• 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.

     

     

  • March 15, 2013

    Capitol Partners

    Public Affairs & Government Relations

    David Stover (R-Newnan) was sworn in on Monday to represent House District 71, which filled the last open seat in the Georgia General Assembly.

    In the House, much of the early part of the week was spent in partisan battling over local legislation.  In particular, a house bill (HB 541) that calls for a constitutional amendment to increase the homestead exemption from $30,000 to $60,000.  Even though this bill pertains only to Fulton County, a Yes vote was required by two-thirds of the House in order for it to pass because it is a constitutional amendment. There are 180 members, so 120 votes are needed for passage.  It is customary for local bills to be voted on as a block.  In the first vote, it failed to pass by one vote. The House was split along party lines with Democrats opposing and Republicans supporting HB 541. Using various parliamentary procedures, the Majority Whip managed to get the entire block of bills reconsidered then tabled. After a couple of days that saw a hold on all local legislation, along with talk of foreboding consequences, another vote was taken and two Democrats who wanted their own homestead exemption bill to pass, voted Yes on the block of local legislation that contained HB 541.  Their votes, along with the Yes vote of Speaker Ralston and all of the Republicans who were in attendance on Wednesday, made the 120 votes needed for passage. They then passed remaining local legislation that had been on hold for two days.

    On Tuesday, the House passed its version of the FY 2014 budget.  This $19.8B budget that begins its fiscal year on July 1 includes $512M, or 2.6%, more than the amended FY ’13 budget.  The budget includes a $236M increase for K-12 public school enrollment and expands the pre-K program from 170 to 180 days per year, a $174M increase to the Dept. of Community Health to administer Medicaid and state employee health insurance programs, and $50M for the state’s contribution in dredging the Savannah River harbor.  All budget documents can be found at the House Budget and Research Office site.

    The juvenile justice (HB 242) and criminal justice (HB 349) reform bills supported by Governor Deal were passed out of their Senate Judiciary committees this week and will be available for a full Senate vote next week. Both bills would 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.

    After lengthy debate and a vote that almost outlawed video gaming machines, the Senate passed Governor Deal’s proposal to require registration of all these machines that are often found in bars and convenience stores (HB 487). This bill makes it easier for the GBI to investigate these gaming operations and transfers the regulation to the Ga. Lottery Corp. which ensures that the HOPE program will benefit from the profits of these gaming operations.

    Also this week, the Senate passed legislation that affects all Georgia drivers: HB 254 allows drivers to present proof of auto insurance in electronic format on their cell phones rather than have a paper insurance card. This bill has passed both houses and awaits the Governor’s signature.

    In political news, while U.S. Representative Phil Gingrey has not formally announced his intention to run for retiring U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss’ seat, he is currently hiring firms to do statewide campaign work. Also, state Senator Bill Cowsert is making overtures that he will run for the U.S. House in Congressional District 10, currently held by U.S. Rep. Paul Broun who has announced that he is running for Senator Chambliss’ seat.

    An adjournment resolution was passed setting the calendar for the remaining six legislative days.  The General Assembly will be in session Wednesday through Friday next week, then Monday, Tuesday and Thursday the following week. If they are able to maintain this schedule, Day 40 will be on March 28.  We have completed 34 of 40 days for this session.

     

  • March 1, 2013

    Capitol Partners

    Public Affairs & Government Relations

    On Tuesday, the headline on the front page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution read “House OKs Historic Ethics Bill.”  That was one of several significant news items for the week. In addition to Speaker Ralston’s historic ethics bills (HB 142/HB 143), the House also passed sweeping reforms in juvenile justice and criminal justice as recommended by Governor Deal’s Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform.

    The Speaker’s ethics bills have been assigned to the Rules Committee in the Senate.  These bills ban most spending by lobbyists, however, meals including full membership of the General Assembly or identified committees/caucuses would be allowed. The bills also define who must register as a lobbyist, lower the lobbyist registration fee from $320 to $25, restore rule-making power to the state’s ethics commission, and require legislators to file a campaign report for donations received between January 1 and the beginning of the legislative session.

