Elmer Stancil

Georgia Legislative Update – August 7, 2020

The 40 day period after the end of the legislative session for the Governor to sign or veto bills ended on August 5th. After vetoing 14 bills in 2019, Governor Kemp only rejected four bills from the 2020 legislative session. Each veto received an accompanying statement describing the primary reason for disagreeing with the legislation which passed both houses of the Georgia Legislature.

The vetoes are as follows:

  1. House Bill 935 which would have created the Recorder’s Court of Gwinnett County. The bill was vetoed at the request of the bill’s sponsor.
  • House Bill 991 which would have created the Healthcare Transparency and Accountability Oversight Committee. The Governor vetoed the legislation out of an apparent concern for the separation of powers. In part, he argued that the Committee would supplant the authority of the Board of Public Health and would blur the lines between the General Assembly and the Executive branch given such boards are considered to be part of the executive branch of government.
  • Senate Bill 306 which would have enacted the Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology Interstate Compact was vetoed by the Governor in part because the Georgia Occupational Regulation Review Council did not review and approve the legislation as is statutorily mandated and additionally, there was no fiscal analysis to determine associated costs.
  • Senate Bill 504, which would create a referendum in Glynn County on the question of whether or not to abolish the Glynn County Police Department was vetoed because the Governor signed a similar, binding bill calling a referendum on the same topic.

The Governor issued one signing statement on House Bill 105 concerning disagreements as to whether the bill would create a tax exemption for income received as payments from a federal disaster relief or assistance grant program. The Governor noted that it was not clear whether or not the bill passed both houses with the same language. As such, he is calling a special session to rectify the situation.

The Governor signed several significant pieces of legislation including Senate Bill 359 which limits most negligence suits related to COVID-19 as long as companies follow social distancing, disinfection and other safety protocols outlined by public health officials, House Bill 838 which grants police new protections related to “bias motivated intimidation,” and a bill that will allow for home delivery of alcohol. The Governor previously signed into law the Georgia Hate Crimes bill.

Finally, the Governor has stated that he intends to call a Special Session of the General Assembly to clear up any technical concerns over HB 105, which grants a state tax exemption on federal aid received by Hurricane Michael victims. Under the Georgia Constitution, a Special Session can only deal with those issues specifically cited by the Governor in his official call; however, there is speculation that the Governor may add additional issues to the list of items the General Assembly can address, in particular the Budget.  Therefore, stay tuned!

Georgia 2020 Legislative Wrap-up

After a COVID-19 induced hiatus the General Assembly returned to Atlanta for a two week sprint to Sine Die. While the main focus was passing a budget under significant revenue shortfalls the General Assembly was able to pass several other pieces of legislation including a historic hate crimes bill, surprise billing restrictions and two constitutional amendments among others.

Now that the 2020 session has officially ended legislators will start ramping up for what is sure to be a contentious election season.

1. Budget 

The Georgia General Assembly temporarily adjourned in March without fulfilling its one constitutional obligation — passing a budget. They completed that task as the 2020 special session closed, a day before the start of the new fiscal year. Gov. Brian Kemp promptly signed the budget for Fiscal Year 2021 on Tuesday June 30th finalizing the state’s $26 billion spending plan which includes about $2.2 billion in cuts.

Some highlights of the updated budget include:

K-12 Public Education

  • $950 million cut from the Quality Basic Education program, the formula used to calculate state spending for K-12 public education
  • $142 million added for enrollment growth and teacher training
  • $8.8 million added to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement

Higher Education

  • $242 million cut to schools in the University System of Georgia and $36 million cut to schools in the Technical College System of Georgia
  • 12 percent cut to Adult Education
  • 11 percent cut to agricultural programs including the Cooperative Extension Service
  • $11 million in cuts to Dual Enrollment expected from the 30-hour cap and limits on courses students can take created in HB 444
  • $1 million added to the REACH Georgia scholarship program, a needs-based mentoring and scholarship program; all other state-funded scholarships will see a 10 percent cut

Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities

  • $91 million cut to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities budget
  • $22.7 million cut to child and adolescent mental health services, including prevention programs and supported education and employment services
  • $7.2 million cut to adult mental health services, including cuts to core behavioral health services, reductions in peer workforce training and services and cuts to housing vouchers for people with mental illnesses
  • $5.7 million cut to adult substance abuse services, mostly for funds that would expand residential treatment services

Community Health

  • Total state funding increased by $178 million, mostly to account for higher projected growth for Medicaid
  • $19.7 million added to provide six months of Medicaid coverage for new mothers; this coverage extension must still receive federal approval
  • $12 million added to increase funding available for Rural Hospital Stabilization grants

Public Health

  • $8.2 million in cuts to the Department of Public Health budget
  • Funding restored for grants to local health departments
  • $2.3 million reduction in funding for trauma center readiness and uncompensated care

Human Services

  • $34 million cut to the Department of Human Services (DHS) budget
  • $46 million cut in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds
  • $3.7 million in cuts to vacant positions in child welfare
  • $3 million in cuts to vacant positions at the state office for DHS

2. Hate Crimes Bill

On Friday June 26th, Gov. Brian Kemp signed a hate-crimes measure into law. As such, Georgia is no longer on the ever-shrinking list of states without hate crime legislation. The law allows for enhanced criminal penalties to be levied against those who target their victims on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, sex, national origin, religion, or physical or mental disability.

The bill cleared the final hurdle after Senate leaders abandoned efforts to treat police officers as a protected class.

The Hate Crimes Bill passed the legislature on a wave of public support led by Georgia’s most significant businesses and political leaders. The Dentons Public Policy team played a leading role in the effort as lobbyists for the Anti-Defamation League.

3. Safe Harbor Bill

Georgia will join a short list of states that are proactively protecting businesses from civil liability related to the COVID-19 virus. Senate Bill 359 passed both houses of the state legislature and now awaits the signature of the Governor.

The liability legislation would let Georgia businesses and hospitals waive liability for coronavirus-related claims so long as they post certain warning signs except in cases where the entity is found to have committed “gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, reckless infliction of harm, or intentional infliction of harm.”

4. Fee Dedication

This November, Georgia voters will decide on a constitutional amendment that would give lawmakers the power to require fees be spent for the purpose that they were originally dedicated. This issue is often referred to in the context of tire fees.

If you buy a new tire in Georgia, there’s a $1 fee that gets tacked onto the bill, called the Scrap Tire Management Fee. It’s supposed to go toward cleaning up illegal tire dumps in the state and other recycling and trash programs. But often, lawmakers have directed more than $50 million from the scrap tire fee to Georgia’s general fund, according to the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG), which is Georgia’s county association.

