The Georgia General Assembly comes to order Monday. Considering the landscape both ahead of and behind us, it’s tempting for lawmakers and citizens to both want to take a breather in 2013.
That’s understandable after a raucous 2012 that saw multiple major issues before the Legislature, among them a thorny budget, tax reform and transportation matters. Not to mention last year’s landmark elections.
By comparison, issues likely to come before this body in 2013 largely carry a lower profile. They are no less important to the future of this region and state, however. Lawmakers should not forget that. And they should summon up the wisdom and courage to act decisively and wisely on the business now at hand.
As a curtain-raiser of the next 40 legislative days, here is our starter list of challenges that stand in need of solutions:
In coming weeks, we will hear much talk for another year running about the constitutionally mandated necessity of Georgia living within the prudent means of a balanced budget. That’s a valid point, true enough.
It’s equally true that one of the biggest, cheapest fixes the General Assembly can adopt this year is to, finally, heed the will of the people and end the current anything goes, show-the-love-with-no-limits lobbying of lawmakers. A recent poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution confirms the common-sense sentiment that voters have had enough of the antics at the Gold Dome. It found that 71 percent of 694 Georgians polled said lawmakers should not be allowed to accept gifts from lobbyists. Another 14.7 percent thought a $100 gift limit was reasonable.
Charter school proponents won a large victory in November when voters approved a measure calling for reinstatement of the state charter schools commission. The resurrection of a state-based channel for approving and funding charter schools comes even as Georgia continues to struggle to pay its share of cost for the traditional public schools that educate nine in 10 children here. In recent years, local districts have seen the ratio of state/local funding shift more toward local districts, even as counties struggled with declining property tax revenue. Lawmakers should keep foremost in mind their constitutionally mandated obligation to provide an “adequate public education” for each child and not stoke funding for new charters at the expense of existing schools.
It’s likely that the word “transportation” will rarely be uttered in legislative chambers this year, given the nearly 2-to-1 defeat of the T-SPLOST in metro Atlanta and a similar result in most other districts statewide. It’s even more unlikely that lawmakers will brook any consideration of the “Plan B” that T-SPLOST foes urged.
Be that as it may, there is substantial work that lawmakers can do this year to set the stage for the future. Beginning a productive working relationship with new MARTA CEO Keith Parker is a good place to begin. With Parker and the MARTA board having a new template for improving financial performance courtesy of consultant KPMG, lawmakers may be tempted to continue scoring political points by injecting themselves into MARTA’s finances at every opportunity. While everyone agrees that MARTA should become a more-efficient transit operator, lawmakers should allow MARTA a reasonable time to effect fixes before climbing back onto the political grandstand to demand this or that. And members of the MARTA legislative oversight committee should keep in mind that when — and it must be a “when,” not an “if” — MARTA gets its fiscal operation in order, what’s next? The primary stated reason for the state not funding mass transit will have been eliminated. Be careful what you wish for, MARTOC.
Lawmakers will also be faced with a decision on the future of GRTA’s XPress suburban bus service. Ongoing funding for the rush-hour transit operation had been included in the T-SPLOST. The state should now find a way to pay for the buses that take 9,000 riders off crowded highways each day.
Lastly, any calls to repeal the Transportation Investment Act that created the T-SPLOST should go unheeded. To tinker with a mechanism that three regions approved last year would be problematic from fiscal and legal standpoints. It would also further erode already-shopworn citizen confidence in government.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.