By Sen. Johnny Grant
The 2011 Legislative Session came to a close late Thursday night after nearly 14 hours of action in the Senate Chamber.
The headlining issue from the last day of session was the passage of HB 87, an illegal immigration reform package. Also this week, the General Assembly adopted a balanced spending plan for FY 2012. Hot topics that were addressed throughout the rest of session include reforming the HOPE Scholarship Program, reforming Georgia’s tax structure and the Sunday sale of alcohol in Georgia.
I’m proud that we were able to create sustainable solutions to Georgia’s critical issues in 40 days.
We passed an $18.2 billion budget for the 2012 Fiscal Year, successfully balancing the spending plan amid a $1.5 billion shortfall. This budget falls 13.6 percent below the 2009 budget. Lawmakers prioritized spending to address the projected $273 million shortfall in the State Health Benefit Plan and to cover loans in the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. The budget also includes funds to improve state agencies’ frontline services to consumers and businesses and dedicates $12.9 million to the Department of Revenue to recover uncollected taxes.
Among the budget’s bond projects are $45 million to fund reservoir development across the state and $32 million for the Savannah Harbor Deepening Project. To save money, the legislature is consolidating payroll services for a number of state agencies and programs and eliminating all state funding for the Aviation, Music and Sports halls of fame, making them self-sufficient.
In the final hours of the legislative session, the Senate and House reached agreement on a bill aimed at curbing illegal immigration in Georgia. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011 requires businesses with 10 or more employees to use E-Verify, the federal online program used to verify an employee’s citizenship.
Small businesses will have an additional six months to come under the E-Verify requirement, and companies who commit “good faith” violations have 30 days to correct the error before facing penalties. In response to concerns about how the bill’s provisions would impact Georgia agriculture, the bill calls for a study about how the legislation would affect the industry and the federal guest worker program.
The legislation also makes it a crime to knowingly transport illegal immigrants while committing another criminal offense, and allows law enforcement officers to verify a person’s immigration status while investigating a criminal suspect. The bill now goes before the governor for his approval.
Legislative leaders decided to delay the passage of tax reform legislation to allow for further examination of its effects. After months of study last year, a council of business and economic leaders delivered recommendations to the legislature on how to overhaul Georgia’s tax system. Based on the council’s suggestions, lawmakers drafted a bill aimed at flattening the tax code, primarily by cutting income taxes by 23 percent. To ensure the development of sound public policy, the legislature plans to continue analyzing the data and will revisit the issue next year.
Legislation aimed at letting local governments decide on the Sunday sale of alcohol received passage from the Senate. SB 10 allows local communities to hold voter referendums on whether or not to allow the sale of alcohol on Sundays in retail stores starting at 12:30 p.m. The bill now awaits the governor’s signature.
The Governor’s Office and General Assembly leadership crafted a sustainable solution for the broken HOPE Scholarship Program. Without our actions, the program would have been bankrupted by enrollment growth and lagging lottery funds. Reforming the program now keeps Georgia on the forefront of education innovation and it ensures our children and grandchildren will benefit from this generous program. The bill maintains the current merit-based scholarship but adjusts the amount annually based on lottery revenues. The bill was signed by the governor and will take effect in Fall of 2011.
SB 39, which creates a framework for mental health courts and SB 178, which provides for an intermediate level of care for our elderly, received final passage this week and both await the governor’s signature. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions about legislation from this session or any other issues. Thank you for electing me to represent you, the 25th Senate District.
Sen. Johnny Grant serves as Chairman of the Public Safety Committee. He represents the 25th Senate District which includes Baldwin, Butts, Greene, Hancock, Jasper, Morgan, Putnam, and Taliaferro counties and portions of Jones and Warren counties. He may be reached by phone at 404.656.0082 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.