The same can be said about the fee that the state collects at landfills. The money is intended for hazardous waste site cleanup, but according to the ACCG, about $100 million from that fund has ended up in the general fund in the past 10 years.

The constitutional amendment, if approved by voters, would give lawmakers the power to specifically dedicate certain tax dollars to specific uses.

5. Sovereign Immunity

In addition to the constitutional amendment on fee dedication, Georgians will also vote on whether to make it easier to sue the state and local governments under a proposed constitutional amendment given final passage Tuesday by the state House. The lawmakers were reacting, in part, to a state Supreme Court decision that state and local governments can only be sued if they have waived a legal doctrine called sovereign immunity.

The amendment would allow Georgians to sue in state court to protect their rights and ensure governments follow the law, but would not allow judges to award damages or attorney’s fees. The amendment would also prohibit people from suing individual officials within a government.

Former Gov. Nathan Deal and Gov. Brian Kemp both vetoed previous legislative attempts to broaden the grounds for suits against the government. But the Governor has no authority to veto a proposed constitutional amendment.

6. Surprise Medical Bills

Lawmakers passed legislation that now awaits the Governor’s signature to limit unexpected medical bills. Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to sign after naming surprise billing reform as one of his top priorities for the 2020 session.

The legislation is intended to protect Georgians from unexpected out of network bills from physicians performing medical procedures at “in-network” facilities. Legislators and consumer advocacy groups say if House Bill 888 becomes law, it will lower health care costs for many patients, add pricing transparency, and remove patients from billing negotiations between insurance companies and health care providers. 

Notably, the bill focuses strictly on services – both emergency and non-emergency – from an out-of-network provider at in-network facilities. It prohibits insurance companies from surprise billing for emergency services even if the health care provider is outside of the company’s coverage network. Patients are supposed to also receive an estimated cost for any procedure scheduled outside of their covered hospital system. 

7. Alcohol Delivery

A bill allowing home delivery of beer, wine, and liquor passed the Georgia legislature and will become law pending Governor Kemp’s signature. House Bill 879, would permit beer, wine, and liquor to be delivered directly to people’s homes from restaurants, bars, convenience stores, grocery stores and package stores.

The bills requires alcohol home deliveries to only be accepted by someone 21 years or older and with proper ID. The bill leaves the decision to allow for home delivery up to local municipalities.

Conclusion

Georgians are rightly examining closely the actions and inactions of its state and local governments this summer as we continue to seek ways to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, restart our ravaged economy, and address fundamental questions over race and proper law enforcement. The General Assembly attempted to address many of these concerns but more work will clearly need to be done when it returns six months from now for its 2021 session.

Between now and then, however, we have a spirited election in November. Georgia is clearly viewed by both parties as an electoral swing state. Not only is the state likely to be in contention on the presidential level but with two close US Senate races, three open Congressional seats, and Democrats looking to either narrow or erase entirely Republicans fifteen seat majority in the State House, a political battle royal lies ahead over the next few months.

Georgia’s 2020 Primary Election Results

The 2020 Georgia Primary is behind us. Unfortunately, in some respects, the administrative process has overshadowed the results. Adjusting to the new normal caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, problems with getting absentee ballots to folks wishing to vote by mail, a new electronic voting machine system, difficulties with training new poll workers, and long lines and delays at Primary Election Day precincts have led to finger pointing between the Georgia Secretary of State’s office and local county election boards. All of this will need to be worked out before the November General Election.

There are still thousands of absentee votes still to be counted statewide so many close races are still in play. With that said, here are some of the more interesting election results from Tuesday’s primary that we know at the present time:

Presidential Primary

As expected, Joe Biden won handily with 83% in the Democratic Primary. Still, Bernie Sanders received 10% despite having dropped out of the race and conceding in March.

US Senate — Democratic Primary

Despite a crowded seven way primary, Jon Ossoff has a commanding lead hovering back and forth at the needed 50% + 1 position to avoid a runoff against his second place rival former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson at 15%. If late returns cannot push him over 50%, he will be forced into an August 11th runoff against Tomlinson. The winner will take on incumbent Senator David Perdue in November.

Contested Supreme Court Races

Two Supreme Court appointees by former Governor Nathan Deal beat back challenges to win a full term. Justice Sarah Warren easily won with 78% while Justice Charlie Bethel beat back a strong challenge from former State Representative Beth Beskin 53% to 47%.

Congressional Races

Georgia has three open congressional races — the 7th in Gwinnett and Forsyth Counties, the 9th in the mountains of North Georgia, and the 14th in Northwest Georgia. The 7th is most likely to be a close race in November given the fact that retiring Republican Rob Woodall only squeaked to re-election in 2018 by a few hundred votes.  Woodall’s 2018 Democratic challenger Georgia State Professor Carolyn Bourdeaux holds a commanding lead in a crowded race over second place finisher State Representative Brenda Romero, 46 to 14%. A runoff between Bordeaux and Romero will be held August 11th. On the Republican side, former Army doctor Rich McCormick won his crowded primary with 55%.

In the 9th Congressional race, State Representative Matt Gurtler and Gun Store Owner Andrew Clyde, with 22 and 19% respectively, edged out a crowded Republican field for runoff spots on August 11th. The winner of the runoff will face Brooke Siskin in November in this historically overwhelmingly Republican district.  

In the 14th Congressional Race, Tea Party favorite Marjorie Greene and Rome Doctor John Cowan are headed to a Republican Party runoff August 11th. There is no Democrat running in November.

One other Congressional race is likely to draw attention in November. Former Republican Congresswoman Karen Handel won her primary easily to set up a rematch against Congresswoman Lucy McBath in the 6th Congressional District. McBath defeated Handel in 2018.

State Legislative Races

Several incumbent legislators — including Democratic Senator Ed Harbison and Republicans Brandon Beach and Jeff Mullis, as well as House Minority Leader Bob Trammell — faced stiff primary opponents on Tuesday but appear to have beat back their challengers. However, Brunswick Republican Representative Jeff Jones was defeated by Buddy DeLoach, and five term Conyers Democrat Representative Pam Dickerson was beaten by newcomer Sharon Henderson. Also, three longtime Democratic Representatives Sharon Beasley-Teague and Michele Henson and Democratic Senator Horacena Tate were forced into runoffs for the first time in many years.

While many incumbents faced tough reelections, one veteran high profile legislator is making a return. Former State Representative and 2016 Gubernatorial Candidate Stacey Evans won a decisive primary victory in an Atlanta State House district. She has no Democratic opponent in the fall.  

Fulton County District Attorney Incumbent Paul Howard, who has run unopposed for Fulton County District Attorney since 2000, is currently trailing to primary challenger Fani Willis. Neither of the two are likely to break the 50% mark, Willis with 41% of the vote and Howard with 34% of the vote, and will be headed to a runoff.

