Strong leadership and cooperation yield good results

Georgia’s 2015 legislative session wrapped up late on April 2. It was one of the most intense, but productive, sessions I’ve participated in.

We had unusually good cooperation between the two parties and together passed key bills that will benefit many people all across this state. Gov. Nathan Deal once again demonstrated steady leadership, as did House Speaker David Ralston.

Georgia’s improved revenue picture certainly fueled some of this good will. After several years of painful cuts from the Great Recession, I can’t express how deeply satisfying it was to finally have the resources to improve our state and to help people.

On the next to the last day of the session, we adopted the $21.8 billion appropriations bill for fiscal year 2016 that starts July 1. The bill originated in the House Appropriations Committee that I chair and then went through Senate revisions and finally several days of conference committee meetings.

In the end, the bill included $900 million in new operating expenditures, most of it for education, and another $1.1 billion in bonds for capital improvements of schools, colleges, libraries and other facilities.

After a lot of work in both chambers, we also approved the 2015 Transportation Funding Act. It does away with the sales tax on gasoline but raises the overall state tax on gasoline slightly to help generate $900 million annually for much-needed maintenance of Georgia’s roads and bridges. The net impact at the pump should be roughly a nickel per gallon of gasoline. While no one wants to pay more for gas, I hope we can agree that we don’t want our families riding to work or to school on a transportation network that is unsafe.

Since the Transportation Act’s revenue stream is permanent, I expect we’ll see several local projects move up on the Georgia Department of Transportation’s maintenance list.

Another highlight of this year’s session was the approval of Gov. Deal’s “Opportunity School Districts” initiative. Both chambers agreed to let voters decide in a statewide referendum next year whether to amend the Georgia constitution to allow the state to step in with innovative practices and additional resources to fix chronically failing schools. The Barrow County School System doesn’t have any failing schools, thankfully, but this initiative holds promise for other systems whose schools just cannot meet state standards. We only have one chance to educate a child, and failing schools are not doing that.

Another piece of education legislation that passed in the session’s final week was Senate Bill 89, or the “Digital Classroom Act.” It would allow local school boards to use digital and electronic software instead of textbooks in their classrooms. The bill also encourages local boards to purchase all instructional materials in digital or electronic format and by July 2020 to provide an electronic device for every student starting in 3rd grade. This bill not only ensures Georgia students have access to technology in the classroom, but it also prepares tomorrow’s workforce to compete in this digital age.

We also last week passed House Bill 429, which requires insurance companies to cover up to $35,000 in autism services for children 6 years of age or younger. We don’t know why autism is affecting more and more American children, but we do know that if intervention begins by the age of 6, children with autism make progress that often improves the rest of their lives. I’m proud of our House and Senate colleagues for coming together on such an important matter to help children get the care they deserve.

Now that the session is over, feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns you have. Just email me at englandhomeport2@windstream.net or call my legislative office at 404-463-2245.

Thank you again for giving me this opportunity to serve you and Barrow County. May God bless you and your family and our great State.