As expected, transportation funding and the governor’s proposal to address persistently failing public schools dominated Georgia’s legislative session. The measures passed, yet several opportunities to address critical economic issues were missed.
Here are the good, the bad and the ugly on how the 2015 legislative session affects the average Georgian.
Transportation: You will pay about 3 cents more per gallon in gas taxes than you did over the last four years. This tax increase, along with annual fees on alternative-fuel vehicles and heavy trucks and a $5-a-day charge on hotel and motel rooms, adds up to more than $900 million a year in needed transportation funding.
Legislators also fixed many problems with the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, enabling smaller regions and tax rates of less than 1 percent. This makes TSPLOST an effective tool for funding specific projects in high-growth areas such as metro Atlanta.
Reprioritizing local spending or lowering the state income tax could have avoided a tax increase. The gas tax, however, is a good proxy for a user fee that should be raised or lowered based on actual costs. The challenge now is to ensure that these new funds are targeted efficiently and effectively.
Education: If your child attends a persistently failing public school, help may be on the way. Citizens will have a chance to vote on a constitutional amendment in 2016 designed to give the state the ability to place persistently failing public schools in an “Opportunity School District.” Similar to the Recovery School District in Louisiana and the Achievement School District in Tennessee, the state would hire new school management to attempt to improve student achievement.
Meanwhile, if you cannot afford to move your child to a new school, you may be out of luck: The Legislature refused to consider expanding any existing school-choice programs despite pent-up demand and demonstrated cost savings.
Innovation: If you use ride-sharing services such as Uber or Lyft, you will be pleased that Georgia found a way to preserve access to these innovative new services while addressing reasonable safety, insurance and tax concerns.
If you like craft beer or you work at one of the many craft breweries and brewpubs that have opened throughout the state, you will be disappointed. After several years of effort, watered-down legislation was approved, but Georgia remains one of the most-regulated states in the nation.
Health care: The uninsured will be pleased that the budget appropriated a half-million dollars to the Georgia Charitable Care Network to expand the capacity and number of charity clinics in Georgia. These clinics provide medical care to uninsured and indigent patients and save taxpayers by reducing expensive emergency-room visits.
Jobs: Low-income Georgians will be disappointed by the failure to address professional-licensing reform that would expand job access and creation.
Criminal-justice reform: The poor are just as likely to have their property unfairly seized, but a modest civil-asset forfeiture bill provides for better reporting and restrictions on the use of seized assets.
Transparency: Advocates for transparency also will be disappointed. Fiscal notes on key legislation often remain hidden from public view and scrutiny. The state Senate still refuses to follow the House of Representatives’ example by broadcasting committee meetings. Many private citizens are able to point out negative effects or unintended consequences of proposed legislation; they should be empowered, not thwarted.
The calendar for 2016 is busy. The Governor’s Education Reform Commission will make its recommendations in less than four months, laying the groundwork for a revised, student-focused funding formula, fairer funding for charter schools and online options, and an expansion of school choice.
The transportation-tax increase raises the pressure for tax reform. The transportation bill includes specific language creating a Special Joint Committee for Georgia Revenue Structure, which must propose tax-reform legislation next year to be voted up or down with no amendments.
Finally, an opportunity for comprehensive health-care reform will hinge on the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision that may invalidate a portion of the Affordable Care Act. This could require a special session to address alternatives for the nearly half a million Georgians who bought subsidized health insurance through Georgia’s federally managed exchange.
Overall, the 2015 session of the Georgia General Assembly accomplished its primary mission of addressing transportation funding, but fell short on addressing major issues such as education, health care and tax reform that can enhance the lives of most Georgians. Let’s hope 2016 is a busy year.