Last week, the Federation of Neighborhoods invited Athens citizens to engage in a Q&A session with the Athens Legislative Delegation. In attendance were State Senators Bill Cowsert and Frank Ginn as well as Representatives Chuck Williams and Regina Quick. Representative Spencer Frye was unable to attend.
The meeting began with statements from legislators reviewing this year’s legislative session.
Bill Cowsert described the session as “benign,” noting that there were very few controversial bills. He praised changes to Senate Bill 160 which no longer requires people to prove their citizenship each time they wish to renew a license. Cowsert also commented extensively on ethics reform. The Ethics Reform Bill caps the amount of money lobbyists can spend on gifts to legislators. Cowsert speculated the the additional rule prohibiting lobbyists from giving athletic event tickets to legislators might make it tougher for UGA to form relationships with legislators.
Chuck Williams also spoke about ethics reform. He expressed his concern over the notion that lobbyists should be banned from the Capitol as he relies on industry lobbyists for subject-matter expertise. Williams also mentioned his support of juvenile justice reform and the creation of a super district for Athens-Clarke County Commission Districts.
Freshman legislator Regina Quick prided herself on not conforming to the idea that freshman in the house should be “seen and not heard.” Though she noted that freshman often have little opportunity to influence legislation, Quick believes that one person can make a difference in Atlanta. She called attention to the fact that she and Representative Frye were both selected by the Legislative Leadership Institute for a leadership program in the off-season, a prestigious event for freshman legislators.
Senator Ginn discussed the firearms legislation which he introduced in the Senate. He said at the time he believed it was a “good bill” that would create more reciprocity for carrying firearms in neighboring states. However, he said that after the bill passed in the Senate it was drastically changed in House Committee when a campus carry provision was added. Ginn stated that he is not in favor of allowing students to carry guns on the University of Georgia’s campus, but that he would consider provisions allowing campus carry on campuses in Atlanta. He recognized that this provision was the biggest hurdle to passing new legislation and asked for citizen input regarding to the bill’s return next legislative session.
Senator Frank Ginn also commended the changes to SB 160 and showed his support for HOPE Grant Scholarship reform decreasing the GPA requirement to maintain HOPE at Technical Schools.
A member of Representative Spencer Frye’s staff read a statement summarizing Frye’s accomplishments over the session, including authoring the Downtown Grocery Act. Frye’s statement also looked forward to the next session in which he hopes to increase economic development, promote education, and protect Georgia’s natural resources.
The Q&A segment began with a question regarding partisanship and its prominence in the Georgia legislature. One citizen expressed his concern that legislators consistently vote along party lines to avoid being unelected. Senator Cowsert cited the high frequency of bipartisan votes in response arguing that partisanship in Washington D.C did not extend to the state level. One such bipartisan vote occurred on the Downtown Grocery Act.
Citizens also expressed their apprehensions that parent trigger legislation would divert public funding from good public school systems like those in Athens-Clarke County and Oconee County. Proponents of legislation allowing parents to petition for creation of charter schools see it as an opportunity for parents to influence unresponsive school boards. Representative Quick voted against the bill, but she noted that the issue is not as clearcut as it seems.
Another topic of discussion was the lack of testing in private schools in comparison to public schools. One citizen voiced his concern that while $58 million in tax credits goes to private school scholarships, there is no testing bshinholseristered in private schools to verify that private school students are outperforming their peers in public schools. He asked the legislators whether they would support testing in private schools for students receiving state funded scholarships. Legislators gave no definitive answer, but Representative Williams replied that he would be willing to research the idea.
Overall, the Federation of Neighborhoods event was a good opportunity for discussion between legislators and citizens on state and local legislative issues.