Sunday, February 28, 2010

NY Times: In black abortions, charges of eugenics

Georgia Right To Life's Endangered Species / Too Many Aborted campaign seems to be working. From Friday's New York Times:
A new documentary, written and directed by Mark Crutcher, a white abortion opponent in Denton, Tex., meticulously traces what it says are connections among slavery, Nazi-style eugenics, birth control and abortion, and is being regularly screened by black organizations.

Black abortion opponents, who sometimes refer to abortions as “womb lynchings,” have mounted a sustained attack on the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, spurred by a sting operation by young white conservatives who taped Planned Parenthood employees welcoming donations specifically for aborting black children.

“What’s giving it momentum is blacks are finally figuring out what’s going down,” said Johnny M. Hunter, a black pastor and longtime abortion opponent in Fayetteville, N.C. “The game changes when blacks get involved. And in the pro-life movement, a lot of the groups that have been ignored for years, they’re now getting galvanized.”
It is a hell of a thing to accuse any group of eugenics. And yet, who could be surprised to learn race played a major part in many awful things?

The Times article seems to be very well reported, and gets into the question: Who's guilty of what here?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Next week: Things gear back up

Along with continued budget negotiations, which surely must coalesce soon into some sort of announced consensus from the House and Senate leadership, next week will bring major committee hearings on some of this year's bigger pieces of legislation.

Sen. Chip Rogers property tax reforms (SB 346) are in the Senate Finance Committee Monday at 11 a.m.

Tuesday and Thursday the governor's transportation funding plan (HB 1218) will be in subcommittee.

Also Tuesday HB 1094, the House version of the governor's water conservation bill, is in committee.

There's also a chance that we get February revenue numbers some time next week, though that would be a little earlier than they are usually released. Many people believe Gov. Sonny Perdue will have to lower his revenue estimate soon, and the February numbers will be taken into account in that process.

Meanwhile, the Junior League sent this picture, of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle reading to children at the Capitol recently, out earlier this week. I like the picture, because the lieutenant governor seems genuinely excited about that butterfly.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Scott responds: We need targetted layoffs

State Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, GOP candidate for governor, stopped by a few moments ago to respond to Karen Handel's call for mass layoffs.

"I think layoffs are inevitable," said Scott, who is on the House Appropriations Committee now looking to cut the state budget. "But I do not support mass, across the board layoffs. ... I think we've got to be very selective about who we terminate."

Scott said he favors "the outright elimination" of some state programs, but wouldn't say which ones while budget negotiations are ongoing. He said he's been rummaging through salary records at www.open.georgia.gov, and some might stand a whack.

He noted that Handel and U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, who is also running for governor, have promised an increase in the state's Medicaid reimbursements to doctors. That, like many things in state government, is much easier said than funded.

"If they can bring forward the bill that can do all these things, I'll sign it, we'll pass it and I'll endorse one of them," Scott said.

Note to readers: If you're running for governor and would like to pop by today to advocate the mass firing of state employees, our address is 18 Capitol Square. You'll find press row on the second floor of the Coverdell Legislative Office Building.

Handel: We need massive state government layoffs

Update: State Rep. Austin Scott, who is also running for governor, has responded to this proposal with some ideas of his own.
----
Well Karen Handel just walked onto press row here at the Capitol with a bit of a bombshell: She wants to cut 10 percent of the state's work force, excluding teachers and law enforcement. She said that would be about 7,800 employees.

"Government is not a jobs program. ..." she said. "We hold the line on not increasing taxes."

Pressed for specific cuts she would propose, former Secretary of State Handel said she doesn't have all that worked out yet. But she did ask: "Do we need an H.R. department in every single state agency? No." And she said some state programs would probably be deleted.

Bullet points from the press release her campaign staff distributed:
* Permanent elimination of 10% of state government positions for FY2011 budget year – excluding teachers and public safety officers (State Patrol, GBI, etc.). This would save approximately $404 million and reduce the workforce by approximately 7,800 employees.

* Keep permanent the Governor's budget savings to date achieved through attrition, resignations, and retirements. According to the State Personnel Administration, this represents nearly 5% of the workforce and equals an additional $190 million in savings.

* Require zero-based-budgeting across state agencies. Legislation will not be required in a Handel administration.

* Reorganize agencies to reduce management layers and achieve supervisor/ employee ratio of 8 or 9 employees to 1 supervisor. Too often employees are promoted to supervisor or manager positions because of length of service rather than a reflection of management responsibilities.

* Launch an intensive effort to identify and eliminate non-essential services and programs, maximize outsourcing opportunities, move to shared-services approach for administrative services such human resources, review and eliminate non-essential boards and commissions, and identify opportunities to consolidate agencies.

* Reform state salary and benefits by moving state employees to "paid time off" (or PTO) and limited leave carry-over rather than the current accrual system, which allows employees to "bank" significant amounts of sick, compensatory, and vacation time that is then used to "bridge" to retirement or is cashed-in upon departure/retirement.

* Vigorously utilize the line item veto to keep spending in check during the recovery and eliminate unneeded government programs

Carol Porter: Running for lt. governor

She made it official shortly after 11 a.m. From our initial coverage:
ATLANTA — Carol Porter, wife of state Rep. DuBose Porter and a political presence in her own right, announced a run for lieutenant governor this morning.

That sets up a husband-and-wife political ticket at the top of Georgia ballots later this year. DuBose Porter, D-Dublin, began his gubernatorial campaign last year.

"I know you all know me as DuBose Porter's wife. ..." Carol Porter told a throng of reporters this morning at the state Capitol. "I am definitely qualified to do this job. I've been here watching it for 27 years."


I think any Democrat faces a difficult battle to win a statewide election this year in Georgia. But if I'm Casey Cagle, I don't sleep as well now, because Carol Porter will be coming after me.

Shannon Fickling, part of the Fickling family in Macon, will be Mrs. Porter's campaign manager. Joan Martin, wife of 2008 Democratic Senate candidate Jim Martin, will serve as campaign treasurer.

Update: Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle's campaign, though not the lieutenant governor himself, put out a statement on Mrs. Porter's candidacy:
ATLANTA, GA – Ryan Cassin, campaign manager for Lt. Governor Casey Cagle, made the following statement today in response to Carol Porter’s announcement she will seek the Democratic nomination for Lt. Governor in 2010.

