Georgia COVID-19 Update

Introduction

As of April 2nd 2020 the State of Georgia has 5,444 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and has suffered 176 deaths. Yesterday, Governor Kemp issued a state-wide stay at home order via Executive Order to Ensure a Safe and Healthy Georgia. This most recent executive order rescinds and replaces the executive order issued on March 23rd and suspends any local ordinances passed since March 1st that were adopted with the stated purpose or effect of responding to the COVID-19 crisis. In short, this is operative law in the entire state. Highlights of the executive order include:

  1. State-wide stay at home order for all residents
  2. Restrictions on all visitors to those under stay at home orders
  3. Limiting all travel outside of the home unless fulfilling essential services as defined in the order
  4. Constraining business to minimum basic operations as defined in the order, but for Minimum Basic Business Operations and “critical infrastructure” as defined by the US Department of Homeland Security
  5. Prohibits dine-in service at restaurants and social clubs but permits takeout, curbside, pick-up and delivery services

The Georgia Department of Economic Development has been authorized to issue guidance to any business, corporation, organization or trade group regarding its status as critical infrastructure.

In regard to enforcement, the Georgia National Guard and Department of Public Safety are tasked with providing the resources as requested to assist with the enforcement of the Order. Moreover, the Department of Public Health, the Department of Public Safety, or any other state department or state officer deputized by the Governor or Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security are authorized to mandate the closure of any business, establishment, corporation, non-profit corporation or organization that does not comply with the Order for a period not to extend beyond the term of the Order.

Any person who violates the Order will be guilty of a misdemeanor.

Notably, the Order, which goes into effect on Friday April 3, only extends until April 13th. That is, in part, due to the fact that the state of emergency, declared on March 14th, is only in place for a maximum of 30 days per OC.G.A. 38-3-51 9 (a). That being said, the resolution passed by the Georgia General Assembly did not place a time limit on further concurrence should the Governor extend the State of Emergency. However, it did assert their right to terminate the state of emergency at any time. As such, there is a good argument that the General Assembly has given the governor the power to renew after 30 days without the necessity of it reconvening to ratify the renewal. 

