The upcoming session of the Georgia General Assembly likely will be brief, because 2016 is an election year and the legislators want to get home to campaign.
Two topics the legislators are likely to deal with are education and casino gambling.
One thing the legislators are not likely to do is change the law passed in March of this year increasing the fuel tax and imposing a hotel tax to provide additional money for the Georgia Department of Transportation.
This, in a nutshell, is how Oconee County legislative delegation today summarized its views on the session that will start in January to a gathering of 26 local elected and appointed officials, representations of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, and a small number of citizens.
The session was hosted by the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce and took place at its office on Nancy Drive in Watkinsville.
Hotel Tax Challenge
Mike Waldrip, vice president operations of Benson’s Hospitality Group, challenged Sen. Bill Cowsert, Rep. Regina Quick and Rep. Chuck Williams regarding passage of House Bill 170 in March. The three are Republicans.
At the last minute, a $5 per night tax on hotel guests was added to the transportation funding bill, and Waldrip said it was a mistake. Waldrip identified himself as representing the Athens Area Hotel Association.
“It was difficult for the hotel industry to absorb that much of a hit,” he said.
He said his company’s Marriott SpringHill Suites, 3500 Daniells Bridge Road, has paid $56,000 in the tax just since July 1, when it went into effect, and much of that has been absorbed by the company because the still soft market has made it difficult to raise rates to compensate.
“I share your sentiments,” said Quick, who voted against HB 170. She said she expects attempts to be made to repeal the tax, and she expects those attempts to fail.
“It was only literally just hours before we voted on the transportation bill” that legislators learned that the tax was going to be imposed on the hotel industry, said Williams, who voted for the tax. He, too, said he thought any attempt to change the bill this session will fail.
Cowsert, who also voted for the tax and was majority leader in the Senate, said the hotel tax “probably was not thoroughly vetted like as it should have been” and the legislature will be receptive to changing the tax, but somebody else will have to be taxed instead because the transportation funding is “desperately needed by the state.”
The full video of Waldrip’s comments and the responses of the three Oconee County legislators is below. The legislators are, left to right, Williams, Quick and Cowsert.
Challenge On Procedures
Oconee County Commissioner Jim Luke said hearing that legislators don’t have adequate time to read and evaluate bills “frustrates a lot of us.”
Luke said the process needs to be changed so legislators can evaluate legislation fairly before they vote.
All three of the legislators said they shared the frustration, but Williams and Quick were more critical than Cowsert.
“The problems you’re pointing out occur in maybe 5 percent of the bills,” Cowert said. “In 95 percent of time that is not a problem. The system works.”
Tests In Schools
Before Waldrip spoke, Jason Branch, superintendent of Oconee County Schools, told the legislators he hopes the state will relieve local schools of some of the required standardized tests.
Branch said the state-mandated Student Learning Objective Assessments this year took 15 days away from instruction at the high school level alone.
As the legislators look at school issues this year, Branch said, he hoped they would look at ways to “return some of that instructional time to the schools.”
The legislators were receptive to the request but were cautious of getting too involved in the day-to-day management of schools.
The legislators fielded questions on a variety of other topics, including the fireworks law approved in the last session, state funding for water projects, and the impact of zoning on property value assessment.
Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis introduced the legislators at the session’s start and made closing comments.
Quick and Williams made introductory comments during which they mentioned school financing and casino gambling as well as the likely shortness of the session after Davis opened the session.
Cowsert arrived late and made his introductory comments at minute 29.
The full video from the session, which lasted an hour and 40 minutes, is below.