stimulus money for highway projects.

It's not the final list of projects that will be done, just a list of projects that meet required criteria.

The DOT also posted the list of ineligible projects, which were rejected for various reasons. Out of 850 requests, can you guess the number of projects the DOT rejected because they were "not a transportation project"?

It's 103.

Now, some of those kind of sound like transportation projects. Welcome centers were rejected, as were parking decks. Some projects the DOT lists as "not a transportation project" despite the fact that the project is clearly identified as a street. I'm asking the DOT to clarify that.
UPDATE: From David Spear, DOT spokesman, who checked on several of the examples I describe above:
They were listed in the non transportation category because the only information we got was that they involved some type of drainage, either storm water or waste. In talking with the City subsequently, it was determined that regardless of how we classified them, they did not meet the federal requirements for ROW and environmental and also were not shovel ready.
Then there's the amphitheater the city of Kennesaw wanted. Macon County wanted five new cars for its sheriff's office, some courthouse repairs and a new industrial park. Habersham County wanted upgrades at three fire stations. Jackson County wanted 5 new EMS stations and a trash compactor site.

You can download both lists here.

I said $932 billion. Obviously it's $932 million.

What Georgia political board appointees make

I did this because I was curious. And because I brought my laptop into a transportation committee meeting. And because Georgia's open government site makes it easy. And, if I'm going to be honest with you, because I'm kind of lame... but in an open-government, distrustful-of-power kind of way.

Individually, board appointees don't make much. Except for members of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, it amounts to a few thousand dollars a year. Some of the DFACS board folks got a total of $15 in 2008.

But when you consider that there are apparently about 1,560 people appointed to various state boards, their salary and travel reimbursements start to get substantial. They totaled $2.6 million in 2008, according to the method described below.

I looked these salaries up at the www.open.georgia.gov Web site. I honestly thought I was going to have to compile a list of appointees from the governor's office (which lists them here), the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the house and type in each appointee's name.

But you can look people up by title on the Open Georgia site, and the titles "Board Member" or "Board Members" kick out 1,559 people. I downloaded all of this into a spreadsheet, which is sorted by salary. We put it on a Telegraph server, so you can download the spreadsheet here.

Meanwhile, 1,300 miles away

Awful slow at the Capitol today. But I caught this in a month old issue of The Economist over the weekend. Kind of puts your own economic concerns in perspective.
Haiti’s agriculture minister reckons that 60% of the harvest was lost (in two hurricanes) and 160,000 goats were killed, along with 60,000 pigs and 25,000 cows. In all, the storms have cost the country $900m, or 14.6% of GDP, according to a donor-funded government study. That is equivalent to 12 times the damage of Hurricane Katrina in the United States, and comes just four years after Jeanne wiped out 7% of Haiti’s GDP.

Nature is not the only force knocking Haiti back. Since Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a left-wing former Catholic priest, was overthrown by a rebellion in 2004, the country has been in the care of the United Nations. Some 7,000 UN soldiers and 2,000 police, mainly from Latin America, keep the peace. The UN mission has brought greater security: reported kidnappings fell from 722 in 2006 to 258 last year. A new UN-trained Haitian police force now has 9,000 officers. The streets of Port-au-Prince are visibly cleaner.

But this has not stimulated economic progress. Three-quarters of Haitians still live on less than $2 a day. Two in five children don’t go to school. A quarter of districts lack schools; where these exist, there are 78 pupils per teacher. In 2005, the maternal death rate rose to 630 for every 100,000 births, up from 457 in 1990. Though more than half of Haitians work in farming, they produce less than half the country’s food needs. Haiti’s agriculture is the least productive in the world, says Joel Boutroue of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). A hectare of rice paddy in Vietnam will produce 20 tonnes of rice a year, whereas a Haitian hectare yields just one tonne.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Perdue seems to like embryo bill, a little cool on car title tax

Gov. Sonny Perdue, in a press availability after he spoke to members of the state's new regional water councils, addressed a couple of legislative issues. He didn't come out and say what he'd sign and what he won't but he gave good clues.