Executive Order to Ensure a Safe and Healthy Georgia

Per the April 2nd Executive Order All residents and visitors of the State of Georgia shall practice social distancing and sanitation in accordance with this Order and guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  1. No business, establishment, corporation, non-profit corporation, organization, or county or municipal government is permitted to allow more than ten (10) persons to be gathered at a single location if such gathering requires persons to stand or to be seated within six (6) feet of any other person. This does not apply to cohabitating persons outside of their homes, family units or roommates residing together in private homes, or entities defined as “Critical Infrastructure”
  2. All residents and visitors of the State of Georgia are required to shelter in place within their homes or places of residence, meaning remaining in their place of residence and taking every possible precaution to limit social interaction to prevent the spread or infection of COVID-19 to themselves or any other person, unless they are:
    • Conducting and participating in Essential Services
    •  Performing Necessary Travel
    • Are engaged in the performance of, or travel to and from, the performance of Minimum Basic Operations for a business, establishment, corporation, or organization not classified as Critical infrastructure; or
    • Are part of the workforce for Critical Infrastructure and are actively engaged in the performance of, or travel to and from their respective employment
  3.  Essential Services permitted pursuant to the provisions of this Order are limited to the following:
    • Obtaining necessary supplies and services for family or household members, such as food and supplies for household consumption and use, medical supplies or medication, supplies and equipment needed to work from home, and products needed to maintain safety, sanitation, and essential maintenance of the home or residence. Preference should be given to online ordering, home delivery, and curbside pick-up services wherever possible as opposed to in-store shopping.
    • Engaging in activities essential for the health and safety of family or household members, such as seeking medical, behavioral health, or emergency services.
    • Engaging in outdoor exercise activities so long as a minimum distance of six (6) feet is maintained during such activities between all persons who are not occupants of the same household or residence.
  4. Necessary Travel permitted under this Order is limited to such travel as is required to conduct or participate in Essential Services, Minimum Basic Operations, or Critical Infrastructure as defined by this Order.
  5. Minimum Basic Operations are limited to:
    • The minimum necessary activities to maintain the value of a business, establishment, corporation, non-profit corporation, or organization, provide services, manage inventory, ensure security, process payroll and employee benefits, or for related functions. Such minimum necessary activities include remaining open to the public subject to the restrictions of this Order.
    • The minimum necessary activities to facilitate employees or volunteers being able to work remotely from their residences or members or patrons being able to participate remotely from their residences.
    • Instances where employees are working outdoors without regular contact with other persons, such as delivery services, contractors, landscape businesses, and agricultural industry services.
  6. All businesses, establishments, corporations, non-profit corporations, or organizations that are not Critical Infrastructure shall only engage in Minimum Basic Operations as defined in this Order during the effective dates of this Order. Such entities shall also implement measures which mitigate the exposure and spread of COVID-19 among its workforce. Such measures shall include the following:
    • Screening and evaluating workers who exhibit signs of illness, such as a fever over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, cough, or shortness of breath;
    • Requiring workers who exhibit signs of illness to not report to work or to seek medical attention;
    • Enhancing sanitation of the workplace as appropriate;
    • Requiring hand washing or sanitation by workers at appropriate places within the business location;
    • Providing personal protective equipment as available and appropriate to the function and location of the worker within the business location;
    • Prohibiting gatherings of workers during working hours;
    • Permitting workers to take breaks and meals outside, in their office or personal workspace, or in such other areas where proper social distancing is attainable;
    • Implementing teleworking for all possible workers;
    • Implementing staggered shifts for all possible workers;
    • Holding all meetings and conferences virtually, wherever possible;
    • Delivering intangible services remotely wherever possible;
    • Discouraging workers from using other workers’ phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment;
    • Prohibiting handshaking and other unnecessary person-to-person contact in the workplace;
    • Placing notices that encourage hand hygiene at the entrance to the workplace and in other workplace areas where they are likely to be seen;
    • Suspending the use of Personal Identification Number (“PIN”) pads, PIN entry devices, electronic signature capture, and any other credit card receipt signature requirements to the extent such suspension is permitted by agreements with credit card companies and credit agencies;
    • Enforcing social distancing of non-cohabitating persons while present on such entity’s leased or owned property;
    • For retailers and service providers, providing for alternative points of sale outside of buildings, including curbside pick-up or delivery of products and/or services if an alternative point of sale is permitted under Georgia law;
    • Increasing physical space between workers and customers;
    • Providing disinfectant and sanitation products for workers to clean their workspace, equipment, and tools;
    • Increasing physical space between workers’ worksites to at least six (6) feet.
  7. The term “Critical Infrastructure” shall refer to businesses, establishments, corporations, non-profit corporations, and organizations as defined by the US Department of Homeland Security as “essential critical infrastructure workforce,” in guidance dated March 19, 2020, and revised on March 28, 2020, and those suppliers which provide essential goods and services to the critical infrastructure workforce as well as entities that provide legal services, home hospice, and non-profit corporations or non-profit organizations that offer food distribution or other health or mental health services. The operation of Critical Infrastructure shall not be impeded by county, municipal, or local ordinance. Critical Infrastructure that continues in-person operation during the effective dates of this Order shall implement measures which mitigate the exposure and spread of COVID-19 among its workforce. Such measures may include, but shall not be limited to:
    • Screening and evaluating workers who exhibit signs of illness,  such as a fever over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, cough, or shortness of breath;
    • Requiring workers who exhibit signs of illness to not report to work or to seek medical attention;
    • Enhancing sanitation of the workplace as appropriate;
    • Requiring hand washing or sanitation by workers at appropriate places within the business location;
    • Providing personal protective equipment as available and appropriate to the function and location of the worker within the business location;
    • Prohibiting gatherings of workers during working hours;
    • Permitting workers to take breaks and lunch outside, in their office or personal workspace, or in such other areas where proper social distancing is attainable;
    • Implementing teleworking for all possible workers;
    • Implementing staggered shifts for all possible workers;
    • Holding all meetings and conferences virtually, wherever possible;
    • Delivering intangible services remotely wherever possible;
    • Discouraging workers from using other workers’ phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment;
    • Providing disinfectant and sanitation products for workers to clean their workspace, equipment, and tools;
    • Prohibiting handshaking and other unnecessary person-to-person contact in the workplace; and
    • Placing notices that encourage hand hygiene at the entrance to the workplace and in other workplace areas where they are likely to be seen; and
    • Suspending the use of Personal Identification Number (“PIN”) pads, PIN entry devices, electronic signature capture, and any other credit card receipt signature requirements to the extent such suspension is permitted by agreements with credit card companies and credit agencies.
  8. The Georgia Department of Economic Development is authorized to issue guidance to any business, corporation, organization, or industry trade group regarding its status as Critical Infrastructure. This guidance shall not require a finding of fact but shall be in writing and shall be considered a final agency action for the purpose of proceedings under Code Section 50-13-19.
  9. All restaurants and private social clubs shall cease providing dine-in services. Takeout, curbside pick-up, and delivery are permitted in accordance with the provisions of this Order. This provision shall not limit the operation of dine-in services in hospitals, healthcare facilities, nursing homes, or other long-term care facilities; however, to the extent possible, such facilities should offer in-room dining.
  10. All gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys, theaters, live performance venues, operators of amusement rides as defined by Code Section 25-15-51, body art studios permitted pursuant to Code Section 31-4o-2, businesses registered pursuant to Code Sections 43¬10-11 and 43-10-18, estheticians as defined by Code Section 43-10¬1(8), hair designers as defined by Code Section 43-10-1(9), persons licensed to practice massage therapy pursuant to Code Section 43¬24A-8, and businesses which possess a license to operate as or otherwise meet the definition of “bar” as defined by Code Section 3¬1-2(2.1), shall cease in-person operations and shall close to the public while this Order is in effect.
  11. Persons required to shelter in place under any provision of this Order shall not receive visitors, except as follows:
    • Visitors providing medical, behavioral health, or emergency services or medical supplies or medication, including home hospice;
    • Visitors providing support for the person to conduct activities of daily living or instrumental activities of daily living;
    • Visitors providing necessary supplies and services, such as food and supplies for household consumption and use, supplies and equipment needed to work from home, and products needed to maintain safety, sanitation, and essential maintenance of the home or residence; or
    • Visitors received during end-of-life circumstances.
  12. To the extent practicable under the circumstances, visitors shall maintain a minimum distance of six (6) feet between themselves and all other occupants of the person’s home or residence. Any visitors visiting for the sole purpose of delivering medication, supplies, or other tangible goods shall, to the extent practicable, deliver such items in a manner that does not require in-person contact or require the deliverer to enter the person’s home or residence.
  13. The provisions of this Order related to visitors listed in the immediately preceding paragraph shall be strictly enforced against nursing homes or other long-term care facilities, including inpatient hospice, assisted living communities, personal care homes, intermediate care homes, community living arrangements, and community integration homes.
  14. The Department of Public Health, the Department of Public Safety, or any other state department or state officer deputized by the Governor or the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency are, after providing reasonable notice, authorized to mandate the closure of any business, establishment, corporation, non-profit corporation, or organization not in compliance with this Order for a period not to extend beyond the term of this Order.
  15. Pursuant to Code Section 38-3-51, the powers of counties and cities conveyed in Titles 36 and 38, including those specific powers enumerated in Code Sections 36-5-22.1 and 36-35-3 are hereby suspended to the extent of suspending enforcement of any local ordinance or order adopted or issued since March 1, 2020, with the stated purpose or effect of responding to a public health state of emergency, ordering residents to shelter-in-place, ordering a quarantine, or combatting the spread of coronavirus or COVID-19 that in any way conflicts, varies, or differs from the terms of this Order. Enforcement of all such ordinances and orders is hereby suspended and no county or municipality shall adopt any similar ordinance or order while this Order is in effect, except for such ordinances or orders as are designed to enforce compliance with this Order