“We welcome Carol Porter to the race and look forward to seeing her on the campaign trail. We anticipate a spirited contest and a thoughtful discussion of the issues.

“As Georgia faces unprecedented challenges, Lt. Governor Cagle has been a steady hand and principled leader. He is the candidate Georgians know and trust to confront the state’s most pressing issues at this crucial time. Casey remains focused on getting Georgia’s economy back on the right track, addressing our budget shortfall, and making the tough decisions that set our state on the path for a bright future. Georgians know Casey’s record of service and they know where he stands on the issues, and for that reason we’re confident Lt. Governor Cagle will win reelection.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Unfiled taxes: A potential bad apple in the House

From Speaker of the House David Ralston today:
“Upon receipt of the report from the Department of Revenue, House Ethics Committee Chairman Joe Wilkinson delivered the report to me. Legal counsel and I have reviewed the report, in conjunction with the law, and only one House member has not filed a personal income tax return with the Department of Revenue for tax year 2008. As provided by law, Chairman Wilkinson will conduct an appropriate investigation consistent with the rules of the House Committee on Ethics and report the findings to me.”
Great. I look forward to a week of speculation about who it is, and to the sight of television cameras chasing suspects through the Capitol.

It doesn't appear that there are any senators on the list. From the Associated Press:
Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Dan Moody said there were no senators on the list.

Carol Porter calls press conference tomorrow

Gee, I wonder what she'll say. From state Rep. DuBose' Porter's gubernatorial campaign:
Who: Carol Porter, Spouse of Gubernatorial Candidate DuBose Porter
What: Press Conference
When: Thursday, February 25th, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm
Where: South Wing of the State Capitol

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tuesday budget bites

The following is based on my watching Tuesday's slate of budget sub- committee meetings online, and previous reporting I've done on some of these issues.

More and more, the state Department of Education is pushing the legislature to let school systems hold fewer than 180 days worth of classes to save money. Deputy State Superintendent Scott Austensen was pretty clear on this point today. The Insider published some of his follow-up comments on the matter.

It looks like doctors are going to be paying higher license renewal fees soon. The Georgia Composite Medical Board is on the verge of raising them from $150 every two years to $225 every two years.

Board representatives told legislators we haven't raised the fee since 1999 and that we're lower than most states.

A lot of the questions put to the Georgia Cancer Coalition could be shortened to "Sooooo, how much can we cut your budget?"

The commission is scheduled to get $10.7 million in tobacco settlement money next year, down from $29.6 million this year. There may be some other funds for the commission in the Board of Regents' section of the budget. It's difficult to tell as I look at the documents.

The thing is, though, the $10.7 million in state funding is used to leverage another $36.7 million in federal funding.

Keep an eye on funding for the Georgia Board for Physician Work Force, which gives Mercer University and Morehouse College money to help train doctors expected to stay in state.

That's scheduled to get $42 million in 2011, but state Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Albany, noted that he hasn't gotten any phone calls from constituents looking to protect that money.

Something tells me, though, that doctors and private schools have a pretty good lobby in Georgia.

Committee members wanted information on the Department of Community Health's work force, and how many folks there are within 12 months of retirement. It's 219, out of nearly 1,500 employees.

Earlier this year I was interested to see, in DCH Commissioner Rhonda Medow's initial budget presentation to the legislature, that DCH spends more in state funding on administration ($92.4 million) than it does on the PeachCare health program for children ($92.3 million).

When you add in federal money the difference is greater: about $422 million for administration versus $382 in PeachCare payments to providers for medical care, according to the DCH.

By the way, do not mess with Rhonda Medows. State Sen. Renee Unterman was all over her this afternoon about a lack of monitoring in nursing homes across the state.
Unterman: "To me it's a sham. ... You really don't have a public health department. ... I just don't like the way business is done."

Medows: "Then give us the resources to do the job."
That pretty much brought the conversation to a close.

There wasn't much talk of doing away with the $10 million in bond funds in the 2011 budget to build the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta.

There was, briefly, some discussion of moving the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame out of Macon and co-locating it with the college hall of fame. But apparently the powers that be at the college hall of fame don't like the idea, making it unlikely.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Mental health funding

I got an anonymous call from an informed reader the other day. His point: Georgia isn't really increasing mental health funding that much.

Sure, Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed an extra $20 million in fiscal 2010 and another $50 million in 2011. But those are just state dollars.

If you back out the $65 million in federal stimulus funding that falls out of the budget next year, then the total funding for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities is only $5.9 million more in 2011 than it was in 2010.

And if you look in the governor's budget book at the new funding the department actually requested, you'll see they wanted about $150 million more to drag mental health and disability services out from under a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.

Said the caller:
"The guys down there think we needed $150 million more, so I really don't think (the governor) should get credit for the extra $50, $70 million."
Perhaps he is correct. To be sure, my coverage thus far hasn't noted this point. Bert Brantley, the governor's communications director, responds on this issue:
"The facts are what the facts are, we are doing everything we can to put additional resources into the department and stabilize our mental health system. There isn’t an agency in state government who couldn’t figure out a way to spend double their current budget. The real question that should be asked is what are our priorities? And these budgets clearly show that stabilizing our mental health delivery system and protecting education as much as possible are our top priorities."
At the heart of this issue is one of the more difficult questions when it comes to writing about the state budget: How do you deal with the federal money?

For example, you know Gov. Sonny Perdue's fiscal 2011 budget proposal totals $18.2 billion, right? Wrong. That's the state money. Add in the federal money Georgia expects to spend and it's more than $39 billion.

I used to be a real stickler for including federal money when I wrote about the state budget. But, over the last two years, I've come around to the more common practice of dealing, primarily, with the state figures. In this case, I wish I'd included some analysis of the federal dollars, because, as the caller pointed out, that context is important.

Monday budget bites

Just a few things I picked up watching today's Public Safety Appropriations Subcommittee meeting online.
----
Update: The AP reads the tea leaves and sees layoffs, or at least early retirements, in the offing. And The AJC says a tax increase is on the table, which I dealt with late last week.
----

The Georgia Building Authority was a popular whipping boy today. Attorney General Thurbert Baker said his department pays about $1 million a year in rent to the authority. He said he doesn't really know why.