On the Senate's embryos bill, Gov. Perdue said he did not think it would hurt economic development, and that he believes in the basic idea behind the bill:
"From a research standpoint, I think we can solve some of the tougher issues without sacrificing human embryos in that. I can't in my conscience fathom that we would create human embryos to be used in science research."
On the car tax bill, the governor said:
"I'm still trying to digest what they did on that. The inclusion of casual car sales is appropriate... it's a fairly, I don't want to use convoluted in a pejorative sense, but it's a convoluted way to approach that. I'm not sure if their objective was, like we had last year, to relieve people of an annual ad valorem and replace it with a one-time fee... I'm still trying to digest the purposes of that and how it all would work."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dude, look what it takes to regulate BINGO

The House is talking about increasing the state-mandated cap on BINGO game prizes from $1,500 a day to $15,000 a day. Apparently BINGO is big business, and Georgia BINGO games can't compete with uncapped BINGO games in neighboring states.

If you don't vote for the cap increase, you hate veterans and church groups. If you vote against it, you hate children, because high-dollar BINGO games would compete with the lottery, and the lottery funds pre-K programs.

Who knew? But check out all the language it takes to change that and just a few other things about BINGO games.

Debate on this bill, by the way, has drawn no fewer than a half dozen folks who want to speak from the well of the House.

UPDATE: House Bill 674 passed the House 107-54.

Compromise arises: Bill to punish tax scofflaws at Capitol passes Senate

The Georgia Senate got back into the tax collection business Thursday, and this time hammered out a bi-partisan change to state privacy laws that would allow the House and Senate to take action against members who don't pay up.

After last week's divisive debate over Senate ethics rules on the matter, today's discussion was friendly and the vote was unanimous.

Under a surprise amendment to Senate Bill 17, the Georgia Department of Revenue commissioner would have to report to the joint House and Senate ethics committee the names of any members who haven't filed an income tax return for the past year.

Those names — for the general public as well as legislators — are generally not made public until a tax case is fully adjudicated, which can take years. But controversy broke out recently over the revelation that 22 legislators had missed filing deadlines, but only three of their names could be publicly released.

The new rule, which must also be approved by the House of Representatives, would allow the House and Senate to move against members who don't file their returns. The names would not be made public, except to commmittee members, unless an internal investigation becomes"full-fledged debate" about how to deal with a member, said state Sen. Eric Johnson.

Johnson, R-Savannah, worked on the new compromise. He was also the sponsor for last week's failed effort to amend internal Senate rules and give the Senate more power over members who avoid taxes.

That effort riled state Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, who used himself as an example of why people get behind on their taxes. Brown didn't offer much specific information about his tax situation — in fact it was never clear whether he actually owes any back taxes — but said his deteriorating health caused him to miss at least one, and likely two, filing deadlines.

After attacking Johnson last week on the issue, saying the Savannah Republican was using the tax issue as a political ploy in his 2010 run for lieutenant governor, Brown signed on to this week's compromise.

"First of all, it was the respect with which it was done," Brown said of the difference. "The lieutenant governor included us. We were not ambushed."

"Nobody ever disagreed," Brown said, that legislators should pay their taxes.

Brown credited Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle for his leadership on the issue, which severely divided the Senate last week. Cagle put out a statement after the Senate's vote on Thursday, saying in part:

“Elected officials should be held to the same standard as every other Georgian in filing and paying their taxes. This is even more critical as legislators themselves craft tax policy on a regular basis. This amendment will grant every Georgia citizen the right to know each and every year which legislators have not filed their tax return."

UPDATE: It's too early to say whether this thing will pass the House. But initial reaction makes the chances look good, though the House may want to change the protocol and send the names to the individual House and Senate ethics committees instead of the joint ethics committee.

House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson called the Senate proposal "a great first start."

"I, like everyone else, have been very frustrated by not being able to get the names. ..." Wilkinson said. "I'm hearing from all over the state that (people) want to see us take action."

Crossover day updates

UPDATE 2: It's 8:52 and the House is still in session. The Senate went home hours ago, after taking a stab at defining when human life begins for the purpose of stem cell research. I know I look to the Georgia State Senate on these issues.

Aaron with The AJC is still blogging away as the House ticks off bills. If you're the kind of person who reads about state legislative politics at 9 p.m. on a Thursday night, head on over.
The National Board Certification bill (HB 243) passed. So did a bunch of small business tax credits (HBs 481 and 482). I'm filing on the bigger bills on the main site.