Georgia Post-Crossover Legislative Update – March 17, 2020

Due to the recent outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), the Georgia General Assembly has suspended the 2020 legislative session until further notice. The suspension began on Friday, March 13, one day after Crossover Day, the point at which legislation must move from one body of the Legislature to the other.

However, the Legislature did reconvene for a one-day special session on Monday, March 16 to ratify Governor Kemp’s executive order that declared a State of Emergency. It is unclear when or if the General Assembly will reconvene under normal circumstances but they expect to hold another special session on April 15 in order to extend the emergency declaration if required.

This update will cover the government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak and also review the bills that survived Crossover Day and remain up for consideration when the General Assembly reconvenes.

COVID-19 State of Emergency

As of noon on March 16 there are 121 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state of Georgia, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. The plurality of cases are in metro Atlanta with 27 cases in Fulton County, 22 in Cobb County and 10 in DeKalb County. In response to the outbreak, Governor Kemp has declared a State of Emergency. The powers provided to the Governor via declaration and ratification of a State of Emergency significantly increase the ability of the executive branch to fight the outbreak.

Governor Kemp now has new abilities to suspend laws and regulations, assume direct operational control of all civil employees, compel health care facilities to provide services, transfer from any available fund in the state treasury sums as may be necessary to meet the emergency or disaster and provide welfare benefits to citizens.

Under this emergency authority, the Georgia Department of Public Health has regulations in place authorizing it to isolate persons infected with COVID-19, quarantine persons exposed to, or reasonably suspected of having been exposed to COVID-19, require surveillance, including the active and direct active monitoring of carriers of the virus and persons exposed to the virus, require persons to be vaccinated or immunized, examined, and treated, restrict travel into or within the state, limit or cancel public gatherings, and close, evacuate, or decontaminate any facility, or destroy or decontaminate any contaminated materials.

Governor Kemp has stated that he intends to use the broad powers to deploy “all available resources” to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The Governor said Friday he’ll initially use the authority to grant nurses from other states temporary Georgia licenses and lift restrictions on commercial truck drivers. He also called up as many as 2,000 Georgia National Guard troops to active duty and ordered all public K-12 schools to close through at least the end of March.

COVID-19 Judicial Emergency

On Saturday, March 14, Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton issued a thirty day order declaring a statewide judicial emergency. Essentially, the order reduces but does not shut down court actions, gives litigants relief during this period of time from responding to statutory deadlines, and provides greater flexibility to judges in how to conduct court business. 

Justice Melton, however, recognized that certain “essential” court functions need to continue. That includes where an immediate liberty or safety concern is present, criminal court search warrants, arrest warrants, initial appearances, and bond reviews, domestic abuse temporary protective orders and restraining orders, juvenile court delinquency detention hearings and emergency removal matters and mental health commitment hearings.

To the extent court proceedings are held, he ordered they should be done in a manner to limit the risk of exposure, such as by videoconferencing, where possible.

State Budget

Both the Georgia House and Senate passed the mid-year budget that adjusts what the state expects to spend for the second half of 2020. The mid-year budget, which awaits Governor Kemp’s signature, keeps state government running through June 30. Notably, the final version includes $100 million Kemp requested Wednesday to help the state deal with coronavirus. The additional money is intended for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Public Health to aid in the response effort. Lawmakers also added $5 million into the mid-year budget for hospitals, which they said may face special costs associated with the virus.

In addition to the 2020 mid-year budget, the Legislature also must pass a 2021 budget. The House was able to pass its version of the budget, but the Senate did not take action on it before the session was suspended. Because approving a budget is a requirement of the Georgia Constitution, the General Assembly has to come back before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. Leaders in both chambers are confident that they will meet the deadline, even if it means returning only for that purpose.

The FY 2021 budget has been hotly debated up to this point. The House draft would give teachers a $1,000 pay raise, half of the $2,000 raise that Governor Kemp requested while adding 2% pay raises for state employees and government workers, which could increase to as much as 5% more for those in high-turnover jobs, including food safety inspectors, prison guards and mental health workers.

The House plan also would restore some of the 1,200 positions Kemp had marked for elimination, including food safety inspectors, child welfare and program eligibility workers, agricultural extension employees, GBI lab scientists and technicians, juvenile justice security staff, and workers who help make sure veterans receive the benefits they earned. Moreover, the House draft includes grants for county health departments that Kemp wanted to cut and money to ensure that GBI crime labs don’t fall behind in testing of rape kits and DNA.

There could be political fallout from the budget fight between the Governor and the Legislature that survives beyond this legislative session. The House passed House Bill 1112 which would limit the Governor’s power to set the revenue estimate each year. The bill would require state agencies to send budget proposals to the House and Senate first rather than the Governor. The House also voted to curtail the Governor’s ability to withhold appropriations specifically determined by the Legislature.

Health Care

Health care has been a central focus for state legislators this session as they attempt to address a health care system in Georgia, especially in rural Georgia, that is increasingly strained. They are particularly focused on three main topics: surprise billing, price transparency and pharmacy benefit managers.

Among those three, surprise billing seemingly has the most momentum. Of the bills introduced to address the surprise billing issue, three have risen to the top and received approval from at least one legislative body: House Bill 789, House Bill 888 and Senate Bill 359.

The House of Representatives passed House Bill 789 on March 3. The bill, which is now assigned to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, requires insurance companies to maintain an online directory of anesthesiologists, pathologists, radiologists and emergency medicine doctors that are covered by their plans.

The House also passed House Bill 888 by a vote of 164-4 on that same day, March 3. The legislation aims to protect patients from having to pay bills after receiving care at a hospital that is in their insurance network. These bills are currently sent to patients in the event they saw a contract doctor who is out of network at a hospital where they are supposedly covered. In such cases, the insurance company and the provider would be required to sort out the payments through arbitration. HB 888 is currently assigned to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. Senate Bill 359 sponsored by Senator  Chuck Huftstetler (R-Shannon) is functionally the same language as HB 888. SB 359 passed the Senate unanimously on February 24 and is now in the House Special Committee on Access to Quality Health Care.

In addition to surprise billing, legislators are looking to make changes to the pharmacy industry, specifically pharmacy benefit managers who act as middlemen between insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and consumers. House Bill 946, which passed the House on March 4, would increase oversight on the industry and bar managers from charging an insurance company more for a drug than it cost from a pharmacy. The Senate passed SB 313 a nearly identical bill on Thursday. Another bill, House Bill 947, would allow the state to study the financial impact of removing pharmacy benefit managers from its Medicaid plan entirely. House Bill 946 has been assigned to the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee while House Bill 947 was assigned to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. Senate Bill 313 was referred to the House Special Committee on Access to Quality Health Care.

