Georgia Legislative Wrap-Up for 2008

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(APN) ATLANTA — The Georgia General Assembly finished the 40-day 2008 Legislative Session on April 4, 2008. There were mixed results for some of the bills Atlanta Progressive News has been following this year, concerning Grady Memorial Hospital, eyewitness identification reform, and transportation. Here is a look at how those measures did.

TRAUMA NETWORK FUNDING

Before the Assembly convened, Speaker of the House Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram) proposed a $10 fee for the annual registration of all vehicles in Georgia.

This money would have gone toward funding all hospitals in the state that provide trauma care, including Grady Memorial Hospital, the only Level I trauma center in north Georgia.

HB 1158 would have raised an estimated $74 million with around $30 million of that going to Grady.

The House version tied the $10 fee to Richardson’s other plan to eliminate the ad valorem tax on all automobiles, but the Senate passed its own version in the final week that split the two plans.

Despite broad, bipartisan support, both measures ultimately failed.

Advocates for Grady had hoped the State would take decisive action this Session in light of the hospital’s well-publicized financial woes.

HB 973, sponsored by State Rep. Harry Geisinger (R-Roswell), would have generated money for trauma care through the imposition of a small telephone tax, but it died in Committee.

Atlanta Progressive News has learned Grady is set to receive this year about $24 million of a one-time jolt of $58 million in extra trauma funding after lawmakers adjusted the Fiscal Year 2008 Budget.

The Trauma Care Network Commission is currently working on a formula that would officially determine how this $58 million is to br divided among Georgia’s 15 trauma hospitals.

PUBLIC HOSPITAL ETHICS

Lawmakers were unable to push through two measures from State Sen. David Shafer (R-Duluth) which addressed ethics at Georgia’s public hospitals.

One bill, SB 353, would have prevented individuals with certain conflicts of interest from serving on the governing Boards of public hospitals.

The Senate passed SB 353 but the House failed to act on it.

Another bill, SR 722, would have created a State oversight committee for Grady, but it also died in the House.

GRADY PRIVATIZATION

The transfer of day-to-day control at Grady between The Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority (FDHA) and the Grady Memorial Hospital Corporation (GMHC), a new 501(c)(3), is almost complete.

Some State lawmakers grew impatient when it appeared the FDHA might balk on the transfer mid-Session.

The result was HB 1299, which would have ultimately forced the change by requiring “certain hospital authorities” contract with nonprofit boards and would have denied state trauma funding to hospitals that do not.

Along the way, the Senate amended the bill to include a list of ethical restrictions for members of the GMHC and a provision that would have put a ban on almost all abortions performed at public hospitals.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce campaigned against the ethical restrictions.

State Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Atlanta), an original co-sponsor of HB 1299, did not like the abortion ban and tried to get HB 1299 to a Conference Committee to strip it out, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper (AJC) reported April 4, 2008.

But the House voted April 4 against sending the bill to such a Committee and ultimately defeated the entire measure later in the day with help from Members of both parties.

EYEWITNESS IDENTIFICATION REFORMS

State Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield’s (D-Decatur) legislation calling for reforms in Georgia’s eyewitness identification procedures died in Committee.

Benfield told Atlanta Progressive News on March 23, 2008, that Majority Whip Barry Fleming (R-Harlem) held HB 997 and HR 1071 in the House Rules Committee and that he wanted changes in the language that would have effectively gutted the bill.

However, Benfield promised to bring back this legislation next year. Fleming will not be there next Session, though, as he has announced he is leaving the State House to run for US Congress.

SPLIT JURY DEATH PENALTY VERDICTS

SB 145, sponsored by State Sen. Preston Smith (R-Rome), started out as legislation that would have allowed district attorneys to seek a life without parole sentence in aggravated murder cases without first having to seek the death penalty.

But at the last minute, Majority Whip Fleming offered an amendment allowing for judges to impose the death penalty when a jury is split 10-2, a move very similar to his own HB 185 that did not make it out of a Senate Committee.

The House approved SB 145 as amended, but the Senate successfully removed Fleming’s language.

SB 145 eventually went to conference committee and languished without final action, Sara Totonchi, public policy director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, told APN.