"We can't figure out sometimes what they're charging for," he said.

Col. Bill Hitchens, head of the Georgia State Patrol, said the 770 or so troopers the state has on the road are "the least number of troopers in the nation per capita."

"We have 8 per 100,000 people," he said. "The national average is 24. We'd have to triple our size to come up to the national average."

State Board of Pardons and Paroles Chair Gale Buckner said only about 50 percent of parolees are current on the $2.95 a day they're supposed to give the state for electronic monitoring fees.

Let me return to the GBA issues again: The authority manages state-owned buildings, and several state legislators have a problem with the job they do. State Rep. Jill Chambers, R-Atlanta, said today she'd like to see the state Supreme Court cut its rent payments to GBA by 30 percent.

Rep. Chambers has complained in the past that the GBA won't let individual departments handle their own maintenance, even if it's as simple as wanting to hang a picture.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Gail Buckner, has filed actual legislation calling on the governor to force the GBA to be more prudent about when it replaces carpet or repaints walls. Buckner said earlier this year that she was surprised to show up at her office in the Coverdell Legislative Building to find it had new paint and carpet.

"We (already) had carpet and paint that were OK," she said. "My house needs paint and new carpet, but times are tight."

DOT Commish: All is well with rail in Georgia

Shorter Vance Smith: Nevermind this, or this and definitely don't buy into this. The Georgia DOT is doing just fine when it comes to passenger rail.

From Commissioner Smith today:
The Georgia Department of Transportation recently received good news from the federal government concerning the development of a high speed rail network to serve our state.

Granted, you wouldn’t know it was good news if you read or saw it in the media. Their focus is on finding (or inventing) a loser for every winner. They’re obsessed with finding someone to blame for something that was or wasn’t done years ago.

I don’t have time for that. As Commissioner of the Georgia DOT, my focus is on our transportation system as it now exists and what can we do to make it even better. In fact, we’re already moving well down that track:

· The Department completed revisions to our state rail plan – key to eligibility for federal funds;

· We recently received $13.8 million in additional federal funds to advance implementation of high speed service between Atlanta and Chattanooga. The environmental process for that project is well under way and a specific route determination will be made soon.

· And very soon, we’ll seek a private partner to help us build a multimodal passenger terminal in Atlanta to serve the city’s transit providers, Amtrak, high speed and intercity passenger rail. We have some $87 million in federal funds to be applied to this project (most earmarked for just such use).

In January, I convened a meeting in Atlanta of my counterparts and their rail experts from DOTs in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and North and South Carolina. We formed the first-ever Southeast High Speed Rail Coalition to share ideas and technologies and work together to fund and develop an interconnected system throughout our states. I am confident this coalition will prove to be a linchpin for high speed rail implementation throughout the South.

That same week Georgia DOT received three high speed rail grants totaling $750,000. That money will go toward necessary feasibility studies of high speed service between Macon, Savannah and Jacksonville; Atlanta and Birmingham; and the creation of a high speed corridor linking Atlanta with Louisville and Chicago. A similar feasibility document already exists for service between Charlotte, Atlanta and Macon. And when this new work is complete, Georgia DOT will be prepared to move forward with high speed rail implementation throughout the state.

However, federal funds almost always require some level of local matching money. Georgia DOT’s revenue structure is such that the only state money we can spend on high speed rail must be from bond sales or appropriated by the General Assembly from the State’s general fund. So far, we’ve had to rely on local governments, chambers of commerce and other community organizations for these matching funds. This is an important partnership, but it certainly doesn’t negate the pressing need for additional funding.

Yes, other states are further along in the implementation of High Speed rail, but funding rail development is a perfect case in point of what I’ve been advocating for years – a new statewide source of transportation revenue. A local or regional approach may work for local or regional needs; high speed rail will span the state and requires a statewide solution.

And when all is said and done, I’m pretty sure the people of Georgia don’t care nearly as much about what is happening in Florida or North Carolina as they do what is happening here at home. They want us to do our jobs.
Got all that? All is well (video). And the media should not be trusted.

When we talk about new transportation revenue, though, I'm not aware of any push from the majority party to raise serious new funding for passenger rail projects. Plans have been far more focused on roads, and particularly on roads in the metro Atlanta area. Look, for example, at Gov. Perdue's list of projects he'd like to spend $300 million on next year, which you can download here.

There's $10 million in that plan to fix up state owned, lines, which are used primarily to move freight. There's also some spending to work on roads that cross rail lines. And that's about it when it comes to rail.

More rail projects were included in last year's now dead effort to pass a new statewide penny tax for transportation, which then House Transportation Committee Chairman Smith was heavily involved in. The plan would have funded this list of projects shown also here on this map.

I don't think anyone would argue, though, that passenger rail was a high priority in that plan. And altogether Commissioner Smith's editorial today reminds me of a story I wrote about the long-rumored commuter train from Atlanta to Griffin (or Lovejoy, or Macon, or all 3) in October of 2008:
The Georgia Department of Transportation has everything it needs to start a commuter rail line from Atlanta to Griffin, except for an agreement to actually use existing rail lines, $107 million in construction funding, federal sign-offs for the plan, enough money to fund annual operations, land for the train stations or actual train cars to carry passengers.
I'm checking to see if any of those things are now in place, and will update when I find out. If not, it will be a little difficult to trust that this $750,000 study is about to speed us on a path to establishing commuter rail.

Update: I asked the DOT if they'd bought those trains, or secured those line rights, or gotten the federal sign offs, or figured out the operations funding problem and maybe I just missed it. They did not respond.

Following the budget this week

Budget subcommittee hearings kick off today at 1 p.m. You can find the week's meeting schedule here and here, though they should be the same.

Committee meetings will be streamed online here. I'm in Macon for much of this week, but will be following things online, and reading coverage from the usual suspects.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Handel: Continuing plan to Bring It On

Albeit, in this case, delayed by nine days.

The punch, counter-punch between Karen Handel and the House continues. From the former secretary of state's campaign:
When I took over as Secretary of State, the office was bloated, outdated, inefficient, and poorly managed. So, I changed it. Bringing in a results-oriented leadership team, we went to work to modernize the Agency.

