At midnight on Tuesday, April 2, the 2019 Georgia Legislative Session came to a close. After hundreds of bills were introduced in both the State House of Representatives and the State Senate, the select few that received bicameral approval await the governor’s signature. Governor Brian Kemp has 40 days, until May 12, to sign, veto or pass on each bill approved by the legislature. If he neither signs nor vetoes a bill, it becomes law automatically at the end of the 40 days.
The 2019 legislative session, the first of Governor Kemp’s four-year term, was headlined by health care reform, an election overhaul and controversial abortion legislation. This comprehensive recap reviews every major legislative effort and predicts the issues that will define 2020.
In April 2018, then Secretary of State Kemp established the Secure Accessible & Fair Elections (SAFE) Commission to examine the state’s voting system and provide recommendations to the General Assembly. He and Representative Barry Fleming (R-Harlem) co-chaired the SAFE commission, which included legislators, elections officials, an IT and cybersecurity expert, political party representatives, a voter accessibility expert and two “at-large” voters.
The committee recommended a complete overhaul of the election system. They advised that the state switch from the current computer-based system to a “hybrid” voting system that utilizes electronic machines while also producing a verifiable paper record.
The governor’s budget, released on January 17, included $150 million in bond funds to replace all 27,000 voting machines—the estimated amount required for the recommended touch-screen ballot-marking devices. Subsequently, the recommendations of the commission were included in House Bill 316, which was signed into law on Tuesday, April 2. In addition to provisions to replace voting machines, the law includes several amendments championed by Democratic members of the General Assembly, including changes to voter registrations and polling locations.
The bill was introduced on February 14 by House Judiciary Chairman Barry Fleming (R-Harlem), approved by the House Governmental Affairs Committee by a vote of 13-6 and passed by the full House just seven days after its introduction. Shortly thereafter, on March 6, the bill passed the Senate Ethics Committee, 7-5.
An amended version of House Bill 316 passed the full Senate on Wednesday, March 13, by a vote of 35-21; the House quickly agreed to the Senate’s amendments.
Now that Governor Kemp has signed the bill, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger will formally begin the process of selecting a vendor.
Here’s a quick reminder of what the new law does:
1. New voting machines
Primarily, and most controversially, the law requires that the current touch-screen voting system be replaced with a “hybrid” system that utilizes electronic voting machines while also printing physical voting sheets for confirmation. The administration is hopeful that the system, estimated to initially cost around $150 million, will be fully operational by November 2020. This effort ends Georgia’s standing as one of only four states that relies entirely on electronic voting machines void of a verifiable paper trail.
Upon deployment, the new system will be subject to audits in select precincts under the supervision of the State Election Board.
2. Registration cancellations
The period of voter inactivity before one’s registration is cancelled has been extended. Previously, voter registrations could be cancelled after six or seven years if a voter had no contact with election officials and failed to cast any votes over the time period. The new standard is eight or nine years of inactivity.
Additionally, voters are now required to be mailed notification of an upcoming cancellation between 30 and 60 days in advance.
3. Exact match
The exact-match system, which requires consistency across all state documents to verify a voter’s identity, has changed slightly. Instead of putting flagged individuals on pending status immediately, all voter registrations will now become active voters. Inconsistencies are noted in voting records after the fact, at which time flagged individuals will be required to show photo identification that meets exact-match standards to cast a ballot.
4. Polling sites
Changes to precincts, including relocations and closures, are no longer permitted within 60 days of an election. Additionally, the law calls for one voting machine for every 250 voters, a decrease from the previous requirement of a machine for every 200 voters. However, the new machines will be used in both early voting and election day voting, a benefit that was not possible with the state’s old machines.
The new law lowers the threshold required for an automatic recount from a one percent differential to a 0.5 percent differential.
6. Absentee ballots
Instead of rejecting absentee ballots for mismatches between a voter’s signature on their ballot and the one on file, voters will be sent provisional ballots that will be counted if the affected voter provides valid identification.
Secretary of State Raffensperger is now working to ensure the new system is in place prior to the 2020 primary.
Certificate of need
One of most convoluted, confusing and contentious issues of the legislative session was certificate of need (CON) reform. The certificate of need licensure process has been the state’s primary health care licensure regime since its inception in 1979.
The call for reform, a yearly occurrence, came to a boiling point this session after reports from the Senate Study Committee on Certificate of Need Reform, chaired by Senator Ben Watson (R-1), and the House Rural Development Council, co-chaired by Representative Terry England (R-Auburn) and Representative Jay Powell (R-Camilla), called for a full repeal of the CON system that has regulated health care services in Georgia for generations.
Two bills, House Bill 198 and Senate Bill 74, were introduced within the first week of the session. Both would have completely repealed and replaced the CON system. In addition, those bills included transparency requirements for nonprofit hospitals and increased the cap for the rural health care tax credit.
