06 MarAsset Backed Securities Reform Rules: Adoption & Implementation in 2015 Live …

New York, NY, February 26, 2015 –(PR.com)– The Knowledge Group/The Knowledge Congress Live Webcast Series, the leading producer of regulatory focused webcasts, announced today that it has scheduled a live webcast entitled: Asset Backed Securities Reform Rules: Adoption amp; Implementation in 2015 Live Webcast. This two-hour event is scheduled on March 9, 2015 at 12:00 PM – 2:00 PM ET.

Event Synopsis:
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has revised rules regarding the disclosure, reporting, and offering of asset backed securities (ABS) to enhance transparency, to further protect investors, and to augment capital in the securities market. The new rules include loan disclosure on residential and commercial mortgages and automobile loans; among others.

In this two-hour live webcast, a panel of distinguished professionals and thought leaders assembled by The Knowledge Group will provide an over-view and discussion of the adoption and Implementation of the SEC Asset Backed Securities Reform Rules to help Investors, loan issuers, and banking authorities understand the important aspects of this significant topic.

Key topics include:

middot; Asset Backed Securities Final Rules
middot; Disclosure and Reporting Requirements
middot; Benefits and Risks
middot; Best Market Security Measures
middot; Eligibility for Shelf Offering
middot; Recent Adoption and Implementation Issues
middot; Non-Compliance Risks

Speakers/Faculty Panel
Vanessa C. Gage
Reed Smith LLP
Partner

Stuart M. Litwin
Mayer Brown LLP
Partner

For an updated list of the faculty panel, please visit:
http://theknowledgegroup.org/event_name/asset-backed-securities-reform-rules-adoption-implementation-in-2015-live-webcast/

About The Knowledge Group, LLC/The Knowledge Congress Live Webcast Series
The Knowledge Group, LLC brings together the worlds leading authorities and industry participants through informative two-hour webcasts that study the impact of changing regulations and help businesses succeed through proper regulatory compliance.

Visit http://theknowledgegroup.org/ for further information and inquiry.

05 MarEconomy: Construction picks back up, but it’s a different gig now

I couldnt afford to sit at home for a month here and a month there, said Rager, 53.

Now Rager is back in construction, working with a crew on a custom-built home in Orlando, framing walls and doing a little bit of everything. In the past four years, hundreds of thousands of workers have returned to construction, making it among the nations fastest growing job sectors.

In the busiest markets, there arent enough construction workers to keep up with the pace of building. In a recent survey of more than 900 contractors by Associated General Contractors of America, 83 percent said they were having trouble filling craft positions. The most difficult positions to fill were carpenters, roofers and equipment operators.

Given the amount of building going on, its going to be interesting because were going to have a labor shortage here in South Florida, said Scott Moss, president of Moss amp; Associates, a South Florida-based construction firm with offices in California, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and Hawaii.

Yet its a measure of how hard the sector was hit that at it has regained just 900,000 of the 2.3 million jobs it lost from 2007 to 2011. The annual unemployment rate for construction workers stood at 9.8 percent last year, down steeply from the industrys 20.6 percent annual unemployment rate in 2010, but still significantly higher than last years national annual unemployment rate of 6.2 percent.

In the meantime, returning workers such as Rager are finding a different business from the one they left.

___

ALTERED LANDSCAPE

Apartment buildings are going up at a faster rate than single-family homes, a trend fueled by tighter home-lending standards, an increase in people choosing to live in or near urban centers and a drop in the rate of new households being formed.

Fewer public buildings have been built lately, on account of government cuts. Shopping malls are falling out of fashion, though growing Internet sales require the construction of more distribution centers.

Not only are the projects different, theyre in different places. During the real estate heyday of the mid-2000s, the building of single-family homes in Florida, Nevada and California led the construction boom, and then the bust. In the past year, while California, Texas and Florida saw the biggest increases in raw numbers of construction jobs, the fastest growth rates for such work were North Dakota and Utah.

North Dakota has undergone an energy boom that has attracted workers from all over the nation. The states population has grown 10 percent since 2010 and now stands at 740,000.

Construction in Utah, the state with the nations highest birth rate, is being fueled by pent-up demand for housing.

