In January, the Georgia State Senate started the first term of the 152nd legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly with a challenging task list.
We were asked to find a way to fill a large anticipated Medicaid shortfall, evaluate the ethical behavior of elected officials, do more with less in the state budget, revamp the state's juvenile justice system, clarify points from 2012's tax code overhaul and find ways to expand access to higher education - among many, many other items on the agenda.
To say the Senate had its work cut out this year is an understatement, and the reason why the Senate got down to business and passed legislation on the first day of the legislative session.
Almost 230 bills were introduced in the Senate alone, and while some have already been signed by the governor, others face a more uncertain future.
Since this is only the first term of a biennial year, any bill that did not pass both chambers is eligible for consideration during the second term in 2014.
However, that does not mean that those bills will remain untouched until next January. Throughout the rest of the year, study committees will meet to further review some of the most important issues at hand, while other bills will be revised into a better and more comprehensive form.
During the last few days - and in some cases, the last few hours - bills that will significantly impact Georgians statewide passed through the Senate chamber in hopes of passing their final legislative test. It was incredible to see the entire Senate, from elected officials down to interns, working so hard to make sure these bills were properly vetted and reviewed.
HB 106: The Georgia General Assembly is constitutionally mandated to revise the current fiscal year's budget and set the general budget for the following fiscal year during every legislative session. What adds to this challenge is the constantly changing fiscal atmosphere both at the state and federal level, and as a result, a final version of the bill is not usually able to be negotiated until the final hours of the legislative session. This year was no different.
The finalized version of the FY 2014 budget is set at $19.9 billion and includes an added $146.6 million for K-12 enrollment growth, reflects a $2.6 million in Medicaid and Peach Care savings by eliminating hospital reimbursements for preventable admissions, and provides for the funding of major improvements at universities and technical colleges statewide, including North Georgia University and North Georgia Technical College.
HB 142: One of the most debated issues this session was the ethics legislation and the effort to cap lobbyist gifts. The House and Senate came to an agreement on HB 142 on Day 40 that sets a cap of $75 on lobbyist expenditures and completely bans gifts such as golf outings, concert tickets and international travel, while also preserving the First Amendment rights of citizens expressing personal views.
I was proud to see the House and Senate work together to negotiate a final agreement, and although it is not the "end all, be all" solution, it is certainly a big step in the right direction.
HB 361: This labor bill prohibits certain acts involving unions and collective bargaining. Current law states that workers only have one time a year to opt out of automatic payroll deductions that go toward union dues. HB 361 will allow union members to stop automatic payroll deductions at any time upon request; however, groups such as teachers, firefighters and police officers are exempt from this provision. A ban on unemployment benefits for contracted seasonal workers was removed from a final version of the bill. The bill will now go to Governor Deal for his signature.
HB 407: Meant to improve public safety, HB 407 will require individuals convicted of a second DUI offense to install ignition interlock devices on his or her vehicle for a period of one year. Under current law, those who are convicted of a second DUI will have his or her driver's license suspended until a DUI Alcohol or Drug Use Risk Reduction Program is completed.
HR 411: I was honored to carry a resolution to honor the lives of Georgia State Troopers who passed away in the line of duty, including Trooper Lieutenant Joseph "Joey" Keith Boatright, Trooper Frederick Herman Looney, Trooper Sergeant Charles Eugene Gray, Trooper Harvey Lewis Nicholson, and Trooper Roy Cecil Massey; Special Agent Welton Harrell, Special Agent Garland E. Fields, Trooper Sergeant William Frederick Black, Trooper John Frank Bass, Trooper Clyde Arthur Wehunt, and Trooper Sergeant Major George W. Harrelson.
HB 497: Provisions regarding the numbering and registration process for boat vessels will be revised with the passage of HB 497, a bill I carried in the Senate. The legislation changes application procedures and expiration stipulations, outlines the process for renewal registrations and expands the ability of the Department of Natural Resources to issue certain kinds of permits.
One of the measures that fell short this year was SB 101, a bill that received heavy media attention and would have substantially protected and enforced the Second Amendment rights of all Georgians. I was disappointed that this bill was not able to survive the legislation session, but am committed to working with my Senate colleagues over the next several months to ensure it is brought back for consideration during the second term of the biennial legislative session in 2014.
I am more than ready to be back in District 51 on a daily basis. While it is always exciting to spend time at the State Capitol, there is truly no place like home. I am looking forward to seeing each and every one of you at community events throughout the spring and summer.
I am always happy to talk with groups in District 51 about the legislative session and specific bills, so please call my office any time if you'd like me to come out and visit your group.
Sen. Steve Gooch serves as chairman of the Transportation Committee. He may be reached at (404) 656-9221 or via e-mail at email@example.com.