Legislative Notebook: Second shot for special car tags

mlee@macon.comMarch 6, 2014 

The fee for special car tags that say “Give Wildlife a Chance” actually should be used to give non-game wildlife a chance by spending as much as $3 million for conservation programs and land acquisitions, according to a state Senate panel.

By a 3-1 vote, the Senate Public Safety Committee voted Thursday to approve a bill that cuts the renewal fee for such tags to $25 and channels $20 to Georgia Department of Natural Resources non-game conservation programs and $5 to the state. Right now, the renewal fee is $35 and the state keeps $25 of that in its general bank account.

Those programs depend on tag sales and don’t get a budget line, said state Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch, who is the bill’s sponsor. Those tag sales have declined by 69 percent in three years, he said, due in part to people declining to renew when they realize most of their extra fee has not gone to wildlife since 2010.

The change could be worth about $3 million in its first year, Epps said. But he expects the hit to the general fund eventually will be offset by Georgia drivers returning to the plates.

Another supporter, state Rep. David Knight, R-Griffin, said the non-game wildlife protections are a key defense against the federal government intruding to protect endangered species.

If the bill sounds familiar, it’s essentially a reboot of Epps’ House Bill 730, which never got a House committee vote, that’s now hitched to an unrelated House Bill 881. It needs full Senate approval and House agreement.

Senate recommends rural health spending

The state Senate will ask the House to agree to $25,000 to begin to develop rural emergency rooms as the two chambers go into annual budget negotiations.

Under a Senate plan, the Department of Community Health would come up with a plan of compensation for rural hospitals that would work toward setting up “stabilization centers.” Such tiny rural ERs would have just two to three beds and provide critical triage services before sending patients on to hospitals.

There needs to be a way to set up such centers by law or agency rule, said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville.

But it’s an arcane area of law that governs hospital regulation and when, where and how the state would allow the setup of what would be loss-making centers.

The push comes from state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, who has proposed the legal changes and DCH rule changes, looking for some way to authorize tiny rural ERs.

The House budget does not include any such budget item. The two chambers will settle their budget differences in a conference committee in the coming days.

GHSA overview committee closer

The state Legislature got a step closer to forming a committee to oversee the body that organizes high school sports, with a vote by the House Budget and Fiscal Affairs Oversight Committee.

Via unanimous voice vote, members approved Senate Bill 288, which recreates a 12-member legislative GHSA Overview Committee.

The target is the Georgia High School Association, a private body that organizes divisions and tournaments for high school sports statewide.

“This is not an attempt to organize or manage organizations like GHSA,” said state Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, who is the Senate sponsor. He said it’s to exercise oversight of an organization that derives much of its revenue from taxpayer-funded facilities such as football fields.

Now the bill needs full House approval and Senate agreement to minor House edits.

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