First session finishes with a flourish
The last day of my first session was thrilling and exhausting. I worked from 7 in the morning to midnight to get “Kelsey’s Law” over the finish line. Only 13 minutes remained before the official “Sine Die” when all work must cease until next year. But I am incredibly grateful that my work, and the work of Newton Representatives Pam Dickerson and Doug Holt before me, finally came to fruition after four long years. More importantly, I am humbled to be just a small part of courageous Kelsey’s fight to protect fellow teenage girls.
Overall, it was a great session for the children of Georgia. “Haleigh’s Law”, the medical cannabis oil bill, has already been signed in an emotional event by the Governor. Newton Representative Pam Dickerson’s Cyberbullying Law also passed. Senate Bill 8 creates a “Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund Commission” and toughens penalties against sex traffickers. It is a sad fact that Atlanta is considered the sex slave capitol of America. Funding for this Safe Harbor will be derived from fees on strip clubs, an industry that is known to participate in human trafficking. Also, the long debated Autism Bill finally reached the Governor’s desk, requiring insurance companies to cover up to $35,000 for autism treatment for children 6 years of age or younger.
The big news in education was the Governor’s “Opportunity School District”. This issue will come to you — the voter — in the November 2016 election, where you will choose whether the Governor should be allowed to take-over (for a few years) a few persistently failing schools. This will only affect schools that have failed for three consecutive years and will NOT affect any schools in Newton or Morgan counties.
There were many other important education bills that passed. Of paramount significance was HB 91 which allows adults who did not pass the onerous Georgia Gradation Tests long ago to now get their high school diplomas. These tests were poorly designed and are no longer given nor required. Another was the “Move on When Ready Act” which allows all high school students, whether in public or private school, to earn both high school and the postsecondary credit while at a postsecondary school. The “Digital Classroom Act” allows local boards to use digital and electronic software instead of physical textbooks. And a bill I sponsored allows State Charter Schools to create a 501c in order to attract and receive private funds. Overall, I hope you’ll agree that Georgia is offering many more educational choices and opportunities than ever before.
The biggest change to most Georgians was the Transportation bill which raises gas taxes about 7 cents a gallon. The rate will then be adjust- ed annually based on fuel efficiency standards. There is also a new annual fee for low or zero emission vehicles of about $200, and their large onetime tax credit has been eliminated. There is also a new annual fee for heavy vehicles set at $50 for vehicles weighing between 15,500 and 26,000 pounds and $100 for vehicles larger than 26,000 pounds. This was added because big trucks cause more wear and tear to our roads. Finally, there was the “Delta Tax” on jet fuel and a new $5 per night tax on hotels. The hotel tax was considered less onerous to Georgians than the rental car tax that was previously proposed because, according to studies, 86% of hotel guests in Georgia come from out of state.
I am still very troubled by this plan, as it is one of the largest tax increases (around $900 million) in Georgia history. For the second time, I was forced (by House rules) to recuse myself from the vote because it contained provisions that impact my employer. (I work for Delta Air Lines.) But I hope you will remember that a recusal is essentially a “No” vote since the requirement for a bill to pass is to reach 91 “Yes” votes. The bill passed overwhelmingly.
I hope you will contact me with constructive comments at email@example.com or 706-372-4114.
DAVE BELTON COLUMNIST