    Rep. Willard’s comprehensive revision of the state’s juvenile justice code (HB 242) has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary committee and Rep. Rich Golick’s criminal justice reform (HB 349), which passed the House earlier today, will be read and assigned to a committee in the Senate on Monday. Both of these bills seek to divert non-violent offenders away from the prison system and into lower cost, community-based treatment programs.  They also put an increased focus on new drug and mental health courts, thus providing needed help for individuals and saving the state a substantial amount of taxpayer money.

    Also of major importance, the Senate passed a tax code update (HB 266) which was amended to include Rep. Rice’s bill (HB 80) correcting unintended consequences from last year’s tax legislation on vehicle leases and rentals. After passing HB 266, the Senate immediately transmitted it to the House, but House leadership has expressed reservations about the Senate changes, particularly regarding the “buy here, pay here” dealers, and adjourned without taking up the bill.  The tax reform bill from last year became effective today, which means major changes for consumers purchasing or leasing a vehicle. 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.

    The House and Senate also passed an adjournment resolution setting the calendar for the next couple of weeks.  They will work three days next week, taking off Wednesday and Friday.  Thursday, March 7, will be Day 30, which is known as “cross-over” day.  All bills must have been passed by the house where they originated by the end of Day 30 in order to still be “alive” for this session.  We have now completed 27 legislative days.

     

  • February 15, 2013

    Capitol Partners

    Public Affairs & Government Relations

    Newly elected Republican legislators, Senator Dean Burke and Rep. Scot Turner, were sworn into office this week.  With the addition of Senator Burke, the Republicans now have a super-majority in the Senate, which means they have 2/3’s of the 56 seats and can vote as a block to adopt constitutional amendments without seeking bipartisan support.

    Yesterday Governor Deal signed the hospital provider fee bill (SB 24).  This bill, which authorizes the Board of Community Health to renew the hospital provider fee, is of crucial importance to the state’s budget as it will allow the state to draw matching federal funds of over $400M for the state’s Medicaid program.  It was supported by the Ga. Chamber of Commerce as well as hospital groups.  It was feared that several hospitals in rural areas would have to shut down without the Medicaid payments

    In other Senate action, they passed legislation allowing superior court judges to issue statewide wiretap warrants (HB 55).  This was in response to the recent Ga. Supreme Court ruling that wiretap orders must be issued by judges who have jurisdiction where the listening posts are sited. This bill passed the House last week and passed the Senate on Tuesday.  It now goes to Governor Deal for his signature.  They also passed legislation that would allow licensed professional counselors to involuntarily commit patients for 72 hours if the patient poses a threat to himself or others (SB 65).  Senator Unterman said extending the privilege to include this group would help in rural areas where there are few, if any, psychiatrists or other mental health care specialists.

    The House Judiciary committee held two hearings this week on the extensive juvenile justice reform bill, HB 242, authored by House Judiciary Chair Wendell Willard.  Among other things, this legislation seeks to divert non-violent offenders from the costly juvenile prison system to community-based programs.  Governor Deal is fully supportive of this bill and has included $5M in his FY ’14 budget for these programs.

    The House Rules Committee heard, but did not vote on, the latest versions of two ethics bills authored by Speaker David Ralston (HB 142 and HB 143).  We expect House action on these bills next week.

    The House passed revisions to the tax reform legislation that was passed last year. This bill (HB 80) seeks to correct some unexpected consequences of last year’s legislation as well as provide implementation terms that were not included in that bill.  Beginning on March 1 of this year, all vehicles purchased or leased in the state will fall under these new tax rules.  Also, purchasers of any vehicle(s) last year may opt-in to this new system.  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.  After passing HB 80, it was immediately transmitted to the Senate.  This legislation needs to be passed by both houses and signed by the Governor before March 1 when the tax reform bill from last year takes effect.