And, to the dismay of some, I did the unthinkable. I actually reduced the number of employees in my office.

This is what differentiates me from most career politicians in our government today.

I believe our government is bloated and should be smaller… and smarter! This is the time to make the difficult decisions. ...

Under my leadership, budgets aren't going to be balanced on the back of employees being forced to take unpaid furlough days. You won't hear talk of "sharing the pain."

Some jobs in state government are more important than others. Teachers and state patrol officers should not - and will not - be treated the same as the bureaucrats.

If you feel the same as I do, I could use your help. ...
Woman to beat right now, I think. And enemies that allow Karen Handel to continue to distance herself from the "career politician" and good-ole-boy set, may not be enemies.

48th starts home next week

The return schedule is starting to firm up. From the Associated Press:
The first group of returning soldiers, many from the Savannah-based 118th Field Artillery Regiment, are scheduled to arrive Tuesday at Fort Stewart.

Woody Marshall for The Telegraph, April 2009.

Update: It does not appear the Department of Defense has named the soldiers injured in a recent suicide bombing. From Jeremy Redmon at The AJC:
The seriously injured soldier has been sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for treatment. Another soldier is being evacuated to Fort Benning for care. Three other soldiers were treated and returned to duty. All five soldiers are part of the Newnan-based Bravo Company of the 2nd Battalion, 121st Infantry, which is part of Georgia’s 48th Brigade Combat Team.

Military officials declined to release the identities of the soldiers who were injured in the blast Thursday, but they said their families have been notified.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cooperation? Cuts? Cagle? The Constitution?

Sometimes, it just has to have four c's.

The House and Senate working together, now instead of later, on the 2011 budget. I reserve judgment beyond "interesting to watch."

From Lt. Gov. Cagle and Speaker Ralston's joint statement on the state budget today:
“The next two weeks begin a new phase of openness and inclusiveness in the House and Senate. In joint Appropriations hearings, we will work as partners to dissect the budget line by line. Accomplishing this task will require hours of work by us, our appropriations chairmen, leadership teams, and our House and Senate membership. We are also committed to working alongside the Governor as we deliberate together.
A developing story, over about $18 billion. Or maybe $17 billion.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Senate today said it wants a voter referendum to ask whether the state should be able to sign multi, instead of single, year leases. From the press office:
According to the Georgia Constitution, “...the credit of the state shall not be pledged or loaned to any individual, company, corporation or association...” and it is the interpretation of this Constitutional provision that has resulted in the long-standing policy limiting leasing to one-year terms. Georgia faces a fundamental issue that is common to other state and public sector organizations: How to provide for multi-year fixed term leases to leverage the State’s real estate resources and not conflict with the provision to commit to any future obligations beyond the current annual appropriation cycle.

Allowing multi-year contracts will improve the management and increase the value of the State’s leasing practices and administrations.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said this was an idea from his business task force. Sen. Chip Rogers is carrying SB 254 and a resolution calling for this ballot question:
Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to provide for a reduction in rental rates paid by the state which would save state revenue by allowing the State Properties Commission and the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia to enter into multiyear rental agreements without requiring appropriations in the first fiscal year for the total amount due under the entire agreement?"

The world's most fascinating 8 minute conversation happened this morning in the Georgia Senate.

Door opens a crack on tax increases

It seems that the reality of January's revenue numbers, which people at the Capitol really, really hoped would be flat instead of down nearly 9 percent, has hit legislators in the face.

For the first time this session I'm starting to think a compromise that includes a tax increase or tax increases may be in the offing.

There's some reading between the lines to that, but take a look at this comment from Speaker of the House David Ralston this afternoon:
"(The House has) a very strong preference to see if this can be done without additional revenues. But, hey, at the end of the day, we've got to balance the budget."
These guys are looking for something like a billion dollars.

There are many options. The governor, for example, did not include any employee furloughs in his 2011 budget.


Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill Thursday, explaining just how screwed the state is, as indicated by all that red stuff behind him.
Image: Tyna Duckett, Senate Photo Office.

** This post edited. Blog policy is not to assume.

Legislature to take two weeks off

Update: House Majority Leader Jerry Keen just announced that, starting Monday, the House and Senate appropriations committees will meet jointly.

This speaks to the difficulty legislative leaders expect in dealing with the budget, and the need to move relatively quickly toward agreements in both bodies at once.

"This is unprecedented, certainly in my time here," Keen said.

Keen joined the House in 2000.
----
The word from Mr. Galloway's source is confirmed. Senate staffers just passed out the new schedule for the legislative session. The General Assembly will be in session today, then take a couple of weeks off and come back March 7.

No doubt leadership will work on the budget in the mean time, looking for ways around this stuff, and hoping the next round of monthly revenue numbers offers some hope for the governor's relatively modest revenue predictions.

The 25th legislative day, of a maximum of 40, would fall on March 15.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Pants on the Ground at the Capitol

"Pants on the Ground" sensation Larry Platt brought his message, which is decidedly anti-pants on the ground, to the Georgia state Capitol today.

Apparently his visit was the hit of the session. I got a text message from one legislator saying "Highlight of my legislative career, having picture with "pants on the ground" fellow."

That seemed to be the sentiment all around. Even Gov. Sonny Perdue got in on the act, as these pictures from his press office attest:





I have no idea what's going on in that last picture, and I don't want to know. For the five of you who haven't seen Mr. Platt's performance, made famous on American Idol, what the hell is wrong with you?

UPDATED: Hospital tax being debated right now

If you're the kind of person who wants to listen to three hours of live debate on Medicaid funding and a proposal to tax hospital revenues to balance that budget, this is the link for you.

Update: They've wrapped up after nearly three hours of testimony. A parade of hospital officials and doctors spoke against the hospital tax, and for a $1 increase in the tobacco tax.

But neither option is popular with the House leadership, and legislators have said they'd rather cut the budget some more instead. Like a few hundred million more. Get your hatchet out.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cooperation photo Wednesday

Gratuitous photographic evidence of cooperation at the Georgia state Capitol, now presented Tuesdays at 9:18 p.m.


The 2009 world champion Warner Robins softball team in the Georgia Senate Tuesday. Not pictured, but cooperative: state Sens. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, Cecil Station, R-Macon, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.


