Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections for December 31, 2014

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Georgia Politics, Campaigns, and Elections for December 31, 2014

On December 31, 1695, a British law taxing windows went into effect, causing many property owners to brick-up some windows to avoid paying the tax. This may be the first recorded instance of the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in response to a tax increase. See also: Revolution, American.

The Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park closed on December 31, 1895.

On December 31, 1999, the Panama Canal was turned over to Panama pursuant to the Torrijos-Carter Treaties signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.

Georgia Politics

Coincidental timing that the Joint Study Committee on Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding released it’s report on the day before New Year’s Eve as the University of Georgia Bulldogs prepared to take the field? Or was it the Gold Dome version of “Take the Trash Out Day” in which politicians release news they don’t want folks to pay attention to on a day it’s unlikely to receive much attention?

I haven’t yet read the report – I’ll do so over the next day or two – and one of my New Year’s Resolutions is to not take a position opposing or supporting legislation before I’ve read it. Here’s the Associated Press take on the report by Kathleen Foody and via the Macon Telegraph:

The committee’s 23-page report made no specific recommendations, but laid out a dozen options for lawmakers on how to meet the state’s transportation needs, from increasing the state’s gas tax for the first time since 1971, to creating a 1-cent statewide sales tax or investing in mass transit.

Other options mentioned include moving about $180 million annually from the state’s general fund into transportation, indexing gas taxes to inflation or the cost of fuel, establishing an annual fee for alternative fuel vehicles and adding new toll lanes.

Democrats, who are the minority party in both legislative chambers, have pushed to include transit in the transportation discussion.

The committee’s report urged lawmakers to acknowledge that mass transit is “critical” in urban areas and suggested a “separate, permanent” funding source for transit systems around the state.

And from Dave Williams at the Atlanta Business Chronicle:

A committee of lawmakers, business leaders and advocates for local government that held eight hearings across the state this summer and fall identified a long-term funding gap for vital highway and transit improvements that, according to the report, will cripple Georgia economically if left unaddressed.

“Roads, bridges, transit systems and rail lines are critical means of connecting businesses with their customers and employees,” the report stated. “However, congestion on major highways costs the state billions each year in lost productivity, including extended commutes and delayed shipments of goods.

“In order to remain nationally and globally competitive, and to meet these challenges, Georgia must take immediate and significant steps to increase its investment in transportation infrastructure.”

In the first significant effort to address transportation funding since the failure of nine of 12 regional TSPLOST votes held throughout Georgia in 2012 – including the metro Atlanta referendum – the committee’s report cites a new study commissioned by the Metro Atlanta Chamber that found the state needs to spend an additional $1 billion to $1.5 billion a year on transportation just to maintain the existing network of roads and bridges.

Meeting the most critical needs for additional highway and transit capacity would require $2.1 billion to $2.9 billion in new investment, according to the study, a cooperative effort of HNTB Corp. and Ernst & Young, while fulfilling the “full universe” of transportation needs across Georgia would take $3.9 billion to $5.4 billion in additional annual spending.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution got a reaction quote from Gov. Deal’s office and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle:

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said the General Assembly and the governor clearly have much work to do.

Lawmakers, he said, will “use these findings as a guide while we work to solve our transportation challenges and take advantage of the great opportunities that await us.”

Gov. Nathan Deal’s spokesman said Tuesday the governor is willing to work with lawmakers, but warned solutions must not threaten the state’s AAA bond rating.

Spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor “knows that we need new investment in transportation to keep traffic moving through Georgia and that gridlock threatens our economic development. The governor appreciates the leadership and work that has gone into this report, which appears to take a serious look at changes in policy without sugar-coating the challenges we face.”

It’s worth noting that both the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber had representation on the Committee under the legislation that created it.

Yesterday, the Atlanta Streetcar officially began serving commuters after several weeks of testing. A story on WABE quoted somebody,

Old Fourth Ward resident Caler Gordy plans to use it and believes others will, too, despite the wait times.

“Millennials want to live where they can live, work, and play and not have a car and this is just one more step to make that happen.”

Gordy and others are banking on future expansion, including streetcar stops along the Atlanta BeltLine.

I think it must have been a simple oversight that the resident’s name was misspelled – it’s Kailor Gordy – and also an oversight that it wasn’t mentioned that he works for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, a long-time cheerleader for the Streetcar and other transit projects.

Georgia state employees were exempted from the definition of “lobbyists” in ethics legislation passed in 2013, and as a result, legislators are still able to accept tickets to college football games.

