Thursday, January 20, 2011

Week 1 Legislative Update

Last week saw the 2011 term of the Georgia General Assembly gavel into session. However, it was certainly the most unusual start to a legislative session in my short career. There was tremendous uncertainty with the weather on the eve of session as snow and ice began to fall. However, the Georgia Constitution does not have any provision for bad weather and states we SHALL convene on the second Monday in January. With that in mind I set off for what turned out to be a four hours plus roundtrip commute to Atlanta on Monday to be sworn in myself and to see the inauguration of Georgia’s 82nd Governor, Nathan Deal, which had to be hastily moved inside to the House chambers due to the bad weather. Governor Deal gave an excellent speech which set out many of his goals and aspirations for his impending first term.

Governor Deal’s inaugural speech on Monday was followed on Wednesday by his first state of the State address before a joint session of the House and Senate. The state of the State address is historically primarily focused on the Governor’s budget recommendations and this year’s speech by Governor Deal was no different. Taken in the aggregate, his budget calls for an average spending reduction of roughly 7 % per agency, however, his recommendations certainly did not call for straight across the board cuts. Governor Deal in his speech underlined his intention to hold state funding for K-12 education harmless. Governor Deal’s budget also calls for the elimination of 14,000 state government positions, many of which are already vacant. This is definitely a good step in continuing the efforts the General Assembly have advanced in recent years to reduce the size of state government. Now that the Governor has unveiled his suggested FY 2011 amended and FY 2012 full year budgets the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will begin this week holding agency by agency hearings to review his requested budget and begin the process of authoring the appropriations bills for the General Assembly to consider in the weeks ahead.

Wednesday was the General Assembly’s second and final legislative day of the week and I introduced my first bill of the session before we adjourned that afternoon. The measure is House Bill 47 and is very similar to legislation I authored last year to allow health insurance companies to offer health insurance products that they sell in other states to Georgians. The measure passed the House last year mostly along party lines, however, stalled in the Senate Rules Committee before it could be considered by the full Senate before the end of the session. In my opinion it is a critical free-market oriented reform that will provide the hundreds of thousands of Georgians that only have access to insurance through the individual market a much greater opportunity to find a policy that fits their specific needs. This is particularly important in light of the Obama Administration’s health care reform measure that imposes a mandate on every American to buy health insurance. It is critical that we as state policy makers remove barriers to competition and put more power in the hands of the Georgia insurance buying consumers.

Due to my position in House leadership I serve on the Committee on Assignments which is tasked with making committee assignments for every member of the State House. Much of my time at the Capitol last week was spent in meetings with that Committee working to get House standing committees set for the next two years. On Friday Speaker Ralston announced the slate of Committee Chairmen and Committee positions for 2011-2012. I was honored to be appointed to serve as the Vice-Chairman of the House Reapportionment Committee. I look forward to working with the Chair of that Committee, Roger Lane (R-Darien), and all of its members over the next year to do the constitutionally mandated once-a-decade process of redrawing Georgia’s State House and Senate and Congressional legislative lines to reflect population shifts that have occurred over the past ten years. I was also appointed to serve as the Vice-Chairman of the Special Rules Committee and as a member on the House Appropriations and Ethics Committees. In addition, I will continue to serve on the House Judiciary Non-Civil and Regulated Industries Committees, as I did last term.

Next week the House and Senate are out of session so that joint Appropriations Committee hearings can be held. Over the next few weeks the legislative pace will pick up as more legislation is introduced and committees begin to meet. I look forward to providing regular legislative updates so that the citizens of this community remain informed on the goings on at their State Capitol. As always, I encourage any feedback or questions and hope citizens will call on me if I can be of any service to them.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Majority Caucus Vice-Chairman Ramsey Announces Legislation Aimed at Providing More Options in the Health Insurance Market

Today House Majority Caucus Vice-Chairman Matt Ramsey (R-Peachtree City) announced the introduction of House Bill 47. This legislation is aimed at providing Georgians with more options in the health insurance market.