State Reps. David Lucas, D-Macon, and Allen Peake, R-Macon, showing a new cooperation over giving new hotel sales tax revenue to the state halls of fame and historic Douglass Theatre in downtown Macon, which faces resistance not yet fully quantified.

The way business is done

With Dale Russell's report last night on Fox 5, the list of state elected leaders that failed insurance company executive Clark Fain (no relation) has taken hunting, or to Ireland or to Italy with (of course) absolutely no quid pro quo expected, but just because he's a nice guy, has grown to include Gov. Sonny Perdue.

I think it's interesting the level of comfort many people seem to have with trips like these, even as state legislators discuss ethics reform here at the Capitol.

The ethics policy for my newspaper, and for most journalists, is that we are not to take anything of value from a source. At The Telegraph, that's generally defined as anything worth $5 or more.

But the governor can get on Fain's private plane and go hunting in South Georgia. I would be fired, immediately. He has major influence over state contracts. I have influence over something with the word "idiocy" in the title.

Monday, February 15, 2010

President coming to Georgia

From the White House:
WASHINGTON, DC - The White House announced today that President Obama will travel to Savannah, Georgia on Tuesday, March 2, 2010 for the next stop on the White House to Main Street Tour.

During the visit, President Obama will meet with Georgia workers, small business owners, and local leaders to share ideas for continuing to grow the economy and to put Americans back to work. President Obama will spend the day in the Savannah area speaking to Georgians about the challenges they face and listening to their ideas for working together to turn the economy around.

GBPI: 1 percent = $168 million

A major component in determining the state budget is the governor's revenue estimate. But I did not know this, from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute:
For every 1 percent drop in the revenue estimate, lawmakers need to cut an additional $168 million from the state budget.
Worth remembering as the months go forward, and Gov. Sonny Perdue determines whether or not his current revenue estimates can stand as the economy continues to evolve.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Georgia 48th, coming home

Update: A suicide bombing on Thusday near the Pakistani border has injured five brigade soldiers, according to the Georgia National Guard.

From the Georgia Department of Defense:
Georgia's 48th Infantry Brigade's Combat Team of the Georgia Army National Guard which has spent the last twelve months in Afghanistan announces the tentative schedule for redeployment back to Georgia. The Georgia soldiers that departed in February 2009 are scheduled to return in a staggered arrival schedule between late February and early April. ...

Each group of soldiers will arrive at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah. All soldiers will be transported to Cottrell Field at Fort Stewart for a brief welcoming formation before being released to their families. During the last week of February, approximately 600 soldiers will arrive in Savannah. It is anticipated that the first group of approximately 175 will arrive on or about February 23.

Arrival dates for specific units are currently being arranged and will be released to families by their respective rear detachments and family readiness organizations.

UPDATED: 2010 budget has passed and The Big 3 talk transportation

The 2010 amended budget passed the House 122-44 this afternoon. House Minority Leader DuBose Porter asked Democrats to oppose the budget for a variety of reasons, but largely because he feels it doesn't include enough education funding.

In other news, the governor's office just sent out this release:
ATLANTA – Governor Sonny Perdue, Lt. Governor Casey Cagle, and Speaker David Ralston will hold a press conference TODAY, Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 3:30 p.m. to discuss transportation.
Update: They basically just discussed the plan Gov. Perdue rolled out last month, with the addition of a 3-year relaxation of the rule that forces MARTA to spend half of its sales tax revenues on capital improvements, as opposed to operations and maintenance.

MARTA supporters have been wanting that for a while, and consider it crucial to continuing operations. You can get more detail from Dave Williams at The Atlanta Business Chronicle.

Also, the governor said his regional sales tax votes to raise more money for transportation would be the same day as the 2012 presidential primary, not in November of that year as many had assumed. The actual bill putting all this in writing should be out next week, his office said.

Finally, Speaker Ralston said he wants to shorten DOT Board member terms from five years to two years, bringing them in line with state legislators' terms.


Cagle, Perdue, Ralston: Appearing together, working together, appearing to work together, or maybe all three.

Scott: No insurance campaign donations for the commissioner

State Rep. Austin Scott, R-running for governor, will roll out a campaign finance reform proposal today. He doesn't want insurance commissioners to be able to take campaign donations from within the industry.

Scott said he's basing the rule on the ones that govern the Public Service Commission. He said he considered calling for similar rules for other elected department heads, such as secretary of state, but decided against it because "the other departments don't have rate making ability."

How long, do you think, before someone adds up all the insurance company donations to current Commissioner John Oxendine's gubernatorial campaign and past commissioner campaigns?

Clark Fain knows everyone

Except me, oddly. Though we share a last name, I do not think we are related.

I have written, largely from a Middle Georgia perspective, this piece about Clark Fain, his Southeastern U.S. Insurance Company, the investigation Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine's office has conducted into the company, and all the little tendrils this case has. Much of this has been covered previously by Georgia Public Broadcasting and The AJC.

I'm struck by the number of current and former high-ranking Georgia politicians Mr. Fain knows. It's a bit uncanny, though no one that I've talked to has accused him of abusing those political connections in any way.

But, just to summarize: He was, at separate times, and at separate schools, the college roommate of U.S. Sen. Saxy Chambliss and former Georgia Speaker of the House Terry Coleman.

He took former legislator, and current university system regent, Larry Walker and retired legislator and Middle Georgia Judge Bryant Culpepper to Italy in 2005, for no apparent reason other than for a meeting and vacation. He's taken state Rep. Jim Cole, the governor's floor leader in the House and would-have-been secretary of state, hunting on his Seminole County preserve.

He knows U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, who has accused Oxendine of a political shakedown in the wake of the commissioner's investigation and takeover of Fain's company.

State Rep. Rob Teilhet, a candidate for attorney general, has worked as an attorney for his company. Hell, even Ray Goff went to Italy with this guy.

What does all that add up to? Quite possibly nothing. But it's a vast and varied network of politically connected friends.

Correction: There is an error in the story I linked. Rob Baskin is not Mr. Fain's attorney, but a managing director in a public relations firm that represents him.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Hooter's girls, utility lobbyists and the media

As I sat at my laptop following an afternoon meeting of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment, I overheard several utility lobbyists talking to a state senator who had just finished pitching legislation that calls for oil and gas drilling off the southeastern coast.

