ATLANTA -- In 40 days of work at the state Capitol, legislators juggled a multimillion dollar transportation effort, a plan to fix some of Georgia’s most ailing public schools and an initiative to allow medical marijuana for a host of illnesses.
The three topics were among the most talked-about issues under the Gold Dome this year, and in the end, the Legislature approved policy changes related to all three.
“From education to health care to transportation, we said we wanted to do some good stuff, and we did,” said state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon.
House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, said transportation and schools were the most urgent big issues this year.
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As a GOP leader, O’Neal was one of the lawmakers who helped woo Democrats and fellow Republicans to support the first step in Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan for a state takeover of Georgia’s worst-performing schools.
The next step will be convincing voters in 2016 to give the same green light that Deal’s bill got in the state Legislature.
The governor’s plan would create a powerful new education office, and the governor would appoint its superintendent. That superintendent would have the power to replace staff, curriculum and financial management in schools that sit at the bottom of a state school ranking for at least three years.
Fourteen schools in Bibb County as well as neighboring Twiggs County High School fit that definition of “failing.” Of the 120 or so failing schools statewide, the state would take over no more than 20 each year, with the appointed superintendent choosing the schools.
Because the plan changes the Georgia Constitution, it needed a supermajority of lawmakers to OK it, so the GOP could not go it alone.
Critics said it concentrated too much power in that new school takeover office.
But state Rep. Bubber Epps, R-Dry Branch, said if the state chose Twiggs County High School for the program, it would find cooperative partners in Twiggs dedicated to delivering what students need.
Even schools that are not taken over by the state might get some good ideas on improvement, he said.
“I have optimism with this,” said Epps.
State Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, opposed the bill. He said outsiders lack a knowledge of conditions in each problem school’s neighborhood. He wants decisions left in local hands.
He also said he thinks students in failing schools would be better served by curriculum changes rather than a state takeover.
State Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, said he has some critiques of the plan but does not get any “heartburn” overall.
“We made them have to sit down and talk about it a little,” Lucas said, referring to the edits to the bill that critics forced during the session.
O’Neal said that because the bill needed support from both sides of the aisle, it “caused us to find ways to work together, and frankly, it turned out to be a very refreshing initiative.”
The bill’s final version added a few checks such as requiring Senate confirmation of the superintendent appointment and requiring that the superintendent confer with local school leaders before taking over a school.
Lucas, a nearly 40-year veteran of the state Legislature under both Democrat and GOP administrations, said governors always want to leave their fingerprints on education.
“Every governor I’ve served with ... every one has had some take or say on education,” Lucas said.
TRANSPORTATION MONEY CONTROVERSIAL
The state Legislature also rewrote Georgia’s rules on taxing gasoline to devise a budget around the $900 million mark for road, bridge and rail works.
It involves “new taxes,” a phrase legislators tried to avoid.
The state will now charge new taxes and fees on hotel rooms, electric vehicles and heavy vehicles. Drivers can also expect to see a gas price rise at the pumps of between four and six cents, according to AAA, due to the state raising an existing per-gallon tax.
The per-gallon tax also will rise in step with car fuel efficiency, to ensure that the tax brings in enough money for roads even as cars use less fuel.
GOP critics slammed the bill for creating and raising taxes.
“It’s going to get a lot of negative pushback from some people, (but) I am all in,” Peake said.
He said he does not like all aspects of the bill, but it would have been almost “negligent” to do nothing to improve bridge safety, road maintenance and traffic congestion.
“Overall, we did what we need to do, which was raise revenue dedicated to transportation,” Peake said.
MEDICAL MARIJUANA FINALLY GETS APPROVAL
The other monumental bill of the session came from Peake’s pen.
His House Bill 1 prodded Georgia into a medical cannabis discussion for the first time in decades. The bill decriminalizes a single type of liquid medicine, made from cannabis, for certain patients who acquire it legally in another state.
“Getting HB 1 passed helps a lot of families, a lot of citizens. ... That’s a huge load off of me, knowing we have taken that step,” Peake said.
It also creates a summer study committee mandated to recommend ways for more practical, wider access to the liquid medicine.
Peake plans to start next January’s session with a bill that will incorporate that committee’s report.
Medical cannabis aside, it was a session with little to show for health care.
“This state refuses to accept Medicaid expansion. I disagree with them on that,” Lucas said.
The federal government is trying to incentivize states to make Medicaid insurance available for more low-income residents. The federal government will pay a greater share for a longer time than in past years, but Georgia has not so far been interested.
The next state legislative session begins in January.