On Monday, February 25, HB 198 passed out of the House Special Committee on Access to Quality Health Care by a vote of 9-4. The bill was recommitted to the special committee, amended and re-presented before ultimately failing on the floor, prior to Crossover Day.
Similarly, two other CON reform bills, Senate Bill 114 and Senate Bill 74, failed to crossover to the House prior to the mandated changeover date.
However, as is often the case when such a significant piece of legislation is backed by influential legislators, CON reform quickly found new life.
Specifically, House Bill 186, a bill originally dealing with hospital authority transactions that had already passed the House, was amended to serve as a vehicle for further changes to the CON law. Despite continuing concerns from many in the hospital community, HB 186 was supported by the Georgia Hospital Association and the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals as a “compromise” bill.
House Bill 186 limits CON application objections to entities that are within a 35-mile radius of a proposed project, creates a pathway for Cancer Treatment Centers of America to expand its operation and increases the financial threshold for expansions that are not subject to CON requirements.
Notably, the bill does not allow for stand-alone emergency rooms, cardiology ambulatory surgery centers or specialized sports medicine facilities.
The bill passed out of the Senate Rules Committee on Monday, March 25, and passed the entire Senate by a vote of 51-4. Soon thereafter it passed the House by a vote of 170-3.
However, the advocates for CON reform were still not finished and proceeded to push through another, more controversial, section of the original CON bill that found its way back into active legislation.
An amendment was added to House Bill 321 to require extensive financial disclosures from nonprofit hospitals, which would be required to make a whole host of financial documents available for public consumption, including bank statements, patient revenues, real estate estimates and executive salaries.
The bill passed both the House and Senate by sizable margins on the back of vocal support from several large hospital systems and Republican leadership. In particular, Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan signaled his strong support for the effort via Twitter. House Bill 321 is bolstered by a state budget item to fund a consultant’s review of nonprofit hospitals’ executive compensation and lobbying activity.
Health care waivers
Throughout his campaign for governor, then Secretary of State Kemp pledged to address Georgia’s subpar health outcomes while also categorically refusing to expand Medicaid. In mid-January, when the governor released his proposed budget it became clear that the administration would pursue waivers. The budget dedicated $1 million to an external consultant who would study the issue.
However, to accomplish that goal the General Assembly would have to pass a bill giving the governor back the authority to pursue waivers after it stripped the office of that power in 2014. On Wednesday, February 13, Senator Blake Tillery (R-19) introduced Senate Bill 106 to do just that.
The bill, which has already been signed into law after passing both chambers, gives Governor Kemp the authority to submit for a 1115 waiver from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to address Medicaid, and a 1332 waiver from both HHS and the US Treasury Department to address the Affordable Care Act. He must do so by June 30, 2020.
Both efforts hinge on federal approval for a waiver to state health care rules.
The 1115 waiver would expand coverage to indigent Georgians with incomes up to the poverty level, about $12,000 for individuals, whereas the 1332 waiver would stabilize the Affordable Care Act exchange markets in an effort to stem skyrocketing insurance premiums.
Notably, the law was not amended since it was introduced—the language is exactly what the governor proposed.
In addition to his promise to address health care outcomes, Governor Kemp was vocal about his conviction to sign the “toughest abortion laws in the country.” He is expected to make good on that promise by signing House Bill 481, which would ban abortions once a doctor can detect a heartbeat in the womb, usually around six weeks into a pregnancy. Currently, Georgia law allows for abortions up to 20 weeks.
After briefly entertaining a trigger bill that would have banned all abortions should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade, Governor Kemp, Lt. Governor Duncan and Republican leadership at the Capitol rallied behind the heartbeat bill introduced the week leading up to Crossover Day on March 7.
House Bill 481, sponsored by Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) passed the House on Crossover Day with just two votes to spare (93-73). In addition to restricting abortions, the Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act would allow parents to receive a child tax credit if a heartbeat has been detected and the mother provides a state-certified pregnancy test. It is thus far unclear how such tests would be verified.
After four hours of rigorous debate, the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 34-18. The House then approved the Senate’s amendments by another razor-thin margin. The governor is expected to sign the bill.
Democrats, who have remained staunchly opposed to the legislation, have promised to remind voters of the bill, which will be one of the most restrictive in the country during the next election cycle. After several film industry executives vocalized their displeasure, Senator Nikema Williams (D-39), who chairs the state Democratic Party, pivoted to an economic argument: “You can’t just say you’re the number one state to do business. You have to live those values. And that includes making sure we are open for business for everyone. That includes women.”
