Georgia editorial roundup
Posted March 15
Recent editorials from Georgia newspapers:
The Brunswick News on government transparency:
The timing of the state Senate's consideration this week of the fiscal year 2018 budget is a bit on the nose in one respect.
This week is Sunshine Week, a time when advocates and the press shine a light on governmental transparency. This week, we want the public to know how important it is they not only see what their government is doing and how it is spending their money, but also help them understand why it is important.
Which brings us back to the Senate's budget. In it is a proposed $485,000 for outfitting its chambers with the technology to stream committee meetings. This is something the other chamber, the House, has been doing for years. House members realized a while ago that they are making decisions with our tax money, making laws that affect our daily lives and governing not just our state, but theirs. To help with that, the House began live streaming on the internet every single committee meeting — where much of the real legislative work is done. Committees suggest changes to bills, hear from parties that will be affected and seek to make educated choices.
Our senators likely have the same intent, but being that they are representing us, an being that they are spending our money, it only makes sense we have a chance to see the debate and listen to the discussion.
We here in the Golden Isles are roughly five hours from Atlanta. What are the chances a regular person with an interest in a Senate committee is going to make the trip to be at a hearing? Save for a few passionate advocacy groups — slim.
Which is why it is imperative the Senate, like its counterpart, begin using the incredibly powerful technology at its fingertips to truly make this a government of the people — all people, not just those for whom it is convenient.
Does $485,000 seem like a hefty price tag for setting up the proper equipment to stream? Perhaps. Especially since senators are contemplating a record budget of more than $25 billion for the state, further increasing government spending.
But it is a price worth paying if it provides us all a real opportunity to watch, listen and think about the work happening in our government. If we all had equal access, perhaps our voices would weigh a little heavier on our senators' minds.
The Augusta Chronicle on the bipartisan effort to turn around failing schools:
This isn't supposed to happen. But thank goodness it is.
According to myth, Republicans aren't supposed to care about the underprivileged. That's always been a bunch of bunk. Scratch most any conservative and you'll find a mission trip or other unheralded charitable act.
And Democrats aren't supposed to be for anything that even hints at alternatives to traditional public school. Sadly, that's been mostly true.
Nor are Republicans and Democrats supposed to work together these days. Well, that dictum certainly appears to be the case in Washington, D.C.
But in Atlanta, Republicans and Democrats in the House - led by Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and Republican House leaders and Democrat Minority Leader Stacey Abrams - just cooperated on a desperately needed bill to turn around failing schools.
H.B. 338 would create a state "Chief Turnaround Officer" to shepherd local schools and school districts through a turnaround plan that they, and the schools' parents, help author.
A similar effort in the form of a constitutional amendment failed last year, due in large part to the public school bureaucracy's opposition but also a more widely held view that it gave the state too much power. This page didn't happen to share that view.
Though the state would still have broad authority to step in where it sees "unacceptable" schools, the turnaround process in H.B. 338 is designed to be less heavy-handed and more collaborative.
The bill passed the House March 1 by a wide margin, 138-37 - and even enjoyed the support of half the Democrats in the House, thanks to Leader Abrams' urging.
"It's been built across party lines," bill author Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, said.
"A step in the right direction," Abrams said of the bill.
Even the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which wasn't thrilled with the bill, remained neutral on it and, notes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, did praise Tanner for a "'good-faith effort' in seeking input from educators, saying it is 'refreshing' to see such bipartisan collaboration in a polarized political climate."
That doesn't mean the bill comes without teeth. There are a series of steps the state can take with chronically failing schools and districts, including removing staff and reassigning students elsewhere.
"Non-improving schools with recalcitrant leaders," writes the Atlanta newspaper, "could be handed to other school districts or to nonprofit managers, or they could be converted to charter schools. School districts could also be forced to bus students to better-performing schools, and the turnaround chief could replace all the staff."
Truth be known, as the Journal-Constitution notes, "Most of these interventions are already allowed under current law." This bill adds steps, reduces critics' concerns and focuses everyone on the problem like never before.
There's no money attached to the bill, but there is a promise of potential increased resources for "targeted" schools, with the governor's backing.
We wish the constitutional amendment had passed. But the silver lining is, its failure required lawmakers to work across the aisle even harder to find a mutually agreeable way to save chronically failing schools and rescue the students within.
This is no small matter, and is of considerable interest in Augusta-Richmond County, where an eye-popping 21 schools now qualify as failing - currently defined as those scoring below 60 on the College and Career Performance Index for three consecutive years.
"The school system ranked behind only DeKalb County (26) and the Atlanta Public School District (23) for most failing schools in Georgia," writes The Augusta Chronicle's Doug Stutsman.
