Wednesday, May 21, 2008

WWII Remarks

On April 26, the Dixie Air Wing in Peachtree City hosted World War II Heritage Days, an annual event commemorating World War II and honoring its veterans. I was honored to be asked to give the remarks during the opening ceremony. The ceremony was attended by over 80 WWII veterans and their families, along with many citizens from our area. It was a wonderfully attended celebration and it is a credit to our community to host such an event. With Memorial Day coming up next Monday, I thought it appropriate to submit the text of the speech I delivered thanking and honoring this incredibly brave generation of veterans for their sacrifice.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is truly an honor to speak to you this morning. Since being invited to give these remarks I have been wrestling with what to say. It is a difficult task I’ve been given. What can I say to you? I who never served? To you, who did? I have known only the fruits of your sacrifice; I have lived only in safety and comfort, which you bought so dearly. What can I say to you, you who served in uniform and saved the world?

That's right. I believe the veterans, the heroes, of World War II did nothing less than save our world. All military service is noble, and all wartime service has a special nobility beyond anything I will ever likely achieve. But the men who scaled the cliffs at Normandy, who flew the missions over Hitler's Fortress Europe with little hope of survival, and who took the Pacific back from Imperial Japan island by island -- these can lay claim to a special distinction. They saved us all. Never have the stakes been higher. Never has the call to duty, to honor, to valor, been answered more resoundingly.

I have always relished hearing the stories of the battles that were fought and the great victories that were won in Europe and the Pacific. Just the other day, in my office, a man told my law partner his personal story of how he ran away from home at the age of 14, enlisted in the Army, and flew more than two dozen missions over Europe as a belly gunner in a B-17. When his mother eventually discovered his true whereabouts, she ratted him out. He received a dishonorable discharge, which was rescinded several years later and changed to an honorable discharge. And what did he do when his discharge was changed to honorable? He reenlisted and went on to fly missions over Korea. Just an incredible story from an incredible person. However, what is truly incredible is that this is but one example of millions in a generation that sacrificed and risked everything to save the free world.

I've heard these stories my whole life, for my family was touched by World War II. My great grandfather, Russell West, was killed during the Battle of the Bulge and lies buried in France. Both of my grandfathers served in combat -- one in the navy in the Pacific and the other as a pilot who flew numerous missions over North Africa and Europe.

Both my grandmother and grandfather that told me stories of those fateful days during my youth have passed. It is a scary thought to me that one day, all across our great nation, there will be only silence where there was once the sound of grandfathers, like mine, telling children, like me, upon their knee the stories of those great victories. This realization gives me a deep sense of sadness, and a powerful appreciation for the need to treasure our relationships while we can.

You, having left so many of your fallen brothers on a far away shore, understand this only too well. Though it has been so long since you have seen their faces -- which stay frozen in youth even now all these long years later -- you still feel bound to them, as if no time had passed at all. They live on forever in your hearts, as all of those who pass will in ours.

Douglas MacArthur said that “old soldiers never die; they just fade away." As the father of two children, I can promise you that the story of the Greatest Generation will never be allowed to fade from their memories, or from their children's. The story will be told and retold, and will endure long after we are all gone from the earth. How dare we ever forget the unforgettable? We can not and we must not and we will not.

It is not only in our memories that your works are commemorated. The brave and selfless acts of our uniformed men and women in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere do their predecessors proud. Last month, when Michael Monsoor was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for throwing himself on a grenade to save his comrades, I could not help but think of those who went before him, who committed similar acts of extraordinary valor, who fought for the same flag, and who made the same sacrifice, in the words of Lincoln, “upon the alter of freedom.” When such men are struck down in the flower of their youth, I take comfort in knowing that God is just, and that the scales will be made even; though we in this fallen world cannot see how.

