July 1, 2020

The Georgia General Assembly adjourned sine die around 10:15 last Friday evening.  It was one of the most unusual sessions ever because of the coronavirus, with a three-month recess from mid-March to mid-June, a 10% cut in the FY ’21 budget due to declining revenues, limited public access to the state Capitol and meeting rooms, and social distancing and mask requirement for most legislators (the House required it while the Senate encouraged it).  When the legislature resumed on June 15, each day was packed with committee meetings and many instances of bill commandeering that usually isn’t seen until the last couple of session days.  Eyes were also on lawmakers because of the civil unrest experienced in Atlanta and smaller protests in other cities across the state.

All of this combined to create a tense end to the session and, given the circumstances, it is impressive how much was accomplished.  The House and Senate worked out a $26 billion FY ’21 budget that, while taking a $2.6 billion hit, does not require furlough days of state employees or teachers.  A majority of House and Senate members voted for SB 416 giving themselves a 10% pay cut while Lt. Governor Duncan volunteered to cut his pay 14% for the 2021 fiscal year.  With belt tightening and shifting priorities, they also found money for the Ga. Public Defenders Standards Council and extended Medicaid for low-income mothers to six months after giving birth. Tackling maternal mortality was one of Speaker Ralston’s priorities that he voiced during a press conference at the restart of the session.

Another priority for the Speaker was nursing home reform. Last Wednesday, the House unanimously agreed to the Senate version of HB 987 which calls for sweeping reforms. Governor Kemp signed the bill yesterday that will improve staffing, training and accountability for the state’s senior care homes.

After a couple of Senate Judiciary hearings and several revisions, the House and Senate came to an agreement on the hate crimes bill, HB 426, that had passed the House last year and had been awaiting Senate action. Governor Kemp signed the bill last Friday. This bill creates additional penalties for perpetrators when victims are targeted due to their “race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability”.

Some senators from both parties promoted the idea of an increase in tobacco taxes and the Senate Finance committee approved a bill to increase cigarette taxes from 37 cents per pack to $1.35 per pack. House leadership was not supportive of the idea so the suggestion did not go far. The House and Senate agreed to regulate and impose a 7% excise tax on vaping products.  These provisions from Rep. Bonnie Rich’s HB 864 were added to Sen. Jeff Mullis’ SB 375.  The excise tax along with licensing fees for vape product sellers are expected to raise $9.6M to $14.5M. The bill also increases the age to 21 for purchasing cigarettes and vaping products.

Progress was also made in the push for broadband expansion when the House and Senate to HB 244, the “Broadband Opportunity Act,” that would allow the Public Service Commission to develop a formula for setting reasonable rates on pole attachments so cable providers can connect to EMC poles.

A major concern for Georgia businesses and healthcare providers was limiting their liability in COVID-19 lawsuits.  One of the last bills passed was SB 359 that would protect businesses and providers from legal liability unless they show “gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, reckless infliction of harm, or intentional infliction of harm.”  The bill will sunset on July 14, 2021.

Several bills dealing with prescriptions and pharmacies passed this session, including a bill to allow early prescription refills during emergencies (SB 391), updates to the “pharmacy audit bill of rights” and anti-steering provisions (HB 918), and an extensive reform of current pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) regulations (SB 313).

“Surprise billing” legislation (HB 888) received final passage in the last two weeks of the session.  This bill would prevent consumers from receiving surprise bills from out-of-network healthcare providers and facilities for emergency services and would provide transparency on costs for non-emergency healthcare services.

The House and Senate passed HB 105, which would exclude from state income tax Hurricane Michael federal relief funds, after amending it to include language that would repeal the current sales tax on rideshare services and replace it with an excise fee of 50 cents per ride, or 25 cents per person per ride for shared rides.  Rideshare services had been caught up in the marketplace facilitator bill (HB 276) that passed earlier in the session and those services would have been taxed at a much higher rate under that bill.

Legislation dealing with alcohol delivery also passed (HB 879).  This bill would allow for home delivery of beer, wine and liquor by grocery stores, liquor stores, and restaurants with pouring licenses.  Many legislators who supported the bill saw it as a way to support businesses during this epidemic when many consumers are having groceries and meals delivered to their homes rather than going out.

Most of the passed bills have not yet been signed and are awaiting action by Governor Kemp, who has until August 5 to sign or veto bills.

Besides the rush of passing bills, the time last week was also filled with legislators giving farewell speeches.  Some members are retiring from politics while others are running for different offices.  There are eight Senators and 19 House members not seeking reelection, including five members who each had over 20 years of legislative experience:  Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, Senate Retirement Committee Chair Ellis Black who has served in both House and Senate, Sen. Renée Unterman who served in the House and then chaired two committees in the Senate, long-time House Agriculture Chair Tom McCall, and Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas who has served three separate times in the Ga. House and the shortest stint was six years.

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