Finally, Senate Bill 303 sponsored by Senator Ben Watson (R-Savannah) passed the Senate on February 25 and has been referred to the House Special Committee on Access to Quality Health Care. The bill aims to provide for greater price transparency for non-emergency health care services. It would require the disclosure of pricing information on insurer websites thereby allowing consumers to compare competitors.

Taxes and Tax Credits

As with any legislative session, taxes are top of mind for legislators. That being said, this year, amidst declining revenues and an upcoming election, revenue is particularly salient. One of the first priorities of the session was to pass House Bill 276, which would put the burden of tax collection on online retailers. Overall the bills seeks to collect sales tax from online and third-party platforms selling retail products, thereby leveling the playing field for Georgia-based brick-and-mortar retailers and increasing revenue for the state. After the bill almost passed last year, a conference committee was appointed from the House and Senate which produced a compromise bill that was approved by both chambers on January 16. On Thursday, January 30 Governor Kemp signed the bill into law. It goes into effect April 1.

In other tax news, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would create a flat tax system in Georgia. Should the bill pass into law all Georgians would be subject to a 5.375 percent tax rate instead of the graduated system in place now where citizens pay between 1 and 5.75 percent depending on income level. The plan, which does include a credit for some low- and middle-income families, would accrue savings disproportionately to the wealthy (those making six figures) and could raise taxes on some lower income families. House Bill 949 is expected to cost state government $250 million per year.

Finally, tax credits have been a hotly debated topic thus far due, in part, to several audits conducted by both the state agencies and universities indicating that the film tax credit may not provide the benefit its supporters purport. Representative Matt Dollar (R-Marietta) introduced House Bill 1037 in part to address those concerns. The bill would require every film production to be audited and would only award tax credits after the audit process is complete. However, the legislation would also expand the tax credit to include companies that broadcast non-recurring sporting events with an economic impact of $50 million or more, such as Super Bowls and the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament. The bill passed the House of Representatives on March 12 and currently awaits action by the Senate Assignments Committee.

Going forward, more consistent review of tax credits may be on the horizon thanks to Senate Bill 302 sponsored by Senator John Albers (R-Alpharetta). The bill would permit the chairmen of the House and Senate tax committees to request independent economic-impact reviews of a few tax credits per year. The bill passed the Senate on February 24 and awaits action by the House Ways and Means Committee.

Transportation

As has been the case for the past few years, addressing Georgia’s transportation needs is a major concern for lawmakers. Part of the solution is raising revenues for transportation spending. That is the aim of House Bill 105 which was originally drafted to create a tax credit for disaster relief funding but now includes 50-cents-per-ride tax on rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft, taxis and limos. The tax on rideshare would replace the sales tax required under House Bill 276. House Bill 105 which had already passed the Senate was amended to require that the money generated from the new fee – up to $40 million annually, by some estimates – be dedicated to public transportation. The amended bill now returns to the state Senate for a final vote.

Some of the language that found its way into HB 105 was stripped from HB 511 which was a massive rural transit bill pushed last session. House Bill 511 now makes slight changes to the Atlanta Transit Link Authority appointment and voting procedures. It was favorably reported by the Senate Transportation Committee on March 9.

The Senate took action to address another novel part of the transportation system — electric scooters. Senate Bill 159 passed the Senate on February 4 and is currently in the House Transportation Committee. The bill would leave regulation of scooters up to local governments while providing a definition of an electric scooter in state law.

The final major transportation push is related to Georgia’s freight and logistics network. Representative Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville) has sponsored two pieces of legislation on the issue, House Resolution 935 to establish the Georgia Freight and Logistics Commission and House Bill 820 to create a line item in the state budget for state investment in rail infrastructure. Both passed the House and were favorably reported by the Senate Transportation Committee.

Education

Three major education bills are working their way through the legislative process. The first, House Bill 444, has received approval from both the House and the Senate. The bill limits state funding for college courses provided to high school students to 30 credit hours. The change to the popular dual enrollment program was spurred by increased costs as enrollment increased. House Bill 444 will now go to the Governor for his signature.

The Senate voted in favor of a piece of legislation, Senate Bill 386, that would expand Georgia’s only private school voucher program. The program aimed at special needs students would be expanded to include students with 504 plans which applies to students with disabilities that do not require special instruction under the Disabilities Education Act. The bill now awaits action from the House Education Committee.

Finally, the Senate approved Senate Bill 367 on March 3, which would reduce the number of tests required of students throughout their K-12 education. Backed by Governor Kemp and State School Superintendent Richard Woods, the bill would reduce the total number of mandatory tests in Georgia’s public schools to 19 from 24. The legislation, which passed the Senate 53-0, cuts four tests from high school and one from the fifth grade.

Foster Care

Led by Governor Brian Kemp and Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan, a significant effort is underway to improve the foster care system in Georgia. Three major bills survived Crossover Day, each introduced to try to improve care for foster children.

House Bill 912 would allow foster parents to leave children in the care of a babysitter for up to three days without having to get approval from the state Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS). Current law limits that time to two days. HB 912 passed the House of Representatives unanimously and awaits action from the Senate Assignments Committee.

House Bill 913 would, among other things, lower the age requirement for potential adoptive parents to 21 from 25. HB 913 passed the House of Representatives and is currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senate Bill 335, which passed the Senate on February 20, would require judges to prioritize court cases involving children in foster care and asks juvenile courts to better track those cases. It would also allow DFCS to vary the amount of training time foster parents are required to undergo annually based on their experience level. The bill currently sits with the House Juvenile Justice Committee.

Senior Care

Prompted by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigative report on the state of senior care in Georgia, House Bill 987 passed the full chamber by a vote of 160-1. The legislation, which is sponsored by Representative Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta), would expand the regulation of senior care facilities and increase fines for violations causing serious physical injury to, or the death of, a resident. Specifically, the bill would (i) require administrators who run assisted living facilities or large personal care homes to receive special training and licenses; (ii) require special certification for memory care units; and (iii) double the minimum fine where a home is cited in relation to death or serious harm. The legislation is now in the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee.

Two other Senior Care related bills failed to gain approval from either legislative body. House Bill 955 was aiming to help ensure local coroners or medical examiners are notified of unexpected deaths in senior care homes and House Bill 849 called for families to be allowed to install so-called “granny cams” in rooms at nursing homes and assisted living facilities to monitor what’s going on with their loved ones. Neither will remain under consideration.

Coal Ash

Concern over coal ash disposal reached a fever pitch this year as residents in rural Georgia experienced contaminants in their water supply as a result of old, leaky unlined coal ash ponds at Plant Scherer, one of the nation’s largest power plants. Several major bills gained approval from at least one side of the Capitol. House Bill 93, which would require public notice when wastewater is being drained from coal ash ponds into local waterways was approved by the House on March 12 and Senate Bill 123, which would reduce imported coal ash was approved by the Senate on February 24.

