Below are detailed minutes taken by one of our DSW contributors at the public meeting held by State Rep. Scott Holcomb, March 20, 2012 at Livsey ES.
Meeting ran from 7 – 830 p.m. About 30 people were in attendance at the school’s media center for an informal rundown of the issues that came before the Georgia House and Senate during the recent legislative session, leading up to “crossover” day of March 30.
Bills that do not make it out of committee before crossover day are essentially “dead” and will not be considered again until the next year, if they are still relevant and if there is still a member of the legislature who is interested in sponsoring a new bill and trying to get it through for a vote in some other manner or with changes the wording.
Welcome from Rep. Scott Holcomb
This is his “freshman” term in the House
He got involved because he is a big proponent of public education
Being a father himself, he is concerned about the low ranking of Georgia compared to other states for education. He is also not proud about the recent news our state is last in the county when it comes to ethics related policies. He hopes to be able to make positive changes.
Background as an attorney.
Rundown of topics and why he voted for / against:
HB 1162: Charter Schools Seeking State Approval – there is a lot of support for this issue to pass as there were many good charter schools that had to close due to problems with the way there were approved by the state. The state established them, but local would have to fund them. They are true public schools, but the local officials do not want to be told what to fund. Supreme Court struck down the charters because the law clearly stated that charters could only be set up by local boards. So, that is what the legislation was seeking to do – give up that control the state in the cases that there is support for a charter school, but it is denied locally.
There was much heated debate and it would mean an actual change to the state constitution in order for it to be enacted. So, that means, if anything passes you will see it on your local ballot come election time.
HR1335 was a separate bill with separate wording that Rep. Holcomb drafted himself to give those people who wanted to pass something this session an alternative to the HB 1162 that was going around but was not getting the needed support. The biggest difference in it was that Holcomb wanted it to be spelled out very clearly that if the state were to establish a charter school in Georgia, then the state would also have to provide all the necessary funding for the actual running of the school. This stipulation would alleviate the local school board’s objections to having their funds allocated without their approval for a school they did not approve.
A question from the audience was about who would actually run the schools or decide how the money would be spent. Holcomb said that was not something that the bill sought to address and that would have to be worked out. He thought perhaps some of the Race to the Top federal funds could be allocate from the state to cover the expenses of a state-approved charter school. We currently receive $400 million from this program. But, he does expect we will see this issue on our next ballot because it does change the constitution, giving up local control voluntarily to the state in these instances.
HB 1162 did not get the votes it needed, but was quickly re-written and essentially included the text from his HR1335. When the two portions were put together, it went back for a vote and passed – barely. Just 3 votes were enough in favor for it to make it through the House. It will go to the Senate next and if approved, to the voters.
Undocumented Citizens – Right to Attend Public Colleges and Universities
Citizens (illegal aliens) who are undocumented cannot attend public universities. Holcomb was against it and he was on the House Committee. He spoke with a university chancellor there who said that this was not anything that the schools needed. He said there were already rules in places at the schools that allowed undocumented students access to the schools only if there are openings not being applied for by any citizen of the U.S. So, seats are not being taken away from legal residents and, in fact, these undocumented students actually have to pay higher rates (out-of-state tuition rates) so it might even harm the bottom line of the school if they lost this group of students completely.
Holcomb said that he is a firm believer in the rights of children and knows that it is common sense that education is the best path toward becoming a productive member of society. So, if we deny these children this access we might inadvertently create an underclass of citizens that we would be responsible for instead of having them as contributors to the economy and perhaps applicants for citizenship.
Teachers Who Cheat on the CRCT
692 – teachers who admit or are found guilty of cheating to change test scores on standardized test like the CRCT will lose their rights to any bonuses or other incentives that they were offered as a result of the outcome of that particular test. Passed without problem. Common sense. Can’t reward cheating, but Holcomb understands the high amount of pressure placed on these teachers to perform and the same pressure on the students. Not a healthy learning environment and won’t contribute to a love of learning.
Affordable Care Act
Required small businesses to set up health exchanges, but really would go into effect only if federal health care plan is approved and that will be up to 9 Supreme Court Justices in the United States. It will be decided if the Individual Mandate is constitutional. Some say it is necessary for the plan to work. You can’t have only sick people paying into a healthcare plan or it will go belly up. You have to have the healthy people paying into it and that will only happen in enough numbers to work if you have the Individual Mandate. Others say it is not constitutional to require citizens to contribute money to a healthcare plan when they are on fixed income.
Georgia could have set up its own exchange in preparation of the federal plan being approved, but we chose to punt this one for later. If it is approved, we will have to move fast to figure out how we will set up our own exchange or the federal government will come in and tell us how to do it and we don’t want that.
Tough subject every time it comes up because the sides on the issue are severely divided. Holcomb found it odd that so much of this legislative session was spent on “social” issue when the biggest problem facing the state is clearly economic in nature. We are lagging behind the rest of the country by 54 months. Seems like some people who may have other reasons for bringing up controversial issues have done so to stir the pot and take focus off other things, like the changes to the state taxes which he will discuss in a moment.