All of these changes mean increased need for structural steel workers, concrete finishers and crane operators. Site managers are expected to be more technologically savvy then they were a decade ago, as construction has gotten more computerized. Three-dimensional designs are passed from the architect to the contractor and downloaded on lap tops and tablets at the construction site. Workers use GPS and lasers to figure out the exact spots where lights should be hung.

There is a stronger demand for technological skills, said Ken Simonson, chief economist at Associated General Contractors of America. Laborers with limited training may not cut it anymore.

Master electrician Nickolas Lombardi recently was trained on software that will allow him to make changes to blueprints on his IPad that can be seen simultaneously by architects, other contractors and others not at the worksite.

Right now, there are a lot of master electricians retiring and theyre not changing. They dont care too much about it. But for anybody getting into the trade, its necessary, said Lombardi, 35, a project supervisor from Lakewood, Colorado, who underwent the training after being hired by Power Design Inc., a large electrical contractor that has a 12,000-square-foot training center at its headquarters in Tampa, Florida.

___

AGGRESSIVE RECRUITING

In markets where construction has heated up, competition for skilled labor is intensifying. Contractors in places with large Hispanic populations, such as Texas and Florida, are advertising heavily in Spanish media. Other contractors are turning to high schools, but budget cuts and an emphasis on college preparation courses has led to shop and technical classes being axed in recent years.

In Utah, signing bonuses of $5,000 to $10,000 have returned. We havent seen that in a long time, said Richard Thorn, president of the Associated General Contractors of Utah.

Travis Becks carpenters union in North Dakota has contracts for 10 projects in 2015 already, and each job will need up to 30 workers, he said. The unions apprenticeship program has room for 50 applicants, about five times the number it did seven years ago, during the heart of the recession.

A newly-minted apprentice in North Dakota can make $60,000 to $75,000 a year, Beck said.

If somebody came to me for a job, I would have something for them immediately, said Beck, business representative for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, Local 1091, in Bismarck, North Dakota.

Hourly wages that were in the $18 to $20 range have edged up to the $25 to $30 range in the past year and a half, said Brian Pyle, another union official in North Dakota.

___

THE FUTURE

The question now is, how long will the upswing last? Construction jobs are expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 2.6 percent through 2022, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, making it among the fastest growing industries into the next decade.

The construction firms that will have the greatest success will be those that have moved away from hiring for individual projects and have sets of skilled crews that can move efficiently from project to project around the country, said Moss, the construction firm owner.

They can assimilate a semi-skilled worker and make them skilled within a few months, Moss said. The people who have figured out the new formula are going to do well in this new upturn.

05 MarSimplify, Simplify

Last summer an unfortunate woman was found dead in the basement of her Connecticut home, found eventually, that is. It took rescuers several days to retrieve her body as the first floor of her house had collapsed on her, apparently under the weight of all the stuff she had accumulated over the years.

Her possessions, stacked to the ceiling with only a narrow, labyrinth-like pathway through it all, quite literally smothered her. Her death certificate said so officially with the cause of death declared as Accidental Traumatic Asphyxia. This is a dramatic example, of course, but accumulating those things that fall outside the realm of the necessary, will take your life just as certainly.

Jesus said it like this: Dont store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. But store your treasures in heaven. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else. These words are directed at every packrat, collector, hoarder, attic squirrel, and garage-gatherer among us. If you arent using it – you dont need it. Hang on to it, and it will take your life from you.

Ive often said that the most deeply spiritual thing that some of us could do is have a garage sale; or sell a property, or dump a portfolio, or write a big check to the homeless shelter down the street. Because our spiritual lethargy has nothing to do with a poor prayer life, the lack of reading the Scriptures, or any failure with other disciplines: We are carrying too much baggage, trying to manage too much stuff. We have too many possessions, too many obligations, and its a recipe for misery.

The path to contentment is by way of less, not more. When we simplify, we are doing much more than getting rid of the weight of physical possessions. We are making space to breathe, to thrive, to live. By giving up some of the things we carry or hoard, we arent losing, we are gaining; gaining freedom to pursue life.

This was Henry David Thoreaus motivation when he left his teaching career and retreated to the woods of Walden Pond. He lived there for two years in simpleness, wrestling with the question, How much is enough? and more importantly, How much does it actually cost a person to obtain his or her possessions?

