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Capitol report: Sen. Greg Kirk — March 16, 2016

On Monday Legislative Day 30, the Senate passed a big milestone in the 2016 Legislative Session when we completed Crossover Day. It stands as the hurdle for a bill originating in the Senate to pass the Senate in order to be considered by the House before the legislative session ends. Lots of hard work culminates with floor votes on Crossover Day in both chambers. Now that Crossover Day has passed the Senate will focus on House Bills that have crossed over to us.
Of all the pieces of legislation to pass through the Senate, several bills make a strong declaration for Georgia to continue to be the best state to do business.
Senate Resolution 604 proposes a constitutional amendment to prohibit the collection of any state ad valorem taxes after Jan. 1, 2017. The most common ad valorem tax was on cars. The General Assembly has phased out the collection of ad valorem taxes in a variety of cases, and this constitutional amendment would prohibit the creation of any new ad valorem tax.
Another resolution seeking to reduce state taxes is Senate Resolution 756. The resolution proposes a constitutional amendment, which would trigger a reduction in state income taxes based on the size of the general fund and the “rainy day fund”. During the “Great Recession”, Georgia stayed committed to conservative budgeting and was forced to make hard choices without raising taxes. Through great leadership and steadfast determination, our state has recovered much better than others. SR 756 seeks to codify a way for our job creators and hardworking citizens to keep more of their own money as state revenues continue to increase.
The resolution says that if the general fund of state revenue, which is projected to be $23.7 billion this year, reaches $23.6 billion and the rainy day reserve funds exceeds 8 percent of that amount a 0.1 percentage point reduction in state income tax would occur. If the general fund reaches $24.2 billion with at least eight percent of that total in reserve, individual state income taxes would drop an additional 0.1 percentage point. These revenue and reserve amounts must be met by or before the year 2020 for the reductions to occur.
Senate Resolution 388 would allow religious and faith-based organizations to receive state funds as part of a contract to perform social services on behalf of the state. Current law restricts any money moving from the general fund, directly or indirectly, to aid any religious organization. This measure would create an exception for religious organizations performing social service contracts.
The Senate also passed a bill that is good for the creation and growth of small businesses. Senate Bill 206 addresses how a water utility may recoup debts incurred by a commercial property and how a new buyer is to be notified of any outstanding water utility charges when attempting to purchase the property. The challenge in this area is that water utilities operate on very thin margins if they turn a profit. In order to keep the costs down on their good customers, they need to be able to collect for services performed for bad tenants. Currently Georgia law does not allow a utility to deny service to a residential water user. This bill expands this to include commercial properties so that a new or expanding small business is not caught off guard with a surprise bill run up by a previous tenant.
On Wednesday in the Senate, I was proud to honor Georgia Southwestern State University with Senate Resolution 1070. GSW President Charles E. Patterson spoke to the Senate about the academic successes of GSW students and graduates. Founded 110 years ago, GSW currently has more than 2,500 and is an outstanding influence on our state.
It was also my pleasure to welcome other guests and constituents to the Capitol on Wednesday. First, there was a group of enthusiastic and inspiring students from Worth County Middle School. There were several pages from Tift County who helped messages in the Senate chamber. Also, the class of Leadership Sumter visited the chamber to experience the General Assembly and the legislative process.
The Senate will convene for Legislative Days 32, 33, 34 and 35 next week. Senate committees will be working long hours to hear, vet and recommend House Bills behind the scenes. With only a few days left in the session, please let me know if you have questions, thoughts or concerns about legislation that is before the Senate.
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The Senate completed Legislative Day 35 before adjourning for the weekend. This week was busy on and off the Senate floor. House Bills that crossed over to the Senate are moving through the committee process and are coming to the floor for our consideration.
The Senate voted on several bills throughout the week. Arguably the most important bill every year is the general budget, which appropriates state funds for the upcoming fiscal year. This year’s budget bill, House Bill 751, appropriates $23.7 billion in state funds. State income tax revenue grew 4.3 percent over last year’s estimates. In addition to passing balanced budgets, through the leadership of Governor Deal, Georgia has consistently practiced conservative budgeting in our general budgets.
Even though this is one of the largest state budgets since the Great Recession, since 1990 spending per capita adjusted for inflation is still below the high mark of $2,513, which occurred in 2002. As complicated as that may sound, more simply put, it means that our budget is increasing in size more due to population growth and revenue growth. Georgia remains a state with a low tax burden, a track record of conservative budgeting policy and an example of balanced budgeting in government.
A prime example of the fiscally conservative practices of our state is our Revenue Shortfall Reserve, which is commonly called our Rainy Day Fund. The state’s Rainy Day Fund has been a priority of our governor as Georgia. At its low-point in 2009, it was around $103 million. Today, the reserve fund stands at $1.4 billion. These revenues protect against sudden contractions in our economy so that vital state services will not be hit as hard in those trying times.
In education, the state of Georgia continues to clearly show its dedication to training our next generation. The budget adds $26.2 to better attract and retain teachers in our Pre-K system. It adds $53.8 million towards the Hope Scholarship and another $5.3 million to the Zell Miller Scholarship Programs. It also includes the funds to provide a 3 percent pay increase for non-certified K-12 public school employees like cafeteria workers, school nurses and bus drivers.
Another important note in the Fiscal Year 2017 Budget is a special appropriation for the economic development of rural Georgia. A special expenditure adds $10 million to the OneGeorgia Authority to help encourage economic expansion in all corners of the state. The goal of the OneGeorgia Authority is to offer financial partnerships with rural communities to create strong economies in all business sectors, allowing new and existing industries, both large and small, to flourish.
The Senate also passed House Bill 859, which would allow a licensed conceal carry permit holder to possess a firearm on public college and university campuses. The goal of HB 859 is to repeal a restriction the state of Georgia previously placed on the 2nd amendment rights of law abiding Georgians. The narrowly drawn measure does not allow a concealed carry permit holder to possess a gun in a dormitory, sporting event and a fraternity or sorority house. To obtain a conceal carry permit in Georgia, someone must be 21 years old and pass a criminal background check.
It is still a felony in Georgia to carry a firearm without a conceal carry permit. It is still a crime in Georgia to openly carry on college campuses. Gun restrictions do not stop criminals. HB 859 returns the right to carry on campus to a Georgian who is legally allowed to carry.
A news story that is making the rounds this week has brought Sumter County into the national spotlight. Based on a report produced by findthehome.com using voluntarily reported crime statistics for 2014, it claims that Sumter County has that highest raise of burglaries per 100,000 residents. The FBI defines burglary as the unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or theft. To classify an offense as a burglary, the use of force to gain entry need not have occurred.
In March 2014, Sumter Country Sherriff Pete Smith told reporters that economic desperation was the biggest motivator in the wave of break-ins. I have to agree with his assessment of the situation. Economic opportunity and growth is the best deterrent for reducing crime in Sumter County.
The Senate will convene for Legislative Days 36, 37 and 38 next week. All bills looking to pass this Senate before Sine Die will have to be reported out of Senate committees by the end of next week. There are a number of important issues and pieces of legislation still pending before the General Assembly. Please let me know if you have concerns or comments about these bills. It is my honor to represent Georgia’s 13th Senate District at the Capitol.

Sen. Greg Kirk represents the 13th Senate District which includes Crisp, Dodge, Dooly, Lee, Tift, Turner, and Worth counties and portions of Sumter and Wilcox counties. He can be reached by phone at 404-463-5258 or email at greg.kirk@senate.ga.gov