- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia lawmakers took a step forward on two major priorities for the legislative session on Thursday, with the House approving a multi-million dollar plan for transportation funding and the Senate backing Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposal to give the state takeover power for “chronically failing” schools.

Both chambers have passed dozens of other bills since convening in January, but these issues have taken up much of legislators’ attention since then. Thursday was the first significant action on both topics.

TRANSPORTATION FUNDING

The Georgia House passed a multi-million transportation funding bill after several hours of wrangling over proposed revisions.

The bill converts the state’s mix of taxes on gasoline to a 29.2 cents-per-gallon excise tax dedicated for transportation needs. It also eliminates Georgia’s tax credit for electric vehicle purchases and an exemption on jet fuel purchases for airlines.

Sponsoring Rep. Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, called it a “tough decision” and told House members he couldn’t be sure what will happen to the bill in the Senate. House members approved the bill 123-46.

“This conversation is not over with; we will continue to have it,” Roberts said.

The bill has undergone numerous revisions since House GOP leaders introduced it at the end of January and told reporters that it did not increase taxes and would add $1 billion for transportation spending. A study committee recommended the state needed at least that amount for maintenance of existing roads and bridges.

It wasn’t clear on Thursday how much the package raises.

Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, served on the study committee and encouraged members to take action.

“Without transportation infrastructure, you will not have economic development and job creation,” Smyre said. “We should not abdicate our responsibility this time around.”

STATE TAKEOVER OF SCHOOLS

The state Senate narrowly approved Deal’s proposal to create a new school district that could take over schools dubbed “chronically failing” based on three years of student performance.

Under Deal’s plan, a superintendent, appointed by and accountable to the governor, would select up to 20 schools deemed to be failing each year. The superintendent then could make them into charters, close them or overhaul management with the authority to exempt the schools from many state requirements.

The constitutional amendment received exactly the 38 votes necessary to pass, including one Democrat, state Sen. Freddie Powell Sims.

The accompanying legislation also approved by the Senate made some minor changes to Deal’s initial proposal, including giving the state Senate confirmation power of the appointed superintendent.

Democrats argued that the proposal was too broad, and state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, called it a “usurpation of local control like none other.”

Even with full Republican backing in the House, Deal’s administration will need at least some Democrats to meet the required two-thirds approval for the constitutional amendment. It then would get a statewide vote in 2016.

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