5 issues facing legislators besides budget

Sen. Ronnie Chance's picture

As we move towards the not much awaited “Ten Reasons to be Optimistic About 2012” column now in the development stage, here are some other issues besides the state budget that will be on the legislative agenda as the General Assembly convenes Jan. 9, 2012.

1. The Criminal Justice Reform Special Council Report has been published, and it appears sentencing reforms and other needed updates could happen this session.
These changes are not necessarily due to a broad-minded view of the misdeeds of others, but because it can be explained by the potential savings in prisons costs in a state that ranks 4th in the number of people incarcerated.

Can a state that embraced not “Three Strikes and You’re Out” but a Zell Miller-inspired “Two Strikes and You’re Out” agree that not all who commit crimes get to that place the same way and don’t need or deserve the same imprisonment sentence?

When the number of the mentally ill is taken into account, a case for a “Mental Health Court” can certainly be made. The success of drug courts, DUI courts and even veteran’s courts make the case that there may be alternatives that can keep the public safe which are not as costly and counter-productive as prison sentences.

While legislation has not been introduced as yet, it is likely that attention will be given to giving judges more latitude on “mandatory” sentences and looking at thresholds on theft and other non-violent drug crimes.

Additionally, efforts will likely be made to incentivize shortening of probation and parole periods for “good” time.

Accountability Courts would be institutionalized with standards and a certification review process to insure compliance and fairness.

Again, these potential alternatives are strictly recommendations made by persons familiar with the inner working of our state’s criminal justice system. Any changes will require legislation to be introduced, debated, voted on and implemented.

2. Georgia’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund debt repayment.

Georgia and its businesses currently owe the federal government over $700 million in benefits that were paid out to the unemployed during the recession when the state’s trust fund ran out.

It is normally kept up by fees charged to businesses, but the fees were reduced and suspended during the booming economic times of the recent 10 years.

Georgia recently had to make a $21 million payment from state revenues for interest on the fund and will owe a full 12-month interest payment in 2012 on the debt amount, which could be higher or lower.

Legislation will be considered to set in place the repayment of the debt to the federal government.

Ideas which may be considered include reducing the $330 maximum weekly benefit amount, delaying the start of unemployment payments for a week, reducing the present 26 weeks of state benefits and increasing the administrative assessment that the Department of Labor presently collects from businesses.

A complicating factor amid the recession recovery is the fact that many businesses who have had to lay off employees are already paying a higher assessment due to that “experience” level.

The federal assessment on employers will increase steadily until the debt is paid, so the state must begin to meet this repayment obligation.

3. Drug testing requirements for unemployment benefits, welfare benefits and candidates.

A proposal to join Florida and require a test for some state benefits like welfare benefits has led to other proposals, such as requiring a test for unemployment benefits (federal issue?) and have brought a response from opponents.

The “good for the gander” would call for drug tests for candidates running for state office. It remains to be seen where all of this will lead, but I do recall candidates for the state legislature being required to submit a drug test in the 1990s until a judge threw out the practice as unconstitutional.

4. Internet sales tax collection.

Efforts will continue to find a way to collect the “use” tax due on internet sales not presently collected.

State law holds any item bought or “used” in the state to be taxed on the sale. Federal courts have prevented states from forcing large internet retailers from being required to collect local and state sales taxes unless the seller has a “physical” location in the state.

Amazon.com is the largest online retailer not collecting sales taxes but recently agreed to a deal with California to begin collecting the tax.

Federal legislation requiring larger retailers to begin collecting state and local sales taxes has been introduced and appears to have a good chance of passing.

The question remains is how Georgia would approach this and whether the state will have to wait until federal legislation passes to address it.

This is a big issue with local chambers of commerce and with large chain stores who conduct Internet business and presently collect sales taxes.

5. Tax reform.

Currently, it seems that widespread support exists for extending the sales tax exemption to energy used in manufacturing, mining, publishing and agriculture. Beyond this, there is little common ground.

Some legislators are pushing for more reliance on sales tax while bringing down the income tax. Removing the exemption on food has been revived as has increasing the cigarette tax.

Tax reformers believe that businesses filing as individuals will greatly benefit from reducing the income tax rate and that these savings will translate into investment and jobs.
They also believe moving towards consumption-based sales taxes replacing income taxes stimulates the economy and helps Georgia compete with “no income tax” states like Texas, Florida and Tennessee.

Senior citizens, through special interest groups like AARP, are flooding legislators with emails opposing extending the tax on groceries idea.
Seniors are faring better than any other age group currently with a $35,000 state income tax exclusion per spouse in effect and the next phase of the ending of all state income taxes for 65-year-olds due to increase to $65,000 per spouse in 2012.

There are a number of issues sure to be considered this session, and of course there will be some that surprise us all.

Additionally, every bill that was introduced in the 2011 Session and not passed last year is still in committee in either the House or the Senate and can be considered in 2012.

Other issues could include more cell phone restrictions while driving, the implementation of healthcare exchanges as the President’s national healthcare bill mandates, expansions of weapons carrying and potential changes to Georgia’s industry recruitment efforts following the Governor’s Competitiveness study.

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and joyous holiday season.
Thank you for your interest. Please contact me if I may be of assistance at ronnie.chance@senate.ga.gov.
[Sen. Ronnie Chance (R-Tyrone) represents Senate District 16, which includes parts of Fayette, Monroe and Spalding counties and all of Lamar and Pike counties.]