Crane: Good end to fairly productive legislative sessionBy SARAH FAY CAMPBELL
The 2012 session of the Georgia General Assembly ended as the session always does — with a frantic flurry of bills during the marathon last day, before the call of “sine die.”
This year, it ended Thursday night.
“It was a pretty exciting experience,” said Sen. Mike Crane, who just completed his first General Assembly session. “It was a good end to a fairly productive legislative session.”
“I thought there were some good things” passed, he said. “We made some progress in a couple of different areas, from tax reform to government oversight with the zero-based budgeting” bill, he said.
The zero-based budgeting legislation is “going to prove to be very effective for Georgia over the next decade or so,” Crane said, assuming it is signed by Gov. Nathan Deal.
Under the zero-based budgeting bill, state agencies will be required to start their budgets from zero instead of basing them on what they got the previous year. A certain percentage of the state agencies will have to start zero-based budgeting each year for the next 10 years. Once the phase in is completed, each agency will start from zero every 10 years.
Zero-based budgeting is “a different approach to the cost and operation of government,” he said.
A “companion” bill to the zero-based budgeting legislation is House Bill 456, the Georgia Government Accountability Act. It creates the Legislative Sunset Advisory Committee, which reviews government agencies for effectiveness and can abolish them.
Crane said the tax reform package that was approved “was not as significant as I hoped it would be.”
However, it did include some major changes. One was the removal of the ad valorem “tag tax” on vehicles, which will be replaced with a title fee when a vehicle is bought or sold. There was also an increase in the state income tax standard deduction for married couples, which “reduced the marriage penalty significantly,” Crane said.
Crane thinks the elimination of the tag tax will benefit Georgians down the road as they transition into the new system when they purchase a vehicle.
Crane said he’s not a fan of taxes on real and personal property.
“Why should the government be able to tax us every year on something we own?” he asked. “At that point, you never own it. They always have the ability to lien your personal property.”
Other facets of the tax reform package included eliminating the sales tax on energy used in manufacturing, and the requirement for major retailers to begin collecting sales tax on Internet purchases.
Because the energy sales tax exemption can negatively affect local governments, there was a compromise that allows local governments to continue collecting their local sales taxes, according to Crane.
Though the tax package was good, “my biggest disappointment is we did not significantly alter the cost of government this year,” Crane said. “But we did put some things in place that, hopefully, down the road, we can do that with.
“If you don’t significantly reduce the cost of government when you make tax reform changes, you’re just shifting the tax burden from one portion of the population to the other,” Crane said.
“I’m hoping next year we’re going to see a more comprehensive approach to tax reform, which will be coupled with a significant reduction in the cost of government.”
The legislature has cut government budgets a good bit over the last few years, but “I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where we can’t do any more,” Crane said. “I think there is still a lot of room for improvement.”
There were plenty of non tax-related bills, as well.
One was HB 954, which reduces the window for elective abortions by about a month.
Under the bill, most abortions would be prohibited after the 20th week after conception (the 22nd week of pregnancy), instead of after the second trimester (26 weeks of pregnancy). There are exceptions in order to save the life of the mother or prevent serious medical problems with the mother.
The Senate amended the bill to allow abortion in cases of “medically futile” pregnancies — that is, when the unborn baby has been diagnosed with a defect that is considered “incompatible with life.”
At first, it looked as if that amendment had killed the bill, as House Speaker David Ralston initially refused to appoint a conference committee to work out the differences in the House and Senate versions. But, on Thursday, both sides worked on a compromise. The eventual compromise was to allow the abortion in medically futile cases, but only with a second opinion.
Though Crane considers the bill that passed a “watered down versionâ ¦ I think it is a step in the right direction.”
As for Crane’s abortion bill, Senate Bill 438 passed the Senate but never got a hearing in the House Insurance Committee. The bill, the first one Crane introduced, was intended to make sure the state employee health insurance plan did not pay for abortions.
A bill designed to try and shore up the state’s unemployment trust fund was “one of the most unheralded pieces of legislation” passed this session, Crane said.
“It breathed new life into the unemployment fund,” Crane said. “It’s kind of like taking your medicine. There are going to be some costs involved that we as businesses have to pay, to make the unemployment fund solvent”
Over the past few years, the state has had to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government to make unemployment payments.
Changes in the bill include increasing the amount of money that employers pay into the trust fund, and reducing the number of weeks that the state pays unemployment benefits.
It went from 26 weeks to a sliding scale of 14 to 20 weeks, based on the unemployment rate. The higher the unemployment rate, the more weeks of state unemployment are paid, Crane said.
When the state unemployment runs out, the federal government kicks in to provide up to 73 weeks of additional unemployment benefits, Crane said.
“To me, it was a serious piece of legislation,” he said. “I think we should have done it two years ago.” If changes had been made two years ago, “we wouldn’t be digging out of such a big hole,” Crane said.
“I’m really proud that we took a strong position on it and came up with a solution,” Crane said. The state, employers and the unemployed will all be participating in shoring up the trust fund.
Additionally, the legislation eliminated the one-week waiting period before someone can file for unemployment benefits.
“So you can actually get your benefits right away,” Crane said.
Crane said employers understand that something needed to be done. “We didn’t see any pushback from any of the employer groups, because they realize it is an important part of the employment environment here in Georgia.”
As for things that didn’t make it, ethics reform is the major one.
Crane said he was a co-sponsor on Josh McKoon’s (R-Columbus) ethics reform legislation. The bill “just hit a brick wall,” Crane said.
They’re going to try again. “We’ll work on that over the summer,” he said.
“It’s difficult to legislate ethics, but it is easy to set parameters,” Crane said. But he thinks getting an ethics bill passed is going to require changes in leadership, particularly on the House side. When it comes to his first session, overall, “the neatest thing I have learned is how hard some of these folks work at this job,” Crane said. “Just the hours and the time that they put into this to make it happen,” he said.
“There are a lot of great people. Some really passionate people that are committed to serving,” Crane said. “I got an up close and pers
onal glimpse of that. I have a greater appreciation for many of the folks who serve in the Senate,” he said.