Critical Infrastructure

The Executive Order exempts “Critical Infrastructure” from the shut-down order and stay at home provisions. “Critical Infrastructure” refers to businesses, establishments, corporations, non-profit corporations, and organizations as defined by the US Department of Homeland Security as “essential critical infrastructure workforce,” in guidance dated March 19, 2020, and revised on March 28, 2020. It also includes those suppliers which provide essential goods and services to the critical infrastructure workforce as well as entities that provide legal services, home hospice, and non-profit corporations or non-profit organizations that offer food distribution or other health or mental health services. The order makes it clear that the operation of Critical Infrastructure shall not be impeded by county, municipal, or local ordinance.

The US Department of Homeland Security Guidance that is referenced in the executive order exempts businesses in the following industries:

  • Health Care/Public Health
  • Law Enforcement, Public Safety, and Other First Responders
  • Food and Agriculture
  • Energy (including electricity, petroleum, natural gas, natural gas liquids, propane and other liquid fuels)
  • Water and Wastewater
  • Transportation and Logistics
  • Public Works and Infrastructure Support Services
  • Communications and Information Technology
  • Other Community or Government Based Operations and Essential Functions
  • Hazardous Materials
  • Financial Services
  • Chemical
  • Defense Industrial Base
  • Commercial Facilities
  • Residential/Shelter Facilities and Services
  • Hygiene Products and Services

Select Industry Profiles

Residential: The Department of Homeland Security exempts residential construction workers in relation to activities to ensure additional housing units that can be made available to combat the nation’s existing housing supply shortage.