House Bill 261, which allows a one-per-person, $3,600 maximum tax credit if you buy a house, has also passed this morning.

House Bill 480, which ends the birthday car tax and sales taxes on vehicle purchases, and replaces it with a 7 percent tax when you title a car, is being debated right now (12:22 p.m.) in the House.

UPDATE: HB 480 passed. Coverage here. The House is at lunch until 2 p.m. The Senate has had lunch and is back in session.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Your guide to Crossover Day

Please note: There were a few mistakes in the description of these bills. Please see the corrections below.

Good morning. Or evening if you're reading this Wednesday night.

"Crossover Day" has arrived at the Georgia state Capitol, and legislators will be debating bills late into the evening Thursday.

Supposedly, if it doesn't pass the House or Senate by today, a bill is dead for the year. But there are plenty of exceptions.

Here's the House and Senate calendars for the day, with the bills I found most interesting described in brief. There will also be a supplemental calendar, definitely in the House, and possibly in the Senate.

It looks like most of the action will be in the House as tax legislation is discussed, though the Senate's embryo/stem cell bill may be the most controversial bill of the day.

If you want to read any of these bills, go here and type the bill number in at the top. Undoubtedly I've over simplified many things in the summaries below.

In the House:
UPDATE: I missed one. House Bill 388 allows people to adopt embryos. Being debated right now, at 10:27.

HB 16: Makes it illegal to put a GPS device on someone's car, unless you own it or have their permission. Not, this is not an Ed Setzler bill.
HB 23: Makes it illegal for minors with learning permits to use a cell phone while driving. They would be allowed to use a C.B., breaker, breaker.
HB 44: Zero-based budgeting. Probably won't pass.
UPDATE: Whoops. It passed 156-0. No idea what's going on with that. The Senate has already passed basically the same bill (SB 1). They'd done that for a few years now, but the House wouldn't reciprocate.
HB 126: Supposedly makes it easier to do business electronically.
HB 193: Exempts schools from the 180-day rule, if they meet for enough hours. For example - they could take Friday off if they add instruction time Monday through Thursday.

HB 243: Ends bonuses for teachers with National Board Certifications going forward, as Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed, but grandfathers teachers who already get the bonus.
HB 261: A one-time maximum $3,600 tax credit for home buyers.
HB 321: Supposed to make it easier for small businesses to provide health insurance. But it's a Steve Davis bill. Are those allowed to pass?
HB 334: Requires more businesses to pay their taxes electronically. HB 335 is some kind of companion bill to this, I think.
HB 410: Something to do with HSAs. I'd rather quit my job than read it.

HB 439: One of the governor's tax credits for big businesses that create jobs bills. The other one passed the House Monday.
HB 480: Does away with the "birthday tax" on cars, as well as sales taxes. Replaces it with a 7 percent tax when you title a car. Probably the bill of the day.
HBs 481 and 482: Tax credits for people who hire the unemployed, does away with the inventory tax. These are the Republicans "stimulus" bills. They used to phase out the corporate income tax, but that was taken out.
HB 495: Allows non-lawyers to remain probate court judges in smaller counties. Yes, I am actually following this bill. No doubt this bill deals with a specific situation.
HB 529: According to the sponsor, this bill would make it so a local government couldn't force a chicken farm that wants to keep birds in cages to go free range. Chickens are expected to vote against it. No doubt the bill deals with a specific situation, as well.

HB 568: Changes the way the chair of the Public Service Commission is selected. Wanna bet that deals with a specific situation?
HB 581: Changes some state unemployment rules, I believe so that we qualify for stimulus money.
HR 22: Calls for a statewide referendum to amend the constitution to make sure union votes are done by secret ballot.
HR 336: Dedicates a bunch of roads and interchanges, including one for the "Big Toe from Cairo," Bobby Walden. He punted for the University of Georgia in the late 1950s.

