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Georgia Capitol recap: Atlanta airport, rural transit bills fail to move, and more

Capitol views by Kelly Jordan

By Maggie Lee

In news of what the Georgia Legislature didn’t approve this year, put: any takeover or oversight of Atlanta’s airport.

Republicans in the state Senate were the main backers of a bill to have Georgia take over Atlanta’s city-owned and -run airport. Supporters said the airport procurement process is liable to corruption, and anything that’s so important to the state’s economy should be run by the state. Separate but related, some argued state control of aviation would make it easier to open any second major commercial airport in Georgia.

But opponents said law enforcement can deal with any law-breaking corruption; and besides that, Atlanta has managed Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport into the well-oiled “Ferrari of airports.” And, the city said it would be costly to even try the complex and maybe impossible process of moving the airport’s debts to the state, if the feds would even allow it.

In the end, the Georgia House wouldn’t buy a state takeover. And the Senate turned up its nose at a House counter-offer to create a legislative committee that could review operations at any of the commercial airports across the state.

Opposition to any and all of this was strong among politicians at Atlanta City Hall, who must have been smiling as Tuesday ended and the Georgia Legislature’s annual session came to its finish.

Probably not smiling: Delta Airlines. Airlines watched the state House approve a jet fuel tax cut that would’ve been worth about $40 million to Georgia’s general fund by 2024, and the state’s busiest airline would’ve reaped the most savings.  But the state Senate wasn’t interested in what was a priority for the state House and the governor. Despite the idea getting tacked to several bills, it didn’t take off.

Capitol views by Kelly Jordan

Among other things that won’t happen this year is a new push for transit in rural Georgia. In this sense, “rural” just means the places outside of metro Atlanta. And in cities like Augusta or Macon, transit means the familiar city bus.

But outside cities, “rural transit” tends to mean things like shuttle buses to big work places or schools at set commute times, or on-call buses for folks trying to go to doctor’s appointments.

The state House had a bill that would have consolidated all the parts of state agencies that deal with transit anyway into a new department, for better planning and smoother funding.

House Bill 511 would have paid for rural transit works via a fee of up to 50 cents per Uber, Lyft, taxi, limo or other shared rides, replacing a sales tax.

But that bill didn’t get any footing in the Senate.

Back to “tax breaks,” the Legislature did pass a bill that would have state auditors give a bit deeper review to up to six of them per year. The idea is to then let lawmakers figure out whether there’s a business case for each one. So auditors will ask if a tax break for say, yacht repairs, has created jobs, increased tax revenue or done some other measurable public good.

The topics will be chosen by the chairs of the state House and Senate committees that handle tax bills.

As first filed, Senate Bill 120 and a companion SB 119 would’ve had all tax breaks get this kind of review both before and after passage. The state Senate approved both of those, but the compromise with the House was just one of them, a bit more modest SB 120.

Another late-hour passage: a bill to have law enforcement keep rape evidence kits for 50 years in unsolved cases. Those kits are important because the unknown hairs, tissues and DNA in them could one day be matched to suspects, and send more rapists to prison. Across the nation, law enforcement agencies have thrown out such kits at various times, or failed to test the ones they have.  House Bill 282 is something of a sequel to a 2016 state law that required a backlog of such kits to be tested.

Several high-profile bills already moved through the Legislature before the Tuesday deadline.

The state’s roughly $27.5 billion dollar budget got broad bipartisan approval. The marquee item there was a $3,000 pay raise for teachers and other certified K-12 staff. Gov. Brian Kemp called it a “downpayment” on his campaign promise last year of a $5,000 teacher raise.

One of the most strict abortion restrictions in the nation tore open a rift between supporters and opponents, which will continue in court. The mainly Republican-backed House Bill 481 would ban abortions once a cardiac sound is detectible from the womb, something that occurs as early as six weeks, according to the bill language. Hence it’s called the “heartbeat bill,” and contains a few exceptions, like pregnancies resulting from rape which are reported to the police. Right now, Georgia law allows abortion through about the fourth month of pregnancy. Supporters say the bill recognizes the rights of unborn people. Critics say women have a right to practical access to abortions; and some have brought wire clotheshangers to the state Capitol, symbolic of dangerous, unprofessional procedures that they say women will resort to in the absence of safe ways to end pregnancies.

Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008.


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