Back to abortion. Not to get too technical but basically they wanted to change the number of weeks that abortion would be acceptable from 20 to 12 weeks. He did not support this bill because, as he was told, women who go for an amniocentesis to determine the baby’s health cannot get results until 18, 19 or 20 weeks. Changing the abortion to 12 weeks means that even the most severe cases of a fetus with missing vital organs or extreme problems that would be detected by amnio. would have to be carried to full term.
This did not pass, but caused much controversy and will likely come up again.
This bill makes it a felony in come cases to assist another person with suicide but it is mainly for the unusual circumstances that have a level of suspicion about them. Those cases where a loved one’s wishes are clearly spelled out in written form or witnessed in some manner that is very clear that you are helping someone carry out their wishes for themselves would not be touched by this bill. It does make it a felony if you have someone dead and someone else claiming that is what they wanted but with no proof of it.
Surprising this didn’t make it out of the Senate committee. We are far behind other parts of the county on this topic and the U.S. is often ridiculed by the rest of the world for our continued reliance upon expensive resources like oil while the rest of the world is harnessing and using solar power which is clean and affordable. This bill was attempting to state that home owner, not the home owner’s associations, would be able to make the call about whether or not they could choose to install solar panels on their own roof for power in their own home. Holcomb stated it was sometimes strange to see one party react or vote in a way that defies logic when you think about how you would expect them to vote.
Public Assistance (Welfare) Drug Testing
This bill came up for unknown reasons but mainly because there was widespread speculation that people on welfare may also be taking illegal drugs and no one wants to have to work every day for people who are just too lazy to work and want to take advantage of the system. Not sure that is what is going on here, but that is the premise behind the bill we’re talking about. With a down economy, there are a lot of really good people who have lost their jobs and are trying to find work and the work simply is not there. So, why are we going to single them out, and with the little money they have to spend on their necessities, we are going to ask them to pay for a drug screening.
So, Holcomb said, “Okay, if you are saying that this is going through because these folks get public assistance and public healthcare, well all of the elected officials are also on a public healthcare funded with tax dollars, so why not lead by example? So, he went an had a drug test and encouraged others to also have one voluntarily to see what they are asking these welfare recipients to do. He drafted a bill that would seek to include public oficials in the mandatory drug testing program so that we are not just picking on a certain class of citizens who, by the way, we don’t even know if they have any higher instances of drug use or not.
In fact, he looked at Florida because they enacted this policy and it is very expensive and cumbersome to manage. And, on top of all that, they ended up with a very low number who did not pass the test – lower than the average population. The money we would make for the state by kicking any such “deadbeats” off the public assistance program would not even offset the costs to administer the program. And, like he said, he would rather see money go toward something positive like education.
Cut from 20 weeks of partial pay for unemployed citizen laid off through no fault of their own. Would provide for only 12 weeks of pay before you must reapply. This was result of poor management of the funds during the banner years when lots of people were working and paying into the fund. Instead of saving, it was spent an now there is nothing there. (Citizen’s Comment: ironic that the number of weeks in the abortion bill were the same as in the unemployment bill. Wonder if one was used to divert the public’s attention from the fact that they were planning to cut unemployment benefits while we are still in the middle of a crisis.)
Senate Bill 469 This is a bill that popped up out of nowhere in the Senate and Holcomb stated he did not know a lot about it, yet, as it still has to come to the House. It did pass the Senate and is aimed at curtailing picketing at public spaces or blocking the entrances to businesses. Holcomb stated that he also thought it would make it a felony to even be caught discussing a demonstration while on public property.
Citizen comment: (reading text of the draft bill) it says here that the bill would ban picketing of private residences.
Cell Towers on School Grounds
Holcomb stated he has been concerned about this issue from early on when he was contacted by people in his district. He wrote a letter to express his concern to the Superintendent and was very frustrated by the failure to respond to his inquiries in any way. That seems to be the case he has run up against with anyone from the school board. They do not respond or acknowledge receipt of anything and are generally unwilling to explain their actions. They often catch the community off guard and it appears that is what has happened here. He believes it is possible that they complied with the letter of the law, just barely, when it comes to the methods used for public notification, but he does not feel that they complied with the spirit of the law and that has a lot of people upset.
There are some people that are also upset to learn that the cell tower at Briarlake will also involve an actual change in the zoning plan for their entire community and it is obvious that this is being done to accommodate the cell tower. It is not clear why the county is not trying to do more in response to the citizens, but that is exactly what Rep. Dr. Karla Drenner (D – Avondale Estates) tried to do with two bills that she drafted, 1197 and 1198, a local DeKalb bill and a statewide bill. Holcomb said he was one of the co-sponsors of the local bill and it seemed to have a large amount of support going into it. The only problem is that they just started too late in the process.
Holcomb compared serving in the House to being in college where you basically coast all semester long and then all of a sudden you realize you have an exam coming up and so you have to stay up all night to cram for it. That’s how it is with all this legislation. It comes in slowly at first, but then when it is closer to cross-over day it starts whipping through like crazy because everyone wants to get their issue passed or else chances are pretty good that it will not get anywhere. The difficult to understand part is that as a representative, he has absolutely no control over the calendar or even what is on the docket. That is all controlled by the Speaker and the Majority Party and they can basically decide what issues will make it through and which issues will be hung up indefinitely and never even make it to the floor. Sometimes they only have a few minutes to read over something before they are called to the floor for a vote.