The others: 158, 173, 24, 289, 323, 349, 350, 355, 358, 364, 367, 388, 397, 417, 440, 444, 451, 453, 455, 457, 492, 509, 540, 575. There may be two others on (2 and 475), I'm not certain. There will definitely be a supplemental calendar, and there's at least one bill up for reconsideration. That's HB 523, which deals with brand/generic drugs used after organ transplants.
The Senate:
SB 7: Makes it illegal to lie to a legislative committee. Unless you're a legislator, of course. Their right to lie is protected in the Supreme Court. No, really.
SB 27: Makes April Confederate history month.
SB 36: Gov. Perdue's ethics / board member removal / limit the size of school boards bill.
CORRECTION: Whoops. This wasn't the governor's bill. That's SB 84, which passed in February. This was a bill that would require each local board of education to develop it's own code of ethics.
SB 96: Lobbyist "ethics" bill.
SB 160: Closes schools on Veterans Day.

SB 161: Something about requiring insurance coverage for kids with autism.
SB169: This is the embryo/stem cell bill. Couldn't help but notice there's not a single woman among the first six sponsors.
SB 211: Makes it easier for state departments to buy pens. Really. Read the thing.
SB 222: Reorganizes DHR. I'm not sure if this is the same as Gov. Perdue's re-org proposal, which passed the House earlier this week, or a competing effort.
CORRECTION: Sen. Unterman, SB 222's sponsor, says there are some differences between this bill (which passed unanimously), the house bill and the governor's original proposal. Things will be resolved by a conference committee.
SB 229: Something about an administrative law judge and the Board of Natural Resources. Environmentalists say it will help coal plants.

SB 240: Changes the way property value assessments are handled. Apparently it used to abolish the board of equalization, but doesn't do that anymore. Who knows what it does now.
SB 246: Requires 48 hours notice to victims, if they request it, before a violent juvenile offender is released from custody.
SB 252: Regulates polysomnography, which is apparently the treatment of sleep disorders.
SB 253: I kid you not, this bill defines the term "indoors" in the state's fireworks codes. The definition: 'Indoors' means within a building or an enclosed structure or beneath any structure used for sheltering any use or occupancy.
SR 110: Calls for a constitutional amendment, which requires a statewide referendum, to allow the General Assembly to change the way motor fuel taxes are spent. Currently the constitution dedicates them to work on roads and bridges.

The others: 17, 56, 77, 94, 109, 130, 162, 172, 195, 207, 228, 231, 244, 250, SR 466.

HB 480 raises an extra $450 million. But don't call it a tax increase.

Unless you're a Democrat, of course.

Just filed this on the main site:
ATLANTA — A bill that would do away with annual property taxes on cars, which has been characterized as a boon for disgruntled taxpayers, would actually raise hundreds of millions more each year for the state and local governments.
Tax increase, tax shift... new tax, new fee... with this and all other government revenue measures, it's all in how you want to get it, and the semantics are just semantics. Because you're going to get it.

If I may, let me refer you to the wisdom of the best show on television, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia:
Dee [discussing high taxes]: Why don't you try voting for once?

Mac: And what? Vote for the democrat who's going to blast me in the ass? Or the republican who's going to blast my ass? Either way, politics is all one big ass blasting.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The grocery tax is dead

I hope have something more official shortly, but my understanding is that the attempt to re-implement the sales tax on groceries (and provide an offsetting income tax credit) will NOT make it the the House floor Thursday.

UPDATE: Speaker's office says it won't be on the floor Thursday. That's crossover day, so barring something pretty unexpected, it's done.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Corporate income tax cuts axed from tax package

James Salzer reports that the phase-out of the corporate income tax has been removed from a package of tax cuts that will be discussed later this week in the House.

For 30-inches of slam-bang, gee-whiz interesting coverage of the corporate income tax phase out and other tax cuts currently being discussed, see my story here.

Not filing taxes = not always the same as not paying

This is from the IRS:
ATLANTA — Unclaimed refunds totaling approximately $1.3 billion are awaiting over a million people who failed to file a federal income tax return for 2005. In Georgia nearly $39 million in unclaimed refunds awaits about 44,000 individuals. However, to collect the money, a return for 2005 must be filed with an IRS office no later than Wednesday, April 15, 2009.
Just something to remember.

GPPF: State's pension funds need diversity

This is from a Georgia Public Policy Foundation article about a Commission for a New Georgia study of Georgia's pension funds. Yay!
... a new study finds that the long-term investment returns of Georgia's pension funds trail the performance of nearly every large public fund in the nation. With a January market value exceeding $54 billion, Georgia's pension funds could be foregoing more than $1 billion in investment returns each year. ...