Governor Kemp maintains that he is unconcerned with a business backlash over the anti-abortion bill: “Our business environment is good. We cannot change our values of who we are for money. And we’re not going to do that. That’s what makes our state great. For people to want to boycott the state because we are protecting life at the heartbeat–I don’t understand that. It just doesn’t make very much sense to me, and I think I’ve shown early on I’m a business-friendly governor.”
He has remained unwilling to back down from what was a signature campaign promise even amid internal party misgivings from vulnerable suburban Republican members who are likely to face strong oppositions come November 2020.
Finally, the bill, if signed, will likely face legal challenges. The American Civil Liberties Union has vowed to file a lawsuit immediately upon its signature. Notably, last month a federal judge in Kentucky temporarily blocked a similar heartbeat abortion law, ruling it was potentially unconstitutional.
After years of advocacy led in part, by former State Representative Allen Peake, Georgia lawmakers agreed on legislation, minutes before the clock struck midnight on Sine Die, to allow medical marijuana patients to buy cannabis oil in Georgia. At present, the use of cannabis oil is legal but the sale and purchase of the substance is not.
House Bill 324, sponsored by Representative Micah Gravley (R-Douglasville), would legalize the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana by independent growers, state universities and licensed sellers.
Specifically, the legislation licenses private companies and universities to grow medical marijuana which would be converted into oils and sold by pharmacies and possibly dispensaries to the 8,400 registered medical marijuana patients in Georgia.
In 2015, Georgia legalized medical marijuana consumption in oil form for patients suffering from severe seizures, deadly cancers and other illnesses, but until now, provided the governor signs the legislation, there was no way for patients to purchase it.
The legislation allows for up to six private companies to be licensed to grow marijuana and manufacture oil. In addition, two universities could seek federal approval to start medical marijuana programs. Pharmacies would potentially be able to sell the drug, and a state oversight board would have the authority to allow private dispensaries.
House Bill 324 would make Georgia the 31st state to allow some form of marijuana cultivation. The governor is expected to sign the legislation.
Governor Kemp delivered, in large part, on another one of his core campaign promises: teacher pay raises. Prior to the November 2018 election, Governor Kemp promised a $5,000 pay raise for every public school teacher.
He took the first step to keeping that promise when he released his budget in mid-January which included $491,624,884 in fiscal year 2020 to adjust the state base salary schedule to increase salaries for certified teachers and employees by $3,000.
After legislators from the House and Senate went to conference committee to hash out differences over the fiscal year 2020 budget, lawmakers approved a record $27.5 billion budget for the next fiscal year that includes a $3,000 pay raise for public school teachers and a two percent hike for tens of thousands of state workers.
Once the governor signs the bill into law, it will be one of the largest teacher pay raises in state history. While teachers did not get the entire $5,000 pay raise Governor Kemp campaigned on, he is pitching this initial increase as a precursor to future pay raises.
In addition to teacher pay raises, the budget includes almost $70 million dollars for school security grants. The money will be divided into one-time payments of $30,000 for each public school in the state to spend on security, however they see fit.
Notably, the General Assembly did outline additional duties for schools. Senate Bill 15 would require regular threat assessments, safety plan updates and drills in public schools.
Moreover, it would mandate and clarify coordination between state agencies, local authorities and schools.The bill, which is awaiting the governor’s signature, would allow state police to issue subpoenas without a court order, going through the Georgia attorney general. Phone companies, Internet services and other electronic communications providers would be prohibited from telling customers about the subpoena or any records shared.
In an effort to address the lack of quality Internet access in rural Georgia, two bills passed this session to permit more companies to enter the Internet business. The first, Senate Bill 2, allows electric membership corporations to sell Internet service along with power. The second, Senate Bill 17, which passed just prior to the end of the session, allows telephone cooperatives to offer Internet services. Both await the governor’s signature.
Legislative leave reform
In the wake of an investigative report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 highlighting the use of legislative court privileges that allow for cases to be delayed in the event a lawmaker is fulfilling his or her public duties, House Speaker Ralston appointed a 12-person panel to study the issue. The panel was co-chaired by former House Republican Whip and current Dentons Georgia Government Affairs practice lead Edward Lindsey and former Democratic Representative Ronnie Mabra. The panel also included Representative Jon Burns (R-Newington) and Representative Bob Trammell (D-Luthersville).
The commission proposed giving judges explicit authority to approve or deny these requests in addition to providing opposing counsel and, in criminal cases, victims themselves, the chance to object to the request.
A bill to codify the recommendation passed nearly unanimously in both houses.
In a rare display of unity, not one member of the General Assembly voted against House Bill 282, which would require police to preserve evidence of rapes and similar crimes for up to 50 years. Current state law allows evidence of sexual assaults to be discarded after 10 years.
Under the legislation, evidence including stains, fluids and hair samples would be kept for 50 years if no arrest is made. If a suspect is arrested, evidence would be preserved for 30 years, or for seven years after a sentence is completed.
