April 4, 2013

Capitol Partners

Public Affairs & Government Relations

The final day of the 2013 General Assembly session, March 28, ended shortly after midnight as Speaker Ralston and Lt. Governor Cagle gaveled the end sine die.  The Senate floor was especially chaotic as Senators frantically tried to give final passage to many bills that were still awaiting Senate action.  The House was much more relaxed and reflective as Representatives coasted through the last half hour, with the Speaker pulling a joke on House members and Rep. Alan Powell taking some person privilege time in the well to lament the failed efforts of the gun bill.

The budget is the only measure the legislature is required to pass.  On Day 40, the House and Senate agreed on an FY 2014 $19.9 billion budget that included $224 million for Medicaid, $50 million in additional funds to dredge the Savannah River, $147 million for increased enrollment in K-12 schools and $72 million for a projected increase in enrollment in the University System.  The FY 2014 budget did not include cost of living increases for state employees and teachers or $10 million that Lt. Gov. Cagle wanted to invest in start-up companies.  The amended budget for fiscal year 2013 that passed weeks ago and the FY 2014 budget can be found on the state’s web site.

In the final few days of the session, many bills were amended to affect issues other than what the original authors intended.  For example, legislation to allow employees of the Ga. World Congress Center to opt out of the state’s flex benefits plan was amended to include language that would ban use of state tax funds to pay for abortions. This amended bill passed the Senate but was not voted on by the House.

Following is a rundown of some of the major bills covered this session.  Many of these bills passed in the final couple of days of the legislature, but two major concerns that did not pass and will surely be considered again next year involve the issues of guns and water.

Courts

The juvenile justice (HB 242) and criminal justice (HB 349) reform bills supported by Governor Deal passed both houses.  HB 349 provides judges with greater discretion in sentencing and offers treatments such as mental health and drug counseling.  HB 242 is a comprehensive revision of the state’s juvenile code. It is anticipated that this bill will save the state a significant amount of taxpayer money by diverting non-violent offenders away from the prison system and into lower cost, community-based treatment programs.

Education

Bills affecting education in Georgia that passed both houses and have had considerable media coverage include HB 283/SB 243 that involve changes to the Student Scholarship Organization (SSO) law, HB 372 that modifies the HOPE grant for technical colleges, and HB 487 that calls for regulation of video gaming by the Ga. Lottery Corporation and up to 10% of fees paid by machine owners to go into the HOPE program (HB 487).

Legislation (HB 283/SB 243) which would expand the state’s private school tax credit cap from $51.5M to $58M was a compromise between opponents who wanted it to be $50M and supporters who were pushing for $65M.  Rep. Ehrhart introduced his own bill that would raise the cap to $80M, but it did not make it out of House committee. SB 243, sponsored by the Governor’s senate floor leaders, would tighten the eligibility standards for students receiving the awards and, for the first time, require accountability from the SSOs who collect the donations and distribute them to the private schools.  SB 243 was added as an amendment to HB 283 that passed by both houses.

HB 372, supported by Governor Deal, lowers HOPE grant eligibility requirements for technical college students from 3.0 to 2.0 in an effort to encourage more students to consider and complete their education at the state’s technical colleges.

HB 487, also supported by Governor Deal, moves regulatory control of video gaming machines from the Dept. of Revenue to the Ga. Lottery Corp. and establishes a statewide network linking these gaming machines that are found mostly in bars and convenience stores.  Proponents are in favor of regulating these machines with some of the revenues boosting the HOPE coffers. Opponents fear this moves the state towards expansion of gambling.

Ethics

The House and Senate agreed to a compromise version of Speaker Ralston’s ethics bill, HB 142, and it passed both houses unanimously in the final hours of the last day.  The bill returns rulemaking authority to the state’s ethics commission and prohibits lobbyists from providing free tickets to concerts and sporting events and paying for golf and other leisure activities.  The bill caps lobbyist expenditures for individual legislators at $75 “per occurrence” for food and drinks, although there is no limit on the number of times lobbyists can make these expenditures.  Unpaid citizen advocates will not be required to register, even though they are lobbying for their causes, and lobbyists will still be able to pay the travel and lodging expenses for legislators, their spouses and staff members to meetings within the U.S.  As evidenced by comments from House and Senate members of both parties, Governor Deal and the many editorials, while a step in the right direction, it does not mean that the issue will not be revisited again.

Guns

Efforts to expand the right to carry guns into more places failed to pass on the last night as Senate and House members disagreed over the “campus carry” provision in particular. The Board of Regents has been a vocal opponent of allowing guns on college campuses.  SB 101 had been amended in the House to allow licensed gun owners to carry firearms into government buildings, bars, college campuses, K-12 schools and churches.

