Archive for January, 2010

House Speaker Picks Chief of Staff

Spiro Amburn, the legislative affairs director for the state Department of Juvenile Justice, has been tapped to be House Speaker David Ralston’s chief of staff.

“Spiro is not only someone who I have a great deal of trust in, but he has served this state well as a committed public servant in his time in state government,” Ralston said in a prepared statement. “I am honored to have him leading our staff and confident that he will be an asset to the Speaker’s Office and the entire House of Representatives.”

Amburn’s political background includes a stint as deputy legislative affairs director for Gov. Sonny Perdue. He has his undergraduate degree from Kennesaw State University and his master’s degree from the University of Georgia.

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Senate passes bill to allow use of hands-free devices while driving

On the eighth legislative day, the Georgia Senate heard their first bill on the floor. And it breezed through.

The bill, SB 306, was proposed by Sen. Bill Heath (R-Bremen) and will clarify the use of hands-free devices while driving. Essentially, if you are driving, the bill would allow you to use a bluetooth-type devices.

“Drivers who want to be safe on the road and use hands-free devices should not be penalized for using good judgment,” Heath said. “The legislature creates enough laws, so it is about time we start reducing the burden on citizens. With this clarification, citizens can be safer while talking on the phone and operating their vehicles.”

Heath said as the law is currently written, there was always lingering confusion about the devices. Occassionally, officers across the state would ticket drivers for using them.

“Everybody agrees with this. The only issue is if someone amends it. But this one is so clean. There was not even a single question,” Heath said …

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DOT board holds fast to accounting reversal

For the moment, the state Department of Transportation is holding fast to its decision last week to reverse a change in its accounting practices, in defiance of the state auditor.

The board held a special meeting Thursday to revisit the issue, but after an hour of contentious debate, DOT Board Chairman Bill Kuhlke failed 8-3 to get the board to rescind the vote it took last week.

The board did make it official to delay the reversal until July 1.  DOT is seeking an opinion on the issue from the state Attorney General, Thurbert Baker, which board members hope to have before July 1.  If Baker tells them to stop, the issue would apparently be moot.

Last week’s vote could affect how and when DOT spends hundreds of millions of road work dollars.

The state auditor’s office in reports over the last two years said that DOT was illegally booking revenue it couldn’t book yet, enabling it to spend more than it really should.  The auditors declared DOT in a huge deficit, and road spending …

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House changes rules, kills hawks

In a rare show of unity, the Georgia House voted unanimously to repeal some controversial rules put in place by former Speaker Glenn Richardson.

With the 169-0 vote, House members gave the news media limited access to the House floor and officially killed the “hawks,” a small group of GOP legislators with the power to sweep in and vote swing the outcome of committee votes on legislation.

The reforms were pushed by new House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge). Ralston was elected speaker after Richardson resigned amid allegations from his former wife that he had an affair with a utility lobbyist.

Democrats for years claimed that the rule changes pushed by Richardson were designed to strengthen the GOP’s power and shut off thoughtful debate over proposed legislation.

Rep. DuBose Porter of Dublin, the Democratic leader in the House and a candidate for governor, called the rule changes “a great first step.”

One of the rule changes allows members of the media to …

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Atlanta mayor pledges to work with legislators

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed returned to his political home in the Georgia House on Thursday, promising to work with state officials to tackle problems from the fight over water to traffic congestion and education.

Reed, a Democrat, urged Republicans and members of his own party to take on the challenges facing the state with a new bi-partisan spirit.

“It’s time for us to have a cease fire,” said Reed, who was greeted warmly in the GOP-controlled House, where he served from 1998 to 2005. “We can deal with the stuff between us later. The challenges are so big we need to work together.”

Problems, like water and traffic congestion, are threatening Georgia’s dominance in the South, said Reed.

“This is really our moment,” he said.

Reed said he was looking to his former House colleagues to lead the way.

“You all are the captains,” he told House members. “But I want you to know I’m a rookie ready to do whatever it takes. Let’s get through these tough times together.”

Reed made an …

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Only $750,000 for Georgia on high-speed rail

Georgia has won just $750,000 from the $8 billion pool of high-speed rail grants that President Obama was scheduled to announce this week.