Specifically, the Task Force recommends Georgia should expand its asset allocation guidelines to include alternative investments such as private equity. ...

The Commission for a New Georgia report recommends Georgia allow up to 15 percent of its pension portfolio to be allocated to alternatives. Legislative proposals have generally recommended a more conservative rate of 5 percent. The average for large pension funds is 4.4 percent; the average for university endowments, 36 percent. In Georgia, alternative asset allocations examples include the University of Georgia Foundation at 14 percent, the Emory University Endowment Fund at 33 percent and the Georgia Tech Foundation at 40 percent.

Georgia Supreme Court: State must pay death penalty defense costs

From the case summary:
The Supreme Court of Georgia has unanimously upheld a Burke County judge’s order holding the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council in contempt for refusing to pay the cost of representing a man sentenced to death. In the opinion written by Justice George Carley, the high court has ruled that the state council, not the county, is responsible under Georgia law for bearing the cost of defending certain indigent death penalty cases.
The Associated Press' initial coverage. The AJC's.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Voice votes and ugliness. Was long-term damage done to the Georgia Senate Thursday?

State Sen. Eric Johnson's pay-your-taxes-or-else ethics legislation failed to pass yesterday on a show of hands in the Georgia Senate.

No record was kept of who voted for it, or who voted against it. That means the vote, and particularly the "no" votes, can't be effectively used against anybody during an election campaign.

The ad copy would have written itself: My opponent voted against forcing state legislators to pay their taxes. In reality, the matter was much more complicated than that.

The decision to have a simple show of hands instead of a recorded one was the lieutenant governor's to make as president of the Senate. Why he made this decision, I do not know.

Senators I reached out to today did not want to talk about it. Lt. Gov. Cagle's office simply said that "almost all amendments are handled by a voice vote."

But this wasn't just any amendment. And Sen. Robert Brown asked for a roll call vote. He was ignored. So it's a matter of some secrecy, though I'm sure it's also a matter of people simply wanting to put yesterday's ugliness behind them.

And it was ugly. Yesterday in the Georgia State Senate was as ugly as any government preceding I've ever attended, and I used to cover the Macon City Council.

The emails I got over covering this whole situation were ugly. The ones calling me a racist were ugly. The racist ones calling Brown names were ugly. The ridiculous shock from readers, who discovered for the first time that politicians are no different than the rest of us, was ugly in its enraged, anonymous expression in the comments section of our Web site.

I kind of want to move on, too.

The rancor of the populace will quickly find another target. But I can't imagine the rancor that was in that Senate chamber yesterday fading any time soon.

This post was going to be titled "Who was the lieutenant governor trying to protect?" But now I'm not so sure that's the right question. The Political Insider reports that, after the vote, Lt. Gov. Cagle apologized for even allowing the matter on the floor:
In front of GOP caucus members, and with Johnson in the company, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle took responsibility for permitting S.R. 452 to come to a floor vote. It shouldn’t have happened, he said.

Cagle sent an emissary bearing the same message to Senate Democrats, we’re told. ...

Many of the Republicans who voted for it quietly agreed with Democratic criticism expressed during the Thursday floor debate — that the measure could have politicized the revenue department, and would have robbed lawmakers of due process rights afforded other citizens.
CORRECTION: I softened this a bit, changin "permanent" to "long-term" in the title. Nothing is permanent.

February revenue figures out: We're down 7.3 % ytd

That's year to date. From the governor's office:
Governor Sonny Perdue announced today that net revenue collections for the month of February 2009 (FY09) totaled $629,448,000 compared to $965,846,000 for February 2008 (FY08), a decrease of $336,398,000 or 34.8 percent.

The percentage decrease year-to-date for FY09 compared to FY08 is 7.3 percent.

UPDATED: The lastish word on legislators and taxes

These are the documents from the Georgia Department of Revenue that show, with names redacted, the legislators who have failed to file a tax return for at least one year going back to 2002.

Note one representative is missing returns for six years, according to the DOR. That right there ought to tell you how long it takes the system to reach "final adjudication," and how the system is either incredibly slow or can be incredibly gamed.

