- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Recent editorials from Georgia newspapers:

March 21

Morning News, Savannah, Georgia, on transportation bill:

Credit a narrow majority of state senators for stepping up big Friday for better roads and more jobs for Georgia.

In a 29-25 vote, the Georgia Senate approved a transportation measure that would raise about $840 million a year to help keep the state’s road system from falling apart.

(Unfortunately, Chatham County’s two senators canceled themselves out; Ben Watson voted “yes” while Lester Jackson voted “no.”)

Although that amount is short of the estimated $1 billion to $1.5 billion that transportation officials say they need, at least this measure didn’t crash and burn and keeps the legislative process rolling.

Two weeks ago, the state House voted 123-45 to pass a similar proposal - one that would generate $900 million a year in new revenue. Friday’s approval of H.B. 170 by the state Senate sends the measure back to the House for revision, with an eye on reworking the bill so that majorities in both chambers can support it. Then it can go to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.

Finding money to maintain Georgia’s roads and bridges and to fund needed new projects are priorities during this legislative session. Federal highway money has essentially dried up. State lawmakers can no longer dodge their responsibility to come up with an alternative funding plan. Either Georgia finds its own source of funds, or its transportation system will deteriorate and jobs may go elsewhere.

Fortunately, most lawmakers aren’t going to let that happen.

Both the House-approved and Senate-approved bills create a state excise tax on each gallon of gasoline and diesel fuel sold at the pumps (the House version’s tax rate is 29.2 cents per gallon; the Senate’s version is 24 cents per gallon). It would replace the existing sales tax, which is now levied on the total purchase price.

That’s one difference the House and Senate must work out. Others include whether the state should charge an annual highway user impact fee ($10 per motorcycle, $25 per passenger vehicle and $50 per big-rig truck or bus) and continue to allow cities, counties and school systems to collect sales taxes on motor fuel - especially local option and special purpose local option sales taxes approved by local voters.

On LOST and SPLOST taxes, lawmakers must respect the wills of local voters. They must not undo by legislative fiat in Atlanta what has taken place at the ballot box.

At the same time, majorities of the House and Senate appear of like minds on eliminating the state’s aviation fuel tax credit given to air carriers like Georgia-based Delta Air Lines. With fuel prices down and airlines profits up, the tax break isn’t necessary. Roads need more help than the friendly skies.

Also eliminated by both chambers was the $5,000 state tax credit for the purchase or lease of an electric car, while owners of such vehicles would have to pay a $200 user fee each year. The fee is only fair; owners who escape fuel taxes at the pump should pay for their share of the wear and tear on roads.

While Republicans control the legislature, this measure wouldn’t have gotten this far without the support of some Democratic lawmakers in the House. They deserve credit for seeing the big picture, along with Republican lawmakers who have supported it. Unfortunately, many legislators reflexively opposed H.B. 170, without offering workable alternatives.

Voting “no” on needed relief for highway headaches is no answer. It’s a dodge. It’s encouraging that majorities of lawmakers are addressing the funding shortfall head-on.




March 22

The Telegraph, Macon, Georgia, on damage being done under Gold Dome:

It is a good thing our intrepid lawmakers will soon leave Atlanta. I’m not sure we can stand much more of their working the will of the people. Even on a short week, they managed to reach into local pocketbooks and extract millions of dollars.

Lawmakers — who make a point of saying how much they care about education — took out a dagger and stabbed 180 state school systems squarely in the center of their backs.

Frankly, the schools should be used to such treatment, it has happened so many times before.

The initial effort was to take away health benefits from classified school employees working 30 hours or less per week. That would include a host of employees, from custodians to bus drivers to lunchroom personnel. The legislators hit a brick wall with that proposal, so what did the dastardly and devious among them do? If the bill stays in its present form, hidden among the Senate’s appropriations, classified employees will keep their insurance, but here’s the kicker … wait for it: Lawmakers put what had been a state cost onto the backs of local districts to the tune of an additional $746 per month, per employee.

Such a deal. We can hear some lawmakers crowing now about how they saved classified employees’ health benefits.

For school systems the size of Bibb and Houston, this will impact their budgets by millions of dollars. The measure has already passed the Senate’s Appropriations Committee and it’s the same number brought over from the House. There is still time for it to be changed, but in this anti-public education General Assembly, it’s hard to see that happening.

The Senate, in order to pay for transportation needs, also plans to raid the general fund to the tune of $442 million.

The senators say the state’s revenue growth will pay for it, but Alan Essig, head of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, says, “Reality check: There is no free lunch. Such a large hit to the general fund threatens significant pain for people who count on such vital state services as education, health care and public safety.” He went on to say, “The Senate version of HB 170 is fiscally irresponsible and causes as many problems as it solves.”

When lawmakers say, during next year’s election cycle, how much a friend they are to education, public safety and health, check your back for a dagger.




March 24

The Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle on Texas lawmaker’s proposed camera law:

Every once in a while, a lawmaker proposes legislation so stunningly bad it could give off a foul odor.

Texas state Rep. Jason Villalba is one such lawmaker.

The Dallas Republican has introduced a bill that would make it a crime for everyday citizens to record their encounters with police.

His bill states people can be charged with a Class B misdemeanor for filming on-duty police from a distance closer than 25 feet unless they are members of the media - that is, work for a “radio, television station, newspaper or magazine.”

There are many reasons why this measure should - and most likely will - fail.

First, we’re not talking about obstructing, assaulting or impeding the police. That would be an actual crime, one for which a law already exists in Texas and likely everywhere else. We’re talking about the First Amendment-protected right to film, photograph or record police in their official capacity in public, where no expectation of privacy exists. Numerous court cases, most recently Glik v. Cunniffe in 2011, have affirmed that nationwide.

By now, Villalba should have learned that one’s occupation does not grant one additional rights under the Constitution. Police are not exempt from being filmed in public just because they are police. Reporters don’t have any more rights than the general public, either, but under Villalba’s bill, they have the right to do things that would be considered criminal for other people - including the person involved in the police encounter.

It’s all so arbitrary and silly. So card-carrying reporters employed by corporate news organizations get a pass, while bloggers, independent broadcasters and members of the general public go to jail? If police show up at your door and you want to document the interaction, would you have to ask them to step back 25 feet so you can record?

Most troubling about this horrible idea is that it runs contrary to nationwide demands for increased police accountability in the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., shooting. Indeed, most communities are mandating police officers wear body cameras, but in Texas, Villalba essentially is trying to put a big government hand in front of the public’s lens.

Remember the bystander video of police struggling with a breathless Eric Garner on a Staten Island, N.Y., street last summer? That recording would have been illegal under Villalba’s law. Honestly, we need more cameras on police, not fewer.

This legislator, astoundingly, has said his bill “does not infringe on constitutional rights” or “limit liberty in any way,” which makes us wonder: What color is the sky on his planet?

It appears he was motivated to do a favor for law enforcement: “It came about because my brothers/sisters in blue asked for my help to protect them,” he said via social media. “I did what I could to help.”

Clearly, Villalba is attempting to discourage the public from filming police encounters on their smartphones and other digital devices.

We understand police don’t like being filmed. They bristle at the idea of citizens armed with digital evidence that challenges their version of the truth, and more than a few likely fear being caught committing highly unprofessional or illegal acts.

But police need to understand they are public servants, doing the public’s work in a public setting. Being in the public eye, even a high-definition digital one, just goes with the territory.



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