Ladies and gentlemen, all men in their hearts long to do something great. Some of us still await our chance. Until then, we have to make due with moments like these, when we can be near greatness. World War II was one of the most significant events in the history of mankind. When it mattered most, this generation of Americans showed the best qualities our country is all about. This group of men and women gave some of the best years of their lives to the most important mission this country has ever accepted. And for that I thank you -- America thanks you -- and generations not yet born, in every corner of the globe -- thank you for your service, and your greatness. And let us pray that such exertions as you endured will never be necessary again.

Thank you again for this incredible opportunity.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Transportation Key Focus of General Assembly Session:

Over the past two decades Metro Atlanta has faced explosive population growth that is currently choking the region’s infrastructure. Fayette County has not been immune from these issues. Every year, as more people have moved into our county, the congestion on our roads has only increased. The time it takes to go to our jobs, or drive to the store or to drop our children off at school increases by the year. Every single minute we are on the road is one less minute we have to spend with our families. I believe addressing transportation congestion in Fayette County and Metro Atlanta must be one of the top priorities in the legislature.

Transportation in Georgia is largely funded by a tax on gasoline purchases. This funding mechanism becomes less sustainable every year as cars get more fuel efficient and more individuals are changing to hybrid cars and alternative fuels are becoming more of a reality. It is clear that our current funding model in Georgia will need to be revamped in the very near future. However, before we begin the process of fixing the funding model, I believe we need to ensure the government entity that is responsible for administering the funding, the Georgia Department of Transportation, is capable of efficiently performing such a task. Currently, I have serious doubts that the DOT has such capabilities.

During the session, the House and Senate both considered measures to provide regions of the state with the ability, through a referendum, to increase sales taxes for the purpose of funding transportation infrastructure projects. The money collected would have then been funneled through the DOT to spend on projects designated by each region, in collaboration with the DOT. The DOT would then have been tasked with designing, managing and delivering each project. Depending on how many regions of the state participated, this would have potentially routed billions of new taxpayer dollars through the GDOT. The legislation was put forth as part of a collaborative effort by a broad spectrum of interest groups including; local governments, business groups and the environmental community. While I appreciate these groups’ hard work on this legislation, I simply believed this action would have been premature at this time. For that reason, I voted against this measure that ultimately died in the Senate on the last night of the session.

The DOT’s new Commissioner, Gena Abraham, is doing great work to reform the DOT, however, it is a work in progress. When she came on board in recent months the book keeping was so poor, her staff could not even tell her how many projects they had scheduled. In the last month, state auditors determined they could not even audit the books because they were in such disarray and asked the state to fund a private sector audit. I simply do not believe this is an agency that needs to be tasked with spending billions of new taxpayer dollars, until its house is put in order. I support Commissioner Abraham’s reform efforts and believe she is making important steps. I was also pleased to support legislation that passed this session requiring a comprehensive progress report from the DOT on the Statewide Strategic Transportation Plan by June 30, 2009, and annually thereafter. The report must include costs, funding sources, and timelines for current and future DOT projects. Further, the General Assembly enacted legislation that requires the DOT Commissioner to develop and publish benchmarks detailing a realistic time frame for completion of transportation projects. This measure requires annual reports to be submitted to the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker of the House for any project above $10 million and explain discrepancies between benchmarks and actual performance. All of this will help ensure DOT is acting as good stewards of Georgia’s tax dollars.

This session, the General Assembly also enacted a program that has worked well in numerous other states. HB 1019 establishes a state revolving loan fund for infrastructure projects. This “infrastructure bank” will provide local governments with the opportunity to access low interest loans for their local projects. As the debt is repaid on these projects the money will then be available to be loaned again for additional projects in other localities. This program is subject to available annual appropriations, which will ensure close tabs are kept on the success of the program.

I am committed to working to find a solution to our transportation gridlock in metro-Atlanta and Georgia. Our funding mechanism is antiquated and needs to be overhauled. I believe it is incumbent upon office holders to work collaboratively to address our state and region infrastructure needs. However, I also strongly believe we must ensure any solution ensures that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and efficiently. I look forward to working with all groups in the coming years to address the issue of traffic congestion and infrastructure funding needs.