    The final three DOT Board elections occurred this week.  Athens businessman Jamie Boswell defeated former Representative Bobby Parham, who was running for his second DOT Board term, in district 10. Former Representative Roger Williams was unopposed and will represent district 14, and incumbent DOT Board member Emily Dunn was re-elected without opposition in district 9.  There are now six former legislators on the DOT Board.

    We have completed 18 legislative days. The General Assembly will reconvene on Tuesday of next week and is scheduled to work through Friday.

  • February 1, 2013

    Capitol Partners

    Public Affairs & Government Relations

    The General Assembly convened five days this week and has now completed nine days of the 40-day session.  The House and Senate passed an adjournment resolution, HR 50, setting the legislative calendar through legislative day 29, which will be on March 5 if they are able to remain on this schedule.  Many House and Senate committees held organization meetings this week.

    Three key legislative issues making news headlines this week are the hospital provider fee, the impact of last year’s tax reform bill on vehicle leases and rentals, and Speaker Ralston’s ethics bills.

    The hospital provider fee, also referred to as a “bed tax,” moved quickly through the Senate last week and passed the House earlier today. It now goes to the Governor for his signature. This senate bill, SB 24, authorizes the Board of Community Health to renew the fee that is scheduled to expire on June 30 of this year.  The fee is calculated as 1.45% of hospitals’ net revenues, and these fees are used to draw matching federal funds of over $400M for the state’s Medicaid program.  Hospital groups have been supportive of the fee extension because several hospitals in rural areas would have to shut down without the Medicaid payments.   Passage of this bill was vitally important because Governor Deal’s budget depends on these fees and matching federal funds.  It was estimated that there would have been a half billion dollar Medicaid deficit in the budget if SB 24 did not pass.

    Beginning on March 1 of this year, all vehicles purchased or leased in the state will fall under new tax rules because of the tax reform legislation that was passed last year.  Among other things, the new rules phase out the annual vehicle ad valorem tax and substitute it with a one-time title tax that is 6.5% of the vehicle’s value. One of the purposes of the tax reform legislation was to capture vehicle sales between individuals, also known as casual sales, because the state was not collecting sales taxes on those transactions. Last year’s legislation accomplished this; however, it also led to unforeseen consequences that would impact consumers who lease vehicles and the companies that finance the leases, as well as rental car companies. For example, consumers who lease a vehicle will now be required to pay the one-time title tax as well as a monthly sales tax.  It was noted that 14% of new car transactions in Georgia are for leases.  Rep. Tom Rice (R-Norcross), Chair of the House Motor Vehicles committee, has introduced a couple of bills to try to ease the problems caused by these unexpected consequences on vehicle leases and on rental car companies.  These bills, HB 66 and HB 80, were heard in a subcommittee on Wednesday and are pending in the House Ways and Means Committee. Any legislation dealing with this issue needs to be passed by both houses and signed by the Governor before March 1 when the tax reform bill from last year takes effect.

    Speaker Ralston is the lead sponsor of two ethics bills that were introduced in the House this week, HB 142 and HB 143.  If these bills pass, they would enforce the most extensive restrictions ever imposed on lobbyists. The proposed legislation would not allow lobbyist spending on individual legislators, would prohibit tickets to athletic events or concerts (except for colleges like UGA and Ga. Tech when they invite all legislators), and would prohibit lobbyists from paying for legislators’ recreational activities, like golf. It would also require legislators to report campaign contributions they received between January 1 and the beginning of the legislative session within the first five days of the session. This legislation would affect the state ethics commission by restoring their rule-making authority, and it would lessen their workload because local officials who raise or spend less than $2,500 on their elections would be exempt from filing reports.  Another provision would require more individuals who are advocating positions at the Capitol to register as lobbyists.  Lobbyist registration entails paying a $300 fee and filing required periodic disclosure reports.  These bills have been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Rules committee which held an extensive first hearing yesterday.