The reforms took effect this year, banning free tickets, golf games and anything of value over $75. But the same bill changed the definition of lobbyist to exclude public employees, including university system lobbyists who are among of the most generous at the Capitol.

As a result, lawmakers got prime seats to watch the Bulldogs hammer Auburn, the Yellow Jackets scrape by Georgia Southern and the Georgia State Panthers manage their only win this fall, free of charge.

University System lobbyists spent more than $20,000 this fall on football tickets, game-day meals and mixers for lawmakers. Overall, they had spent more than $48,000 on lawmakers through the end of November, according to reports collected from schools by the AJC using the Open Records Act.

Even though the total is down from last year, colleges remain the biggest spenders on lawmakers among the State Capitol’s lobbying corps.

Because they don’t have to register as lobbyists, they also don’t have to report to the state what they spend. And they don’t have to abide by the ban on game tickets and the $75 limit on meals, which they exceeded about 20 times during 2014, according to school records. Some schools, such as UGA, handed out more free football tickets than they did last year, when they had to report.

I’m not being coy or ironic when I say I believe this is an unintended consequence.

Testing of a medical cannabis oil has begun in Augusta at Regent University.

Preston is the first child to receive Epidiolex as part of a two-patient compassionate access clinical trial at Georgia Regents University. Also on Tuesday, enrollment began for a 50-patient trial of the drug.

Preston has Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and experiences 60 to 100 seizures a day, although most are not visible. His mother is hopeful the cannabidiol, a main active ingredient in marijuana that does not produce a high, will help him the way it appears to be helping other children with uncontrollable seizures.

The family has known since September that he would be one of the first to participate in the clinical trial, which came about because of a unique partnership among GRU, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal’s office and the manufacturer, GW Pharmaceuticals of London. That effort came after the Georgia General Assembly failed to pass a narrow bill that would have legalized the oil for children with uncontrollable seizures and a few other kinds of patients.

The chief sponsor, Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, is working to bring back legislation that would allow the production, processing and distribution of the oil for patients in Georgia and said it will be ready to go when the Legislature convenes Jan. 12.

An op-ed in the Savannah Morning News argues for increasing the cap on income tax credits for contributions to some K-12 scholarship programs.

[T]he Georgia Legislature can advance an important piece of the middle-class agenda: Increase the annual cap on income tax credits available for contributions to scholarship programs that fund private school options for K-12 students from low- and middle-income families.

Since 2008, thousands of Georgia taxpayers have contributed to qualified Student Scholarship Organizations (SSOs) that award K-12 private school scholarships to thousands of middle-income families; families who want to decide for themselves where best to educate their children.

The Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program, which is the state’s largest SSO, partners with 125 private schools located in communities throughout Georgia. Since 2008, GOAL has awarded about 15,000 scholarships, distributed proportionately in numbers that generally correspond to the percentage population base in each of the four geographical regions of Georgia.

Without a significant increase in the current $58 million cap, the Georgia GOAL program will be unable to keep up with the demand for scholarships. As a result, many middle-class workers will be unable to afford the tuition associated with educating their children at a better local private school. Most likely, many of these families will relocate to communities in states whose K-12 education reform policies are better at attracting businesses.

The Savannah Morning News also covers the loss of many years of seniority for Georgia’s Congressional Delegation.

Georgians in this part of the state are saying goodbye to three lawmakers with a combined 52 years of experience in Washington.

Next month, they’ll say hello to three successors who have spent far less time on Capitol Hill.

How much experience? Try zero.

Sending a trio of congressional rookies to Congress can be viewed two ways. First, new blood can be a good thing. The public ran out of patience a long time ago with the politically divided Congress, and especially the Obama White House. The results from this year’s midterm election speak for themselves.

Congressman Jack Kingston was a longtime member of the House Appropriations Committee, which is the check-writing arm of the House. The Savannah Republican’s decision to run for the U.S. Senate this year, combined with his narrow loss to David Perdue in the GOP primary runoff, will have a negative impact when money is allocated. It will take time to regain this clout.

Mr. Kingston’s successor in the 1st District, Buddy Carter, brings years of experience in the Georgia Legislature to Washington. The former Republican state senator and representative knows the legislative process, and, most importantly, how to balance budgets. That’s something Georgia requires — and, something Washington needs, too.

The Marietta Daily Journal covers the transition by Barry Loudermilk from veteran state Senator to Congressional freshman-elect.

Since his election in November, Loudermilk has been back and forth between Washington, D.C., working on transitioning into his new position. While in Washington recently, Loudermilk was given a “behind the scenes” tour of the White House. He said the Oval Office was less ornate than he expected, but he said it actually reflects how the office of the president was originally envisioned.