And final adjudication is what you need before someone is proven guilty. And you're supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. So how do you remove a duly elected official from office until they're proven guilty?

If you don't know that you can click on these to enlarge them, please punch yourself in the side of the head.

UPDATE: One thing I'll add to this. Sen. Robert Brown has volunteered enough information about his tax situation for people to believe there's a problem, but not enough to really describe the problem.

He would only tell me that he has not filed taxes for some year or years, and that he had an extension or extensions. He told 11 Alive, according to their report, that this was the case for two years.

He said Thursday that his health declined severely in 2007, leading to the tax problems. So, if the two-year time period is correct, we'd be looking at 2007 and 2008 as years he failed to file in.

The list above does not include 2008. So you'd look for 2007. There's no senator on that list who only has a problem with their 2007 taxes.

It is entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that Robert Brown is not on that list. Which would mean that the DOR doesn't have a problem with his tax situation. Which would mean that, by volunteering enough information to beg questions, and not enough to answer them, he has brought heaps of criticism upon himself for reasons I would not pretend to understand.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

SB 200, the governor's transport bill, on Senate floor now. UPDATE: It passed 30-25.

That's all I got, folks.

UPDATED: Robert Brown is about to go apoplectic in the Senate

UPDATE 3: This is the story I filed. Look for more details in tomorrow's paper. The Associated Press has named three of the legislators in question.
UPDATE 2: The rule failed, 32-16. Apparently, it required a super majority. Who knew? They did a hand vote, so it's difficult to say who all voted against.
UPDATE: Brown's speech was calm, if very personal. He told the story of his failing health in recent years, which he said nearly killed him and caused him to lose contorl over his business. He said funds went missing, as did records needed for his tax returns.

He put on the Senate video boards a relatively famous picture of Sen. Johnson holding the former Georgia flag (with the Confederate emblem) in both hands above his head, and said this ethics resolution is simply an attempt to pander to voters. Johnson is running statewide for lieutenant governor.

As for the ethics resolution, "It's absolute trash," Brown said. He said it should go straight into the wastebasket. Then he repeated himself, but it sounded like, instead of wastebasket, he may have said "race basket."

Oh, and Sen. Brown called Rush Limbaugh a pill-popping moron and chastised Sen. Johnson for his proposal to have the state apologize for slavery. He told him to take gang members to Africa, if he was interested in slavery, and have them free slaves on that continent who dig up the gold that goes in the gang members' mouth.
State Sen. Eric Johnson is presenting his House Resolution 452 right now. That's the change in ethics rules that would give the Senate more power to punish members who aren't current on their taxes.

State Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, apparently isn't
, and he's going to speak against this resolution. He promised me earlier that Sen. Johnson "is gonna hear from me like he's never heard from me before."

He used some colorful words to describe Sen. Johnson and said that, if Senate rules didn't prevent it, he'd use them from the well today.

Just now, when Johnson noted that his resolution "is not a witch hunt," Brown broke the silence in the rest of the Senate chamber.

"Ha! Ha! Ha!," Brown shouted from the back of the room.

I expect Sen. Brown to take the well shortly.

The new Glenn Richardson: A marrier, not a fighter

I'm not sure I even have a joke here. But strange things are afoot in the Georgia House of Representatives. And the new-and-improved Speaker of the House may be here to stay. He's buying people stuff, he's marrying people...

Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson just proposed an amendment to a bill dealing with marriage licenses and sickle cell anemia testing.

It would allow any constitutional officer, or any former constitutional officer, to perform a marriage. That would include, of course, the Speaker of the House himself.

Love is in the air again. And the speaker can make it official.

State Rep. Bobby Franklin was the only legislator to vote against the amended bill. Afterward, state Rep. Roger Bruce was recognized and asked, "Do we now have to refer to you as reverend?"

Replied Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter, "It is a little scary, I've got to confess."

UPDATE: A more cynical member of the press corps than I notes that this would likely allow the state's constitutional officers to make some money on the side, by charging for their marrying services. Makes you wonder, how many marriages would it take to make $21 million?

New calendar for state legislature: Ending April 3

The House of Representatives just voted on a new scheduled for the rest of the 2009 session of the Georgia General Assembly.