    Also this week, other items of interest include state sales taxes on on-line purchases, repeal of the penalty on regions that did not pass the T-SPLOST, and legislation approving statewide wiretap warrants.

    Another change included in the 2012 tax reform bill was the requirement for on-line retailers to collect sales taxes from Georgia shoppers. However, as reported by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Amazon.com is not collecting these taxes. Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson has sponsored a bill, SB 67, which contains specific language mandating on-line retailers to collect these sales taxes and requiring the Dept. of Revenue to provide monthly reports about how much tax is collected on these sales.

    There was an incentive for voters to pass the T-SPLOST tax last summer that would have required only 10% local government input for transportation projects in regions that passed the tax, whereas there would be a 30% local government input requirement for transportation projects in regions that did not pass the tax.  Only three of 12 T-SPLOST regions passed the tax.  Sen. John Albers, who represents north Fulton County in a region that did not pass the T-SPLOST, has introduced legislation, SB 73, which would repeal that penalty.

    The Ga. Supreme Court recently ruled that wiretap evidence in three drug cases would be suppressed because wiretap orders must be issued by judges who have jurisdiction where the listening posts are sited. In response to that decision, Rep. Rich Golick has sponsored a bill (HB 55) that would allow superior court judges to issue statewide wiretap warrants.  This bill was favorably reported by the House Judiciary Non-Civil committee, which Rep. Golick chairs, last Friday, and it passed the full House yesterday.

    On Monday, February 4, the Senate will reconvene at 1:00, and the House will reconvene at 10:00 a.m.

  • January 18, 2013

    Capitol Partners

    Public Affairs & Government Relations

    The past two weeks have been busy with a special election and the beginning of the 2013 legislative session.

    There was a special election on Tuesday, January 8, resulting in two new Senators: Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta) and Mike Dugan (R-Carrollton).  Brandon Beach is a DOT board member who will replace former Senator Chip Rogers in District 21.  Mike Dugan is a building contractor who will represent District 30 in a seat that was vacated when Senator Bill Hamrick accepted a judicial appointment to the Superior Court.

    On February 5, there will be run-off elections for Senate District 11 in southwest Ga. and House District 21 in Cherokee County, and a special election for House District 71 in Coweta County. In Senate District 11 the run-off is between Republicans Dean Burke, who led with 42.5% of the vote, and former Rep. Mike Keown, who got 37% of the vote.  In House District 21, there will be a run-off between Republicans Scot Turner and Brian Laurens.  A special election was called for House District 71, because newly elected Rep. Robert Stokely resigned to accept a position as Assistant Magistrate Judge. There are five Republicans and one Democrat vying for this open seat.

    The General Assembly began its 2013 legislative session at 10:00 a.m. this past Monday, January 14. The legislature met for four days this week then adjourned for Friday and all of next week.  The House and Senate Appropriations Committees will hold budget hearings next week and work on the FY ’14 and amended FY ’13 budgets.

    On Monday, events in the House and Senate were mostly ceremonial with all of the members taking their oath of office and each house voting on its leaders.  Speaker Ralston, Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, and Clerk of the House Robbie Rivers were all re-elected into their positions.  In the Senate, Senator David Shafer was elected President Pro Tem without opposition.

    The House and Senate each passed rules for their respective bodies.  The Senate passed rules that include a $100 cap on lobbyist expenses per senator per occasion; however, travel expenses are exempt from the cap. Also, the new Senate rules restored many of Lt. Governor Casey Cagle’s powers, including giving him more authority to appoint committees.

    The Senate committee assignments and House committee assignments can be found by following the links and selecting a committee to view the officers and members of each one.

    On Thursday, the Senate passed SB 24 that would authorize the Board of Community Health to renew the Medicaid provider fee, also known as the “hospital bed tax,” which would impose a 1.45% tax on hospitals’ net revenues.  The money obtained from this tax is matched by federal funds (approximately $400M to $500M) and these funds are allocated to hospitals based on their percentage of Medicaid patients.  The hospital industry is supportive of the fee extension.

