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2008 winners; patients and students
Wrap up of 2008 General Assembly
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As families struggle with a weak economy due to the high cost of gas, low real estate prices, plus a regional drought, the legislature wanted to do all that we could to help weather the storm.
The U.S. economy is primarily out of the hands of the General Assembly, but efforts were made to assure that, as the economy eventually recovers, our businesses will be positioned to benefit as quickly as possible.
Our primary challenge was to conserve water and protect homeowners. We designed Georgia's first comprehensive statewide water management plan, including funding for new reservoirs that will increase our storage capacity so that Georgia will have the water it needs to grow.
With broad bi-partisan support, we passed targeted tax breaks for industry that will expand and attract jobs. To help homeowners facing foreclosure, we extended the notice period and stipulated that the notice contain contact information of the party empowered to negotiate the mortgage with the homeowner.
The legislature also spent a good deal of time on ways to reform our schools so that every student could learn in an educational environment uniquely suited to each child. A "one size fits all" system only works if all the children are the same. Gratefully, they are not. So, we worked to give more flexibility to local public schools, expand the number of charter schools, and offer more access to private schools.
We gave local school systems the flexibility they have been asking for to relax regulations in exchange for a contract with the state that includes specific academic performance measures. Failure to meet those defined goals will result in a loss of governance after 5 years.
We created new non-profit School Scholarship Organizations (SSO) funded with tax-deductible donations from corporations and individuals. Up to $50 million a year will be available for tuition grants to children in public school who want to go to private school. And, to encourage more parent-run, independent charter schools, we established a new state commission with the power to approve them even if denied at the local level.
Sadly, we were not able to reach agreement on providing scholarships for children stuck in chronically failing schools.
For the first time ever, we provided the new State Trauma Commission with $60 million to shore up the existing programs and expand the system statewide. These funds will be used for EMS transportation, communications and training along with the expenses associated with hospital trauma centers.
Many people are struggling with the cost of health care. After decades of debate, we reformed the state's outdated certificate of need program to increase free market competition in the delivery of health care. This will expand access, improve quality, and reduce costs. We also provided tax breaks for high deductible health plans sold or maintained in connection with a health savings account.
Finally, we encouraged more wellness and disease management programs with certain policies. These patient-centered measures will save Georgians money by reducing the number of uninsured being paid for by the taxpayers by offering an affordable, low-cost health insurance option.
Protection of our citizens is always our highest priority. Georgia will begin tracking sexual predators in cyberspace. Sex offenders who are required to register with the state will have to turn over their email addresses to authorities.
We also will give parents access to a product to keep certain websites off limits for their kids and require schools to provide children with one hour of teaching each year on how to avoid sexual predators on-line. After the Georgia Supreme Court threw out the state's restrictions on where sex offenders could live, we passed a new law that bans them from living or working within 1,000 feet of where children congregate. We also banned photography of minors by sex offenders.
While we were unable to agree on tax cuts or an assessment freeze, we did provide almost $500 million in the budget for local property tax relief. We also passed the Transparency in Government Act that will permit every citizen to see exactly how their state government spends their money. And we required that each department in state government be subjected to "zero-based budgeting" every four years to weed out ineffective programs and force every dollar of tax money to be justified. Both of these will help pave the way for tax relief in the future by controlling state spending. While some may focus on the failures of the session - particularly in an election year - we produced real change that benefited patients and students.

Johnson, president pro tem of the Senate, represents most of Liberty County. A Republican, he lives in Savannah.
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