The senator was talking about this story about Hooter's girls serving lunch to legislators at the Capitol Wednesday.

The upshot of the senator's point of view seemed to be that this wasn't news. "Shameless," one of the lobbyists replied, aghast over the injustice perpetrated on the poor, poor legislators identified in the piece.

Folks, if there ain't nothing wrong with it, why don't you want people reading about it?

Sales tax collections in Alabama

The very fact that I would spend some portion of my week researching the way sales taxes are collected in Alabama really suggests that I need to make some life changes, don't you think?

Much of the argument for changing the way Georgia collects sales tax has centered on the way Alabama handles its collections, and a transition that occurred there some years back. But there's been some confusion about just what Alabama did, and how much money it raised.

I contacted the Alabama Department of Revenue, which referred me to the governor's office, which referred me to the Alabama League of Municipalities. Perry Roquemore is the league's executive director, and he said that:
  • Alabama "didn't change anything" about it's law. It always allowed local governments to let the state collect sales tax for them, or to handle it themselves, or to hire a private company to do it. Most cities used the state, but weren't required to.
  • About 12 years ago the state's payments started taking longer to get back to the local coffers, and there was some concern that the state's numbers were off. So some cities decided to handle things themselves, and some signed with private firms that would handle it. They "ended up seeing much better revenue."
  • The state still handles collections for about 100 cities. In fact, it's won some cities back because the department of revenue "greatly improved their system." Still, most of the cities that left the state's program "have stayed done."
  • "I don't have any figures" to show how much more revenue has been collected since cities started going away from the state.
So there you go. At some point I think someone suggested that Alabama had realized an extra $1 billion in collections, but I don't know where you'd get that number from, given Mr. Roquemore's comments.

I do know that a GOP study committee looked at this issue in 2008 and heard testimony about the shift in Alabama. A member of that committee (Houston County Commissioner Tom McMichael) told me at the time that the smallest increase in collections any community has reported to the study committee was 20 percent.

So more money = yes. $1 billion more = no one really knows that.

Something afoot on transportation

There's quite a buzz about transportation today.

I understand from one of the governor's floor leaders that Gov. Perdue was meeting with the speaker on the issue yesterday. And House Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Roberts said he expects a press conference of some kind tomorrow.

Beyond that, I have only guesses. But I imagine you'll see something break on this later today.

Update: Jim Galloway has had his ear to the ground today, and indicates it may be next week before all this bubbles to the surface:
Sometime next week, Perdue is expected to release the details of his first stab at a statewide plan to increase transportation funding. We’re told that the governor will recommend that MARTA be allowed to use a greater share of the Fulton-DeKalb sales tax to prop up its operations.
Update 2: Galloway has unearthed more details. Most of them seem to be in line with what Perdue announced last month, but more than one legislator has noted that it's nearly mid-February, and we haven't actually seen the governor's transportation bill.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tracking the DME: Transportation at one year

Something tells me that, in the not-too-distant future, I'm going to wish I'd paid more attention to how all this stimulus money was spent.

From the Georgia Department of Transportation today, marking the one-year anniversary of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act:
More than 9,200 projects totaling $20.6 billion are under construction nationwide and Georgia DOT has awarded more than $632 million for 243 separate stimulus projects since the program began last May.

In Georgia:

· 28 bridges are being replaced,
· 1107 miles of pavement will be poured, including 353 miles of local roads paved,
· 54 enhancement projects are underway which will have a long lasting quality of life effect for communities,
· Approximately $300 million worth of widening projects have begun,
· 166 transit vehicles will be purchased,
· 62 safety projects are underway
You can get all kinds of info on stimulus transportation spending here.

Also, DME stands for "Desperate Money Explosion," which is what I dubbed all the stimulus programs when they started.

Declaration of Independence at the Capitol Friday

From Secretary of State Brian Kemp's office:
Georgia’s recorded copy of the Declaration of Independence will be available for viewing at the State Capitol on Friday, February 12, 2010, in honor of Georgia Day. The document will be available for viewing from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Royal Charter that made Georgia a colony in 1733 will also be on display.

January revenue figures out: Down 12.9 ytd

From the governor's office:
ATLANTA – Governor Sonny Perdue announced today that net revenue collections for the month of January 2010 (Fiscal Year 2010) totaled $1,438,319,000 compared to $1,575,265,000 for January 2009 (FY09), a decrease of $136,946,000 or 8.7 percent.

The percentage decrease year-to-date for FY10 compared to FY09 is 12.9 percent.
For the second month in a row, the year to date decrease is down.

Tuesday at the Capitol: Nearly interesting

A lot of little, and not so little, things today that aren't quite interesting enough to stand on their own yet.

New revenue numbers will probably be out today, and they will probably be bad. No real shock there.

The 2010 amended budget should be ready for a floor vote in the House Thursday. It has, Appropriations Chairman Ben Harbin said, "a little more money in education" than Gov. Perdue had proposed.

It looks like about $17.4 million more in equalization money, which includes an extra $267K or so for Bibb County. But it's still less in equalization than the formula calls for.

The full House Appropriations Committee meets Wednesday at 8 a.m. to vote the budget out. The subcommittees are meeting this afternoon for their votes.

A school flexibility bill passed the House. But it had the class size increases stripped out of it, so it basically just allows schools to spend media center money on teachers and doesn't address the larger flexibility issue (i.e. increasing class sizes) that State Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox had asked for.

Democrats and Republicans got into it on the House floor over debate rules. The Democrats complained that, in the new era of super-happy-cooperation that supposedly exists now that one guy's left the House, floor debate rules were supposed to be relaxed.

But they weren't entirely. Democrats were unhappy, Republicans told them to deal with it.

The minority party also kept up the pressure on sales tax collection. Republicans have a bill to improve records sharing and collections, Democrats have a bill (HB 1137, should be online shortly) to improve records sharing and collections.

The Democrats' bill requires a bit more work from the Georgia Department of Revenue, and could pave the way toward the privatization of sales tax collection, which is a whole other can of worms. The bottom line is that you almost certainly don't care about any of this, except that both sides say they want to see better collections.

Aaron Sheinin at The AJC wrote a piece about the bills.

Yet another transportation funding proposal rolled out, this one from a bipartisan group of legislators. Ariel Hart has some details.

