Effective Representation for Our Community

November 1, 2010

Because this is a time for weighing the accomplishments of the people we’ve elected to represent us, here are some links to articles I’ve written about the things I’ve done to benefit our community this year:

Property Tax Limits for Homeowners

A Regional Makeover for MARTA

Transportation Roundtable Appointment

Defeating the Risky GM Land Deal

The Anti-Bullying Bill

The Kosher Bill

Mike Gets Results: A Regional Makeover for MARTA

September 13, 2010

Transportation is always among the thorniest issues in the General Assembly. It’s one of the few issues where, in order to get anything done, the strongly-held and divergent views of urban, suburban, and rural legislators must be addressed, and the gap between Republicans and Democrats must be bridged. Otherwise, nothing is likely to pass.

So it’s no wonder that the passage of new transportation funding legislation – which finally happened during this year’s legislative session – was three years in the making.

House Bill 277 (click for information) is the bill that was passed. This transportation bill calls for the state to be divided into regions, with DeKalb County being part of the Metro Atlanta region. Each region’s county and city governments are represented on a roundtable that is responsible for coming up with a project list. That project list will be put out for a vote on the 2012 primary election ballot. If the referendum passes within any given region, a penny sales tax will be levied in that region to fund the projects on the list.

Projects that will directly benefit our community probably will be on the Metro Atlanta list. For example, I could see the reconfiguration of the perennial bottleneck at I-85 and GA 400 easily making the list. The Perimeter CID always tends to get projects on a list like this, as well.

What’s the downside? Although the transportation bill has the potential to be a big step forward, DeKalb and Fulton Counties already pay a one-cent sales tax for transportation: the MARTA tax.

That’s where the Transit Governance Study Commission becomes important. The language creating this commission is also part of the transportation bill. The commission held its first meeting on September 8, 2010. I originally proposed the Transit Governance Study Commission in House Bill 1252 (click for information) and then insisted that it be included in the transportation bill.

Its purpose is to figure out how to create a truly regional mass transit system that is seamless, that unifies the existing patchwork of county transit agencies in Metro Atlanta, and that folds MARTA into an entity which includes more than just DeKalb and Fulton Counties.

MARTA simply cannot be sustained in the long-run on the backs of DeKalb and Fulton taxpayers. MARTA is sometimes not the most well-managed organization (click for an article from today’s AJC), and its board of directors is a political fiefdom. On that last point, this year’s transportation bill pares back the MARTA board from 18 to 11 members, which is a good thing.

The Transit Governance Study Commission will not have to start from scratch. The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) already has been exploring how to create a truly regional mass transit system (click for information about ARC’s efforts).

The creation of a seamless regional transit system ultimately will require legislative action. That’s where the study commission comes into the picture. It has been given the task of coming up with actual concrete legislation to make this a reality.

No great city in our country (New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Francisco) relies only on highways. MARTA must be replaced with a system that is more regional in scope. Metro Atlanta’s future ability to attract major employers depends on it, because cities like Charlotte and Dallas are becoming serious about improving and expanding their own transit systems.

The Transit Governance Study Commission could become very positive for DeKalb taxpayers, too, because it has the potential to relieve us of the lonely burden of paying for MARTA.

Mike Gets Results: The Anti-Bullying Bill

September 7, 2010

Jaheem Herrera was a fifth grader at DeKalb County’s Dunaire Elementary School who committed suicide in 2009 after repeated incidents of school bullying.

In the wake of this tragedy, I was approached by concerned DeKalb citizens, including some of my own constituents, to look into the adequacy of Georgia’s anti-bullying statute. I was dismayed at what I found and became determined to fix it.

The law that was on the books in 2009 did not even cover the Jaheem Herrera situation because it applied only to grades 6 through 12. The old law included a virtually useless definition of “bullying.” Overall, Georgia’s anti-bullying statute was bare bones and inadequate.

43 states have anti-bullying laws. Until this year, Georgia’s law was the oldest of the 43. A lot of states had come up with better ways to address the issue after Georgia initially enacted its statute.

My first attempt at anti-bullying legislation was introduced as House Bill 927 (click for information). The version of HB 927 that finally emerged from a House committee set forth a substantially improved definition of “bullying” that better captured what bullying is, without being overbearing. The bill required local school systems to adopt an age-appropriate range of consequences for bullying incidents in grades K through 12, not just 6 through 12. In addition, for the first time in Georgia law, the bill required that the parents of the students involved on both sides of a bullying incident be notified of the incident.

The bill faced a steep uphill climb in the House of Representatives, but after a couple of close calls in the House, it sailed to passage in the State Senate. Ultimately, the anti-bullying language had to be amended onto another bill that dealt with disruptive behavior on school buses, Senate Bill 250 (click for information), in order to win final approval in the General Assembly. SB 250, including the “Jacobs Amendment” on school bullying, was signed into law by Governor Perdue on May 27, 2010. Click here to see a photograph of the bill signing ceremony.

