Midstate legislators score most on local measures

mlee@macon.comMarch 30, 2012 

ATLANTA -- The state’s annual legislative session ended with just a few dozen bills passed out of hundreds proposed.

All members of the Bibb County delegation said the most momentous accomplishment was putting a question on the July primary ballot asking voters to do away with Macon and Bibb’s individual governments and uniting them in a consolidated Macon-Bibb County.

And Houston County’s senior legislator, House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, got his No. 1 priority, too, the funds to help clear out key properties around Robins Air Force Base in the so-called crash zone.

For Bibb, 2012 was marked by cooperation among the eight legislators for bills that affect the area. Besides consolidation, there was broad support for moves to fight poverty with a new intown development authority and to open a legal channel that’s the first step toward a regionwide transit system.

“It’s the first time in a long time the Bibb delegation is not dominated by long-term legislators,” said Chris Grant, an associate professor in Mercer University’s Department of Political Science. Among the eight legislators, it was the first full session for three of them.

“It’s a major change,” he said. “I think you see more positivity, more working across party lines.”

Here are the outcomes of some of the delegation members’ key personal initiatives during the session:

• State Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, took office in July and started the year with an ambitious bill to raise state job-creation tax credits to the poorest urban neighborhoods. He got support from Macon Republican state Rep. Allen Peake as well as House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams of Atlanta. The bill never got called for a hearing, but he did move a local bill that will create a new development authority for impoverished Macon neighborhoods.

“I think,” Beverly said, the bill “is a huge tool to do what I ran on.”

• State Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella, authored a successful bill to require telemarketers to call from a traceable, staffed phone number, so that people can call back and ask to be taken off the calling list.

“All of us, especially in business, get these calls,” he said. “There’s a cost of having to take these things.”

• State Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch, authored a bill this year that will make it a felony to intimidate or threaten a law enforcement officer or their family on their own private time. It stems from a brazen, armed threat against a Twiggs County deputy and his family at their home in 2010. The penalty is set at one to three years of imprisonment and up to a $5,000 fine.

• State Rep. Susan Holmes, R-Monticello, agreed that Macon-Bibb consolidation and the tax changes statewide to car and Internet sales were the most important issues this year. She had no contentious bills from the other counties she represents this year. Holmes authored no bills herself this year, saying “I will not be one who always has to carry a bill. Let’s enforce the laws we have.”

• State Rep. Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, the House Majority Leader, described his party job as more like a coach in the dugout than a player in the limelight. He said his job is to create consensus within the GOP in the state House rather than work on bills. But he said “my No. 1 first priority goal this year” was to secure state support for fixing the encroachment issue near Robins Air Force Base. And indeed, a state budget ready for the governor’s signature includes $2.5 million to help buy up property around the base that the Department of Defense wants vacated.

As for next year, he said he thinks there is some appetite to “flatten” Georgia’s income tax by removing exemptions and also cutting the overall tax rate. Georgia’s standard income tax rate is 6 percent, he said, but once exemptions are calculated, the effective tax rate is more like 3.5 percent. O’Neal said it would be better to be able to advertise the lower rate to potential residents and businesses looking for a home.

• State Sen. Miriam Paris, D-Macon, dove into headline floor debates over bills to require drug testing of certain welfare recipients and to limit abortions and birth control. She said those measures are “moving the state to a negative place.” She signed several doomed but symbolic proposals such as one that would require the Legislature to budget certain funds to its often-cut watchdog, the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. Or another that would require the state to certify the restored voting rights to certain ex-convicts.

“Georgia is a state that’s thought to be more progressive,” she said, though she thinks some of this year’s legislation proved just the opposite.

• State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, sponsored a successful bill to create a special tribunal to settle disputes between taxpayers and the Georgia Department of Revenue, a bill he called a “hidden gem” that people will appreciate when they discover it. He also moved a symbolic statement against the federal health care reforms of 2010, that simply reiterated that doctors and dentists will get their licenses from the state on the basis of merit, not on what insurance they accept. Though the federal law is silent on licensing, Peake said it’s pre-emptive in case the federal government ever decides to tie licensing to insurance.

Next year, he pledges to try again with a proposal to create a state-funded venture capital fund that would partner with private money on in-state investments.

• State Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, said her successful House bill on transit is “the first step toward developing a regional network.” It simply allows the Macon-Bibb Transit Authority to contract outside of the county. It may well start small, with, say, contracts to carry seniors, or run drive-time routes to big workplaces. But it could grow. She carried the bill with the agreement of regional mayors and county commissioners, who, she said, have “decided we’re going to have to think regional.”

• State Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, a member of the Appropriations Committee, pointed out that this year’s budget restores some of last year’s cuts to higher education funding, and it raises an annual grant to Mercer University’s School of Medicine, meant to train more rural doctors.

Staton also moved a bill that would increase from $300 million to $500 million the total amount of bonds the state can sell to finance certain construction at universities.

• State Rep. Willie Talton, R-Warner Robins, was one of the authors of the major criminal justice reform report from last year that turned into a successful bill this year. The bill most notably raises the bar that divides a misdemeanor from a felony on certain nonviolent theft and drug possession cases. It also sets up a uniform framework for the scattered special courts that aim to intervene to reform, rather than punish, certain offenders.

Talton said he expects the report to spawn another bill next year, maybe on sentencing reform.

All bills require the governor’s signature before becoming law.

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