Additionally, HB 929, which would require long-term monitoring of groundwater around ash ponds with results of the monitoring made available to the public in clear language, passed the House 113-52 on March 12, the same day that House Bill 959, which would discourage out-of-state coal ash from entering Georgia by raising the fee on coal ash being dumped in landfills, gained approval.

Ethylene Oxide

Two bills requiring companies to publicly report their ethylene oxide emissions, House Bill 927 and Senate Bill 426, passed each of their original chambers – the Georgia House and Senate – but one or the other must pass both chambers in order to be presented to the Governor for signature en route to becoming law. The bills would make it mandatory for facilities to make these notifications if they want to continue operating in Georgia. Reports would be posted on the state Environmental Protection Division’s website. At present, companies only have to report when more than 10 pounds of ethylene oxide is released in a 24 hour period. The newly passed legislation would give businesses 24 hours to report any amount of the gas released.

Elections

The Senate approved a bill sponsored by Senator John Kennedy (R-Macon) to require that election officials take action to address long lines on election day. Specifically, the proposal, which is supported by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, states that if lines last more than one hour, county election superintendents would have to split up precincts that have more than 2,000 voters, provide additional voting equipment or hire extra poll workers in the next general election. The legislation also gives election officials greater latitude to provide more voting machines in the event of long lines. But it also gives local officials the latitude to provide fewer voting machines which was cause for concern amongst Senate Democrats.

Business Efficiency

Two major tort reform bills, Senate Bill 390 and Senate Bill 415, failed to crossover to the House this past week. Both would have made major changes to how tort cases were argued and the type of damages that could be awarded.

Another priority of the business community, Senate Bill 110, also hit a roadblock. Senate Bill 110 which would establish a new court specifically for complex business matters was voted down in the Senate on March 5. The measure has been tabled.

Alcohol Delivery

House Bill 879, sponsored by Representative Brett Harrell (R-Snelville), would permit home delivery of beer and wine so long as it is delivered to a person who would have to provide ID showing he/she is of legal age. The measure passed the House of Representatives on March 10 and is in the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee.

Sovereign Immunity

Representative Andrew Welch (R-McDonough) is leading an effort to allow citizens to file lawsuits against the state to challenge unconstitutional laws. House Resolution 1023 would put a referendum on the statewide ballot asking whether to void the constitutional doctrine of sovereign immunity, which bars lawsuits against the government. The resolution, which needs to be approved by at least a two-thirds vote, passed the House and the Senate Judiciary Committee and now awaits action by the Senate Rules Committee and the full Senate.  

Criminal Justice

House Bill 994, supported by Governor Brian Kemp, which intends to strengthen anti-gangs laws has passed the state House. The legislation would allow prosecutors to ask juvenile judges to transfer gang-tied cases to the adult system. The bill would also mandate that the Department of Juvenile Justice put convicted juvenile gang members through an “evidence-based” gang rehabilitation program.

The legislation, which has seen opposition from criminal justice advocates, passed the House 93-65.

Parental Leave

The House of Representatives passed House Bill 1094 to provide three weeks of paid leave to state employees who are new parents regardless of gender. At present, state employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, which employers must offer under federal law. The bill would have no impact on private companies. It is currently in the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee.

Environmental Clean-Up Dedicated Fees

The Senate voted unanimously on March 9 in favor of House Resolution 164 which had already passed the House with over 2/3rds of the chamber in support. The Resolution would put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to dedicate tire and solid waste fees to environmental cleanup projects. Georgians pay a $1 disposal fee on each replacement tire they buy, and counties pay a solid waste disposal fee of 75 cents per ton. Under state law, the General Assembly can’t formally dedicate fee money to specific causes without voters approving a constitutional amendment to do so.

Vaping

Both the Senate and the House have considered legislation pertaining to nicotine vaping devices. The Senate passed Senate Bill 375 which would require e-cigarette education to be added to mandatory drug and alcohol education programs in schools. It would also raise the legal age to buy tobacco products under state law from 18 to 21.

The House voted against a proposal, House Bill 364, that would have added a tax to vaping and other nicotine products.

Gambling

After heavy speculation prior to legislative session and industry optimism in the early weeks, House Resolution 378 which aimed to amend the constitution to allow for casino gambling and betting failed to get a vote on the House floor. There is talk amongst sports-betting supporters that separate language to legalize this narrow gambling practice could find its way as an amendment onto existing legislation but it is thus far unclear how likely that effort would be to succeed.

Conclusion

Until further notice, the Georgia General Assembly is suspended. Lawmakers have agreed to another special session on April 15 in order to extend the emergency declaration if required and possibly finalize a fiscal year 2021 budget. That being said, the Governor has the authority to renew the declaration unilaterally if lawmakers are unable to return to the Capitol due to the COVID-19 virus. Until Georgia and the country writ large get a handle on the coronavirus, legislation will not proceed. Dentons Georgia Legislative team will continue to monitor the situation at the Georgia Capitol as it evolves. Please let us know if you have any questions or concerns regarding the state’s response to coronavirus or any of the legislative efforts mentioned above.

Georgia Legislative Update – March 9, 2020

Overview

In the midst of the state’s 2020 legislative session, Georgia has joined eighteen other states with confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus, commonly known as coronavirus. Leading the state’s response to the outbreak are Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey and Governor Brian Kemp’s 18-member coronavirus task force. The Governor has stressed that the risk to Georgians remains low but that he does expect additional cases. 

Meanwhile the state legislature has been hard at work moving bills through the legislative process with an eye to March 12, when bills must cross over from one legislative chamber to the other or they will no longer be under consideration. 

Budget

The Senate voted to approve a midyear budget that supports many of the same appropriations adopted by the House of Representatives. Both the Senate and House departed from the Governor’s proposals. Specifically, both chambers opted to restore funding for public defenders, food safety inspectors, accountability courts, Morehouse and Mercer medical schools, and county public health departments. 

Lawmakers will now turn their attention to the Governor’s proposed $28.1 billion budget for FY 2021. That budget includes $300 million in spending cuts as well as pay raises for teachers and state employees earning less than $40,000 per year. Notably, several high-ranking members of the House, including Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), have expressed a preference for cutting income taxes over raising teacher pay. 

Elections 

Two bills that would alter the way Georgians vote, both with Republican backing, are under consideration this session. The first, Senate Bill 463, would require election officials to take action to address long lines on election day. Specifically, the proposal, which is supported by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, states that if lines last more than one hour, county election superintendents would have to split up precincts that have more than 2,000 voters, provide additional voting equipment or hire extra poll workers in the next general election. The legislation also gives election officials greater latitude to provide more voting machines in the event of long lines. 