The White House sent an announcement of the grants to capitol offices Wednesday evening.  Thursday morning state officials confirmed the dollar amount.

Georgia high-speed rail advocates were despondent throughout the day Wednesday, fearing Georgia would get little or none of the money, because it has lagged on rail development while other states have invested.  More than $80 million in federal earmarks for a commuter rail line south of Atlanta have sat idle for years.

The money to be announced Thursday would pay for three feasibility studies, at $250,000 each.

“This is pitiful,” said U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), when asked for comment.

Other states are expected to get grants to actually build physical rail lines.

The studies would see if it is feasible to build lines from Atlanta to Birmingham and from Macon to Jacksonville, and study a …

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Ban on texting while driving bill sent back to drawing board

A proposed House bill that would ban people from sending or reading text messages while driving has hit a bump in the road. Stumped by questions about how the new law would be enforced and how would a police officer determine if someone was sending a text message as opposed to say, making a phone call, forced the House of Representative’s public safety committee to send the bill to a study committee.

“It’s a valid question,” said Rep. Allen Peake (R-Bibb County), the author of one of two bills that would ban texting. “This is the way it should be done. I look forward to perfecting the bill.

Peake, along with Rep. Amos Amerson (R-Dahlonega), both testified Wednesday about their similar bills that would ban texting, while imposing healthy fines and points on an offender’s driver’s license. But committee chairman Burke Day said, based on the number of questions, that it would best to further study both bills and refine them into one.

Two weeks ago, the two House members dropped …

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Speaker Ralston addresses Senate

In a rare public case of bi-political chamber fellowship, Senate President Casey Cagle gave up his podium for a few minutes to a former state senator, newly-elected House Speaker David Ralston.

“The last time I was in this podium, I was saying goodbye,” said Ralston, who served in the Senate from 1992 until 1998. “Now, I am here saying hello.”

But Ralston’s appearance was more than a quick hello. Both Ralston and Cagle have vowed to work together to bring both chambers closer to each other. On Tuesday, for example, they issued a joint statement calling for all members of both chambers to voluntarily submit to more work furloughs.

“Even though he is leading the other chamber, the spirit of cooperation and collaboration is so refreshing,” Cagle said. “Georgians don’t care about a Senate bills or House bills. They just want stuff done.”

Just hours before President Barack Obama is set to address the nation in his State of the Union address, Ralston played a similar roll. The …

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Sen. Butler introduces bill to ban racial profiling

A few months ago, Mark Bell left his Cobb County home after 10 p.m. to go to the grocery store. The political consultant said a police car came behind him. Then pulled up to his right. Then backed up and looked at his license plate. Then followed him to the store. The officer never stopped him, never said a word, but the message was clear.

“It was racial profiling,” Bell said. “Here in 2010, that is unacceptable in Georgia. A black man can’t leave his house after 10 p.m. without being profiled. You become fearful. It is mentally nerve wracking.”

To address the issue, Sen. Gloria Butler (D-Stone Mountain) has introduced anti-racial profiling legislation, SB-325, that would curb the practice of people being stopped because of race or ethnicity. Rep. Pedro Marin (D-Duluth) also plans to introduce a similar bill in the House.

Under Butler’s bill it would become for police officers to record age, gender, race and ethnicity of every person they pull over. That data would later be …

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Exclusive: Lawmakers to take additional furlough days

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) will announce today that state legislators are taking an additional six unpaid furlough days this fiscal year, the AJC has learned.

According to a copy of a letter Cagle and Ralston are sending members of the General Assembly, the move brings to 11 the total number of furlough days lawmakers will take in fiscal 2010. No state agency has taken more than 12; most have taken between three and 11. Legislative staff will only face three additional furlough days for a total of six for the fiscal year.

In addition, the two Capitol leaders said the General Assembly has returned $2.7 million in fiscal 2009 funding to the state treasury.

“Now that we have an even more realistic picture of our state’s revenue for the remainder of the fiscal year, we are announcing an additional six days of furloughs for General Assembly members, including ourselves,” Cagle and Ralston will say in a joint statement. “As elected leaders, …

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