Assuming the Senate approves, which it surely will, the session will wrap up April 3. Previously, legislators had planned to be in session through March 25, then hold the five of their 40 legislative days left for a possible June session.

But with the federal stimulus program decided, and Gov. Sonny Perdue having reset his revenue estimates, there was less need to wait, House Majority Leader Jerry Keen said.

The new "crossover day," when legislation has to have passed either the House or Senate to be considered this year, is next Thursday. That will be the 30th legislative day.

April 3 will be day 40, and will be reserved for "agrees and disagrees," the work the two bodies do on bills they've both passed, but passed in slightly different formats.

Richardson buys legislators wax seals

The man knows how to rebound...

Apparently, when state legislators get their oaths of office printed, they typically have a wax seal affixed to them. But this year the Secretary of State's Office didn't provide the seals due to budget cuts.

So, through a PAC, Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson purchased wax seals for every member of the House and placed them on their desks this morning.

"By the way, I gave the Senate members one as well," Speaker Richardson said.

Perennial nice guy state Rep. Doug Collins' seal.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Nothing brings out hyperbole like voter I.D.

The House is debating a bill right now that would require voters to prove their citizenship when they register to vote.

If you're thinking, "Hey, didn't the Senate vote on that yesterday?" the answer is yes. But that was Senate Bill 86. Today it's House Bill 45.

It's basically the same bill, but HB 45 is the House version. If there was a third body of the legislature, I imagine there'd be a third version of the bill, and that body would lay its claim to the title "Legislative Chamber Most Likely to Hate Immigr... er, Protect the Citizens' Right to Vote."

You've got to love the rhetoric on this bill, and any voter I.D. bill. One side says it's just too much to ask people to come up with a copy of their birth certificate or driver's license. The other side makes it sound like there's a Mexican orgy at the voting booth.

In the well of the House of Representatives, House Bill 45 sponsor state Rep. James Mills said he couldn't imagine anyone arguing "that al Qeada or anybody else, you fill in the blank, have the right to vote."

And state Rep. Roger Bruce, in arguing against the bill: "I question the ability of most people to come up with proof that they are a legitimate citizen."

And then one of the few Hispanic state legislators, state Rep. Pedro Marin: "We rely on Gestapo tactics so our citizens can feel safe."

So there you go. You can vote for al Qaeda or the Nazi Gestapo. Either way, you hate America, and this blog has its eye on you, buddy.

UPDATE: I almost forgot, there is a third version of this bill. It's House Bill 139 from state Rep. Tom Graves.

CORRECTION: There are actually four versions of the legislation, and Rep. Graves is not the sponsor of HB 139 as I mentioned above. Rep. Graves is the sponsor of HR 12, an attempt to write this change into the Georgia Constitution. State Rep. Roger Williams is the sponsor of HB 139.

Sen. Brown on owed taxes: I don't know, because I haven't filed

State Sen. Robert Brown, D-Macon, said this morning that he has filed for extensions on his state and federal taxes, and may or may not owe money.

He wouldn't say how many years he's done this or provide any other information. Last night, 11 Alive reported that Brown told them he had not filed for two years, and that he cited his health as the reason.

Sen. Brown said this morning that he does not know whether he is one of the 19 state legislators that the Department of Revenue has said aren't current on their taxes. The department hasn't named them, citing their policy to keep tax information private unless a lien is filed.

When he spoke to 11 Alive, Brown said he was simply using himself as an example of why he thinks a proposal from state Sen. Eric Johnson is a bad idea. Sen. Johnson's resolution would give the Senate more power over colleagues who do not pay their taxes.

That's the Department of Revenue and Internal Revenue Service's job, Brown said.

"It is not a group of political hacks over at the Senate who should have that authority," Brown said.

Sen. Brown said he is current on all local property taxes. He doesn't know whether his federal or state taxes are current because "you don't know that until you actually complete the process of filing," he said.

"I am bearing the same (tax) burden (as my constituents)," Brown said. "I am simply exercising the same rules (which allow me to file for an extension)."

If anyone back home doesn't like it, Brown said "they can vote."

"In 2010 I will stand to be judged on what I just said," he said.

Sen. Johnson's resolution will be discussed this afternoon in the Senate Rules Committee. Sen. Johnson chairs the Senate's Ethics Committee.