Commercial Facilities: Workers who support the supply chain of building materials from production through application/installation, including cabinetry, fixtures, doors, cement, hardware, plumbing, electrical, heating/cooling, refrigeration, appliances, paint/coatings, and employees who provide services that enable repair materials and equipment for essential functions are exempt. Additionally, workers supporting ecommerce through distribution, warehouse, call center facilities, and other essential operational support functions and workers in hardware and building materials stores, consumer electronics, technology and appliances retail, and related merchant wholesalers and distributors – with reduced staff to ensure continued operations are exempt. Finally, those distributing, servicing, repairing, installing residential and commercial HVAC systems, boilers, furnaces and other heating, cooling, refrigeration, and ventilation equipment are exempt.

Critical Manufacturing: Any manufacturing facility that produces materials necessary to sustain other “critical infrastructure” is exempt. This includes manufacturing facilities that produce materials for medical supply chains, industrial minerals and metals, critical chemicals, food and agriculture etc.

Transportation: The exemptions provided to the transportation industry are focused on maintaining logistical networks to sustain the critical industries. Additionally, mass public transit service workers are permitted to continue work as they provide a portion of the population with needed mobility.

Financial: Any workers need to provide, process and maintain systems for processing, verification, and recording of financial transactions and services, including payment, clearing, and settlement; wholesale funding; insurance services; consumer and commercial lending; and capital markets activities.

Emergency Order Powers

As previously mentioned, the action taken by Governor Kemp in relation to COVID-19 today is pursuant to the State of Emergency Order issued on March 14th which was ratified by the General Assembly, two days later, on March 16th

Under O.C.G.A. §38-3-51, the Governor can declare a State of Emergency due to a health crisis but must also call the General Assembly into a special session “for the purpose of concurring with or terminating the public health emergency.”  The state of emergency remains in effect for 30 days unless expressly extended by the Governor.

Among the powers enumerated by O.C.G.A. §38-3-51, the state of emergency gives the governor considerable power to deal with our present health care crisis. For more information on the powers given to the Governor and Department of Health via the State of Emergency order see our March 14th Soapbox blog post, “Georgia Governor Brian Kemp Declares State of Emergency to Deal with Coronavirus Pandemic and Calls a Special Session of the General Assembly”.

DPH Administrative Orders

Pursuant to the Georgia Code and expanded powers granted under the Emergency declaration, the Department of Public Health issued two Administrative Orders, one on March 23rd and one on March 27th. Further regulatory announcements will likely come due to the latest stay at home executive order.

The March 23rd order addressed isolation and quarantine policies and procedures. Now that the Governor has put in place a state-wide stay at home order that applies to everyone, these administrative regulations are no long applicable.

Similarly, much of the March 27th administrative order is no longer relevant aside from administrative regulations on the staff of any Nursing, Long-Term Care Facilities and Early Child Education Programs, Non-profit food services and any other businesses licensed and monitored by DHS. Said regulations were reaffirmed and in some cases strengthened in the executive order.

Conclusion

The state-wide stay at home Order ends what was a local government driven process that resulted in a myriad of restrictions throughout the state. However, the Executive Order will certainly be followed up by regulations from the Department of Public Health and the publication of a process by which the Department of Economic Development will determine critical versus non-critical business in relation to the US Department of Homeland Security Guidance. As previously mentioned the Executive Order extends through April 13.

If you have any questions please contact the Dentons Public Policy Team.

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 Chief Justice Harold Melton Issues Statewide Judicial Emergency Order

The different branches of the Georgia State Government are moving in quick succession to try to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. On Thursday, the General Assembly indefinitely suspended its Regular 2020 Session. On Friday, Governor Kemp declared a State of Emergency giving him broad powers to combat the health care crisis. 

Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton has now issued a thirty day ORDER DECLARING 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. 

Pursuant to OCGA § 38-3-61 & 62, Justice Melton suspended, tolled, extended, and otherwise granted relief from any:

(1) statute of limitation; (2) time within which to issue a warrant; (3) time within which to try a case for which a demand for speedy trial has been filed; (4) time within which to hold a commitment hearing; (5) deadline or other schedule regarding the detention of a juvenile; (6) time within which to return a bill of indictment or an accusation or to bring a matter before a grand jury; (7) time within which to file a writ of habeas corpus; (8) time within which discovery or any aspect thereof is to be completed; (9) time within which to serve a party;

(10) time within which to appeal or to seek the right to appeal any order, ruling, or other determination; and (11) such other legal proceedings as determined to be necessary by the authorized judicial official.

