The legislative session had its share of winners and losers

mlee@macon.comMarch 30, 2013 

ATLANTA -- After 40 days, 2,695 bills and resolutions, more than $719,000 in lobbyist spending, a few hundred committee meetings and thousands of sheets of paper, the 2013 state legislative term ended fairly quietly for the midstate, legislators said.

Here’s a look at the winners and losers from this year’s session.

Winners

Students in higher education fared well, said state Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon.

“The governor raised HOPE by 3 percent,” he noted. Most public university students get a HOPE Scholarship that pays about 90 percent of tuition, though increased lottery revenues led Gov. Nathan Deal to agree to the increased spending. And the Legislature returned the GPA requirement for students in technical colleges to receive the HOPE Grant to 2.0.

An earlier move to 3.0 helped knock thousands of students out of schools over the past two years.

“Venture capital was a winner,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, with a plan that will “really aid and assist the industry.”

Peake was an early supporter of a vehicle to put state money into a venture capital fund run by an independent manager. The Legislature indeed voted to set up the fund, but on the last day of the term, decided to leave the fund’s bank account empty for now.

Parents with children who are in day care won during this term, too, Peake said. His House Bill 350 to require nationwide, fingerprint-based criminal background checks for all day care employees passed earlier this year.

“I think it’s been a good year for (agriculture) this year,” said state Rep. Robert Dickey, R-Musella.

Besides the blessing of rain, the Legislature sent no earthquake of immigration changes that would affect farm labor, as they did two years ago. Dickey’s also optimistic about a program the Legislature set up to float loans of up to $50,000 to new farmers.

“Farmers are getting so much older. ... Farming is so capital-intensive, young farmers can’t get into the business. You see farms getting bigger and bigger,” he said.

And the Legislature put Macon’s old juvenile detention center up for sale this year as surplus property. It could be seen as a symbol for the philosophical shift approved by the Legislature this year to try to handle certain, less-risky juvenile delinquents with treatment, counseling, after-school supervision and other programs rather than incarceration.

It’s a model that’s been rolled out in Ohio for a dozen years and was followed by Texas. In a pilot project, the state of Georgia will spend $5 million in grants for diversion programs in the counties with the most juvenile offenders in the year beginning this July.

The Legislature saw fewer bills this term than usual. That’s due to several things, including the high number of freshmen under the Gold Dome. Both Dickey and Staton expressed approval of fewer new regulations.

Losers

The session had a few losers as well.

The House failed to take up a last-minute compromise gun bill that would have allowed concealed weapons in more places such as churches and some courthouses.

Staton was hoping for the passage of what he called a “very strong Second Amendment bill.”

But universities and colleges pulled the trigger: Their leaders formed a phalanx to fight some legislators’ insistence on allowing licensed, over-21 gun owners to carry on public university and college campuses.

Highways and bridges were definitely losers last year, as much of the state, including the region around Bibb County, turned down a penny sales tax that would have lasted a decade to finance major builds and repairs. Their shot at a comeback may be a year or two away.

“I think we will see regions that didn’t pass (the tax) look (at it) again,” said state Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch. He said some of the counties in his district already have called asking about a do-over on the sales tax vote.

Both the state and federal highway agencies report something of a cash shortage. Both depend heavily on the gasoline tax, but Americans are driving more efficient cars, using just as much road but paying less in taxes.

In the meantime, Epps pointed out, the Legislature this year passed a law amending the formula that divvies up federal road money. Each congressional district still gets an equal amount of cash, but each district is now able to spend more on smaller projects off the highways where the needs may be greater.

Farmers, kayakers and others along the Flint River did not get any plan to address river flow and water use. The state Environmental Protection Division opened up the Flint River Drought Protection Act for edits this year. The Senate passed a version that looked at the whole Flint River from Fulton County to Florida and mandated tests on flow and some review of withdrawal permits. A House version looked at only roughly the southern half of the river. Questions over language in the bill that would have allowed state investments in potentially pricey projects to pump aquifer water into a drought-afflicted Flint muddied the question, and the bill died before House debate.

Finally, Bibb’s eight lawmakers need to avoid becoming losers, said state Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon.

“To rebuild some relationships is going to be important for the region to move forward,” he said.

The eight split in various ways this year, most obviously over Payne City.

Payne City, the 200-resident municipality surrounded by the city of Macon, voted against joining the Macon-Bibb merger by seven votes to nine in 2012. Beverly halted a move by Bibb’s other seven legislators to dissolve Payne into the consolidation.

“Whatever happens, Payne City is one example of a real winner,” Beverly said. “Every vote counts. ... Democracy is messy. You never know what you’re going to get.”

Staton, on the other hand, put Payne firmly in the loser camp.

“The cost of retaining Payne City will be detrimental,” he said, adding that he fails to see any benefit of the city’s independence for either its residents or the consolidated government.

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