Michael Sullivan 2015-07-30 03:54:33
ACEC Georgia’s political advocacy role doesn’t end when the Georgia General Assembly session is gaveled to a close. Fighting to protect and improve the business and regulatory climate for the engineering industry and for our member firm clients demands year-round engagement at every level of government. Whether the battle is procurement or permitting at the local level or flying to Washington DC to meet with our Congressmen and Senators to advocate on water issues or transportation funding, we will be involved. Our goal is to ensure that the voice of the business of engineering is heard loud and clear at the federal, state and local levels. WATER WARS Since 1989, Georgia has been fighting a multi-front war with Florida and Alabama over how water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) and Alabama- Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) basins will be allocated between the three states from and into which these rivers flow. Florida’s shellfish industry and Alabama’s agricultural and power generating interests have tried to use the courts to restrict the amount of water that could be allocated to metro Atlanta – a result that would also (and perhaps intentionally) constrain the growth and economic development of the Atlanta region. For most of the decades-long battle, discussions were focused on whether Lake Lanier could lawfully be used for water supply at all. In 2011, that question was decisively answered in Georgia’s favor in an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that held water supply to be an authorized use for Lake Lanier. Since then, Alabama and Florida have focused their maneuvering on trying to restrict the Army Corps of Engineers’ ability to decide how water should be allocated among the various interests. A favorite tactic of Alabama’s United States Senators has been to insert restrictive language into congressional legislation that would tie the Corps’ hands. Previously, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) led an effort to insert damaging language into the Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 (WRRDA), an effort that was successfully thwarted by Georgia’s Congressional delegation in the final version of the bill. Undaunted, Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, recently inserted language into the FY 2016 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill that would withhold funding for any Corps study related to water allocation in the ACT basin; that is, until the Governors of both Alabama and Georgia agree to participate in the study, as well as agree to the terms of the study process to be undertaken, effectively giving Alabama veto power over any Corps study. In June, I met with Senator Johnny Isakson and Senator David Perdue in Washington DC and they assured me that they are going to do everything they can to ensure that this provision is removed before the Senate passes this appropriations bill. The Army Corps of Engineers recently released an updated drought contingency and water control manual for the ACT basin (which Georgia has filed suit to challenge). It is also working on the updated manual for the ACF basin (the one Florida is most concerned with), which is still subject to administrative and judicial review (one or more of the three states will also file suit once the ACF manual is released this summer). On June 9th, Governor Nathan Deal travelled to Florida for his most recent private meeting with Florida Governor Rick Scott. That meeting followed Governor Deal’s March meeting with Alabama Governor Robert Bentley. FEDERAL TRANSPORTATION FUNDING As I mentioned previously, I was in Washington DC in June for meetings on Capitol Hill with the members of our Georgia Congressional delegation [including Representative Rob Woodall (R-Georgia) newly appointed member of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee] to discuss next steps in the effort to fully fund the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which is set to run out of funding (again) sometime this summer after the current twomonth, short-term funding patch expires. These meetings were very productive and I came away encouraged by the level of commitment on this issue from our delegation members. For example, all of our Georgia Congressional delegation members voted for the most recent funding measure. Contrast that with the vote for MAP-21 (the current funding bill set to expire), where only two of our Republican House members voted in favor. It appears that Congress will pass yet another stop-gap funding bill before the August recess (at press time, the House had just passed another $8 billion stop-gap funding measure, which was sent to the Senate for action) that will extend funding only into December. This gives lawmakers more time to work on a long-term bill they can pass before the end of the year. This will be the 34th highway funding patch that has been approved by Congress since 2005 and Congress has not approved a highway funding bill of longer than two years in duration since 2005. The challenge of the Highway Trust Fund is that the Federal motor fuel tax that is supposed to be its sole source of revenue cannot keep up with the level of Federal transportation obligations (the Federal gas tax hasn’t been increased since 1993). The gap between those obligations and the Trust Fund’s actual funding level has been filled by infusions from the General Fund ($35 billion in MAP-21), which is itself running massive deficits. While that course of action is not sustainable, everyone seems to agree that an increase in the Federal motor fuel tax is off the table. Even those Republican members who are not personally opposed to a gas tax increase agree that there is simply no political will to increase the gas tax at this point. Instead, Republicans seem to be holding out hope that transportation can be funded as part of a much larger fundamental tax reform process that is being led by Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee. One of the components of the larger bill could be a provision that would lower the tax consequences of repatriating the offshore profits of American corporations as a way to generate revenue to fill the funding gap. Estimates are that repatriation could bring in around $80-90 billion in one-time revenue that would then be used to fund a six-year transportation bill. Even if the effort to pass the larger tax reform bill is not successful, there is some thinking that the repatriation provisions could be passed as a stand-alone measure to fund a six-year transportation funding bill. There are also significant discussions that the new authorization bill will include provisions that would reduce the current burden of Federal environmental regulations and bureaucracy. STRUCTURAL ENGINEERING LICENSURE On March 18, 2015, House Bill 592 was introduced by Representative Brett Harrell (R-Snellville) to create a new category of licensure for professional engineers in Georgia. HB 592 would create a new “P.E., S.E.” license in Georgia. The ACEC Georgia Board of Directors, the Board of the Georgia Engineering Alliance and the boards of several other Georgia engineering associations agreed to support an effort by the Structural Engineers Association of Georgia (SEAoG) to create a “Professional Engineer, Structural Engineer” license for structural engineers in Georgia. Since 2011, structural engineers have been required to take a 16-hour exam with an essay requirement in addition to the 8-hour multiple choice component. This is required by the Georgia State Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors (PELS Board) and is the standard recommended by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying. Currently, structural engineers receive no additional certification or licensure for their significantly more stringent licensing requirements. This puts Georgia structural engineers at a competitive disadvantage when they are competing for work in other states where structural engineers are licensed. There are also concerns that public safety is not being adequately protected by having a licensing regime which does not reflect the more stringent licensing requirements and risks associated with structural engineering compared to other engineering disciplines. Several other states are currently working on legislation that would create a structural engineering license in their states. HB 592 would “grandfather” all currently licensed Professional Engineers by allowing them to file a simple, one-page affidavit stating that they are qualified to work as structural engineers. Upon receipt of such an affidavit by the PELS Board, that Professional Engineer would be licensed as a “P.E., S.E.” While no formal action can be taken on this legislation prior to the 2016 legislative session, I would love to hear any thoughts that the members of the engineering community might have on this important legislation and how it might impact the engineering profession.
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