His theory of personal economics came down to this: The cost of a thing is not the financial price tag attached to it. It is the amount of ones life it takes to get it. For example, if one wants a particular house, the sale price is not as important as the years it takes to pay for it. If one wants a car, a computer, a new iPhone, or designer label clothing; then the calculation involves more than the payments.

Calculate how much time and life it will cost to acquire these things. Thats the real price tag. Quoting Thoreau directly, he said, If your trade is with the Celestial Empire (which apparently is his description for what Jesus called the Kingdom of God), then very little is actually needed to live well and to be free.

A modest home should be enough…plain clothes will do…instead of a hundred dishes, why not five; and reduce other things in proportion…Keep your accounts on your thumbnail…simplify, simplify…and once you have secured the necessaries of life, then you can confront the true problems of life with freedom.

And there Thoreau brings us to the universal human ambition: We all just want to be free and happy. Its all a search for satisfaction. Is a spirituality of satisfaction too shallow, too frivolous? No, not if one is seeking genuine, soul-sustaining fulfillment with ones self and life.

But getting more wont get it done, because more and more of what is not good for you will only smother you. As Thoreau concluded, There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.net.

05 MarChange FAFSA form, eliminate college barrier

Now that Tennessee Promise guarantees every Tennessee high school graduate two years of tuition-free community college, the main obstacle standing between a Tennessee high school graduate and two years of free higher education is a ridiculously complex federal form.

A solution, introduced by a bipartisan group of United States senators, would reduce the application to only what is necessary — as few as two questions.

The FAFSA — Free Application for Federal Student Aid — is a 108-question form that about 440,000 Tennessee families fill out every year to obtain a federal grant or loan for college.

Tennessee Promise pays for whatever a federal loan won’t cover, so every participant must fill out the federal form.

The president of Southwest Tennessee Community College says he loses 1,500 students each semester because they’re too intimidated by the form.

As many as 2 million students nationwide are discouraged from applying for aid because of the form — including as many 40,000 Tennesseans every year.

Adding thousands of qualified students to the number of community college graduates would go a long way toward helping Gov. Bill Haslam realize Drive to 55 — the drive to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a degree or certificate beyond high school by 2025.

Fortunately, there is a way to help the governor, as well as the 20 million college students seeking federal grants or loans for college.

Six senators — myself and Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Angus King (I-Maine), Richard Burr (R-NC) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) — have a plan, called the Fast Act, to reduce the form to two questions: One, what is your family size? And, two, what is your family income?

On his visit to Knoxville, President Obama endorsed our proposal, and his budget this year began the job by recommending removing roughly 30 questions from the form.

Our idea came from testimony before our committee two years ago, when every one of four witnesses agreed that the government could eliminate all the FAFSA questions except for two and get about 95 percent of the information it needs to decide award amounts.

Dramatically simplifying the form would not only encourage millions more to go to college each year, it would save families countless hours wasted on an unnecessarily complex form. It would also transform the work of guidance counselors and admissions officers — including the volunteer mentors Gov. Haslam has been recruiting to guide Tennessee Promise applicants — who today spend much of their time helping students navigate the FAFSA, rather than on college and career counseling.

One Tennessee Promise mentor, Cathy Hammon of Alcoa, says the form can have a “chilling effect” — intimidating parents who may themselves never have attended college and have no experience navigating the process: “It’s the very youth we worry about the most that struggle with it.”

Our bill will allow students to find out how much financial aid they’ll receive shortly after applying, so they’ll know before shopping for a school.

A new report on federal higher education regulations that Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos helped lead says that the simple act of basing federal aid on household income from the previous year’s tax return, as our bill would, would greatly simplify the application process.

Today families are applying for federal aid while they are also in the process of filing their tax returns, timing that can lead to errors.

Government regulations tend to pile up, as everyone likes to add new ideas but few are willing to weed the garden. The result is 108 questions on a federal form that really needs only two.

Our proposal will fix this — and will help Gov. Haslam and young Tennesseans reach the impressive goals they have set for themselves.

