June 20, 2020

After a three-month recess, the Georgia legislature reconvened on June 15 to complete the remaining 11 days of the 2020 legislative session.  It has been a hectic and taxing week with press conferences by Speaker Ralston and Lt. Governor Duncan, an inordinate number of committee meetings, and legislators hijacking bills in order to accomplish their objectives.

Of primary importance, the legislature is required to pass an FY ’21 budget.  Other major issues that Speaker Ralston noted at his press conference this week include passage of a hate crimes bill, nursing home reforms, maternal mortality, and paid parental leave.  Other issues that have been worked on include broadband expansion, elimination of “surprise” medical bills, and immunity for COVID-19 claims from customers or employees.

Because of coronavirus concerns, the House and Senate have each set rules for their members and staff.  Legislators are wearing masks and social distancing is being practiced in the chambers and in meeting rooms. In order to maintain social distancing in the chambers, House members are divided into three spaces: House chamber, House gallery and Capitol Room 341. Senators also are divided into its chamber and surrounding rooms. This separation of members has necessitated more complex and time-consuming procedures when debating and voting on bills.  Also, areas for public gathering in the Capitol and have been reduced and Speaker Ralston has encouraged lobbyists and others to watch livestreaming online.

This week, the Senate passed “surprise billing” legislation (HB 888) to prevent consumers from receiving surprise bills from out-of-network healthcare providers and facilities for emergency services and to provide transparency on costs for non-emergency healthcare services. This bill previously passed the House in the same version so it now goes to the Governor.

In Senate Public Safety, committee members passed HB 216 after substituting it with new language from Sen. John Albers.  HB 216 is now the “Georgia Pandemic Business Immunity Act.”  Similarly, Sen. John Kennedy substituted immunity language into HB 167 which was then passed by the Senate Insurance & Labor committee.  Rep. Matt Gambill introduced a new bill, HB 1188, which would provide immunity from civil damages for COVID-19.

The Senate passed a $26 billion FY ’21 budget yesterday morning along party lines. Due to the economic hit the state took because of the coronavirus, this budget was $2.6 billion less than the House-passed budget from three months ago.  Overall, 11% cuts were made by state departments and agencies. Democrats objected to budget cuts when they said funds could be raised from increasing or implementing taxes or eliminating current tax credits.

The Senate Finance committee substituted language and passed HB 1035 that would decrease or eliminate many current state tax credits.  Senate Finance also substituted language into HB 882 that would increase the cigarette tax from 37 cents/pack to $1.35/pack and include a tax on vaping products.

The Senate Regulated Industries committee passed HB 244, the “Ga. Broadband Opportunity Act,” which would expand access to broadband services by having a reasonable cost for pole attachments that is set by the Ga. Public Service Commission. This bill is on the calendar for full Senate action on Monday.

The Senate agreed to House changes to HB 105 so it now goes to the Governor.  This bill, which would exclude from state income tax Hurricane Michael federal relief funds, was amended 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.

The Senate Judiciary committee passed HB 426, the hate crimes bill which passed the House last year, after amending it to include first responders as a protected group.

Senate Special Judiciary substituted the language in HB 903 so that it now is a bill which would allow mobile sports betting to be managed by the Ga. Lottery.  Revenue that is generated would go to the state’s HOPE scholarship program.

An Adjournment Resolution, SR 1010, was agreed to by the House and Senate this morning which sets the calendar for the remainder of the session. The legislature will convene every day next week with Friday, June 26, being sine die.

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