Justice Melton, however, recognized that certain “essential” court functions need to continue including:

(1) where an immediate liberty or safety concern is present requiring the attention of the court as soon as the court is available; (2) criminal court search warrants, arrest warrants, initial appearances, and bond reviews; (3) domestic abuse temporary protective orders and restraining orders; (4) juvenile court delinquency detention hearings and emergency removal matters; and (5) mental health commitment hearings.

Justice Melton also expressly ordered that criminal trials that were going on with an empaneled jury were to continue absent a showing of “good cause” to suspend or declare a mistrial. The order is silent as to ongoing civil trials presumably leaving these trials to the discretion of the presiding judge hearing the case. Finally, 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.”

Within Georgia law, there are additional procedures in place to permit appeals where individuals believe this emergency order creates abuses to an individual’s legal rights. If you have any specific questions or concerns please let us know and we will follow up with further information. 

Stay up-to-date with all of Dentons’ insights and guidance by visiting our US COVID-19 hub here.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp Declares State of Emergency To Deal With Coronavirus Pandemic And Calls a Special Session of the General Assembly

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp yesterday declared a State of Emergency in order to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and called the Georgia General Assembly back into a Special Emergency Session on Monday, March 16, 2020 at 8:00 am to ratify his action.  This action occurred only a day after the General Assembly had suspended indefinitely its regular 2020 session due to the world wide coronavirus outbreak.

Under O.C.G.A. §38-3-51 the Governor can declare a state of emergency due to a health crisis but must also call the General Assembly into a special session “for the purpose of concurring with or terminating the public health emergency.”  The state of emergency remains in effect for 30 days unless expressly extended by the Governor.

Among the powers enumerated by O.C.G.A. §38-3-51, the state of emergency gives the governor considerable power to deal with our present health care crisis including:

  • assume direct operational control of all civil forces and helpers in the state;
  • Suspend any regulatory statute prescribing the procedures for conduct of state business, or the orders, rules, or regulations of any state agency, if strict compliance with any statute, order, rule, or regulation would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with the emergency or disaster;
  • Utilize all available resources of the state government and of each political subdivision of the state as reasonably necessary to cope with the emergency or disaster;
  • Compel a health care facility to provide services or the use of its facility if such services or use are reasonable and necessary for emergency response. The use of such health care facility may include transferring the management and supervision of the health care facility to the Department of Public Health for a limited or unlimited period of time not extending beyond the termination of the public health emergency;
  • transfer from any available fund in the state treasury such sum as may be necessary to meet the emergency or disaster; and
  • provide welfare benefits to the citizens of this state in the form of grants to meet disaster related necessary expenses or serious needs of individuals or families adversely affected by an emergency.

Furthermore, in regards to the Department of Public Health, O.C.G.A. §38-3-51 (i)(1)  give the governor the power to direct the department to undertake the following:

  • Planning and executing public health emergency assessments, mitigation, preparedness response, and recovery for the state;
  • Coordinating public health emergency responses between state and local authorities;
  • Collaborating with appropriate federal government authorities, elected officials of other states, private organizations, or private sector companies;
  • Coordinating recovery operations and mitigation initiatives subsequent to public health emergencies;
  • Organizing public information activities regarding state public health emergency response operations; and
  • Providing for special identification for public health personnel involved in a public health emergency.

Under this emergency authority, the Georgia Department of Public Health has regulations in place authorizing it to do the following:

  • Isolate persons infected with communicable diseases or conditions likely to endanger the health of others, until they are found to be free of the infectious agent or disease;
  • Quarantine persons exposed to, or reasonably suspected of having been exposed to, a communicable disease, until they are found to be free of the infectious agent or disease;
  • Require surveillance, including the active and direct active monitoring of carriers of disease and persons exposed to, or reasonably suspected of having been exposed to, a communicable disease, until it is determined that they no longer pose a threat of spreading disease;
  • Require persons to be vaccinated or immunized, examined, and treated;
    • Except as provided in subsection (2) below, an individual shall be exempt from vaccination or immunization if the person, or the parent or legal guardian in the case of a minor, furnishes an affidavit that complies with DPH Rule 511-2-2-.07.
    • The Department may require vaccination or immunization of those who object on the grounds of religious beliefs if it is determined that an epidemic or the threat of an epidemic exists;
  • 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, that the Department reasonably suspects may pose a danger to public health.

Ga Comp. R. & Regs. 511-9-1-.03

Within Georgia law and state regulations, there are additional procedures in place to implement and enforce these broad emergency powers and prevent abuses.  If you have any specific questions or concerns please let us know and we will follow up with further information. 

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.