“We are convinced that the best way to provide Georgians with more affordable and varied health insurance options is to unlock the forces of the free market and put more power in the hands of the health insurance buying consumer,” said Rep. Ramsey. “In light of the Obama Administration’s imposition of a mandate to buy health insurance on every single American through his healthcare reform package, it is absolutely critical that we break down the barriers to competition in the health insurance marketplace in Georgia.”

Similar legislation to HB 47 passed the House last year before stalling in the Senate. HB 47, like its predecessor, would allow insurance companies licensed in Georgia to sell health insurance products that are approved for sale in other states.

Joining Representative Ramsey in introducing the measure were House Insurance Committee Chairman John Meadows (R-Calhoun), House Retirement Committee Chairman Howard Maxwell (R-Dallas), House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey (R-Atlanta), House Majority Caucus Chairman Donna Sheldon (R-Dacula), House Majority Caucus Secretary/Treasurer Allen Peake (R-Macon) and more than a dozen other majority caucus Representatives.

Friday, January 7, 2011

2011 General Assembly Session Set To Convene

With the recent flip of the calendar from 2010 to 2011, it is almost time for the Georgia General Assembly to convene again for its annual 40 day session beginning on January 10th. I wanted to take the opportunity to give a preview of some of the prominent issues that will be considered by the State House and Senate this year. Before I do that, however, I would like to wish all of the readers of this column a very blessed and happy new year. I would also like to again say thank you to the citizens of Fayette County for giving me the opportunity to serve our home in the State House. I will be sworn in as a member of the Georgia General Assembly for my third term on January 10th, and please know I continue to believe the greatest honor of my professional career is to serve a wonderful community like ours.

The General Assembly has been forced to deal with some challenging issues in recent years brought on by the historic economic downturn and the resulting unemployment. I have written much in recent years about the state’s budget difficulties that have resulted in billions in spending cuts and a large reduction in the size of our state government. This has not been an easy process, but the good news is that our state maintains its balanced budget and we remain among the three lowest per-capita spending states in the country. While the state’s economy is beginning to show some signs of stabilization, we will have another session of very difficult choices, with many predicting we will need to make well in excess of $1 billion in spending reductions to keep our budget balanced. It is critical we continue to balance our budget by reducing spending and the size of government rather than look to Georgia’s families and businesses for additional revenue through the enactment of broad based tax increases. Further, we must continue the process we have engaged in over the past three years to scrutinize every dollar that is being spent by the state government to ensure taxpayers are receiving the greatest value possible for their hard earned state tax dollars.

Along those lines, I am very hopeful that a measure I have strongly supported and co-sponsored in recent years, the Zero Based Budgeting Act, will be brought up very quickly in the legislative session for consideration by the State House. The measure passed both the House and Senate last year but was ultimately vetoed by Governor Perdue. It will give current and future legislatures another tool in the effort to ensure agencies are spending tax dollars in the most efficient manner possible.

The Georgia unemployment rate continues to hover above 10 percent, and it is vital that we continue to promulgate policies that promote job creation, business expansion and business relocation to Georgia so that Georgia’s 650,000 unemployed can get back to work as soon as possible. Relatively speaking, Georgia is an incredibly well managed state considering the fact we are one of only a small handful of states to maintain its AAA bond rating through the current fiscal crisis and are among the lowest tax states in the country. However, we must continue to look at our tax code to ensure we are poised as a state to remain an economically vibrant and competitive state for generations to come. In that regard, last year the General Assembly created a Tax Reform Council whose mission was to comprehensively study our state’s tax code and provide recommendations to House and Senate on potential reforms. The Council will be releasing its findings in the coming days, and I very much look forward to reviewing the product of their months of study and public input. I strongly believe that we, as a state, need to move our tax code to one that is more consumptive based and less reliant on the taxing of individual and corporate income. Numerous states have moved in this direction and it is already bearing fruit for those states from an economic development standpoint. This is an issue that will surely receive serious consideration this session.

