Rep. Jan Jones of Milton, the speaker pro tem, and Rep. Larry O’Neal of Bonaire, the House majority leader, accompanied Ralston. Two of Cobb’s GOP delegates to the state house, Reps. Earl Ehrhart of Powder Springs and Ed Setzler of Acworth, were also present.
Following the press conference, the group lunched at the Georgian Club with other Cobb lawmakers and local business leaders.
Ralston spoke at length about the regional referendums on transportation sales taxes coming before voters, and said he expects there will be some regions that reject the new, decade-long sales tax.
He said the process of allowing leaders in each region to draft project lists has worked, and “now it’s up to the people to decide.”
He declined to predict how the referendum would fare in metro Atlanta.
“I’m not much of a gambler,” he said. “I don’t know. I think it’s going to pass in some regions. I think it’s going to fail in some regions. I don’t know what will happen here in metro, frankly. I think it’s going to be a very close vote.”
He’s also not advocating one way or the other.
“I don’t think people need politicians to tell them how to vote, so I’m not telling people how to vote. My focus has been on re-electing a Republican majority in the Georgia House of Representatives, and I’m not taking my eye off that prize,” Ralston said.
Here are some of the other questions he responded to.
Q. Many in Cobb, such as Sen. Lindsey Tippins, are pleased with the $1 billion reversible toll lane project being built here. Do you favor more toll lanes in the future?
A. I see a future for public-private partnerships going forward. I see a future where you could have some optional tolls. I think we may have to take a look at that. I don’t advocate certainly widespread use of that, because a toll’s a tax and we have to call it what it is.
Q. Please address the problem with driver’s license renewals.
A. As you know, in the post 9/11 world the federal government has imposed requirements on the states in terms of identification, security and other measures like that and so the state had to implement that. These are federal requirements that we’re talking about. Not state law changes. I have said that I think the Department probably could have been a little better prepared for July 1, but having said that I think they have adapted quickly, I think they have worked to solve the problem, I think the problem is being solved. I regret the inconvenience that some Georgians experienced last week. And I think that’s being fixed even as we’re here today.
Q. What is the harm in a $100 lobbyist gift cap?
A. You know, when I was honored by the House of Representatives by being elected Speaker in 2010 one of the things that was important to me was restoring the public trust in government. We enacted some very tough ethics reforms to deal with situations that were actual situations at that time. And so I think we have a good strong record on ethics in the House and I’m proud of that. I am not opposed to real ethics reform. … I think the cap is a gimmick, frankly.
I have said all along: I think the choice that we ought to give Georgians is the current system provides for openness, for transparency, it lets y’all write stories about every nickel and dime that gets spent on us, and I think that gives information to people, and I trust people with that information. … Let’s take a look at giving the ethics commission or the transparency and openness commission the resources to do their job, let’s give them autonomy to do their job, so that they are truly independent, and let them deal with real problems rather than try to sell this idea of a cap out there.
Q. Our county chairman, Tim Lee, has proposed offsetting the property taxes in our county by raising the sales tax, which would take Legislative approval. Do you think this is a good idea?
A. Well I’m going to listen to people like Chairman Earl Ehrhart and Rep. Setzler and all the Cobb Delegation in terms of how they feel about that for this county. I support tax reform as a general proposition and one of the things that I was most pleased about this past session is we passed a significant tax reform package that makes Georgia more competitive. It resulted in a $200 million tax cut for businesses and $100 million for families. That’s real tax reform and I hope we can continue that. The Republican Caucus for years has worked to reduce the property tax burden on homeowners in Georgia. I want us to continue that fight to the extent that we can, and I also want us to continue a discussion about giving some further income tax relief to Georgians. I said at the end of the session that I was very pleased with the tax reform package, but I didn’t want that to be the ending of tax reform but merely a good step along the way.
Jan Jones: May I add there’s already a mechanism in place for that as well. It’s called a local option sales tax that Cobb does not utilize currently, but that is utilized in every other metropolitan area except for Gwinnett, I believe. So they’re a little late to the party on that one since most of other counties already utilize that, but that’s a local decision.
Q. Regarding the charter school referendum, some educators fret that it will take money from regular public schools and give it to the charter schools. Can you address this concern?
A. (Jones): It has become a scapegoat for those that are satisfied with status quo. Georgians want good opportunities for their children and that includes public charter schools. We have a good record of them, and contrary to those who want to perpetuate status quo, what public charter schools do is draw more funding into public schools at the state level instead of devoting those funds to other, lesser priorities we will add as we have done this year more funding to public schools and public education by complimenting what we already spend on the traditional schools with more funding. … The small amount that we devote to give parents and frankly teachers some public school options with public charter schools is an infinitesimally small part of the overall budget, and it’s an amount of money that was added to the education budget, not subtracted from traditional schools. It actually resulted in more spending on public schools.
Q. So this idea that public schools will lose money to charter school is not accurate?
A. (Jones): This is a scapegoat by some superintendents and some school board members who want monopoly control. It is not about the money.