This Week Under the Gold Dome: Transportation, Education, and Medical Marijuana

The legislators were back to work last week with discussions on some of the biggest challenges the state faces like transportation and education. While we wait for the bills to start hitting the floor, check out the latest from the Dome this week.

Tracking Transportation

The Transportation Funding Act of 2015 has been out a little more than a week now. During this time, Georgia’s different departments and agencies have had the chance to take an in-depth look at how this bill will affect their revenue share.

As we explained last week, included in the transition from a sales to an excise tax is a provision that prohibits local governments from levying sales taxes on gasoline as a part of future SPLOSTs. Counties use SPLOSTs and ESPLOSTs to raise funds for local capital projects like the Classic Center expansion and school retrofits.

The Georgia Municipal Association has voiced its concerns about the plan, saying that cities and counties would be left to make up the difference of the funds lost by pursuing politically unpopular tax increases.

During a committee hearing on the bill this week, House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts appealed to the critics voicing their opposition by asking for “constructive criticism”. Russell McMurray, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, presented some updated figures illustrating how dramatically Georgia has underfunded transportation needs in recent years. Nearly $800 million of the $1 billion the plan raises primarily from local governments is for maintenance of roads that already exist.

Thus far, the debate has pit two of the state’s most important investments against each other without consideration of alternative methods for financing Georgia’s critical needs. We will continue to keep you updated with changes on the legislation and how it will impact our community as the bill moves throughout the legislative process.

Opportunity Schools

The Governor announced a plan earlier this session that intends to open avenues for greater state control of schools deemed “failing”. He said,

“There will be those who will argue that the problem of failing schools can be solved by spending more money. They ignore the fact that many of our failing schools already spend far more money per child than the state average. The problem is not money. More money without fundamental changes in the delivery system will not alter the results; it will only make state and local taxpayers greater enablers of chronic failure.”

The research presents an alternative perspective. An overview of studies from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute highlights research going back to the 1960s, which shows that student achievement and funding per student go hand-in-hand. Particularly important are findings showing that spending in low-income districts is associated with higher graduation rates and less likelihood that children live in poverty as adults. Additional analysis indicates that Georgia’s steepest cuts in spending since 2002 have come in some of the state’s poorest districts.

The Opportunity School District plan would require a constitutional amendment approved two-thirds of the representatives in each chamber and majority support on a statewide referendum. Changes to a plan enacted through a constitutional amendment would require the same votes in each chamber and from statewide voters, a difficult bar to clear for any issue.

The Governor spoke with legislators this week about details of the plan. “Recovery” School Districts are currently used in New Orleans, Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee. In these states, low test scores and financial stability are among the methods for judging schools as “failing”.

Medical Marijuana

Haleigh’s Hope Act was the first bill pre-filed for the 2015 legislative session. The bill would allow patients suffering from certain ailments to have access to medicinal cannabis. When the original version was submitted, it generated much support, but the bill’s intent has undergone many changes since then. Certain new provisions in the bill would make it illegal to grow the substance in Georgia. This further complicates the ability for patients to access the treatment since state and federal law prohibit taking legal medical marijuana across state borders.

The bill has run into some opposition in the last week from the Georgia Sheriff’s Association and the Georgia Faith and Freedom Coalition grounded in concerns about full marijuana legalization.

For a more in-depth explanation of House Bill 1 and medical marijuana, check back here Wednesday for our Square One article on the ins and outs of medical marijuana policy.

Have a great week!

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