Who says the DOT isn't up front and open?

That's just a charge those NIMBY kooks make, right? Real people who pay attention, the DOT does a fine job of keeping them informed and working with them.

Wait. What's that? Oh:
Residents and business owners who were surprised to learn about a massive overhaul of Interstate 75 along Riverside Drive that’s set to start this summer were not alone: Larry Walker, vice chairman of the state transportation board, says he was kept in the dark, too.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Perdue lowers 2010 budget estimate, employees to pay more for health care

ATLANTA — The flailing economy continues to impact state spending, with Gov. Sonny Perdue his revenue estimate for the state's 2010 budget on Tuesday.

Perdue and his economic team now think the state will take in $1.6 billion less in state revenues than previously expected. Most of that — $1.1 billion — will be covered by federal stimulus dollars flowing from Washington.

Perdue, who initially said the state might reject some unemployment stimulus money, said Tuesday that the state would take it. He said state officials studied strings attached to the new funding and found it "in our best interest" to accept the money and offer extended unemployment benefits.

There had been concerns that it would cost the state more in the long run to accept the money.

Stimulus infusions will allow the state to avoid most cuts. But there will be several affects to the change.

For example, state employees will pay about 5 percent more for health insurance. Instead of the state covering 75 percent of those costs, the state will pay 70 percent, Perdue said.

State departments will need to find more cuts, an additional 1 percent or so beyond what they've already axed from their budgets.

The new budget also affects trauma care and state health care funding, though these changes aren't necessarily tied to the lower-than- exptected state revenues. Perdue has axed his unpopular proposal to add a new 1.6 percent tax to hospital services and insurance plans.

That means he will also cut from his budget increased funding for hospital programs, emergency room subsidies and upgrades to the state's trauma network.

UPDATE: Transport tax passes house / Perdue budget announcement today

UPDATE: House Bill 277 and House Resolution 206, the transport penny tax, easily passed the house. Short story on the main site.

The House has broken for lunch and the Senate doesn't go into session until 1 p.m.

The House will discuss the proposed statewide penny tax for transportation projects this afternoon. Gov. Sonny Perdue will make a budget announcement at 3:15 p.m.

Presumably he will discuss the federal stimulus package and whether he plans to lower the 2010 revenue estimate, which he likely does.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Dear Glenn letter: One member of the press corps breaks up with the Speaker of the House

It is with sadness that I must announce: Lucid Idiocy's man crush on Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson is over. It's not me, it's him.

Mr. Speaker -

It's hard for me to write this. I know we haven't been together long, but we were so good together. I mean, you said so many awesome ridiculous things, and the press always printed them and people always read it.

Those were almost real political stories, Mr. Speaker. It isn't easy getting people to read that stuff these days. Not in newspapers.

But that's the past, Mr. Speaker. This isn't easy. But, as a member of the Capitol press corps, I have to be strong and tell you. I'm breaking up with you.

I'm trying not to cry. I mean, you were just so interesting, telling various governors and lieutenant governors where they could stick it. Telling folks that public records about you clearly shouldn't be public records because you're a public figure.

Those were good times, Mr. Speaker. I mean, arguing that being a publicly elected figure makes you less subject to public records laws.... That was beautiful. I'd never been with anyone like that.

And then, it's like you stopped loving us writing ridiculous things about you all at once. Gena Evans gets fired and all your office will say is "The Speaker's primary concern has been and will be how to improve the transportation system for the people of Georgia."

What the hell is that?!?! Even Casey Cagle said something better than that. Maybe I'll see what he's doing for this weekend's editions. Or John Oxendine. He's running for governor, you know.

I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I'm just... I'm confused.

There was no warning. I mean, did I do something wrong? Is it me? It's The AJC, isn't it? They're poisoning things. We can get rid of them. It'll be just the two of us, and maybe Morris News Service and the Associated Press. We can do whatever you want, let's just make this work.

I know you've got a secret plan to undercut the governor and the lieutenant governor on this DOT thing, right? That's why you're being coy and talking about improving things "for the people," right? You're just waiting for the perfect moment to strike, right?

I promise, I promise, I can change. The press corps can change. Please, let's just stay together and sell newspapers. Please.