Kelley expects big issues ahead for state legislature

Reported by Kevin Myrick of Northwest Georgia News

President Barack Obama has announced his plans for gun control regulations through executive action, but State Rep. Trey Kelley believes the conversation will be far from over in the state legislature no matter the decision made.

His take on the matter is simple: instead of curtailing second amendment rights for legal, responsible gun owners, he wants to see expansion of rights here in Georgia.

During the last session in 2015, gun owners with concealed weapons permits saw the state house and senate pass a bill allowing them to carry them into bars, churches and other public places.

Now he said he thinks that those rights — or any others that might curtail legal ownership rights — should be left alone.

“For me, the balance is that allow people who are willing to obey our laws to go through the process of going to probate court, applying for the license, and getting their fingerprints ran and get the concealed weapons permit. Let them expand the opportunities they have to carry,” Kelley said.

He said tragedies like those in Charleston, S.C., in Summer 2015, and in San Bernadino, Calif., in November 2015 are examples of how despite gun control laws, the mass shootings weren’t prevented.

“I think it’s tough for the government to balance that. There’s numerous gun laws across the country — California has some of the toughest laws on the books, but there was nothing in those laws that could have prevented that tragedy in San Bernadino,” he said. “There’s always going to be evil people in this world. My solution is let’s not create a bunch of areas where you’re taking guns from law-abiding citizens.”

Along with the gun control conversation, Kelley agreed the state needs to also look at how mental health services are provided. Previously the shift has been toward community-based services rather than state-run facilities for housing. He feels improvements can always be made when it comes to how the state helps those with mental illness.

“We need to have a mental health conversation, we need to continue to have that and expand it more,” he said.

Obama was finalizing a set of new executive actions tightening the nation’s gun laws on Monday before press time, making his first order of business in 2016 a clear signal the president in his final year doesn’t intend to go quietly.

At a meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, FBI Director James Comey and other top law enforcement officials Obama is expected to sign off on a package of proposals aimed at curbing gun violence and cracking down on unregulated gun sales.

At the top of the list is an effort to expand background checks on gun sales by forcing more sellers to register as federally licensed gun dealers. The changes would be aimed at some unregistered sellers who skirt the background check laws by selling at gun shows, online or informal settings. Other moves being considered include improving reporting of lost and stolen weapons and beefing up inspections of licensed dealers, according to a person familiar with the plans who would not be named discussing proposals before they are finalized.

The package includes measures this White House has long considered but not completed, mindful of the legal fight sure to follow as well as the potential for political backlash for some fellow Democrats.

But after a steady string of mass shootings and with the clock on his tenure ticking down, Obama appears primed to push further than he has in the past.

“We definitely think there are things he can do,” said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which advocates for expanding background checks. Gross says his recent conversations with White House aides have left him hopeful.

“It’s very clear that the White House is feeling emboldened,” he said.

Kelley said too one big decision from the U.S. Supreme Court following last year’s session will likely get discussed and see laws past. Though it’s “too soon to tell” what will happen, he and others in the state feel the court overreached when permitting same sex marriage throughout the country.

“The court overstepped their bounds in terms of what a court and what a legislature is supposed to do,” he said.

Areas that won’t provide much controversy Kelley believes will be a big focus will be on education.

His feeling is that expansion of technical and vocational education services are on the horizon in order to ensure students have more than just college as an opportunity following graduation from high school.

“Over the last three budgets I’ve participated in, year after year we’ve consistently sent more money back to our local school systems to improve our student’s education,” he said. “Now we need to preparing students for various different paths after high school. Whether that’s a traditional four year college, or whether that leads to something in the technical trades through our technical college system.”

“I think we’re going to continue to focus on expanding opportunities for students, and recognizing that each student is unique and that we need to have an education system that is tailored their individual needs as much as possible,” Kelley said. “Expanding our technical and vocational education is certainly going to be a part of that. I think we’re going to see to continue to grow.”

One area that Kelley said the state legislature does need to look into more deeply is in tuition rates.

The problem, Kelley said, is that the legislature has no say currently into how tuition at schools like the University of Georgia and others are set, with the statewide Board of Regents having ultimate control over how much college costs per semester.

Kelley said himself and others want that changed, and have told the regents costs need to come down in “straight” terms.

“We want to make sure that secondary education is affordable to all Georgia students,” Kelley said. “Though the HOPE scholarship program is an integral part of ensuring students can take on the costs to go to college if they make the grades, Kelley said that can’t be a long term solution to increasing tuition rates, especially for those who don’t qualify. We need to make sure that there’s affordable pathways out there.”

Kelley also wants to continue to find ways to eliminate — or at least reduce — the “income tax burden” on Georgians in his work on the Ways and Means committee.

“I ran saying that I wanted us to eliminate the state’s income tax,” he said. “I still think that’s a big goal.”