The bill must also pass the Senate. But we appreciate Democrat representatives' willingness to think outside the public school bureaucracy box and join with Republicans in doing whatever we can to help children, particularly in disadvantaged schools and neighborhoods.
We also applaud Gov. Deal for sticking doggedly to what may become a huge part of his legacy - and the state's future.
The Marietta Daily Journal on phone distractions and road deaths in Georgia:
A look at the alarming increase in people killed on Georgia roadways every year, and it's a wonder anyone ever gets behind the wheel again.
In 2014, 1,170 people died in motor vehicle wrecks in Georgia. The death rate rose to 1,432 in 2015 and jumped to 1,559 last year, according to Harris Blackwood, director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.
Why the rise? Distracted driving for the most part, Blackwood said.
Attributing the exact number of deaths by distraction is impossible. It's not a matter of simply sticking someone with a needle, as in the case of testing for intoxication.
Still, there are clues about those people who died while following a Facebook feed or texting their spouse on the highway, and those clues involve lane departures, rear-end crashes and striking trees or buildings.
"When you find a situation where there are no other contributing factors, the person appeared to be in good health . that's when you make the assumption that distraction probably had something to do with it," Blackwood said.
The motor vehicle death rate isn't just up in Georgia. In 2014, 32,675 people died in automobile wrecks in the U.S. That number jumped to 40,200 last year, according to the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration.
Not all of those 8,000 additional deaths are from distracted driving, but Blackwood said many thousands of them are.
Folks just seem unable to take a vacation from their phones. Like Ivan Pavlov's celebrated dogs, once they hear their phone signal a new text message, too many drivers will look down to read it and respond, despite speeding down the highway.
Loss of life or severe injury is not the only outcome. Blackwood said the top insurance companies in the state met with him last week to ask what could be done to stop the wrecks, which are driving up the cost to policy holders.
Seven years ago, the Statehouse attempted to crack down on texting while driving by passing a law banning anyone under 18 from using a phone while driving — unless it was an emergency. The law also banned everyone from texting while operating a car.
Blackwood would rather have the law than not, but notes that at least before the law, drivers positioned their phones on the steering wheel while texting. Now they hide them between their knees, causing their eyes to completely leave the road. And because a driver at 60 miles per hour travels the distance of a football field in five seconds, the results are predictably grim.
"The minute you start texting, you stop driving," he said.
Police are at a disadvantage with the texting law, because if they pull a driver over, the first thing that driver will likely say is they were simply making a phone call. The U.S. Supreme Court doesn't allow the officer to check the phone to see if the driver is telling the truth, therefore penalizing the guilty can be difficult to enforce.
But there are police departments who have come up with some creative ways to curb this dangerous behavior.
In 2015, for instance, Marietta police officers posed as construction workers on Cobb Parkway. When the undercover officers spotted drivers texting, they would radio ahead to patrol cars, who would then make a traffic stop.
Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn said a large percentage of those who were cited claimed they did not know it was a violation to text while they were sitting still at a traffic light. Another outcome Flynn found from the experiment was that the operation was resoundingly supported by the general public.
"We believe the problem is increasing, particularly with the proliferation of new driving apps like Waze, that people are using while their vehicles are in motion," Flynn said. "Also, we are hearing increased numbers of complaints about texting and driving impeding traffic flow in terms of motorists intently texting as they are sitting at a traffic light. Increasingly, they fail to notice the light has changed or simply wait to complete their text before proceeding. That slows traffic flow and annoys other drivers."
Blackwood believes a barrier to cracking down on these reckless drivers is a libertarian streak in the Statehouse that is hesitant to tell Georgians what to do. While drivers don't want the person in front or back of them texting, God help you if you tell them what to do.
With such a crisis unfolding, it is welcome news that state Rep. John Carson, R-northeast Cobb, has proposed a House study committee to find solutions to the problem of distracted driving.
His efforts have rightly received applause from such groups as AT&T's It Can Wait campaign and the Medical Association of Georgia.
Chief Flynn already has a few recommendations. One is to look beyond the use of smartphones and examine other electronic devices, as well as eating and reading while driving.
The chief also advised a public awareness campaign to accompany any legislative reforms that may result from the committee's findings.
The billboards, seen every now and then, of a person who died while texting, along with the unfinished message they were sending, are unforgettable.
In his committee hearings, Carson should carefully listen to Chief Flynn and other law enforcement experts, trauma doctors and anyone else who wants to weigh in and come up with some common sense solutions that will help curb this senseless slaughter. And let's do without the "it's my car and I can do as I please" argument. One doesn't have the right to cry "fire!" in a crowded theater nor does one have the liberty to endanger others by texting and tweeting behind the wheel of a car.