Lamar Alexander, R-Knoxville, represents Tennessee in the US Senate. He chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

05 MarAnalyst Rating Update on Bankrate Inc

Bankrate Inc (NYSE:RATE) has received a short term rating of hold from research analysts at Zacks with a rank of 3. The company has been rated an average of 3 by 3 Wall Street Analysts. 1 analysts have added the counter in their list of strong buys. 1 broker firms see some more upside in the counter and have advised hold. 1 market experts have a negative outlook and rated it as strong sell.

Bankrate Inc (NYSE:RATE): The mean estimate for the short term price target for Bankrate Inc (NYSE:RATE) stands at $17 according to 3 Analysts. But, the investors should remain cautious as the stock may face wide vicissitudes from its mean price; the higher price target estimate for the stock has been calculated at $19 while the lower price target estimate is at $14.

Bankrate Inc (NYSE:RATE) ended the session with gains of 0.14 points or 1.12%. With 523,219 shares having exchanged hands, the counter last traded at $12.61. The trading began at $12.49 and the stock went on to touch a high price of $12.62 and a low price of $12.45. The previous close of the shares is $12.47. The market cap of the company is $1,317 million. The yearly peak value of the shares is $21.49 and the yearly bottom of the share price is $9.39. The total number of outstanding shares is 104,434,000, according to the latest companys data.

Bankrate, Inc. (Bankrate) is a publisher, aggregator and distributor of personal finance content on the Internet. The Company provides consumers with personal finances editorial content across multiple vertical categories, including mortgages, deposits, insurance, credit cards, and other categories, such as retirement, automobile loans, and taxes. The Company provides financial applications and information to a network of distribution partners and through national and state publications. The Company develops and provides Web services to over 75 co-branded partners, including personal finance sites on the Internet such as Yahoo!, CNN Money, CNBC and Comcast. The Company licenses editorial content to over 100 newspapers on a daily basis, including including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Boston Globe. The Company offers services, including Mortgages and Home Lending, Deposits, Insurance, Credit Cards and Other financial products. In May 2014, the Company acquired Caring, Inc. Bankrate Inc (NYSE:RATE) has lost 1.68% during the past week and dropped 7.6% in the last 4 weeks. The shares are however, marginally negative as compared to the SP 500 for the past week with a loss of 2.3%. Bankrate Inc (NYSE:RATE) has underperformed the index by 10.16% in the last 4 weeks. Investors should watch out for further signals and trade with caution.

05 MarReanalyzing Huntington Bancshares After Its Latest Acquisition (HBAN)

I am a pretty big fan of regional banks and have covered some of the smaller ones across multiple articles here at Seeking Alpha. Today after seeing that Huntington Bancshares (NASDAQ:HBAN) has agreed to acquire Macquarie Groups equipment finance unit, I felt it prudent to revisit the analysis. I had decided it was time to initiate coverage in the early fall, and since then the stock has appreciated 17% to $10.80 at the time of this writing. This has surpassed my $10.25 price target. The purpose of this article is to reanalyze the banks performance, discuss its key metrics, and to help readers understand whether this stock is a good buy at this time following the run-up.

Recent earnings paint an interesting picture

Huntingtons fourth quarter strengthened relative to the comparable 2013 quarter. When compared to analyst consensus estimates, the company reported in-line earnings per share. However, the company just missed consensus revenue estimates. This was not the strongest report I have seen, but there were notable strengths. That said, there was inherent weakness that should give investors pause. The good news is that the bank reported net income of $164 million in the quarter, a $9 million increase over Q3 2014 and a $5 million increase from Q4 2013. Further, earnings per share came in at $0.19, an increase of $0.01 from the prior and year-ago quarters. I am always pleased to see both sequential and year-over-year growth. What was a bit surprising was that 2014 full-year net income was down 1% from the prior year, coming in at $632 million while earnings per share for the year were $0.72, unchanged from the prior-year. Where I had concerns was the companys net interest margins and non-interest income. Compared with last year, net interest margin dropped 13 basis points to 3.23%. There was also a 3% decrease in non-interest income to $33 million, including a very noticeable 33% drop in mortgage banking income. There is no doubt these were a bit disappointing, but I have to say it was more than made up for by two key metrics, average loans and deposits.