While the anti-bullying bill was winding its way through the General Assembly, headline-grabbing school bullying problems came to light in Massachusetts, in Texas, and in Murray County, Georgia. These incidents underscored why the legislation was necessary. Even the Savannah Morning News chimed in with an editorial supporting the bill. If you’re interested, you can read the Savannah editorial here.

By August 2011, every local school system in Georgia is required to review and revamp its anti-bullying policy. Parents who are concerned about this issue are encouraged to talk with their local school board members while they are in the process of reviewing and improving the anti-bullying policy in your school district.

Mike Gets Results: The Kosher Bill

August 2, 2010

The issues I most enjoy working on are the ones that directly impact the daily lives of my constituents.

I represent a portion of Atlanta’s orthodox Jewish community in Toco Hills along LaVista Road. Due to a lawsuit that was filed in federal district court, I was presented with a unique situation affecting this community which turned out to be one of the most interesting issues that has crossed my desk during my six years in the General Assembly.

I am writing this update for my constituents both inside and outside the Jewish community. There is more detail in this article than is needed for some constituents, but I thought everyone might want to see how an issue finds its way from the needs of constituents to become a law of this state.

Georgia had a set of kosher statutes that were overseen by the Georgia Department of Agriculture, although to the best of everyone’s recollection they were never actually enforced by that Department. In essence, these statutes said: “Thou shalt not call non-kosher food ‘kosher.’” They defined the term “kosher” as satisfying “orthodox Hebrew religious rules.”

These statutes applied to food that is prepared or served at the same location where it is sold (for example, at a restaurant or at the kosher counter of the Toco Hills Publix or Kroger). There already is a reliable means of identifying mass-produced food which meets orthodox kosher standards. The capital “U” inside a circle that is printed on many products sold at your local supermarket stands for “Orthodox Union” and is one such reliable designation for mass-produced food.

A rabbi from a conservative synagogue in Cobb County joined with the ACLU to file a federal lawsuit challenging Georgia’s existing kosher statutes as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Every law professor with whom I discussed the issue agreed: That lawsuit was likely to prevail and Georgia’s kosher statutes were likely to be struck down as a result.

The ACLU engaged the services of four lawyers from one of the largest law firms in Atlanta to work on this lawsuit. If they prevailed, these four very expensive lawyers were likely to win an award of attorneys’ fees against the State of Georgia. That’s your tax dollars we’re talking about.

Members of the orthodox community approached me to help fix the problem and replace Georgia’s kosher statutes with something that would pass constitutional muster and avoid future lawsuits.

What we worked out is House Bill 1345 (click for more information).

HB 1345 sets forth a disclosure scheme in which establishments purporting to sell kosher food that is prepared on-site will have to fill out a form disclosing what rabbi or organization has certified the food as kosher and answer a series of questions about how the food is prepared. To see what this form looks like, click here. The form must be posted at the place of business where the food is sold so that kosher consumers can review it. The old “thou shalt not” kosher statutes have been repealed.

This new disclosure scheme will be administered by the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs (click for link) under the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act. One benefit to having GOCA oversee the new rules is that they have the resources to enforce the rules and intend to do so. That’s an improvement over the Department of Agriculture, which did not enforce the old statutes.

If you’re a kosher consumer and are concerned about the kosher standards used by an establishment that calls their food “kosher,” you should ask to see their disclosure form. Please keep in mind that under the new kosher statute the words “kosher-style” and “kosher-type” (and only those words; no others) are “safe harbor” terms that do not require a disclosure form to be posted.

In addition, the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act applies only to consumer transactions. If you’re attending a catered event, the only person to whom a caterer has a legal duty to make a disclosure is the person who paid for the catering services. In other words, you should ask your host, the one who paid money in a consumer transaction, what the caterer’s disclosure form said.

I would like to thank Rabbi A. D. Motzen of Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Yechezkel Freundlich of Congregation Beth Jacob, Rabbi Reuven Stein of the Atlanta Kashruth Commission, University of Georgia Law Professor Hillel Levin, attorney David Schoen, Representative Kevin Levitas (one of my House co-sponsors), Senator Don Balfour (the Senate sponsor of HB 1345), and Bill Cloud and Anne Infinger of the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs for their help in passing our state’s new kosher statute. This legislation was signed into law by Governor Perdue on May 20, 2010. Getting the bill to the Governor’s desk was a team effort.

After the passage of HB 1345, the ACLU dropped its lawsuit. The four lawyers went home empty-handed.

Click here if you would like to watch a video of my presentation of this legislation on the floor of the House of Representatives.


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