The other elections bill, House Bill 520, would give cities and counties the option to move local general elections from May to November to take advantage of the increased turnout that results from national election cycles. 

Education 

Backed by Gov. Kemp and State School Superintendent Richard Woods, Senate Bill 367, which would reduce the total number of mandatory tests in Georgia’s public schools to 19 from 24, passed the Senate last Monday. The legislation, which passed the Senate 53-0, cuts four tests from high school and one from the fifth grade. The legislation now heads to the House of Representatives. 

The House and the Senate have agreed on a legislation to limit state-funding college courses for high school students to 30 credit hours. The change to the popular dual enrollment program was spurred by increased costs as enrollment increased. House Bill 444 will now to go the Governor for his signature. 

The Senate Education and Youth Committee voted in favor of a piece of legislation, Senate Bill 386, that would expand Georgia’s only private school voucher program. The program aimed at special needs students would be expanded to include students with 504 plans which applies to students with disabilities that do not require special instruction given to students identified under the Disabilities Education Act. 

Senior care 

Prompted by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigative report on the state of senior care in Georgia, House Bill 987 passed the full chamber by a vote of 160-1. The legislation, which is sponsored by Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta), would expand the regulation of senior care facilities and increase fines for violations causing serious physical injury to, or the death of, a resident. Specifically, the bill would (i) require administrators who run assisted living facilities or large personal care homes to receive special training and licenses; (ii) require special certification for memory care units; and (iii) double the minimum fine where a home is cited in relation to death or serious harm. 

Tax credits

State tax credits have become a topic of conversation under the Gold Dome after several reports questioned the economic benefits of the film tax credit, an economic incentive credited with sparking the robust film industry in Georgia. One piece of legislation, House Bill 1037, sponsored by Rep. Matt Dollar (R-Marietta) would require every film production to be audited and would only award tax credits after the audit process is complete. The legislation would also expand the tax credit to include companies that broadcast non-recurring sports events with an economic impact of $50 million or more, such as Super Bowls and the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament. The House Ways and Means Committee has yet to take action on the bill. 

Meanwhile, House Ways and Means removed from the books a tax break that gave credits to employers that hired parolees. According to Chairman Brett Harrell (R-Snellville) the credit was going unused. 

Further scrutiny of tax credits could intensity if Senate Bill 302 by Sen. Jon Albers (R-Roswell),  which passed the Senate unanimously and is currently awaiting action by the House Ways and Means Committee, passes the full House. The bill would permit the chairmen of the House and Senate tax committees to request independent economic-impact reviews of a few tax credits a year. 

Tort reform

A major battle is brewing between the business and legal communities, specifically the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, over a renewed fight over tort reform. State Senator Steve Gooch (R- Dahlonega) introduced two tort reform bills, Senate Bill 390 and Senate Bill 415. The former was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee and the latter to the Insurance and Labor Committee. Several trial lawyers are members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, so the hopes of the business community most likely lie with SB 415. 

One provision of SB 415 would prevent trial lawyers from arguing the monetary value of a victims pain and suffering or, in a wrongful death case, the value of a life. Additionally, the bill would make changes to premises liability in cases where someone is attacked on a property owned by a business or an individual and then sues the owner for not doing enough to prevent the crime. In such cases, the victim would be entitled to damages only when the landowner “had actual knowledge of the specific threat of imminent harm” and could have reasonably prevented it. 

Transportation 

The Senate approved a bill that (i) offers farmers a state income tax exemption on disaster relief aid and (ii) includes a 50-cents-per-ride tax on rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft, taxis and limos to fund rural transit expansion. The per-ride tax, which will fund rural transit expansion. which will take effect on April 1, would replace the sales tax on rideshares and taxis. House Bill 105 which was adopted in the Senate by substitute will now return to the House for further consideration. 

Alcohol Delivery 

House Bill 879, sponsored by Rep. Brett Harrell (R-Snelville), which would permit home delivery of beer and wine so long as it is delivered to a person who would have to provide ID showing he/she is of legal age. The measure passed the House Regulated Industries Committee and is awaiting a full vote by the House of Representatives. 

Health care

House Bill 888 passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 164-4. The legislation aims to protect patients from having to pay bills after receiving care at a hospital that is in their insurance network. These bills are currently sent to patients in the event they saw a contract doctor who is out of network at a hospital where they are covered. In such cases, the insurance company and the provider would be required to sort out the payments through arbitration. 

Additionally, the full House passed House Bill 789, which requires insurance companies to maintain an online directory of anesthesiologists, pathologists, radiologists and emergency medicine doctors that are covered by their plans. 

In addition to surprise billing, legislators are looking to make changes to the pharmacy industries, specifically pharmacy benefit managers which act as middlemen between insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and consumers. House Bill 946 would increase oversight on the industry and bar managers from charging an insurance company more for a drug than it cost from a pharmacy. The Senate passed SB 313 a nearly identical bill on Thursday. Another bill, House Bill 947, would allow the state to study the financial impact of removing pharmacy benefit managers from its Medicaid plan entirely. 

Maternal Mortality 

Republican House leaders are getting behind an effort to authorize the Georgia Department of Community Health to seek a federal waiver to expand Medicaid from two to six months following childbirth to address postpartum depression, high blood pressure and cardiac conditions.  

Conclusion

The legislature is speeding toward Crossover Day on March 12, when legislation under consideration has to pass at least one chamber or it is no longer eligible to pass into law this legislative session. As such, we expect a flurry of activity this week prior to the Thursday deadline.  Meanwhile, the Governor and the coronavirus task force continue to monitor the situation in Georgia and have committed to continuous sharing of information with the public.

Georgia Legislative Update – February 27, 2020

Overview

After a short break prompted by disagreements over the midyear budget, the Georgia General Assembly is back in session. In addition to appropriating taxpayer dollars, legislators are mulling legislation on sports betting, surprise medical billing, foster care, prescription drug prices, senior care,  and higher education admissions.

Budget

The House of Representatives approved the amended midyear budget last Wednesday with a host of changes from the Governor’s recommendation which was compiled after asking many agencies to cut 4 percent off of the budget passed last session. The largest chunk of savings in the Governor’s proposal came from the elimination of 1,200 vacant state government positions, many of which the legislature created in recent years to address important issues and which the legislature maintains remain valuable and necessary to citizen welfare. Under the House budget many of the positions would be retained, including food safety inspectors, crime lab scientists and public defenders. Those retentions came after testimony from agency heads who warned of the negative consequences of preemptive staffing cuts. For instance, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black cautioned lawmakers that there would be fewer food and meat inspections if Governor Kemp’s proposal to eliminate vacant positions was approved.

