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Charlie Harper: It really was different this time

A couple days after last November's elections I had a conversation with a friend who is also a veteran capitol observer. He suggested that the Republicans' victory by a sizable margin meant nothing was likely to change. Big issues would be avoided. Those who screamed loudly that "they are the base" - the same ones who claimed they would defeat Governor Deal and Speaker Ralston in primary challenges and failed - would be placated.

"It's different this time," I recall arguing.

Those are often haunting words. Whether used to explain away patterns in politics or on Wall Street, "It's different this time" is often a phrase that suggests whoever states it prefers to ignore basic underlying facts - and how things usually end.

The 2015 session of Georgia's General Assembly is over. It was different this time.

A term-limited governor who easily won his last election ever doesn't have to take any risks or do a lot of heavy lifting. Gov. Nathan Deal's last election was generally fought over the issue of education. Deal not only took virtually all the year-over-year net revenue growth to end austerity cuts in education, but championed two major education reform initiatives that will likely consume much of his remaining term.

The governor has named an education funding reform commission and charged it with proposing a permanent change in the state's Quality Basic Education funding formula as well as focusing on how the state prepares students for both college and the workforce. The commission is expected to issue findings by August, in time to develop legislation for consideration in next year's session.

Deal also decided the state will play a direct role in fixing the state's chronically failing schools. He proposed a plan based on programs in Louisiana and Tennessee which would allow the state to assume control of up to 20 schools per year, with no more than 100 schools under state control at any one time.

The "Opportunity School District" requires a constitutional amendment and thus needed two-thirds majorities in both legislative chambers. With some Republicans reluctant to cross the line of "local control" - and others smarting over other matters - bipartisan votes were needed for passage. The governor and GOP legislative leaders managed to garner support to win passage in both chambers by day 36, leaving four more days to pass a historic transportation funding reform package. They needed only three of those days.

Legislative leaders began working on a fix to Georgia's woefully inadequate transportation funding structure last session with a joint House-Senate study committee. While study committees are often used to appear to do something while in reality doing little or nothing, it was different this time.

Both chambers of the legislature included not only their transportation chairmen, but also their budget chairmen. Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle charged the group to come back with a plan that would fund Georgia at a level commensurate with the need, rather than leave Georgia last in per capita highway investment.

Given the governor's campaign pledge to restore education austerity cuts, there was little room in the budget to appropriate monies from existing sources save the state's infamous "fourth penny" - the amount of money that arguably should have been funding GDOT from motor fuels taxes instead of the general fund all along. A total funding package of $900 million per year was cobbled together from adjusting the state's excise tax to a fixed amount, adding fees to hotel bills statewide, and adding annual user fees to those who drive electric cars.

The result is that GDOT's funding will increase roughly 40 percent, but will still be only about three-fourths what neighboring North Carolina spends annually on roads and bridges, even with a slightly smaller population than ours. That will be enough money to resume normal maintenance of roads and bridges plus a few new initiatives for congestion relief and/or economic development highways, but folks in the Atlanta region should expect an ongoing conversation about local initiatives before a comprehensive traffic and/or transit plan can be launched.

Along the way, legislators managed to approve autism coverage in Georgians insurance plans, legalized cannabidiol oil to treat children suffering from seizures, and even legalized most fireworks for sale in the state. It was a generally productive session.

Tough choices were made, and will have to be defended at the ballot box in 2016 by legislators. The explanation is straightforward. Georgia is the fourth fastest growing state in the country. The status quo and just saying "no" are no longer viable options. Our leaders stepped up, and demonstrated the resolve to govern. It was different this time.

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