Another issue that must be addressed this session is the financial solvency of the HOPE scholarship program. HOPE has been very successful over its almost two decades of existence and has helped tens of thousands Georgia students continue their education beyond high school. Unfortunately, the program is becoming a victim of its own success in that its annual benefits are exceeding the amount it is collecting in lottery receipts, its primary source of revenue. Over the last several years the state has been forced to withdraw significant sums from the program’s reserves to fund benefits. In fact, the House Budget Office recently estimated that the amount that will need to be drawn down from HOPE reserves in 2011 will be approximately $250 million. The fund’s reserves peaked in 2009 at just over $1 billion, but if current projections are accurate the fund will drop to just over $300 million in 2012, a $700 million decrease in just three years. Clearly this is a trend that cannot be allowed to continue. The House Higher Education Committee has been meeting throughout the summer and fall analyzing potential solutions to this critical issue. At the moment, all options are on the table to ensure the financial stability of this important program. Although no legislation has been filed to date, this will certainly be an issue that receives a great deal of attention this session.

Finally, an issue I have been personally involved in that will undoubtedly be hotly debated this upcoming session will be that of illegal immigration reform. Georgia has passed aggressive laws in recent years seeking to address the social and economic problems that have resulted from the federal government’s failure to secure our nation’s borders; however, more needs to be done. In that regard, Speaker Ralston and Lieutenant Governor Cagle created a Special Joint Committee on Immigration Reform this past fall, and Speaker Ralston honored me by appointing me as the House Chair of the panel. We have engaged in an exhaustive study process over the past several months in anticipation of the upcoming session and will have legislation ready to be introduced in the first two weeks of the session. I will certainly write a great deal more about this topic upon the introduction of the legislation and look forward to interacting with constituents on this important issue.

As we are set to embark on another session of the Georgia General Assembly, I again very much look forward to interacting with constituents from Fayette County. Please know how much I depend on and appreciate feedback from the citizens of this great community. As always, please never hesitate to call on me if I may be of service.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Governor Perdue Introduces Legislation to Expand Access to Health Insurance

Today Governor Sonny Perdue announced that Rep. Matt Ramsey, one of the Governor’s Floor Leader in the House, has introduced House Bill 1184 to expand access to health insurance.

“This legislation will open up the individual insurance market and allows consumers to find the plan that best fits their needs,” said Governor Perdue. “It will also help those that are uninsured find a plan that works for them.”

The legislation will allow individuals and families to buy health plans that have been approved for sale in other states. Insurers that are licensed in Georgia, but who have alternative products that are sold in other states, will also be able to sell those policies in Georgia. Allowing for the purchase of health insurance across state lines will make affordable health insurance more accessible and increase the variety of health plans available to Georgians.

“This legislation empowers Georgians to find a health insurance plan that meets the needs of their family,” said Rep. Ramsey.

The Governor first announced this proposal in January at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s Eggs and Issues breakfast.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Rep. Matt Ramsey Praises Signing of HB 123, Closing Loophole in Georgia's Child Molestation Statute

Yesterday, Governor Sonny Perdue signed House Bill 123 into law. This legislation was authored by Representative Matt Ramsey (R-Peachtree City) to close a loophole in Georgia’s child molestation statute.

House Bill 123 fixes a problem created by a mid-nineties Georgia Supreme Court ruling in which the Court, in a close decision, interpreted the statutory definition of child molestation to require that a perpetrator be physically present with a victim in order to be prosecuted for child molestation.

“The Court’s ruling created a barrier that limited prosecutors' ability to go after predators that subject children to lewd acts via electronic means such as webcams or live streaming video. It was an unusual result in that it meant an offender that commits a lewd act in the presence of a child can be prosecuted for molestation, whereas another person who induces a child to watch the exact same act on a webcam cannot, despite the fact that the impact on the child is the same. HB 123 corrected this flaw,” said Rep. Ramsey. “Our laws must keep up with technological changes and in this case that means closing a loophole that allows predators to use technology to prey upon our children.”

Rep. Ramsey was joined at the signing ceremony by two of the legislation’s co-sponsors, Representative Mark Williams (R-Jesup) and Representative Kevin Levitas (D-Atlanta). Judge Christopher Edwards, District Attorney for the Griffin Judicial Circuit Scott Ballard and his Chief Assistant District Attorney Randy Coggin were also present at the signing.