House appropriators also rejected Kemp’s proposed cuts to accountability court funding after Taylor Jones, executive director of the Council of Accountability Court Judges (CACJ), told lawmakers that 336 fewer people would be able to participate in the diversion program if the agency’s budget were to be cut by 4 percent. The program, which diverts substance abusers and the mentally ill away from the criminal justice system, is a prized accomplishment of former Governor Nathan Deal.

The House also reduced cuts that Governor Kemp proposed for autism treatment, county public health departments, local libraries, the Morehouse School of Medicine and the Rural Health Systems Innovation Center at Mercer.

The amended FY 2020 budget is now in the Senate for consideration while the House will restart the process with the FY 2021 budget. The main point of contention in the FY2021 budget, at this point in the process, is the $2,000 teacher pay raise included in the Governor’s proposal, an issue he campaigned on in 2018. House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) has made it clear he is not opposed to raising teachers’ pay, but that it may have to be accomplished another year. Instead, House Republicans are focused on passing the second half of an income tax rate cut initiated in 2019. Their intention to reduce the top income tax rate to 5.5 percent from 5.75 percent, would cost the state an estimated $615 million in revenue according to the normally left leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

Foster care

Governor Kemp and Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan are pitching their focus on improving the foster care system as a moral imperative for pro-life Republicans. The Governor and his floor leaders have introduced several bills that address the state’s adoption system.

House Bill 912 would allow foster parents to leave children in the care of a babysitter for up to three days without having to get approval from the state Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS). Current law limits that time to two days.

House Bill 913 would drop the age requirement for potential adoptive parents to 21 from 25.

Senate Bill 335 would require judges to prioritize court cases involving children in foster care and asks juvenile courts to better track those cases. It would also allow DFCS to vary the amount of training time foster parents are required to undergo annually based on their experience level.

Health care

Legislators are considering bills to address prescription drug prices, surprise billing and the teen vaping epidemic.

Senate Bill 313, sponsored by State Sen. Dean Burke (R-Bainbridge), aims to shed light on prices that pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) negotiate with pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies. It would make PBMs track their prices against a federally approved drug price list and report when they vary too much. The bill would also require PBMs to share more information with state regulators so they can investigate complaints.

Two surprise billing efforts, House Bill 888 and Senate Bill 359, aim to protect patients from having to pay bills after receiving care at a hospital that is in their insurance network. These bills are currently sent to patients in the event they see a contract doctor who is out of network at a hospital where they are covered. In such cases, the insurance company and the provider would enter into arbitration to sort out the payments.

To address a sharp increase in teen vaping, lawmakers are considering House Bill 864, which would require a license to sell e-cigarettes and add a 7 percent tax on their sale. Opponents argue such a change would mean that vaping would be taxed at a higher rate than traditional cigarettes, which are significantly more harmful.

Education

The Senate Higher Education Committee last week heard Senate Bill 282, sponsored by Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta), which would require the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Augusta and Georgia State Universities to set aside 90 percent of their early-applicant slots for state residents. The committee has not yet taken a vote on the bill.

Democrats are pushing another bill aimed at higher education that would allow immigrants with temporary status to pay in-state tuition at any of the state’s public colleges and universities. House Bill 896 would make the change for students (i) who were enrolled in a Georgia high school for at least three years; (ii) are seeking full legal immigration status; and (iii) have a high school diploma or GED. The bill does not have any Republican sponsors.

Senate Bill 367, backed by Gov. Kemp and School Superintendent Richard Woods, would reduce to 19 the total number of mandatory tests in Georgia’s public schools. There are currently eight state-mandated tests: two each in math, English, science and social studies. The bill would reduce that to one test per topic.

Senior care

After an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report exposed deep flaws in many senior care facilities in the state, legislators are looking to impose additional oversight. Reps. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta) and John LaHood (R-Valdosta) are working together on legislation that would require senior care homes to provide more financial information to regulators and would increase fines on facilities that run afoul of safety regulations. It would also increase the minimum number of staff required. For instance, memory care units would be required to have at least one direct care staff member for every 12 residents at all times.

Criminal justice reform

Reps. Mandi Ballinger (R-Canton) and Gregg Kennard (D-Lawrenceville) are both supporting an effort to allow those convicted of certain misdemeanors and felonies to request sealed records so a prospective employer or landlord would not be able to access them. Whether the request would be granted would depend on the severity of the offense and the offender’s age when the crime was committed.

Coal ash

The concern over coal ash disposal reached a fever pitch this week as residents of Juliette, GA, traveled to the state capitol to talk to legislators about contaminants in their water supply as a result of old, leaky unlined coal ash ponds at Plant Scherer, one of the nation’s largest power plants. There are several bills addressing the issue, including House Bill 93, which would require public notice when wastewater is being drained from coal ash ponds into local waterways; Senate Bill 123, which would reduce imported coal ash; and House Bill 756, which would require coal ash to be disposed in lined pits.

Sovereign immunity

Rep. Welch (R-McDonough) is leading an effort to allow citizens to file lawsuits against the state to challenge unconstitutional laws. House Resolution 1023 would put a referendum on the statewide ballot asking whether to void the constitutional doctrine of sovereign immunity, which bars lawsuits against the government. To pass, the resolution will need to be approved by at least two-thirds of both the House and the Senate, and a majority of the public, determined at the ballot box.

Tax credits

Senate Bill 302 by Sen. Jon Albers (R-Roswell), which would permit chairmen of the House and Senate tax committees to request independent economic-impact reviews of a few tax credits a year, passed the Senate unanimously. A previous effort to set up tax break reviews was vetoed by the Governor.

Freight and Logistics Commission

House Bill 820, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Tenner (R-Dawsonville), passed the House of Representatives on Monday. The bill creates a permanent line item in the state budget for badly needed rail investments. The legislation, a recommendation of the Georgia Freight and Logistics Commission, does not come with appropriated funds but is intended to lead to future investments. The Commission would be extended to December 2020 should House Resolution 935 gain approval of the Senate after passing the House in earlier this month. 

Conclusion

With the amended 2020 budget moving over to the Senate and House consideration of the 2021 budget in full swing, a host of policy issues are coming to the forefront. Whether it be health care, education or coal ash the General Assembly is focused on everyday issues and thus far has not waded deep into divisive social issues that could threaten incumbent Republicans in swing districts. Moving forward, watch for representatives and senators to continue to emphasize legislation that will resonate with voters come November.