He’s still waiting on the keys to the office, however, as he is not officially a congressman until Jan. 3.

“I legally cannot get a business card until Jan. 3,” Loudermilk said. “That’s when the new Congress officially comes in … On Saturday, the third, I can actually get business cards, and I can get letterhead. I get the keys to my office.”

If I ever move into a new office, the first thing I unload will be a coffee maker.

United States Senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson said that President Obama will not re-nominate Georgia Appeals Court Judge Mike Boggs after opposition by Congressional Democrats stalled the nomination. Most interesting part of the AJC article on this? The reference to the following tweet:

I mentioned an article in The Atlantic about Erick Erickson the other day; because I read that, I know the Georgia connection to the rejection of Harriet Miers as Supreme Court Justice.

An early success came in October 2005, after George W. Bush nominated his own lawyer, White House Counsel Harriet Miers, to succeed Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court. Bush had enjoyed reliable support from right-wing media outlets like Fox News and National Review. After his reelection, less than a year earlier, he had announced, “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” There was little reason to believe the nomination would run into serious trouble.

But trouble came fast. Erickson was among Miers’s earliest and loudest critics. From his point of view, conservatives had worked hard for Bush’s reelection—he himself had been a volunteer lawyer for the campaign—and in return they expected Bush to nominate a conservative heavyweight like the recently appointed John Roberts. Miers, Erickson believed, was both ideologically suspect and lacking in credentials. “This is a profoundly disappointing nomination, a missed opportunity, and an abdication of responsibility to make sound, well qualified nominations,” RedState proclaimed on October 3, the day the nomination was announced.

Erickson dug up dirt on Miers—such as the fact that she had donated to Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign—that helped persuade better-known conservatives, like Limbaugh and Coulter, to come out against the nomination too. The backlash “baffled” members of the Bush administration, Matt Latimer, a former Bush speechwriter, recalled recently. “They just didn’t understand how you could have a principled objection to something the administration wanted to do and still be a conservative,” he told me. “Their definition of conservative was whatever they said it was.” Erickson spoke for a GOP base that was tired of being told to fall in line. By getting Republicans elected, grass-roots conservatives, too, felt they’d amassed political capital, but Washington didn’t seem inclined to let them cash it in.

Eventually, even establishment voices on the right, such as David Brooks and writers for National Review, came to oppose Miers. Bush withdrew his nomination on October 27. It was the beginning of a split that would come to define Bush’s second term and dominate the Republican Party into the Obama era: the revolt of the conservative grass roots against the party establishment.

Cognitive Dissonance over Religious Liberties?

Two days ago, the Marietta Daily-Journal ran an editorial by the Savannah Morning News on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that is likely to be reintroduced in the Georgia General Assembly.

Religious freedom is a precious liberty. Americans are free to practice — or not — a faith of their own choosing. It’s not that complicated.

What’s hard to figure, however, is why [State Rep. Sam] Teasley is pushing something that isn’t needed. When it comes to religious liberty, there’s nothing broken that requires fixing.

State lawmakers shouldn’t waste their limited time in Atlanta on grandstanding when they face more consequential issues. They must devote themselves to measures that help build a better future for all Georgians. Teasley’s bill isn’t one of them.

Two weeks earlier, the MDJ Editorial Board opined on Kennesaw City Council’s rejection of a zoning application for a mosque.

We understand the misgivings many feel about the explosive growth of the Muslim faith in this country, and we share their insistence that sharia law must not be allowed to gain even a toehold here, unlike what has happened in parts of Europe. But mosque opponents have chosen an indefensible piece of ground on which to make that fight in this case, as the law is not on their side.

[T]he fact remains that the law leaves the city no leeway in this case. The First Amendment is clear. The Kennesaw City Council can no more decree that there can be no Muslim mosques there than it can decide that it will not allow any more Baptist churches, Mormon churches or synagogues.

The First Amendment was included in the Constitution not just to protect “popular speech,” which rarely needs any protection, but also to protect “unpopular speech” — the voicing of political or other opinions that would get one thrown in jail (or worse) in many places. Likewise, the admonition against the passage of any laws “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion is not meant just to protect “mainline” faiths like those whose grand churches can be found on most Main Streets, but also to protect smaller, “unpopular” sects that worship the “wrong” god, or no god at all.

I argue that the mosque zoning in Kennesaw is exactly the type of action that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would work against. Somehow it has become lost to many in the media that the RFRA would protect all religions from discrimination by the state. They also fail to note that the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law,” not “no government entity shall make a law.”

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