February 21, 2020

After taking a one-and-a-half-week recess for Appropriations Committees to work on the state budget, the House and Senate started back on Tuesday and were in session for four days this week.

The House passed the mid-year 2020 budget on Wednesday by a vote of 126-46.  Governor Kemp called for a 4% cut in spending for the mid-year adjustment and the budget he proposed reflected that.  The House either rejected or reduced several of the Governor’s proposed cuts that would have impacted many areas, including accountability courts, medical schools at Mercer and Morehouse, county health departments, local libraries, and the GBI crime lab.

The House also passed a bill to increase the minimum compensation for Magistrate Judges (HB 765).

On Wednesday, a House Ways & Means subcommittee heard testimony on Rep. Bonnie Rich’s vaping regulation bill, HB 864. This bill would add a 7% tax on sales of e-cigarettes and other vaping products. It also requires retailers to be licensed, with a one-time licensing fee of $250 and a $10 annual renewal fee.  Some vape shop owners contend that passage of the bill would make vaping more expensive than smoking cigarettes.

The House Agriculture Committee passed a bill, HB 847, that would make it illegal to transport hemp without proper paperwork to show it was farmed or processed in a licensed facility.  The DA’s support this bill because of the difficulty in distinguishing hemp from marijuana during traffic stops.

Two bills on tort reform were introduced this week by Sen. Steve Gooch, SB 390 which was assigned to Judiciary Committee and SB 415 which was assigned to the Insurance and Labor Committee.

Two bills were heard in committees this week regarding “surprise bills” for medical services: Sen. Hufstetler’s SB 359 and Rep. Hawkins’ HB 888.  These bills deal with insured patients who use medical facilities in their insurance network but incur charges from out-of-network providers who also delivered services, such as anesthesiologists.  Under this legislation, the patient would pay their usual co-pays or other charges, and the provider and insurance company would negotiate between themselves to come to an agreement on what the fee for service would be.  If they cannot agree on an amount, they would go to binding arbitration.  Senate Health & Human Services passed SB 359, which also includes provisions to protect patients from out-of-network hospital charges in emergency situations, and it is on the calendar for a full Senate vote on Monday, Feb. 24.

Another healthcare bill, SB 352, passed the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee yesterday.  This bill is presented as consumer protection and specifies that if a provider is removed from an insured’s healthcare plan during the insured’s contract period, then the insurance company must continue to treat the provider as in-network for that patient for the duration of the contract.

In Senate Public Safety, Sen. Robertson presented SB 226 which would require backseat passengers to wear seatbelts and would also boost fines for failure to “buckle-up.”  Currently the fine for failing to wear a seatbelt is $15, but under this bill it would increase to $75 and add one point on a driver’s license. The fine for failing to use a seatbelt restraint on a minor between the ages of 8 and 17 would increase from $25 to $125 and also add one point.  Several committee members expressed concern with the amount of the increases. The bill is expected to be back on the committee agenda for a vote on Monday, Feb. 24.

The legislature will reconvene on Monday, and the State of the Judiciary speech is scheduled for Wednesday.