Speaker of the House David Ralston sent a letter to Congress to say Georgia can't afford a Medicaid expansion.

"It changes nothing about current law."

- State Rep. (and blog favorite) Doug Collins this morning, discussing HB 898.

The bill actually does change something about state law, as bills usually do. People who get DUIs will still have their name and picture published in their local newspaper, but their address would no longer be included.

It passed 152-8.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Do as we say, not as we do in the General Assembly

Update: I wrote a less-critical, I guess you could say, piece about this for The Telegraph.
---
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and much of the Senate leadership just held a press conference to announce legislation meant to significantly reduce the amount of paper state government uses.

Then staffers handed out paper folders containing a press release and a copy of the legislation — each printed on one side of the paper only — to members of the press. They had several extra and, of course, the bill itself is readily available online.

The press conference also announced a second bill, which will expand the information on state spending available at www.opengeorgia.gov.

Said state Sen. Chip Rogers, the Senate majority leader: "Everything we do here ought to be in the open."

But when I asked Sen. Rogers whether that meant he'd support ending the exemption to the state's open meetings and records act that Georgia General Assembly members currently enjoy, Rogers said he'd have to study that issue before deciding.

To be fair, though, House and Senate committee meetings are open to the public, as are floor deliberations. Many of these meetings are broadcast online, but legislators still have far wider latitude when it comes to public documents than do local elected officials.

As for saving paper, there is an impressive amount of waste here at the Capitol. I should note though, that the House and Senate journals, which record everything that happens on the floor when the legislature is in session, are moving to an online-only format, Lt. Gov. Cagle said.

"It's a process," Cagle said. "You don't turn the ship around over night."


Floor of the Georgia House of Representatives after sine die, 2009.

Governor's teacher merit pay bill out

It's Senate Bill 386, and you can read it here. From the governor's office:
Governor Sonny Perdue announced today education legislation has been introduced that would increase pay for Georgia’s top teachers and principals, and increase the integrity of Georgia’s testing system. ...

Sen. Don Balfour, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, is introducing SB 386, the Governor’s legislation to increase pay for high performing teachers and principals. ...

Current teachers and principals would have the choice to opt into the enhanced pay model under the proposed legislation. The legislation would require the State Board of Education to adopt a common, statewide evaluation tool that takes student improvement into account in addition to peer observation of planning and instruction when assessing teachers and leaders by July 1, 2011. Using this tool, the state will calculate an Effectiveness Measure which will allow for increased pay for the state’s most effective educators.

Already twenty-three local school districts making up 41 percent of Georgia’s public school students have committed to a similar compensation model through the state’s federal Race to the Top application. The state will implement best practices from those districts in developing and implementing the statewide system.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The lucid week that was, Feb. 1-5

Just a few things to highlight from the last week ...

To increase transportation funding, Democrats would eventually shift $137 million a year in sales tax revenue from the state's general fund to pay for transportation projects.

Gov. Sonny Perdue's plan would be to issue $300 million a year in new transportation bonds. Just one year of those bonds would bring an annual recurring debt payment of $26.2 million onto the state's books, and Perdue wants to do this 10 years in a row.

Either way you, you're talking about shifting hundreds of millions from other state departments and/or building projects to transportation, or a tax increase, likely other than the regional t-SPLOSTs.
...
Speaking of transportation, the DOT's State Transportation Board met Friday and reversed its reversal on accounting procedures. Nothing inspires confidence like a 540 degree policy shift.
...
On Lawmakers Thursday evening, Monty Veazey, president of the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals, said his group would favor a temporary cut in Medicaid reimbursements over Perdue's proposed hospital tax.

The GACH lists about 50 member hospitals, on its roster, including some large ones. But that doesn't mean hospitals and doctors are united on this issue.

The Georgia Hospital Association, with about 170 members, is against the bed tax and the reimbursement cut, favoring a $1 tax increase on packs of cigarettes. The reimbursement cut and the hospital bed tax would both be "very damaging" GHA spokesoman Kevin Bloye said.
...
The Senate passed a bill last week outlawing involuntary microchip implants. State Sen. Chip Pearson, R-Dawsonville, sponsored the measure, but I'm not sure how carefully he read it.

I asked him whether employers could still require implantation as a condition of employment, and Pearson said the bill didn't address that. But then 11 Alive's Paul Crawley, with the bill in hand, pointed out the section that does indeed outlaw the practice.

Whoops. By the way, the bill makes implanting a microchip in someone against their will a misdemeanor, not a felony. So it's on par with, say, speeding. That makes sense.
...
Finally, you know how, every so often, a local issue explodes into a floor fight? Well, this could be that issue in 2010.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Isakson, Fain, agree Census sounds expensive

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson would like the Census Bureau to explain why it bought a Super Bowl ad. He wrote the bureau director and the secretary of commerce a letter that his office emailed the press, excerpted here:
Dear Secretary Locke and Director Groves:

Reports have indicated that the Super Bowl commercial alone costs an estimated $2.5 million for one 30 second airing. Given the difficult economic times our nation is facing, I am very concerned with the amount of money spent by the Census Bureau for the production and airing of these commercials.

As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee I ask that you please share with me the details surrounding the production and airing of these commercials including breakdowns in its cost, which media consultant and advertising agency advised the Bureau and produced the commercials, and how the contracts were awarded to these consultants and agencies.

I also ask that you provide, for comparison, the advertising budget for the 2000 census as well as data showing what percentage of Americans participated in that census.
Sen. Isakson, may I say that is a tone and a thoroughness in an open records request worthy of emulating.

As of May 2009 the new census was to cost between $14 and $15 billion. That includes the $391 million they said would be used last year to verify people's addresses before sending them a census mailer.

The U.S. Census' population clock puts U.S. population at nearly 309 million. If you do the math at $14 billion, that's $45 apiece, including very small children, who can't be hard to find.

UPDATED: Dems roll out own transportation plan

Update: They've had the press conference. The state's 4th penny in on-the-dollar gas taxes would move from the general fund to funding transportation projects gradually, over 4 years starting in fiscal 2013.

A constitutional amendment referendum to allow for regional transportation penny taxes would be held this November. Separate referendums to bind various counties together to charge the new penny tax could be held starting next year. There would different rules for Atlanta and the rest of the state.

