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2013 Georgia legislative preview

Budget woes, stadium debates, ethics reforms, guns, and more

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TRANSIT

Shed a tear for MARTA. It's become a sport under the Gold Dome to beat up on the transit agency, despite the fact that the state provides no funding to operate its buses and trains. This year should be no different.

MARTA is facing a nearly $34 million budget deficit and an audit report that found, among other things, that the system's employee benefits plan was $50 million more expensive than the national average. Keith Parker, the transit agency's new CEO and general manager, says he plans to implement some of the recommendations found in that audit. He's also open to privatizing some of MARTA's operations.

It's expected that calls for outsourcing those services will only grow louder this session. In addition, state Rep. Mike Jacobs, the Brookhaven Republican who chairs the MARTA Oversight Committee, said during a recent meeting that he expects to see legislation that would temporarily lift the so-called "50-50" restriction. The antiquated rule requires the transit system to spend half the revenue it collects from sales taxes in Fulton and DeKalb counties on operations and the other half on capital projects. In addition, he'd like to change the makeup of MARTA's board of directors. Some transit advocates fear that mayors from new cities in north DeKalb and Fulton counties would get spots, crowding out elected officials from areas with more transit-dependent riders.

Then there's the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, or GRTA, which operates the Xpress bus system. The service links suburbanites to downtown and Midtown during the workweek via luxury "coaches." Xpress will run out of cash in June if the General Assembly doesn't allocate more funding. GRTA has been the rare transit agency in Georgia that's enjoyed state support — most likely because suburban GOP lawmakers' constituents use it. This year's state budget is expected to be tight, but don't be surprised if the state finds cash to keep GRTA afloat while continuing to burden MARTA with crippling and unfair laws and rules.

CITYHOOD FEVER AND FULTON COUNTY BLUES

Dunwoody. Brookhaven. By the time you read this, who knows what other slivers of land disgruntled DeKalb County residents will have fenced off and turned into cities. In an attempt to prevent another neighborhood from becoming a city, some DeKalb County elected officials have floated the idea of incorporating all the remaining property to create a so-called "City of DeKalb." It's a novel approach to combat the further balkanization of metro Atlanta and would provide access to fees the cash-strapped county currently can't collect. But it's unlikely to go anywhere under the Gold Dome, where the county's delegation would first have to give the proposal its approval. A discussion about the "City of DeKalb" could open up touchy debates about race and class that many lawmakers would prefer to avoid. If created, Atlanta would suddenly be bordered by a city with an estimated 600,000 people — the largest in Georgia. It could also apply for the same funding Atlanta currently needs, which could make things awkward.

Fulton County officials might want to prepare for a bruising as well. When GOP lawmakers gerrymandered new political districts in 2011, they made sure Republicans each represented a tiny piece of Fulton County. That means lawmakers whose districts are mostly in Cherokee, Forsyth, and Gwinnett counties are now also members of the Fulton County delegation, and can weigh in on special bills affecting the populous county. That could prove helpful in not only trying to push for North Fulton to secede and become Milton County (still a hard sell under the Gold Dome), but also in stripping Fulton County of much of its nonessential powers. Not to mention diluting its appointment power on state boards and agencies, including MARTA. Fulton County commissioners last week fired their lobbyist and plan to visit the Gold Dome themselves to win over lawmakers. Good luck.

TRANSPORTATION FUNDING

Many wonks and political observers predicted that state lawmakers wouldn't revisit funding to build new roads, bridges, and transit if voters rejected last summer's transportation sales tax (T-SPLOST). Turns out they were right. According to sources, top state lawmakers have no plans to pass legislation that would help raise cash to build new rail lines or fix interchanges — at least not on a regional level.

Instead, Gov. Deal seems more focused on finding cash to build a $400 million interchange at I-285 and Ga. Hwy. 400. Not exactly a visionary project that will earn you a spot in the history books like a commuter rail line might. But it is one that will endear you to Republican voters who live in the northern suburbs and waste their lives sitting in gridlock.

Environmentalists say they would consider pushing for a well-supported idea that's bounced around for several years that would allow two or more counties to partner and levy a sales tax to fund transportation. Whether lawmakers will even entertain such an idea is another matter.

Then there's the issue of the T-SPLOST itself. The Transportation Investment Act, the law that created the T-SPLOST, requires counties that rejected the sales tax measure to pay more to pull down state funding for road projects. That provision, which kicked in Jan. 1, hurts local governments. In the weeks after the ballot measure's failure, some Tea Party activists and lawmakers demanded the General Assembly repeal the law. Call it sour grapes or the right thing to do, but such an effort might be in the works — even if House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, says it will go nowhere.

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