As always, please do not hesitate to contact me if I may be of assistance (404-656-0109).

Friday, May 2, 2008

Great Session for Education

Over the last twenty-five years our County has seen explosive growth, with our population multiplying close to five times in that time frame. Our population growth has partly been a product of our close proximity to Atlanta and the airport, however, the quality of life in our community is what has brought most of the decent and caring families that have moved here over the last quarter century and now call Fayette County home. One of the cornerstones of our high quality of life in this community is our outstanding public schools. Thousands of parents have elected to raise their children here because we have had some of the best schools in the state for many, many years. While other counties around Atlanta have not dealt with the growth well and have seen a significant degradation in their children’s educational opportunities, our schools have continued to thrive and remain among the best in Georgia. This is because we have had and continue to have active and involved parents, conscientious school officials and hard working and talented teachers and administrators. However, we must all do our part to ensure our children continue to have the best schools in the state now and in the years to come.

My charge in the State House is to work with my colleagues to enact legislation that will benefit our schools and prevent the enactment of legislation that would do our schools harm. This session of the General Assembly was very good for education in Georgia and, in turn, good for schools in Fayette County. Much of our focus locally this session was on legislation dealing with Clayton County’s potential loss of accreditation. Like all citizens in Fayette County, I was extremely concerned when I learned an amendment was added to Senate Bill 458 during the Senate’s floor debate on the measure that could have potentially forced our schools to accept students from failing school systems. When this legislation arrived in the House, our effort to remove the amendment that was added in the Senate was successful, ensuring Fayette County would never be forced to accept students from failing schools. Even after the most offensive provision of the bill was stripped out in committee, the legislation simply had too many problems and thankfully died without ever even receiving a vote on the floor in the House of Representatives. I am proud to have been one of the leaders in defeating this legislation that would have jeopardized the quality of our schools.

Lost in the furor over SB 458 were some important pieces of legislation that will be of great benefit to Georgia’s and Fayette County’s schools. This session, the General Assembly enacted legislation resulting from the Governor’s IE2 initiative. One of the most frequent criticisms I hear from our school officials is the overwhelming number of mandates in federal and state law. Title 20 of the Georgia Code is a laundry list of education rules and regulations that must be followed by every school in the state. This is classic one-size-fits-all government and often leaves our school officials in straight jackets when they attempt to try anything new or creative in educating our youth. What is right or works for Fayette County, will not necessarily work in another area of the state. House Bill 1209 will give school systems the ability to hold public hearings, and in collaboration with parents, develop a strategic plan to opt out of some of these onerous bureaucratic rules and regulations. The school systems will then enter into a contract with the state and in exchange for the enhanced flexibility, will accept additional accountability measures in the event the system fails to meet the goals of their strategic plan. It should be also noted, that participation is 100% optional and systems can continue operating under the current system of rules and regulations if they determine it is working for their community. I strongly believe our teachers and school officials should be able to focus 100% of their efforts on educating our youth, rather than on jumping through government red tape and bureaucratic hurdles and this legislation is an important first step in accomplishing that goal.

This year the General Assembly again passed a balanced budget, as is required by our state constitution. At around the mid-point of the session the Governor announced that state revenues were less than initially projected, which made the job of budget writers more difficult. However, I am very pleased to report that education was given the priority it deserves in the budget process and both the amended 2008 budget and the full 2009 budget provided important funding our state’s educational system. The budget includes over $100 million in new education funding, including restoration of $50 million of previous years’ austerity cuts. The budget also includes full funding of the Governor’s recommended pay raise for our hard working teachers in Georgia.

As long as I am in the General Assembly, one of my top priorities will always be to ensure our schools continue to be the best in the state. This session of the General Assembly was a positive one for education in Georgia. I grew up in Fayette County and received the benefit of a great education in our public schools. I will continue to work at the State Capitol to ensure my two young children and all the children of our community will have the same great schools in Fayette County for years to come.