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Legislature preserves HOPE, debates billboard legislation

POSTED: March 16, 2011 4:00 a.m.

The legislature took the final step this week in preserving Georgia’s greatest gift to its students, the HOPE Scholarship.

 

The Senate and House agreed on a final version and have sent the bill to the governor’s desk to be signed into law. Putting the program on a financially sustainable path will ensure the viability of HOPE and the pre-kindergarten program for generations to come. With the first merit-based program of its kind, Georgia is still one of only 10 states in the country with an active lottery scholarship program. It’s imperative that we maintain this valuable education tool. 

 

The final version of the bill was amended to allow all valedictorians and salutatorians from all Georgia schools to be eligible for the Zell Miller Scholarship. It also establishes a low interest loan program that will help students presently covered under HOPE to bridge the gap between actual tuition cost and costs covered by HOPE once the bill is enacted.

 

The governor also chose to restore Georgia’s full-day pre-K program of six hours. Other programmatic changes include shortening the school year from 180 to 160 days, increasing class size by two students and adding 2,000 slots, bringing total enrollment to 86,000.

 

The bill also restores 20 percent of pre-K teachers’ salaries, after the original proposal included a 30 percent reduction. Georgia remains a leader in early childhood education and is one of only four states in the nation to provide a high-quality, universal pre-K program. I’m proud of the work our governor and legislature have done to preserve this gift to Georgia’s students.

 

The Senate also debated a bill this week aimed at strengthening the advertising of Georgia businesses. The billboard industry estimates that there are 300,000 jobs currently in businesses that advertise on billboards.

 

The intent of House Bill 179 is to allow billboard owners to remove trees along state highways that are blocking signs for more visible advertising.

 

This bill strikes a balance between maintaining the benefits of outdoor advertising and protecting the state’s beautification and environmental health, by lowering skyscraper billboards, removing abandoned signs and protecting community plantings.

 

The bill prohibits the clearing of landmark or historic trees and any tree that’s planted as a part of a government beautification project. The billboard industry pays full mitigation costs, so any tree that is removed is replanted.

 

In order to receive a permit to trim or remove trees, the billboard must be lowered to 75 feet. The bill also includes an incentive to encourage billboard companies to remove signs with permits that have lapsed by granting them a credit against the cost of clearing trees for each sign that’s removed.  

 

The Senate also added an amendment that imposes fines of $5,000 to $10,000 for billboards that are found to be obscene. With that change, the bill now goes back to the House for agreement before receiving final passage.

 

This legislation is aimed at helping local businesses promote their goods and services to drivers who travel Georgia’s highways.

 

My interest in the legislation is that it requires the height of any billboard to be lowered in order for any of the trees to be removed.

 

As a Lumpkin County commissioner, we amended the county’s sign ordinance to further regulate how billboards and signs can be erected.

 

In fact, there are no large billboards allowed in the county as a result of that local ordinance. I urge all county and city officials to review their local ordinances to ensure they have all the necessary rules and regulations in place to control signage in their jurisdictions. 

 

Looking ahead, the General Assembly is preparing for Crossover Day, the last day for bills to pass from one chamber to another. This falls on Day 30 of our 40-day legislative session. Lawmakers have been hard at work in committee preparing legislation to be passed by the Senate, and we’ll soon begin working on bills from the House of Representatives.

 

One of those bills will be the Fiscal Year 2012 budget, which faces a $1.5 billion shortfall.

 

Next week, senators will begin work in subcommittees to analyze our spending plan and ensure that we balance the budget for the following fiscal year.  

 

 

Sen. Steve Gooch represents the 51st Senate District, which includes Dawson, Fannin, Gilmer, Lumpkin, Pickens and Union counties and portions of Forsyth and White counties. He may be reached at (404) 656-9221 or via e-mail at steve.gooch@senate.ga.gov.

 

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