Loan growth

Average earning assets increased 13% or $7.0 billion from the year-ago quarter. This was helped by having a $3.0 billion, or 31%, increase in average securities. There was also a $2.0 billion, or 31%, increase in average automobile loans. This is critical growth because the company does have a strong focus on consumer loans, specifically in the auto markets. Further the bank saw a $1.2 billion, or 7%, increase in average commercial and industrial loans. Finally I will point out that it is worth noting the $400 million, or 8%, increase in average residential mortgage loans year-over-year.

Deposit growth

Deposit growth is one of the most important metrics I look for in a regional bank. While there were certainly some weak points in the earnings metrics, deposits were a big bright spot. In fact, average deposits increased $2.9 billion, or 6% from the comparable 2013 quarter. Looking more in depth we find that this included a $1.8 billion, or 14% increase in non-interest bearing deposits. That is incredible growth year-over-year for a regional bank of this size. Average interest-bearing liabilities increased $5.1 billion, or 14%, from the year-ago 2013 quarter. You need to be aware that this was a result of a $2.9 billion, or 78%, increase in short- and long-term borrowings, a $1.6 billion, or 9% increase in money market deposits and a $1.0 billion, or 74% increase in brokered deposits and negotiated certificate of deposits.

Expenses

Expenses can make or break a regional bank. Revenues could grow but if the cost to make those revenues rises too fast, it could lead to losses or sequential declines in margins. Now for Huntington, year-over-year expenses rose $37 million, or 8%, from the comparable 2013 quarter. Now what went into these increases is a key question. First the bank saw a rise of $14 million, or 6%, increase in personnel costs, $12 million, or 31%, increase in so-called other expenses, and $4 million, or 35% increase professional services. Non-interest expense increased just $3 million, or less than 1%, from the 2014 third quarter. Im not worried at all about these increases. The bank is growing its operations and making moves to expand its presence regionally. The rises in expenses are not pressuring margins to a point where I am concerned.

Efficiency ratio

The efficiency ratio is a measure of how effective a bank is at using its working capital. It is a gauge of the banks ability to turn its deposits and other resources into meaningful revenue. A high efficiency ratio is bad, and a lower efficiency ratio is good. But you dont want it too low as this can imply expenses are unreasonably high. The banks efficiency ratio was 66.2%, up from the 65.3% in the third quarter 2014. I have to say this is a lot higher than I want to see. Ideally I want this number around 50%, where many of the most efficient banks operate.

Dividend and yield

Huntington pays a $0.06 per common share quarterly dividend. Based on this quarterly dividend and the current share price of $10.80, the stock yields 2.2%. The payout ratio was 32%. There is definitely room for growth here as well. That said, a 2.2% yield, while certainly not the highest in the banking sector, is nothing to scoff at.

Acquiring Macquaries Equipment Finance Unit

This present acquisition prompted me to revisit Huntington Bancshares. Just today it shared that it has signed a definitive agreement to purchase Macquarie Equipment Finance, Inc. Why is it doing this? Well this unit does around $500 million of annual originations, and is actually the largest provider of specialized technology financing in the United States. Huntington will acquire approximately $900 million of assets and assume approximately $630 million of debt, securitizations, and other liabilities. The acquisition is expected to be accretive to Huntingtons earnings in the first year and is should be done by the end of March. This acquisition expands Huntingtons current reach and now adds a national technology and healthcare platform to help drive growth. Huntington Equipment Finance has now grown by more than 200% in just the past five years. This deal is another large deal in Michigan where the company has a strong foothold. Recall last September Huntington completed of an acquisition from Bank of America that included $750 million in deposits. The bank is taking the proper steps to grow its business and I think it deserves your consideration.

Insider buying

In the past few months there have been some notable insider buys. First on October 21, 2014 the President, CEO and Chairman of Huntington Bancshares, Stephen Steinour bought 17,540 shares at a price of $9.35. Just three months later Mr. Steinour also purchased another 9,710 shares at $10.17 on January 26, 2015. The next day, a director at the company, Eddie Munson purchased 7,000 shares are $10.07 a share. Since these purchased that stock has appreciate nicely as I outlined in the opening paragraph. It is important to note there have been no insider sales. While people sell stock for all sorts of reason, they buy for only one, expected appreciation.

