By: J. Randolph Evans
Now that the dust has settled on the 2012 Georgia General Assembly, Georgians can look back and see what their legislators and Governor did for 40 legislative days. Unlike years past, under both Democratic and Republican governors, the 2012 General Assembly Session appeared calm. There were no eruptions of wild rhetoric, political playground fights, or staged political theater with shackles or props. Instead, there was just work – lots and lots of work.
Yes, there were occasional disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over some issues, and even occasional disagreements between Republicans and Republicans. Yet, those disagreements were just that − disagreements. Where the issues could be worked out, the House Leadership, Senate Leadership, Governor, and Minority Leadership tried to sort it out. When the disagreements could not be worked out, there was a vote and the majority carried the day.
The civility of the whole process should not be mistaken for a lack of passion by any of the legislators or the governor regarding the issues that were important to them. In fact, the passion for causes was just as strong, if not stronger than ever. Legislators worked harder on their causes than ever before. They just did it in a much more disciplined and productive way.
Certainly, no discussion of the 2012 General Assembly could happen without mentioning the significant impact of the Georgia Tea Party efforts. Indeed, on multiple occasions, the Tea Party’s ability to mobilize citizens and volunteers helped steer the evolution of legislation, and make sure that other legislation stayed on track.
Against this backdrop, here are some of the things that the 2012 Georgia General Assembly got done.
First, the General Assembly, in a bipartisan vote, took the first step in giving Georgians the opportunity to overrule the Georgia Supreme Court on the issue of charter schools. The Georgia Supreme Court had ruled that a statute permitting the state charter of schools was unconstitutional. This left tens of thousands of students in limbo. In addition, it was a major setback for Georgia in its quest to improve the quality of education in our state by affording parents and students more choices for a better education.
In order to overrule the Georgia Supreme Court, voters must actually amend Georgia’s constitution. To amend Georgia’s constitution, a super-majority of both the House and Senate (2/3rds) must vote for the proposed amendment. At times, it appeared that special interests focused on preventing state chartered schools might block the amendment. But, in the end, House Resolution 1162 did pass with the help of influential Georgia Democrats in the Georgia Senate. Republicans overwhelmingly favored the resolution in both Houses. Now, Georgia voters will have the final say in November.
Georgia legislators did not stop there in trying to improve education in Georgia. In addition, the Legislature passed House Bill 175, which establishes a clearinghouse of online learning courses. It will be managed by the Georgia Virtual School (GAVS) at the Department of Education. It permits all Georgia counties to benefit from the courses developed by some of the larger and better resourced school systems around the state. Over 100,000 students could benefit from this change in just a few years.
In taking this another step forward, Senate Bill 289 directs the State Board of Education to increase high school digital learning resources by the Fall of 2014 so that the courses are ready for current sixth graders when they get to high school. The bottom line is that the Georgia legislature took big steps to make sure that education in Georgia continues moving into the computerized/digitized 21st century.
Another signature piece of legislation was the Criminal Justice Reform Act. Notably, both the House and the Senate voted UNANIMOUSLY (162-0 in the House and 51-0 in the Senate) for the Criminal Justice Reform Act. Governor Deal has already signed it into law.
Among the more significant parts of this overhaul of Georgia’s criminal justice system are the creation of ‘accountability courts’ and ‘mental health courts.’ These courts will give the judiciary more flexibility in redirecting eligible offenders into treatment programs rather than just send them to Georgia’s prisons. Georgia currently spends over $1 BILLION per year on prisons, parole, and probation.
Because its implications reach so far into the future, Governor Deal will keep the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform to consider additional issues. Using states like Texas as a model, the Criminal Justice Reform Act is a major step in spending smarter, not more in addressing criminal justice in Georgia.
There were other significant moves by the Legislature including some modifications to Georgia’s tax code. One significant change was to reduce the marriage penalty on state income taxes. A big item left on the plate is moving away from Georgia’s income tax. But then, there is always next year.