Legislative Notebook: Sheriffs come to Capitol to decry cuts

ATLANTA — Sheriffs and other law enforcement officers from across Georgia came to the state Capitol on Tuesday to complain about the erosion of state spending on public safety training and the scheduled closure later this month of three GBI crime labs.

Those labs — in Moultrie, Midland and Trion — are slated to close March 31, based on budget decisions made last year. Legislators indicated it will be difficult to change that move, because they’re looking for more cuts, not fewer, to balance the state budget.

Still, Oconee County Sheriff Scott Berry said, “The lab in Atlanta and the lab in Macon cannot do the business of the entire state of Georgia.”

Berry, second vice president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, also said state spending on officer training, much of which is done at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth, has eroded over the years.

Tack-on fees for traffic tickets and other cases are supposed to pay for training, but much of that money is spent on other parts of the state budget.

State Rep. Chuck Martin, co-chairman of a joint committee going over the state’s public safety budget now, said that may be the case. But law enforcement officers still are getting the training they need, he said.

“There’s nobody that’s required training that’s not getting it,” said Martin, R-Alpharetta.

The split between state and local funding for police and sheriff’s offices has been a sore point for local law enforcement.

Berry said that the tack-on fees that are supposed to pay for training totaled more than $25.6 million in fiscal 2009, but only $5 million of it was used to train local law enforcement officers.

Bibb County Sheriff Jerry Modena and Houston County Sheriff Cullen Talton traveled to Atlanta on Tuesday to attend the budget hearing on these matters, but they did not address the joint committee.

Transportation tax talks continue

The push to increase what the state spends on transportation, now in its third year at the state Capitol, continues its plodding course toward reality.

On Tuesday, a special subcommittee met on the issue and, as usual, there was broad agreement that more funding is needed, but serious debate about the details.

Gov. Sonny Perdue, with at least some backing from leadership in the Georgia House and Senate, wants to bind Georgia counties into 12 regions, all of which would hold a regionwide referendum in 2012 to decide whether to add another penny to the local sales tax.

That money would be used to fund road and other projects that a roundtable of local elected leaders and state transportation officials put together.

But there are concerns about just how much say local leaders would have over the project list, and the governor and others in state government say it’s important for the state to be able to control what gets built for the sake of continuity across the state.

Other issues also have emerged. For example, Perdue has said he wants the votes taken the day of the presidential primary in 2012.

With President Obama unlikely to be challenged in the Democratic primary, that leaves Republican voters to dominate elections that day, Tom Gehl, who represents the Georgia Municipal Association, noted Tuesday.

That’s not a group likely to approve new taxes. That’s especially true, Gehl noted, with more than 100 existing local sales taxes, which fund education and other local building programs, up for renewal in 2012.

Gehl said 2012 could end up being “the year of taxes.”

State Rep. Jim Cole, R-Forsyth, is carrying the governor’s transportation funding plan, contained in House Bill 1218. He said the governor and his team are “willing to listen to input” on when the votes would be.

Cole said that even though other transportation efforts have failed to pass in recent years, and despite the fact that this legislative session is already at the halfway mark, he believes “we’ll get a bill passed.”

But he also acknowledged the frustration of going through the same debates over and over again.

“It’s frustrating to have everybody say, ‘Yes, we want transportation funding,’ but when you present them with ways to do it they say, ‘That’s not what we want.’ ”

$1 tax on cigarettes won’t die

Anti-smoking advocates are continuing their push to add another $1 tax onto packs of cigarettes in Georgia to cut down on teenage smoking and help fill the state’s budget gap.

Supporters rolled out poll results Tuesday that they say show broad support for the new tax among Georgians of both parties.

The Public Opinion Strategies poll of 500 registered Georgia voters found that more than 70 percent supported the tax, supporters said.

Though the amount the tax increase would raise for the cash-strapped state has been heavily debated, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids estimates the new revenue at $345.5 million.

The increase would also prevent 79,600 Georgia children from smoking and save hundreds of millions in smoking-related health-care spending, the group has said.

The tax has been unpopular with the Republican majority in control at the Georgia General Assembly, but supporters have pushed hard for the $1 tax for the last year or so.

Georgia’s current tax, 37 cents a pack, is well below the national average of $1.34 a pack, cigarette tax proponents say.

Budget negotiations are ongoing at the state Capitol and, though much of the focus has been on cutting state government spending, there has been some support growing for a modest tax increase, or increases, to help balance the budget.

Bill aims to allow yard waste to be put in landfills

Yard trimmings and other biodegradable waste would be allowed in some state landfills under legislation being considered in Atlanta.

Environmental groups are dead set against the bill, saying it would undo a decade and a half of commitment to lessening the amount of garbage that ends up in a landfill. But state Rep. Randy Nix, who is sponsoring House Bill 1059, said the change would help produce more methane gas that will be captured and used for energy.

He also noted that the change would only allow local landfills to make their own decision about whether to accept yard waste. And, because they must have a methane collection system in place, only about 10 landfills would be eligible.

Georgia banned yard waste in landfills in 1996. And, though much of that waste ends up being burned or dumped elsewhere, composting and other businesses have sprung up to turn yard waste into environmentally friendly products. That includes Wood Tech in Cherokee County. Wood Tech owner Jimmy Bobo said Tuesday that this change would hurt his business and is being pushed by landfill companies that want to be able to accept more types of trash so they can make more money.

Sierra Club lobbyist Mark Woodall called the bill “a complete and total sellout to the garbage companies.”

But Nix said the bill presents “an opportunity here to use something that is being thrown away,” and that the bill contains another policy change that would make it easier for landfills to get a permit to do composting on site.

The bill would allow any lined landfill with a methane collection system in place to accept the waste, Nix said.

That wouldn’t include Macon’s landfill, which has a methane collection system but is not lined. It does, however, include Houston County’s landfill.

Nix’s bill is assigned to the House of Representatives’ Agriculture & Consumer Affairs Committee, and he said he hopes for a committee hearing next week.

Perdue’s water bill advances

Gov. Sonny Perdue’s Water Stewardship Act of 2010 continues to move forward, passing unanimously out of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee on Tuesday.

The bill, House Bill 1094, would require various water saving measures, including low-flow toilets, in new construction starting in 2012.

Given metro Atlanta’s water needs and Perdue’s ongoing negotiations about water use with the governors of Alabama and Florida, the bill hasn’t generated controversy.

It could be debated on the House floor as early as next week.

To contact writer Travis Fain, call 361-2702.