In Atlanta, 50 percent of new revenue amassed in the metro area, except for in DeKalb and Fulton, which already fund MARTA, would have to go to mass transit. Other parts of the state wouldn't be bound by that.

There are other nuances, too, which I will try to get to later.


Stoner, Golden, Brown, Porter, Smyre: GOP has failed on transport.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

We've got low-flush, but what about half-flush?

Gov. Sonny Perdue this morning threw his support behind new rules requiring low-flow water fixtures and toilets in new buildings starting in 2012.

For toilets, that would generally mean going from a 1.6 gallon flush to 1.2 gallons. I traveled to Australia a few years ago and, in nearly every bathroom, they have a half-flush toilet.

There are two buttons on these toilets. In looking around a bit on the Internet, it looks like the full flush button releases the regular 1.6 gallons of water, and the half flush about .8 or .9 gallons.

The benefits of that seem pretty obvious to me. But I've never seen one of these toilets in the United States.

Update: No doubt the commentors are right. The movement for more choice in toilet flushes in America only grows.



"Thank you, Alex."

Update: I have been told that these are called "dual flush" toilets, not half flush. Blog policy continues to be to be unable to understand why these toilets are not everywhere. And what that wet stuff is under public waterless toilets.

The Cheers clip, really, needs no further context.

Eric Johnson: All in as the voucher candidate

If there was any doubt that former state Sen. Eric Johnson's gubernatorial campaign would rise or fall on the popularity of school vouchers, remove that doubt from your mind today.

State Sen. Chip Rogers announced a voucher expansion bill this morning that would give vouchers to foster and military kids. Anything with the word "voucher" in it is going to have a tough time moving this year, and you can kind of read between the lines and see that in this initial coverage I wrote for The Telegraph.

But Johnson, who pushed the current vouchers system for kids with special needs through the legislature in 2007, pulled no punches this morning in Rogers' press conference:
"In the 21st century we have got to personalize public education," Johnson said, calling the existing public school system "an 8-track player in an iPod world."
Rogers called Johnson "the father of successful school choice in Georgia" at least twice during the press conference.


Eric Johnson: Dubbed successful school choice in Georgia's daddy.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

GPB: More big names in Oxendine's SEUS probe

From Georgia Public Broadcasting:
Insurance Commissioner Oxendine opened a formal criminal investigation into SEUS last month. At that time he told GPB that several prominent Georgians kept “popping up” in the company’s papers. They include former State Representative Larry Walker, and former University of Georgia Head Football Coach, Ray Goff.

According to the Insurance Commissioner, Walker and Goff had taken at least one trip to Europe as members of a SEUS advisory board, that included other influential Georgians. Oxendine says that trip, along with others, is being probed as part of the criminal investigation.
I will try to reach as many of these folks as I can for my own story on this matter. Hat tip to Jim Galloway for pointing out the GPB piece.

Dems to debate tonight on T.V.

The Democratic Party of Georgia is holding a gubernatorial debate tonight in Athens. From Gen. David Poythress' campaign:
It will be held in Athens at the PJ Auditorium, located in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. Some last minute seats may be available, but you must arrive no later than 6:30 PM to be seated, and the debate begins at 7:00 PM.

For those of you who can't be in Athens tonight, it will be aired live on WNEG-TV (Athens), WGCL-TV (Atlanta) and WALB-TV (Albany). It will air on WRDW-TV (Augusta) at noon on Saturday. WMAZ-TV (Macon) will air it online tonight, as well as on Saturday at 7:00 PM. We encourage you to check your local listings.
Update: Attorney General Thurbert Baker's campaign says it's having a meet-and-greet after the debate at 8:30 p.m. at Transmetropolitan in downtown Athens. You may RSVP here.

Update 2: State Rep. DuBose Porter will have his campaign meet and greet at the Taco Stand.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Education funding: How much is enough?

About a year ago I got tired of not really understanding education funding in this state, so I tried to learn the system as best I could. The story I ended up writing, which unfortunately isn't online anymore, began like this:
ATLANTA -- The way Georgia funds education is so complicated that Democrats can complain that Gov. Sonny Perdue has cut funding since taking office, Perdue can say the state spends more now than it ever has on education, and they can both be right.
That's a tough starting point for a discussion on how much state money is enough when it comes to public education.

The chart below comes from Bert Brantley, the governor's communications director.













Click image to enlarge.

Bert sent reporters this chart, and the numbers to back it up, this week to make this argument:
"It is my sincere belief that actual dollars spent and per pupil spending is much more relevant than the rhetoric we hear from some education groups who argue the Governor has “cut” billions from schools."
And, yet, there have been cuts to the state's QBE formula. That formula, in place for years, spits out a number the state's supposed to give to local public schools to fund a "Quality Basic Education." The Perdue administration takes that number, lops some off, and gives them less.

Again, from my story of last year:
In fiscal 2002, state taxpayers funded nearly 56 percent of public school budgets, according to statistics from the Georgia Department of Education. Local taxes covered 38 percent of the costs, and the rest was covered by federal dollars.

By fiscal 2008, the state's share had dropped to 52 percent, and the local share had increased to nearly 42 percent, meaning that property owners saw their share increase even as state legislators said they wanted to rein in property tax increases through various reforms.
That's kind of a mess. I wish you luck in drawing conclusions.

Geisinger: Cap's gone, let's kill the birthday tax

Last year's HB 480 would have done away with ad valorem taxes on vehicles, generally paid around your birthday, and replaced that revenue with a percentage-based title tax.

The bill passed the House and is sitting in the Senate. But one of the more controversial measures in the bill — a cap on the total amount of tax a buyer would pay — has been removed, bill sponsor state Rep. Harry Geisinger said Monday.

That means that a $100,000 car would be taxed at 6.5 percent, same as a $5,000 car. The concern last year was that the $2,000 cap would overly benefit wealthy people.

This tax would also replace the sales tax dealers charge on car sales. So two taxes go away and one new one replaces them and, largely because "casual sales" between individuals are taxed, the whole thing is supposed to generate more money.

We'll need a new fiscal note to show how much, but last year's original bill would have raised substantially more. Geisinger also noted that the bill would still include $150 million a year for current and new trauma facilities.