There was a Rep. from the Majority Party who stalled the cell tower bills and relied only upon lobbyists to advise him on whether the bill was fit for a vote. They contended something about it being unconstitutional (referring to the state constitution) but Holcomb thought that was in reference to the initial language that referenced a retroactive effect. There was debate about whether you can make a law like this that would essentially only cover one county and not all the others that are doing the same thing.
(Note: He did not address the final status of these bills or the Senate bill that was sponsored by Senator Jason Carter to close the zoning “loophole” that is allowing T-mobile to hide behind the school board’s claim to being exempt from zoning while they construct without having to provide the required notification to the public, or at the very least to those properties immediately aside and abutting the school grounds. )
Criminal Justice Reform
There seemed to be a lot of bills going around that sought to enact tougher or longer penalties. Just an aside about the protesting and picketing bill – if it becomes law then it will actually make the penalty for protesting or attempting to picket anywhere, residence or business, a tougher penalty than what we currently impose as a penalty when someone is found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder!
There were big time lobby dollars being spent to push for tougher, longer penalties for various crimes, but it was interesting to learn that the lobby groups were mainly there to represent the construction industry that is specifically in the business of building prisons.
Tax Bill 386
Unfortunately Holcomb stated he did not know a whole lot about what is included in this tax bill because it was brought out of hiding at the last minute and he had not heard anything about who had been working on it. He voted no and didn’t really need to read it to know that he wanted to vote no because he was generally just not interested in something that was staged to allow them the least amount of time possible on the last issue of cross-over day. He said all the big wigs came down to speak about it and, in theory, we might really need a updated plan for taxing our residents, but if that is the case then shouldn’t it be a process that involves the citizens and what they think about how they should be taxed? He urged everyone to try to get a copy and read it online so you will know what changes are in store.
Holcomb will be making an announcement in the next couple of weeks regarding his decision about running in the next election. He learned a lot this term and feels like he has done a good job especially since he seems to be, in his opinion, one of the only ones who actually takes the time to try to read everything that is put in front of him and research the history of the subject matter. It is a big help to him when citizens come out to meetings like this one and give their feedback and comments so that he can understand the issues from their perspective and represent them well.
Questions from the citizens:
Ranged from a comment about abortion; several cell tower questions including how a bill with 17 of 19 delegates signed on could not make it to the floor for a vote; discussion about the influence of lobbyists; comment about the serious health effects of cell phone towers coming from the medical community; comment from Holcomb that Lakeside reportedly wanted the towers and it is a much bigger concern for him that the elementary schools are affected; comment that perhaps the issue can be tacked on as an amendment to an existing bill this session; question about what happened to the Senate bill from Carter to close the zoning loop hole on cell tower companies; questions about the maps that will be voted upon next year but will not take effect until the following year. There was one that most had agreed to and it was pretty similar to the way the districts are zoned now. Holcomb voted in favor of the school board map but against the commissioner map for “political” reasons.
Question about whether the person should just go ahead and leave the county now while she still can if it is only going to get worse. Comment about why T-splost has to be a sales tax because it hits so many people so hard and why can’t it be something like a gas tax or another way to tie the tax to those who are actually using the road; question about why the government in Georgia is so focused on punishment and taking more from the people who already do not have it, hasn’t anyone been able to see the correlation between the failing education system in the state, the misuse of our funds and abuse of public trust and the decline in property values and decline in people wanting to live here? Don’t any of you realize that if you would instead try investing in the education system and fix the problems that are so broken then that might give people a reason to want to move here, that would improve the property values?
People are hurting right now. There are a lot of people out of work and unable to find jobs yet our school system is over-employing hundreds of people who are doing nothing and possibly not even having to show up for work. Something is very wrong there because that is a lot of money that could help take care of the schools we have. Instead, they only want to talk about building new and closing down the older ones and shuffling kids around. None of that has done any good for the education system.
Another citizen chimed in that Minnesota and New England have stellar schools and why couldn’t we look at them to see what is working? What is going on with the schools that can’t be fixed? Holcomb said, “Well, that’s a very good question. I’m not sure I can answer that in the time we have. I do think that the Race to the Top program that is under the federal government is seeking to address some of that.”
Someone asked about nuclear power and how he felt about it. He said that it is a debate to get into but carefully because people are sensitive to things like that even though it cold bring in a lot of money, but at what price.
Is our government so naive that they know we have used RF radiation during war time as a weapon, in the Cold War and in the recent Gulf War, and now we are saying that it is so safe it is okay to put at our schools near the children?
Question about whether the video cameras going up everywhere are related to the cell towers and if that is also the reason why they passed that bill about not letting us protest, so when you see a tower going up outside your own home, you can‘t do anything about it. Holcomb said he wasn’t sure about the cameras but would check into it.
Thanked everyone for coming. Can talk more after the meeting.