Legislative briefs

Committee endorses plan to to privatize dorms

A House committee on Thursday approved a bill that could ultimately allow for a property tax exemption currently on state college property to be extended to private companies selected to operate dorms.

The University System of Georgia is seeking the tax break for companies as part of a plan to help reduce the system’s $3.8 billion in debt by privatizing student housing on its campuses.

Extending the exemption to the companies would require a statewide referendum. House Bill 788, sponsored by Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, would put the issue on the November ballot.

The University System plans to include housing at eight institutions in its initial offering. The system would retain ownership of the buildings and land, but the selected company would operate and maintain the facilities according to leases that could run as long as 65 years.

The bill overwhelmingly passed out of the Ways and Means Committee despite concerns by some lawmakers about the length of the contracts with selected companies and potential cost increases for students.

— Janel Davis

Bill seeking oversight of GHSA advances

The Georgia High School Association would be moved back under the oversight of the General Assembly and have to make public annual financial reports under a bill passed unanimously Thursday by the state Senate.

Senate Bill 288 would bar any public high school from joining an organization that collects fees to organize interscholastic sports events if that group does not annually publish a comprehensive financial report, including an accounting of assets, liabilities, income and operating expenses. A floor amendment approved by members would also resurrect a state GHSA overview committee.

The amendment's author, state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said the committee could correct what she called a lack of diversity on the GHSA's 58-member governing board, including few African-Americans and only four women. Unterman said the committee could also ensure the organization's funds would be fairly distributed to smaller schools and events.

State Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, sponsored the overall bill. GHSA Executive Director Ralph Swearngin, whose organization sponsors the state's football championships, has testified against it and said his group is already open about its finances.

The bill now goes to the House for consideration.

— Kristina Torres

Senate backs unified transit website

The Georgia Senate passed a measure Thursday urging metro Atlanta’s four separate transit providers to create a unified website.

Senate Resolution 735 was sponsored by Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta. Beach considers it a baby step toward his desire to eventually consolidate Cobb County Transit, Gwinnett County Transit, MARTA and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority under a single governing authority rebranded as "The ATL" (The Atlanta Transit Line).

The website, which will be named www.GoATLtransit.com, is expected to be online by July 1. The measure passed unanimously.

— Kristina Torres

Port wine legislation moves forward

Port wine lovers, the Georgia Senate wants you to drink up.

The chamber passed a measure Thursday that would raise the legal percentage of grape-based alcohol made in Georgia to 24 percent. The current limit is 21 percent. The increase is specifically aimed at Georgia’s wineries to allow them to produce fortified wines, which include port and brandy.

Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, sponsored Senate Bill 286 and called it "an economic development and tourism bill" to promote Georgia-grown products.

The bill passed 48-5. It now goes to the House for consideration.

— Kristina Torres