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APN Overview of Proposed 2010 Georgia Amendments 1 and 2

By Matthew Cardinale, News Editor, The Atlanta Progressive News (October 21, 2010)

(APN) ATLANTA -- There are five proposed amendments to the Constitution of the State of Georgia on the ballot in two weeks, as well as a statewide referendum.

Atlanta Progressive News spoke with several state lawmakers and local advocates to learn about the pros and cons of each one. This article will consider Amendments 1 and 2. The remaining amendments and the single referendum will be reviewed in the near future.

AMENDMENT 1

The ballot question is: "Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended so as to make Georgia more economically competitive by authorizing legislation to uphold reasonable competitive agreements?"

"A non competition agreement is something employers force employees to sign when they become employed that says two years after you leave us, you won't work for anyone who does the same thing we do," attorney Cheryl B. Legare, told WXIA 11Alive news.

Attorney Ed Buckley said the amendment is a "damned lie" that would "shackle" employees to their jobs. "You can be forced to sign an agreement to keep your job then fired the next day and not be able to work," Buckley told 11Alive.

H. Res 178 is the resolution which proposed the amendment.

The Georgia Constitution already states, "The General Assembly shall not have the power to authorize any contract or agreement which may have the effect of or which is intended to have the effect of defeating or lessening competition, or encouraging a monopoly, which is hereby declared to be unlawful and void."

The amendment would change that existing language to add an exception for non-competition agreements to the current prohibition on anti-competitive legislation.

Ironically, perhaps deceptively, the ballot question asks whether to make Georgia more economically competitive, while the amendment in reality adds an exception to the prohibition on the General Assembly defeating or lessening competition, thus allowing the defeat or lessening of competition.

The new exception details how the Assembly will be allowed to create laws allowing the courts to enforce non-competition agreements, but will also allow the courts to modify such agreements in the way they see reasonable.

One email circulated by Atlanta attorney Brian Spears, calls Amendment 1 a "Trojan horse by the Chamber of Commerce to remove the only remaining employee friendly law left in Georgia."

According to several reports, Georgia is already ranked one of the top states in the US in which to do business. Georgia is fourth in the nation according to Chief Executive magazine. Georgia is sixth best for business according to Forbes magaine. Atlanta is the ninth-best start-up city according to Entrepreneur magazine. [Inversely--perhaps relatedly--Georgia is lowest on most public health, education, and quality of life rankings.]

State Sens. Nan Orrock and Curt Thompson, two progressive Democrats, said they were not supporting Amendment 1.

State Rep. Stacey Abrams, a Democrat, explained why she supported H Res. 178 in the legislature.

"The concern of varying interpretations [by the court regarding what is 'reasonable'] is compelling as is the issue of impeding the ability of workers to practice their trade. However, both employers and employees deserve protections, particularly with regards to the use of specialized knowledge," Abrams said, adding that courts would be allowed to "blue-pencil" the agreements to make them reasonable.

Meanwhile, in a move that on its face may seem counterintuitive, the Libertarian Party of Georgia is opposing Amendment 1.

Georgia Libertarians' "position calls for a No vote, citing a stifling of marketplace expansion by enforcing employment contract clauses that prohibit former employees of a company to go to work for a competing firm or to start their own venture... By protecting the interests of big business, by adding a barrier to entry into the marketplace, is not a solution for economic growth," Brett Bittner, Operations Director for the Party, said in a statement.

"When a large company releases an employee, or an employee leaves a firm of their own will, punishing that employee beyond their term of employment by contractually barring them from joining a competitor or starting their own firm in the same field hurts the potential economic growth," Bittner said.

"By preventing employees from choosing the 'best fit' for their abilities, you stifle the free market that exists for labor," Bittner said.

AMENDMENT 2

The ballot question is: "Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to as to impose an annual $10.00 trauma charge on certain passenger motor vehicles in this state for the purpose of funding trauma care?"

S. Res 277 is the resolution which proposed the amendment.

Under the amendment, all passenger motor vehicles in Georgia, except those owned by the State, will be subject to a ten dollar annual fee, which will be deposited monthly into a trauma care trust fund.

The General Assembly "shall provide for the operation of such trust fund and shall specify the trauma care purposes for which such funds are to be expended," according to the resolution.

Georgia Watch authored a statement in support of the amendment. "While it is easy to assume that every hospital emergency room is equipped to handle traumatic injuries, unfortunately, that is not the case. In short, Georgia’s existing trauma system is woefully inadequate. An infusion of resources is vital if the state wants to improve emergency care and save countless lives. There are, on average, 40,000 cases of major trauma that occur in Georgia each year. Of that number, an estimated 700 Georgians lose their lives every year as a direct result of our state’s weak trauma network, a figure that is 20 percent above the national average."

"Of the 152 acute care hospitals in Georgia, only 15 have trauma centers. Of those 15, only four—-located in Atlanta, Macon, Augusta and Savannah—-are Level I certified, meaning they are best able to handle the most daunting injuries. The importance of access to a Level I trauma center cannot be underestimated; a patient’s chances of survival improves by an estimated 20 to 25 percent when treated at a Level I trauma center," Georgia Watch wrote.

"Particularly for those in southwest Georgia, care for a life-threatening injury is truly a race against the clock, as the first 60 minutes following a traumatic injury are the most crucial in determining a life or death outcome. For children, that window of time is only a grim 30 minutes," Georgia Watch wrote.

Georgia Watch emphasized the amendment would provide a dedicated funding source for trauma care, rather than subjecting its funding each year to the political whims of the legislature in dividing up the General Fund.

Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital could benefit from this fund. "All trauma centers are gonna benefit. The reason people are talking about rural trauma is because there is such a gap. Atlanta already has two trauma centers. Because we do have this right now, I think folks talking about rural areas because money could be used to help (fund) that," Holly Lang of Georgia Watch told APN.

"The legislature does have discretion over where it will be targeted... where there's need. With Grady always coming up short, there's still a shortfall for providing care. These hospitals would receive ideally. Trauma care is costly, it's not profitable. Area hospitals should be able to benefit from this," Lang said.

However, Sen. Thompson told APN he did not think the current Republican-dominated legislature would use the fund to support Grady.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, a progressive Democrat, said he expected there to be some funding formula created for disbursing the funds, and that he expected Grady to receive some of the funds, although maybe not its fair share. He said it was incumbent upon Grady advocates to support Amendment 2 but also monitor how the money is spent.

Last year, the legislature passed "super-speeder" legislation that is estimated to raise about 30 million dollars each year through a 200 dollar fine on motorists speeding excessively on the highway. This amendment, on the other hand, will raise about 100 million dollars each year.

While the General Assembly made a one-time payment for trauma care about a year ago, trauma care typically does not get funded by the legislature through the General Fund each year.

Another thing for Fulton and Dekalb County taxpayers to think about is, the more that can be done to stregthen trauma care centers around the state, the less burden will be placed on Grady Hospital to provide non-profitable trauma care for residents beyond Metro Atlanta. This could thus reduce the burden on taxpayers of Fulton and Dekalb to pay for trauma care for the whole state.

"This will benefit Grady in a number of ways. More hospitals will carry the burden. Currently, they air-lift people in to Grady," Sen. Orrock told APN.

Sens. Orrock, Thompson, and Fort, and Rep. Abrams, are all in support of Amendment 2.

Sen. Thompson said ideally he would prefer a less regressive tax, for example, a sliding scale motor vehicle tax depending on the value of the vehicle.

The Libertarian Party of Georgia, however, opposes Amendment 2 because of the increased fees.

(END/2010)

About the author:

Matthew Cardinale is the News Editor for The Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at matthew@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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