Take home message

Right now, Huntington is at a new 52 week high. At this point, the key metrics that I look for, dividends, more loans and more deposits are all moving in the right direction. The earnings picture and the efficiency ratio were of slight concerns. But the bank is making some consolidation moves to improve efficiencies and has made acquisitions which should lead to further loan and deposit growth. The present acquisition of the Macquarie Equipment Finance Unit will be accretive to earnings. It strengthens Huntingtons presence in Michigan. Further, insider buys show that executives expect share appreciation. Given the performance of the company, its latest acquisition and its 2015 projections I am amending my 2015 price target to $11.50.

04 MarAuto Loan Balances Reach Record High in Q4 2014

Recently released data from Experian Automotive shows that the total loan balance for new and used automobile loans reached an all-time high of $866 billion in the December ending quarter of 2014.

This news comes on the heels of a huge increase in new vehicle sales, and ongoing trends that favor products with a longer life of loan, thus encouraging consumers to spend for more expensive vehicles. Separate data from auto shopping portal Edmunds shows that new car loans have an average life of 67.2 months, and an average interest rate of 4.5 percent, while the average price of new cars purchased was $32,386 for the previous calendar year. That is several thousand dollars more expensive than the average price of a midsize sedan, typically one of the most popular types of vehicles favored by consumers.

Although, there has been some concern about high-risk consumers unwantedly improving automobile sales as a result of less stringent loan requirements, Experian Automotive said that credit-worthy consumers still took up the same share in the car market in 2014. The fact that a lot of sub-prime and deep sub-prime borrowers took out auto loans in 2014, according to the credit reporting agency, should not be any reason for concern.

Whenever there is an uptick in the number of loans to sub-prime and deep sub-prime customers, there is the potential for a ‘sky is falling’ type of reaction, opined Experian director of automotive finance Melinda Zabritski. The reality is we are looking at a remarkably stable automotive-loan market, in part because consumers are continuing to stay on top of their payments.
Zabritski’s words have statistical evidence to back them up. Borrowers in the sub-prime levels (FICO credit score of 501 to 600) and deep sub-prime levels (FICO score below 500) took up 20.3 percent of all auto loan borrowers in the December 2014 quarter, or slightly less than the 20.6 percent share recorded in the December 2013 quarter.

Conversely, super-prime borrowers, or those with FICO scores of 781 to 850, took up 20 percent of all auto loans in quarter four 2014, making this the only credit score-based category to enjoy an uptick in market share. This suggests that the auto loan market still attracts a good percentage of credit-worthy consumers, including those with pristine credit ratings.

Additionally, Experian reported that the percentage of consumers who are delinquent, or 60 days past due or more, on their auto loans continued to decline, with even Washington, DC recording a rather low delinquency rate of 1.47 percent. The nation’s capital was followed by Mississippi (1.27 percent), Louisiana (1.15 percent), Alabama (1.03 percent), and South Carolina (0.99 percent) among the top five states or districts with the highest percentage of delinquent auto loan borrowers.

North Dakota had the lowest rate of delinquency at 0.33 percent, and was followed by Minnesota (0.39 percent), Oregon (0.39 percent), and Washington state (0.40 percent). Alaska and New Hampshire tied for the fifth-lowest delinquency rate in the US, coming in at 0.44 percent.

04 MarHouse plan hands bill for bus drivers’ coverage to school districts

The spending plan also includes $200 million worth of borrowing for new transportation projects; $100 million to repair and replace dangerous bridges across the state; and $100 million for transit projects.

More money may get added later if the General Assembly passes legislation currently being debated that would put an extra $1 billion a year into transportation.

Plan seeks raises for judges

The House budget also would provide big raises for some of the state’s top judges, cut in half Deal’s proposal to add staff to the troubled state ethics commission and deeply reduce  a program designed to give low-interest loans to college students.

The state budget provides funding to help educate about 2 million students and provide health and nursing care for more than 1.8 million Georgians. The state funds road improvements and prisons, economic development initiatives and cancer research, business and environmental regulation, parks and water projects. It creates thousands of private-sector jobs through construction projects.

The health insurance issue for bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other part-time school employees has been one of the most contentious of the session.

Deal proposed booting part-time school employees off the State Health Benefit Plan to save the program money. The Department of Community Health said it would only save the state $2.7 million, while administration officials and lawmakers put the savings at $81 million.

