The Georgia Legislative session: No fanfare, just results

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The 2009 Georgia General Assembly session ended quietly and without particular notice by most citizens. You see, they were rather busy at the time earning a living, looking for a job, helping with children’s homework or caring for elderly parents.

And that’s the way it should be.

While Georgians took care of the homefront, citizen state legislators helped their neighbors through common sense initiatives. After session concluded, they returned home to pick back up as grocers, farmers, pharmacists, teachers, small business owners and retirees on fixed incomes.

What didn’t happen tops the accomplishment list this session – higher taxes and fees. It’s a fitting honor to the oft-forgotten taxpayers – the ones who actually pay the bill for every single state service.

Georgia’s revenues derive mostly from six-percent income and four-percent sales taxes. That means state coffers shrink as citizens’ paychecks and spending shrink.

Other states are raising taxes and fees during the most highly coordinated global economic slowdown since the 1930s. Not Georgia. We trimmed the state budget by $3 billion or $1,200 per family of four. The alternative was higher taxes.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? At a time when folks have less to spend on groceries and rent, the Republican-led legislature decided the only right action was to force the state to spend less as well. Georgia’s budget is smaller than last year’s. And the year before that.

In fact, the legislature did more than reduce spending in response to the downturn. In one of the most revolutionary acts in recent times, the House and Senate approved legislation freezing all property tax reassessments for two years. It succeeded after Democrats nixed a voter referendum for a permanent freeze, not once, but twice.

A few school board, city council and county commission members complained. How will we provide essential services, they asked?

The answer? Do first things first and little else until the economy turns around, just like Georgia citizens paying bills at their kitchen tables and workplaces.

More change is coming in public education as well. Legislation signaled the beginning of market-based pay for teachers. Georgia will pay more, $4,500 on average, to new and many existing math and science teachers to address critical shortages.

For example, the University System produced just one physics teacher that actually ended up in the classroom last year. Students’ efforts are undercut when qualified teachers can’t be found.

Furthermore, 11th- and 12th-graders will be free to move on to community and technical colleges to complete high school while working towards career certification or a college degree. Students will transport state education funding with them to pay tuition.

Dramatically, Republicans approved transformational change regarding transportation. In a paper thin margin of victory, only two of 97 Democrats voted to end the good-ol’-boy governance structure they’d created decades ago for a bygone era.

The legislature and Governor boldly took back ownership of statewide transportation planning and budgeting. Believe it or not, these functions have sat over in the hands of 13 Department of Transportation board members. They serve five-year terms and control $2 billion in yearly dedicated gasoline tax revenues.

Accountability to citizens has been slight, even with a well-meaning DOT Board. The buck will now indeed stop with the People’s directly-elected representatives.

Furthermore, the legislature will be poised to allow voters to decide in a 2010 referendum if they want to pay more in taxes for transportation improvements. If the answer is yes, and because of this year’s action, citizens will also have a direct say in who decides how to spend it.

The General Assembly’s leadership succeeded in keeping Georgia moving forward with a responsible budget, no new taxes, a property tax reassessment freeze and reforms in public education and transportation.

Add to that dozens of workhorse bills like speeding up adoptions for foster children, providing tax credits to businesses hiring unemployed Georgians, and improving food supply safety.

Overall, legislators remembered the Forgotten Man, described in 1883 by William Graham Sumner, “He works, he votes, generally he prays – but he always pays…..”

Just don’t expect to read about the good things the legislature did for the Forgotten Man unless you come across an imaginary newspaper. You see, good news doesn’t sell newspapers or advantage those running for political office who find rock throwing among citizens more convenient.