Advance Atlanta’s Crash Course on Your Georgia General Assembly

Knowing why the legislature matters to transportation policy and how you can serve as a citizen-advocate

While what occurs in Washington D.C. takes up most of the cable news and internet political coverage you likely consume, state capitols and city halls are often where the rubber meets the road when it comes to the policy decisions that most directly affect you, your wallet, and your neighborhood. Fortunately, they’re also places where your voice can be heard loud and clear if you understand how they work and you commit yourself to participating in the decision making process.

When it comes to transit policy, the general assembly has the authority to give counties the authority to conduct ballot referenda (issues that are voted on directly by residents) in counties to allocate special options local sales tax (SPLOST) revenue to fund transit agencies. A committee composed of members of the general assembly provides oversight on MARTA policy issues and budget. Critically, in the 2015 legislative session, the Georgia General Assembly removed a restriction that had required MARTA to spend 50% of its revenue on operations and the other 50% on capital projects. Headed into the 2016 session, there is talk of further gains to be had.

At Advance Atlanta, we’re all about citizens mobilizing to advocate for smart transit policy for the metro Atlanta region, so read on!

Every year in the second week of January, elected representatives drawn from across the state of Georgia assemble at 206 S. Washington Street in Atlanta. Gathered together for an annual session consisting of 40 work days, the members of the Georgia State House of Representatives and Georgia State Senate act as the legislative branch of state government, passing new laws, amending existing laws, and most importantly, passing the state’s budget.

The bicameral legislature is divided into a lower house, the House of Representatives consisting of 180 representatives, and the upper house, the Senate, consisting of 56 senators. All members of the general assembly are “part time lawmakers”, earning a stipend of $17,342 a year for their service to the state. Most legislators hold other jobs that they work outside of the 40 day annual session.

The Georgia House is currently led by Speaker David Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ride, and the Senate is led by Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle, a Republican from Gainesville. The assembly is firmly in Republican hands, with 118 seats in the house and 39 seats in the senate.

Members of the house and senate author bills and attempt to get them passed by both houses in order to go on to receive the signature of Governor Nathan Deal and become law. Bills need to clear various committees that are determined by the content of the proposed law before being voted on by the house in which they originate. If a bill is approved in one house, it must do so by the 30th day of session, so-called “crossover day” in order to then be transferred over for consideration by the other house. If approved there, the bill will be “brought to the floor” of the entire general assembly for a vote. If successful, Governor Deal will need to sign the bill in order for it to become law.

This all may seem like a lot to take in, but there are plenty of opportunities for ordinary citizens to provide input and shape the decision making process at the capitol.

First off, you should find out who your house representative and senator are and you can do that using the tool linked right here. Write to your legislators and call their offices to let them know where you, as their constituent, stand on transit policy. Legislators care about what the people in their districts think on key issues and hearing directly from you, a constituent, can be critical to their final vote. Want to be a super advocate? Schedule some time to visit with your legislators at their office at the capitol or back when they’re in your district.

You can also write letters to the editor and op-eds in local publications expressing your views and send these to your elected representatives via email, Facebook, or Twitter.

Have a bill that you’re interested in? You can track its progress by going this page of the general assembly’s website. You can also call the house clerk at (404) 656-5015 or the secretary of the senate at (404) 656-5040.

The above website will also have links to live broadcasts of committee hearings, and you can watch these online or attend in person. The fourth floor of the capitol has a gallery overlooking both chambers where you can watch the action live.

Lastly, there’s power in numbers. Advance Atlanta is building a diverse coalition of metro Atlanta residents, business, and civic organizations to be the voices of greater transit connectivity and to coordinate grassroots activities so that we speak with one voice. Every resident should be able to move efficiently through our region using mass transit. It makes metro Atlanta a more competitive place to live, work, and play, and it raises our quality of life.

We hope you join with us.

Nick Juliano is a public affairs consultant with Resolute Consulting and the President of Advance Atlanta.

Transit 101 series:

This blog post is the first installment in a comprehensive series of stories discussing components of Georgia transit systems, transit decision makers, and regional transit opportunities.  We hope you find this series educational, entertaining, and insightful.

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