Georgia Legislative Update – February 6, 2020

Overview

The Georgia Legislature has been in session for twelve legislative days. Within that short time frame a wide variety of bills have been filed and top issues have begun to emerge, namely health care, transportation and taxes. However, hanging over any debate or specific issue legislation is a contentious budget process that has exposed fissures between Governor Brian Kemp and Speaker of the House David Ralston. Until the appropriations process progresses, don’t expect much legislation to catch the attention of leadership.

State Budget

The House Appropriations Committee and Republican Party leadership continue to sift through the Governor’s budget recommendations. Ultimately the General Assembly will deliver an appropriations bill that will stray from the Governor’s preferences in at least a handful of ways. A few issues will certainly be part of the discussion, the first being teacher pay raises. Governor Kemp campaigned in part  on a $5,000 pay raise for every public school teacher in the state. To finalize fulfilling that promise — a $3000 pay raise was appropriated last year —  the Governor will have to convince the General Assembly to approved the required funding to provide the final $2,000 bump this year. Speaker Ralston made it clear that the teacher pay raises, while laudable, were not his promise to voters. Instead, it appears that rural healthcare and agriculture programs are higher on the priority list for Speaker Ralston and his caucus.

In a dramatic move this week, the General Assembly changed its schedule and adjourned until February 18th to hash out the budget in hopes of coming to a compromise that can pass the General Assembly and earn the Governor’s signature. Such a long break in the middle of a session is unusual and underscores the tension between the Governor’s recommendations and the preferences of the State House of Representatives. As such, expect budget negotiations to dominate conversations under the Gold Dome until further notice.

Health Care

Medicaid Waiver: Public comment on Governor Kemp’s Medicaid waiver proposal is open until Friday according to the US Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The Governor’s proposal would open Medicaid to a larger portion of indigent citizens but would not fully expand the program largely due to concerns over future cost. Under the waiver, Medicaid would be extended to those in need who also perform certain approved activities for 80 hours a month, like working at a formal job, including registered nonprofits, or pursuing higher education.

Ultimate approval of the waiver is not guaranteed. In fact, the USC-Brookings Schaeffer Initiative for Health Policy argues that the waiver does not meet the statutory or legal requirements of the program, a position that is disputed by the Kemp administration. Further complicating the matter is a recent push by the Trump administration to allow states to scale back Medicaid spending by converting to block grants thereby providing addition flexibility on coverage.

House Bill 789: In addition to the waiver, several health care issues have surfaced at the state legislature. One issue garnering a lot of attention is surprise medical billing. HB 789 attempts to bring transparency to medical billing generally. The bill would give patients more information about which doctors are in their insurance network through an online insurer portal. Ideally, this would allow patients to have a better idea of what services will be covered before they go to the hospital. However, the bill only covers four of the most common independent specialties: anesthesiologists, emergency doctors, pathologists and radiologists.

Senate Bill 293: Sen. Chuck Hufstetler (R-Rome) is pushing a bill that would stop surprise bills for all patients. However the Senator noted publicly that his bill is simply a starting point and he is open to working with others involved in the issue.

Senate Bill 303: Senator Ben Watson (R-Savannah) has introduced a bill to provide for greater price transparency for non-emergency health care services. The bill would require the disclosure of pricing information on insurer websites thereby allowing consumers to compare competitors.

Transportation

Senate Bill 159: The Senate passed SB 159 to take state government out of the debate surrounding electric scooters. The bill would leave regulation up to local governments while providing a definition of a scooter in state law. The bill defines a scooter as any device that weighs less than 100 pounds and is equipped with handlebars and an electric motor, human powered, or both, that is capable of a maximum speed of no more than 20 mph. The bill passed the Senate unanimously and has been passed over to the House of Representatives.

House Resolution 935: House Transportation Chairman Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville) introduced HR 935 to reauthorize the Georgia Commission on Freight and Logistics. The bill passed out of the House Transportation Committee on Thursday Jan. 30.

House Bill 820: Chairman Tanner also introduced HB 820 which would create a new line item in the budget of the Georgia Department of Transportation for freight rail appropriations. The money would be used for state investment in railways and railroad facilities and equipment.

House Bill 511: After passing in the house and then failing to cross the legislative finish line, HB 511 has been reintroduced by Transportation Chairman Tanner. The bill would create a division of transit and mobility innovation within the Georgia Department of Transportation to oversee eight regions outside of metro Atlanta and allow counties across the state to raise sales taxes for transit expansion. It would also impose a 50-cent excise tax on ground transportation rides per hire, and 25 cents on shared rides. The revenue from the tax would be dedicated to the new division and to the new metro Atlanta agency to pay for transportation pilot programs. Finally, the bill calls for up to three grants to companies that provide flexible transit services in multi-passenger vehicles. Each grant could be up to $500,000. The grants would cover services in metro Atlanta.

Taxes

House Bill 276: On Thursday, January 30th Governor Kemp signed House Bill 276: Marketplace Facilitator Act. The bill mandates online retailers to collect and remit state and local sales taxes. The new law will apply to internet businesses of all kinds including Amazon, Airbnb and Uber. The law goes into effect April 1.

Senate Bill 302: The Senate Finance Committee approved SB 302 by Senator John Albers (R-Roswell) which proposes a regular review of state tax credits. Specifically, the bill calls for review of five credits per year to determine actual return on investment. Copies of the analysis would be provided to the Senate and House budget offices.

Elections

House Bill 757: House Speaker Ralston has made it clear that HB 757 which would replace the planned jungle election for the Senate seat vacated by Republican Senator Johnny Isakson with a traditional primary followed by a general, would not impact the 2020 election but would instead mandate the change thereafter if passed and signed by the Governor. The bill, which was for a moment the focus of a proxy battle between supporters of Senator Kelly Loeffler and Representative Doug Collins, was sent back to committee.

Business Efficiency

Senate Bill 110: The Senate is currently debating SB 110 which would establish a statewide business court that would hear cases involving complex business litigation, mergers, high-level contract disputes, trademark litigation, securities litigation, typically between two or more businesses.  The version in front of the Senate is from the conference committee that came out of the 2019 legislative session.

Business Judgment Rule: Expect a bill to drop soon after the legislature reconvenes on February 18 to establish gross negligence as the standard of care by which the court could question the actions of officers and directors of non-profits, foundations and cooperatives. Currently the courts apply that standard to directors of Georgia banks and trusts and for-profit corporations. The impetus behind this legislation is to address the discrepancy between for-profit companies and non-profit organizations, eliminating a potential disincentive to serve as a non-profit officer or director.

Conclusion

In conclusion, at this point in the session the issues that will ultimately make it past cross-over day are, for the most part, unclear. Until the budget is settled and leadership is able to refocus on legislative priorities major legislation will be on the back burner. But don’t expect major changes to that status quo anytime soon. The difference of opinion between House Leadership and the Governor could make for a lengthy and contentious budget process.