“I truly appreciate Judge Edwards for bringing the issue to my attention and to Scott Ballard and Randy Coggin for their efforts throughout the legislative session, including participation in several committee hearings, in support of this bill,” said Rep. Ramsey.

The legislation was carried in the Senate by State Senator Ronnie Chance and passed the House and Senate overwhelmingly with bi-partisan support.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Session Wrap Up

The General Assembly adjourned for the year on April 3. I have previously written an update on several initiatives that were passed during the last week of the session. However, I wanted to follow up with information on some additional measures that were passed by the General Assembly and are on the Governor’s desk awaiting signature. Facing the toughest economic times in recent memory, the 2009 General Assembly Session proved to be a successful one for Georgians. In addition to passing a balanced budget and addressing the governance of DOT, the legislature addressed several important policy areas, including tax relief, education and our state’s trauma network.

Over the past year a statewide task force of educators, policy makers, school administrators and other education policy experts have worked to identify issues that need to be addressed in Georgia’s public education system. One of the most critical problems identified by the task force is a shortage of math and science teachers. In recent years, Georgia has beefed up its math and science curriculum to ensure our students come out of high school ready to compete in college and in the job market in a world that gets more levered to technology every day. However, currently there is a shortage of between 15%-20%, depending on the subject, of the number of teachers necessary to teach this new math and science curriculum. According to the task force, the shortage of math and science teachers is, by far, the greatest area of needs in terms of teacher recruitment. To underscore the problem, Georgia’s colleges last year only produced one physics teacher and nine chemistry teachers.

To address the issue, several legislators, including myself, introduced a measure to provide pay incentives to math and science teachers in an effort to encourage college students that excel in math and science to consider teaching as a possible occupation, rather than other opportunities. This is a market-based, common sense approach to employee recruitment that has been used successfully in the private sector forever. Simply put, if you have a need that is not being met at a given salary and benefit level, you must enhance the salary and benefits to incent additional prospective employees to consider the position. This will benefit all of Georgia’s students as they move out of high school and into college or the workforce. Further, this is an economic development issue, in that it will help make sure Georgia continues to have the kind of technically proficient workforce that will entice technology based companies to invest in and bring jobs to Georgia in the decades to come.

Tax relief for Georgians was a key issue for the General Assembly this year. It is critical in these difficult economic times that we provide measures aimed at helping financially strapped families and businesses, while encouraging economic activity, job growth and increased investment in our economy. The General Assembly passed a measure that will prevent property tax assessments from increasing at all over the next two years to help Georgians who are already struggling with out of control property tax bills. In addition, the House and Senate passed the Jobs Opportunity and Business Success Act (JOBS Act), which was introduced as a package of legislation to create, expand and attract jobs for Georgians. By combining a series of tax cuts, fee suspensions and incentives to hire unemployed Georgians this legislation actually encourages private sector economic activity, rather than the federal government’s version of a stimulus plan that seemed only focused on using taxpayer dollars to stimulate the growth of the size of the federal government.

Finally, the General Assembly worked to provide for a more robust trauma care system in this state. Georgia has the worst per-capita access to Level I trauma care in the southeastern United States. We are losing thousands of lives every year in Georgia because individuals involved in traumatic accidents are not treated quickly enough to mitigate the physical harm caused by the accident. In that regard, the Legislature and Governor Perdue worked together to craft the “Super Speeder” legislation that provides for enhanced fines for excessive speeding, reckless driving, habitual DUI offenders and other dangerous driving activities that are the leading causes of traumatic accidents on our roads. As one of Governor Perdue’s floor leaders, I was significantly involved in the passage of this legislation out of the House. The increased fines are intended to make drivers think twice before excessively speeding or engaging in other dangerous driving activities that endanger all of our families every day on Georgia’s roads. The additional funding derived from the violators of these laws will be used to help fund a statewide trauma care network that will benefit any Georgian that suffers a traumatic accident.