Healthcare

The state’s Insurance Commissioner requested this legislation (SB 236) that requires health insurance companies to include with consumers’ premium statements the amount of any rate increase that came about as a result of the federal Affordable Care Act.  It passed both houses.

In an effort to crack down on “pill mills” that have set up shop in Georgia, the House and Senate passed HB178 to regulate pain management clinics.  These clinics will now be regulated by the state’s composite medical board and, beginning June 30, all new clinics that open will have to be physician owned.

A major piece of legislation that passed early in the session and has already been signed by the Governor is SB 24.  This bill authorized the Board of Community Health to renew the hospital bed tax (1.45% of hospital net revenues) that was scheduled to expire on June 30.  These fees are used to draw matching federal funds of over $400M for the state’s Medicaid program.  Passage of the bill was crucial for the state’s budget and for hospitals in rural areas that would have had to shut down without the Medicaid payments.

Immigration

HB 125 and SB 160 were introduced to fix problems from the immigration reform bill (HB 87) which passed in 2011 requiring proof of citizenship every time a business license was renewed.  This additional paperwork caused a severe backlog in the Secretary of State’s office, and this bill would alleviate that problem by requiring proof of citizenship for only the first, not subsequent, license renewals. Language was added to the bill in the House that would block illegal immigrants from getting state driver’s licenses, grants, public housing, and retirement benefits.  The bill prohibits using foreign passports as valid forms of ID unless persons have supporting documents indicating they are in the country legally.  The bill also compels local and state government agencies to require that their contractors use E-Verify to confirm the legality of the contractors’ employees.  The conference committee report on SB 160 passed both houses.

Public Safety/Transportation

Legislators gave final passage to several bills dealing with driving and public safety, but the Senate did not vote on two bills which had passed the House that would privatize many of MARTA’s operations and change the composition of the MARTA board.

Legislation requested by the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety and the Department of Driver Services to strengthen the state’s DUI laws received final passage on Day 40.  This bill, HB 407, doubles the time repeat DUI offenders must use ignition interlock devices from six months to one year.  IIDs measure a driver’s blood alcohol level via a breath test and will not allow the vehicle to start if it is above the legal limit.

Legislators passed HB 475 that will make it easier for legal immigrants living in the state to get a Ga. driver’s license.  It allows the Commissioner of the Department of Driver Services to make reciprocity agreements with foreign countries so that immigrants with a valid driver’s license in their home countries can get a Ga. license without taking a road test.  Governor Deal supports this bill.  They also passed HB 254 that will allow police to consider as valid auto insurance coverage an “electronic proof of insurance” showed by the insured on a mobile electronic device rather than requiring a hard copy, such as a paper insurance card.

SB 136 was Governor Deal’s proposal to lower the maximum blood alcohol level for operating a boat from .10 to .08, matching that of driving under the influence, was in response to boating accidents on Lake Lanier in which children died.  This bill passed both houses.

Taxes

Another bill of major importance passed early this session is HB 266.  This tax code update was amended to include Rep. Rice’s HB 80 to correct unintended consequences from last year’s tax reform legislation. Under this new system, the annual vehicle ad valorem tax and one-time sales tax on vehicles will be replaced with a one-time title tax that is 6.5% of the vehicle’s value.  Along with deleting the double tax on car leases, lowering the tax rate for rental car companies, and giving car dealers more time to file paperwork, the bill lets the state revenue commissioner to set guidelines by rule and regulation that could allow a title tax break of 2.5% for the “buy here, pay here” dealers. Governor Deal signed the bill on March 5.

Water

There were two major bills involving water this session.  HR 4, involving the state’s boundary dispute with Tennessee that dates back to 1818, concedes the boundary line, which should be more than one mile north of the current boundary, in return for pipeline access to the Tennessee River.  Tennessee officials have rebuffed all of Georgia’s efforts to date and have not taken this dispute seriously.  A Senate amendment to the resolution authorizes Attorney General Sam Olens to sue for water rights if Tennessee officials do not agree to the terms in the resolution.  It has passed both houses.

Requested by the state’s Environmental Protection Division, SB 213 would have allowed the state to invest in augmentation projects on the Flint River so that extra water is pumped into underground aquifers to be stored and then released back into the river during drought periods. This bill was very contentious with business groups, the Atlanta Chamber and metro water authorities favoring the bill and downstream residents, various river-keeper groups and environmental organizations opposing it.  The bill passed the Senate but was not called for a vote in the House on the last day.

Governor Deal has 40 days from the session’s end to review all of the passed bills and either sign or veto each one.  Any bills not signed or vetoed would automatically become law.  Final versions of all bills should be on-line by next week and can be viewed at the state’s web site for bill searches. Do not hesitate to call if you have questions on any bill or how to access the site.

 

 

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