    Legislation that has been introduced this week or that was pre-filed, includes non-partisan elections for a variety of local offices, various gun bills from proponents and opponents of tougher gun control laws, increased penalties for DUI offenders and required use of an ignition interlock devise for first-time offenders, and ethics bills.  Another issue expected to be considered but that has not yet been introduced is an increase in bonding capacity to $300M for the World Congress Center Authority for the proposed new Falcons’ stadium.

    The highlight of this first week of the General Assembly was Governor Deal’s State of the State address on Thursday, January 17.  In his speech the Governor referred to four foundation blocks for a prosperous Georgia: public safety, education, healthcare, and economic development.  He also laid out his plans for his $19.8B budget.

    The Governor touted the success of criminal justice reform that was enacted last year.  He stated that the increase in accountability courts will decrease the need to add 5000 prison beds over five years, thus saving the state $264M, and he has continued funding of $11.6M for accountability courts in his budget. His administration is bringing legislation this session focusing on juvenile justice reform. He is urging support of community-based non-confinement alternatives for low risk juveniles instead of regional or state youth centers, and he is including $5M in the FY ’14 budget for more alternative sentencing programs for nonviolent criminal offenders.  Another public safety issue highlighted by the Governor is an increase in boating safety, and he talked about two bills that he is proposing.  One bill will decrease the blood alcohol level from .10 to .08 for being charged with Boating under the Influence.  The other bill will place age limits and educational requirements on young operators of watercraft and will require that all children under 14 years of age wear a life jacket when riding in an open, moving boat.

    The Governor’s second foundation block focused on education and he informed us of two items in his FY ’14 budget for the state’s youngest students: restoring the pre-K program to 180 days and including $1.6M to continue the reading mentor program.  He has included an additional $156M for enrollment growth in K-12 schools in this year’s amended budget, and $147M for enrollment growth and teacher salary increases in the FY ’14 budget.  Another of his budget items will increase the HOPE Scholarship bringing the total funds for HOPE in FY ’14 to nearly $600M, and he proposes focusing more funds from the HOPE Grant Program toward education for occupations where there are shortages.

    Governor Deal’s third foundation block centered on healthcare.  He again stated that he elected not to expand Medicaid eligibility because doing so would add 620,000 new enrollees.  He anticipates that as a result of the downturned economy, even without a Medicaid expansion, there will be an additional 100,000 Medicaid enrollees at a cost of $1.7B to the state over the next ten years.  He urged legislators to support legislation that would allow the Board of Community Health to renew the Medicaid provider fee because there will be a shortfall of almost $700M in revenue to support the Medicaid program if the fee is not extended.  The Governor also touted the expansion of residency programs for doctors in Georgia.  Last year $1.2M was appropriated for this purpose and 400 new residency slots were created.  The Governor has added $2M in additional funds in his FY ’14 budget to further increase this number.

    The fourth foundation block the Governor highlighted was economic development.  He said the current unemployment rate is the lowest in nearly four years and that 10,000 jobs had been added since his State of the State address last year.  He also stated that the per capita spending of government money is 17% less than it was a decade ago and that the size of state government has decreased because there are 9000 fewer state employees than there were five years ago.  He talked about the decreased burden on Georgia taxpayers because of last year’s tax reform that did away with the “marriage tax penalty.” He boasted that Georgia was awarded a triple “A” rating by three major bond-rating agencies, and he credited the Atlanta airport and Port of Savannah with making our state desirable for businesses to locate here.  His budget includes an additional $50M in bonds for deepening the Savannah harbor.

    The Governor finished his speech by talking about ethics. He emphasized that any expansion of the ethics code should apply equally to all elected officials at the state and local levels. One of his quotes is paraphrased: “Ethics is a cornerstone of success… if the citizens of Georgia don’t trust us; it will all be in vain…”

    The General Assembly will reconvene on Monday, January 28, for day five of the 40-day session.