PUBLIC DEFENDER SYSTEM OVERHAUL

HB 1245, a broad overhaul of the statewide public defender system, passed both chambers and is heading to the Governor’s desk for his signature.

The bill gives counties more say over the system and setting a new cost-sharing plan for certain death penalty cases. It also provides that local counties pay some defense fees when private attorneys represent those on trial in indigent death penalty cases.

The bill received some additions in a Conference Committee which Totonchi found troubling.

Whereas the Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council previously appointed its own director, that person will now serve at the pleasure of the Governor.

This is troubling because it removes the independence from the director’s role, Totonchi argued.

Another change gives persons arrested three business days after their arrest to ask for an attorney. The arrestee must also fill out an application to receive an attorney. Some lawmakers made an effort to extend this time from the current 72 hours to five days, but lost out in Conference Committee.
Totonchi called the new three business day provision “a step in the wrong direction” and said it is unclear who is responsible for giving an arrestee an application.

BRAIN TRAIN RECEIVES A BOOST

The House passed HR 1631 in support of commuter rail service connecting the Athens-Atlanta-Macon corridor, also known as the Brain Train because of the high concentration of colleges, universities, and research centers in close proximity to the line.

HR 1631 states “that the members of the Georgia Transportation Board are urged to help ensure that the existing plans for the Macon to Atlanta to Athens commuter rail lines are implemented with urgency.”

This resolution is a complement to SR 263, passed last session unanimously by the Senate. It urges Congress “to provide funding for the engineering, construction, land acquisition, and other necessary costs for commuter rail connecting Athens to Atlanta.”

“The state’s support sends a clear message to the DOT that this project should be a priority and would help alleviate Georgia’s traffic woes, provide a safe alternative to automobile travel, improve air quality and contribute to positive economic development and sustainable land-use practices,” Paul Snyder, spokesman for the Georgia Brain Train Group, said in a press release obtained by APN.

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION STATE FUNDING

But all Georgia’s public transit projects received a disappointing blow this session after lawmakers failed to pass SR 845.

This resolution would have asked Georgians to vote on a Georgia Constitutional amendment that would have granted authority to regions — metro Atlanta, for example — to vote themselves an up to 1 percent sales tax for all transportation purposes.

If voters granted this power, then regional entities could come back to voters later and ask them to approve a proposed tax.

The Get Georgia Moving Coalition–a diverse group of over 50 business, government, transit advocates, road builders, and environmental organizations–delivered a letter to every House Member urging their support after SR 845 flew through the Senate.

But Gov. Sonny Perdue opposed the measure from the beginning and vowed at one point to campaign against it all the way until November, delivering a letter of his own to House Members stating the same.

He argued the State should not try to cut and raise taxes at the same time, that the resolution would take transportation policy control from the State, and that Metro Atlanta communities would benefit more than rural ones, among other concerns.

SR 845 ended up in Conference Committee where a group of lawmakers from the State House and Senate engaged in frantic, and often frustrating, negotiations for days.

Some amendments included making it easier for counties to opt out of taxing regions; and a redirection of a penny sales tax on gasoline–which currently goes into the State’s general fund–instead to transportation programs which would benefit rural Georgia.

On the Session’s final day, the committee produced an acceptable compromise and the State House approved it with the necessary two-thirds vote.

But the measure ultimately failed the State Senate by just three votes with only minutes remaining in the Session.

SR 845 had strong bipartisan Senate support — but not from the Republican leadership. Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams (R-Lyons), President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson (R-Savannah), and Majority Whip Mitch Seabaugh (R-Sharpsburg) were among 18 Senators who opposed the bill.

“It’s disappointing,” Snyder told APN of SR 845’s failure. “It would have been helpful, but it’s not going to stop us.”

AirTran CEO Joe Leonard, Co-chair of the Get Georgia Moving Coalition, told the AJC April 5, 2008, that some advocates were taking a closer look at Senators representing Atlanta who voted against SR 845.

“We certainly are not walking away from this, and, if anyone thinks that the Get Georgia Moving Coalition is going to sit on the sidelines and start wringing our hands, that is not the case. The new campaign started this morning,” Leonard told the AJC on April 5.

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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