During week six under the Gold Dome, we crossed the halfway mark for this legislative session. We passed 20 bills on the Senate Floor last week and our workload continues to grow as we near Crossover Day on Feb. 28.
Our most important accomplishment of the week was passing HB 683, the Amended Fiscal Year 2018 Budget. This year’s amended total budget is around $25.3 billion and includes $306 million in new spending initiatives. The budget passed our chamber with some minor changes and it will likely be sent to conference committee where both chambers will debate and compromise to achieve an agreement that can be sent to the governor.
Over the interim, I was honored to serve as a member of the Compensation of Police and Sheriffs (COPS) Task Force led by Lt. Governor Casey Cagle. The goal of this task force was to determine ways to better serve our state’s law enforcement officers by paying them what they deserve and providing them with the materials they need to protect our state.
I sponsored Senate Bill 366, which was a direct result of the task force’s findings. The bill requires local governments to collect and send pay data for local law enforcement to the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) on a yearly basis. DCA will compile and analyze the data then report their findings back to the local governments, who will use the report to adopt a guidance pay scale.
SB 366 also creates a grant program for communities with a low tax base to better pay their officers. Each part of this bill will lead to far more competitive pay for our state’s law enforcement officers – a key part of maintaining officer retention and recruiting highly qualified candidates to local police and sheriff’s departments.
Three other bills from the COPS task force were passed, each sponsored by co-chair Sen. Greg Kirk. SB 367 expands the recipient list for indemnification payments to include estates, SB 368 will provide technical support for officers by working with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and SB 369 requires a $5 pre-trial diversion fee paid into the Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund.
I am also continuing to make progress on the rural broadband legislation. SB 232, which is the substitute for the original broadband expansion bill from the 2017 session, is still in committee, but I am confident it will be voted out soon. The goal of SB 232 is to increase competition and offer broadband services to rural areas without incurring additional costs on the taxpayer. Under this legislation, our 42 Electric Membership Cooperatives would be able to provide internet services and broadband to their customers.
The Achieving Connectivity Everywhere (ACE) Act, or SB 402, contains the bulk of language to expand broadband services to rural Georgia. By increasing cross-agency coordination between the Georgia Department of Transportation, the Georgia Technology Alliance and DCA, SB 402 seeks to expand fiber optic cabling to last-mile destinations by using existing infrastructure. The bill creates a grant program through One Georgia for communities lacking broadband access.
This legislation also sets the specifics for creating a new community designation through DCA. These new communities, which will be known as “broadband ready,” will qualify for the grant programs and streamline the permitting process to mitigate the hurdles for private investment. In addition, there is a section that creates a new tax exemption for rural “broadband ready” communities with a population below 50,000 or that is 40 percent or below underserved. Each of the changes to existing code are being done in an effort to achieve connectivity everywhere – a major first step toward the greater goal of rural economic development. SB 402 has been voted out of committee unanimously and will soon be voted on by the Senate.
The third broadband related bill is the Broadband Infrastructure Leads to Development (BILD) Act, or SB 426. This bill seeks to streamline the deployment of wireless broadband by addressing how local governments regulate the utility companies’ use of the right of way for locating wireless antennas and structures. Reducing unnecessary regulations and costs will create a greater incentive for private companies to partner with the state to achieve expanded rural broadband coverage. This bill has been assigned to the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee, where it awaits further review.
I also had the pleasure of welcoming several guests from the 51st district to the Senate. On Feb. 12, we honored students and faculty from Mountain Education Charter High School, which serves more than 2,500 students from 40 north Georgia counties. It was also a pleasure to have Pastor Michael Rodgers from Bethlehem Baptist Church in Dahlonega serve as the Senate’s Chaplain of the Day. Pastor Rodgers led us in word of prayer and encouraged us with his words of wisdom.
On Feb. 14, we honored the Woody Gap School for its 78 years of providing quality education to students in Union County. Lastly, on Feb. 15 we welcomed leaders from Gilmer County and the Gilmer County Chamber of Commerce, to celebrate Apple Day at the state Capitol.
If you have questions regarding any of my legislation or any issue facing the Senate, please do not hesitate to reach out to my office. Thank you for putting your trust in me as your state Senator, and I look forward to serving you throughout the session.
Sen. Steve Gooch serves as the Senate Majority Whip. He represents the 51st Senate District which includes Dawson, Fannin, Gilmer, Lumpkin, Union and White counties and portions of Forsyth and Pickens counties. He may be reached at (404)656-9221 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.