I believe the legislature implemented a number of common-sense measures this session that will benefit millions of Georgians. The information above is but a few of these bills. I welcome any questions from constituents on these or any other matters relevant to our state government. As I’ve said before, thank you so much for the opportunity to serve this great community in the General Assembly.

Matt Ramsey

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Final Report of the Current Session

The Georgia General Assembly adjourned the final day of the session on Friday night at 11:59 p.m. It was a hectic final week with several important pieces of legislation getting enacted, while several others were held over to next year. I wanted to give a brief overview about the final week of the session and follow up with a more comprehensive wrap up in the weeks to come.

First, the General Assembly passed the final $18.6 billion FY 2010 budget on Friday evening by an overwhelming bipartisan vote in favor of the House/Senate Conference Committee’s final budget. As I have constantly stated, it was a very difficult budget cycle as the state endeavored to deal with rapidly decreasing revenues that necessitated nearly $3 billion in cuts. However, we were able to balance the budget without raising taxes, unlike countless other states going through similarly difficult times, by making difficult choices and shrinking the size of government. While the cuts will certainly be felt throughout every sector of state government, I strongly believe the final budget document protects to the greatest extent possible critical state missions such as education and public safety, while focusing the largest reductions on other areas of the state budget. As I stated, I will provide a more detailed report on the final budget in the weeks to come and welcome any questions or comments.

Two of the most important pieces of legislation to pass the General Assembly were major restructurings of our state’s two largest agencies, the Department of Human Resources and the Department of Transportation. Since being elected in 2007, I have repeatedly written about my concern over mismanagement of the DOT. I strongly believe our current system is broken, which is partially evidenced by our hopelessly overburdened transportation infrastructure in Metro-Atlanta. The current system was set up several decades ago and provides an unelected Board of thirteen individuals, with no direct accountability to the citizens of Georgia, complete and total power over every aspect of planning, funding and project delivery. In my opinion, it is good ol’ boy politics at its worst and has led to the DOT over-obligating itself to the tune of several billion dollars. The legislation passed last week will provide those that are directly accountable to Georgia’s voters, the Governor and members of the General Assembly, a greater voice in our state’s transportation system. The planning and funding process will be completely transparent, rather than the current system where the process occurs in a Board Room and is often based solely on political favors and clout.

The General Assembly also provided for a significant reorganization of the Department of Human Resources, a department that provides for an incredibly wide array of services to Georgia’s most vulnerable citizens, including abused and neglected children and the elderly. The reorganization will help to ensure a more streamlined and transparent service delivery system by breaking the massive agency into three smaller more focused and targeted agencies. It is the result of a year long Health and Human Services task force that focused its efforts on determining a more effective way to serve Georgia’s citizens.

Finally, I have received a great deal of interest and wanted to provide an update on legislation I authored to add cell phone use to the list of restrictions placed on under-18, Class-D license holders. The legislation passed the House Motor Vehicles Committee unanimously, passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support, passed the Senate Public Safety Committee Unanimously, but got hung up in the Senate Rules Committee in the final days of the session without getting to the Senate floor for a vote. In the end, it was a numbers game whereby many bills didn’t make it to the House or Senate floor due to time simply running out on the session. To use a football analogy, we moved the football down inside our opponent’s five yard line but didn’t quite get it into the end zone. However, the good news for supporters of the legislation is that this is a two-year session, and the bill will still be on the five yard line when next year’s session convenes.

I am very proud to report that legislation I authored to address a gap in our child molestation statute is on its way to the Governor for signature. In addition, legislation I introduced to protect parties from costs resulting from meritless lawsuits was adopted and on its way to the Governor for signature. Also, legislation I worked on to provide our school systems greater flexibility from state mandates to help in the current economic crisis was also adopted by the House and Senate and awaits the Governor’s signature.

I look forward to providing additional information on this and other legislation addressed by the General Assembly in the weeks to come. Let me also say thank you to the numerous citizens that wrote and called me during the session. I truly enjoy the interaction with constituents and the input is absolutely invaluable.