DCH said the insurance coverage program for noncertified school workers, such as bus drivers and bookkeepers, was losing big money. Deal also said it was unfair for part-time school workers to get insurance when thousands of part-time state workers don’t get coverage. Part-time lawmakers are covered by the State Health Benefit Plan, and there has been no move to cut them from the program.

‘Just trying to level the playing field’

Bus drivers and teachers have lobbied the General Assembly hard for more than a month to reject Deal’s proposal.

House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said he supported giving part-time school workers insurance.

“We feel like there is a vital role these individuals play in transporting our students,” he said.

But he later added: “Everybody needs to understand those are local (school) system employees. Part-time state employees don’t get coverage. We are just trying to level the playing field with everybody.”

Lawmakers had agreed a few years ago to start increasing the “employer contribution” — money from school districts — to pay for full- and part-time “noncertified” school workers’ insurance. Under the House budget, districts would have to pay an additional $102.8 million.

At the same time, the budget includes an extra $280 million recommended by Deal to allow school districts to give raises and end furloughs that were prevalent during and after the Great Recession.

Shift in costs displeases educators

The added health insurance costs didn’t sit well with educators.

“I think the educators and education support professionals are simply tired with the funding shell game that is going on at the Capitol,” said John Palmer, a Cobb County school band director and spokesman for the group Teachers Rally to Advocate for Georgia Insurance Choices, or TRAGIC. “Budgets are priorities, and you can’t say education is a priority if you give money with one hand and take it away with the other.

“There are districts in Georgia that still cannot open their doors for the full 180-day school year. Do you think they will be able to afford insurance for bus drivers and cafeteria workers?”

Angela Palm of the Georgia School Boards Association said: “Just as the state has been able to start paying down the austerity cut so the districts can get the instructional time back to where it needs to be for students, this happens. How unfortunate.”

 

In their budget plan, House leaders also more than cut in half the increase Deal proposed to boost the staff of the state ethics commission, which enforces the state’s campaign finance and lobbying laws. Deal proposed adding four attorneys and four investigators to expedite complaints made to the commission; the House agreed to add two attorneys and two auditors.

The House leaders supported pay raises for the state’s top judges. Supreme Court and Appeals Court judges would get $12,000 raises. Circuit public defenders would get $15,000 raises. Superior Court judges and district attorneys in circuits that don’t provide big salary supplements would also get raises.

Loan program for students faces cut

Deal had proposed increasing the budget for low-interest loans for college students from $19 million to $25 million because of greater need for the loans. England said lawmakers found that the program had a high default rate, and they cut funding instead to $17 million for the upcoming year. Meanwhile, they increased by 50 percent Deal’s proposed budget for engineering scholarships for private Mercer University, a longtime pet program for Middle Georgia lawmakers.

The spending plan includes about $1 billion in new construction projects, mostly for k-12 schools, colleges and transportation.

The state would borrow $23 million for parking facilities near the new Atlanta Falcons stadium. Lawmakers approved borrowing $17 million for the project last year.

Deal’s efforts to remake Capitol Hill would also continue in next year’s budget. With Liberty Plaza across from the statehouse and several other projects completed, the governor included $6.5 million to demolish the former archives building just off I-20, and House leaders supported it. The building hasn’t been used as an archives for several years, and state officials want to tear it down and build a new courts facility on the location.

04 MarMagic City Marketplace

| 2013-03-11 — Its generally understood that a crash in the housing market help usher in the great recession. But now five years later, home lending around Birmingham still hasnt returned to pre-recession levels. We hear more in this weeks Magic City Marketplace.

04 MarSalem Chamber of Commerce business in the news

Umpqua Bank has hired Ethan Manela as a mortgage loan officer in its Home Lending division.

Ethans wealth of knowledge in mortgage lending and significant local ties will help his customers to reach their home ownership dreams, said Jered Helton, Umpqua Bank senior vice president and regional manager. He understands the financing needs of homebuyers and homeowners wanting to refinance their current mortgage.

Manela is a native Oregonian with more than 10 years of mortgage industry experience. He holds a bachelors degree in business administration from the University of Oregon and is married with a young daughter.

UmpquaBank.com