Georgia leads the United States in HIV rates for adults and adolescence at about 31.8 per 100,000 people according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The General Assembly agreed to two bills to address the crisis. The first would approve needle exchange programs, to help prevent new HIV and other infections among intravenous drug users. The second would set up a pilot program for distribution of a pill known as PrEP to people at high risk of HIV. The pill, whose name is short for pre-exposure prophylaxis, can lower one’s chances of getting the virus if taken daily.
The Georgia legislature operates on a two-year legislative session. Thus, bills that did not pass this year can be resuscitated next session. There were several efforts that generated significant press coverage and interest from high-ranking public officials that did not, in the end, come to pass. Each of these efforts is likely to be reignited come January 2020.
The battle over control of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport nearly came to a head this year, making it farther along the legislative gauntlet than any bill in previous legislative sessions. Senate Bill 131, which would have put Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport under state control, passed out of a Senate committee the last week of February. To the surprise of many, including the city of Atlanta and Delta Air Lines, both of which opposed the bill, SB 131 passed the full Senate prior to crossover.
Once it reached the House, opposition from Speaker Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) slowed the bill’s progress.
The House significantly amended the bill. They changed the airport language to create a state oversight committee instead of changing ownership, added a jet fuel tax exemption coveted by Delta and incorporated language from House Bill 511, which addresses rural transit.
That bill passed the House 104-70 but failed to move in the Senate. Throughout the process the Republican caucus in the Senate wanted stronger control of the airport, an outcome House leadership would not accept.
Interestingly, there are those in Atlanta who may have accepted a weak oversight committee rather than risk the issue coming up again next session, which it inevitably will. If there were to be more revelations of corruption at City Hall, it could add fuel to the fire and lead to a complete takeover come 2020.
A year after guiding House Bill 930, which consolidated transportation administration in the Atlanta metro area into one system under the newly established Atlanta Transit Link, Representative Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville) embarked on yet another ambitious transportation effort. House Bill 511 would divide the state, outside of metro Atlanta, into eight transit planning zones and permit counties to raise taxes for transportation construction and operation. The bill would also consolidate transit services into a single agency, the Georgia Department of Mobility and Innovation. Both the State Road and Tollway Authority and the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority would operate under the new agency. At present, six state agencies have separate transit functions.
Additionally, the bill would create the first ever dedicated state transportation funding mechanism by allocating state sales tax revenue from rides-for-hire to transportation investment.
After passing the House the bill failed to get out of the Senate Transportation Committee. As previously mentioned the language was then folded into Senate Bill 131, along with the revised airport oversight commission and a jet fuel tax break. After that did not win over the Senate leadership, the rural transportation language and the jet fuel tax were tacked onto Senate Bill 200, which was originally legislation to require the Department of Transportation to set up procedures to appeal rejected bids for contracts. That effort also failed.
In sum, after several attempts the new rural transit structure did not pass. However, it is likely to resurface next session as another mechanism to spur economic development outside of the 13 metro Atlanta counties.
There were several efforts to bring gambling to Georgia this session.
Senate Bill 45, dubbed the Rural Georgia Jobs and Growth Act, was approved by the Senate Committee on Economic Development and Tourism early in the session. The bill would permit up to three horse-racing tracks in Georgia and is paired with Senate Resolution 84, a constitutional amendment that would ask voters if betting on horse racing should be legal.
Additionally, a broader effort to permit gambling in the state, Senate Resolution 184 was sponsored by Senator Brandon Beach (R-21). The resolution would have put to voters the question of whether or not to permit casino gambling at destination resorts in Georgia.
In the end, a study committee was appointed to study the issue. According to House Resolution 367, a panel of 11 lawmakers—including most of Senate leadership—are expected to meet during the summer and fall to study the impact of horse racing and casino gambling in the state. For those who want to see legal gaming in the state, this is an encouraging sign. More often than not, if a study committee is assigned, viable legislation with significant support will result.
“By having the right people around the table and learning and being educated on the issue, I think we’ll make progress next year,” Senator Beach said.
For years, lawmakers have sought to expand gambling in Georgia. Unlike previous leaders, Governor Kemp, Lt. Governor Duncan and Speaker Ralston (R- Blue Ridge) did not specifically oppose the measure this year.
Electric scooters, bikes
Lawmakers approved House Bill 454 to regulate electric bikes but stopped short of increased regulation of electric scooters.
The bill originally included statewide regulations for electric scooters, but the language was ultimately stripped. Lawmakers have stated that talks will continue, with an eye toward a new bill next year. To facilitate that conversation, the State Senate approved Senate Resolution 479, which creates a committee to study scooter regulations. The committee will report back before next year’s legislative session.
Efforts to establish a tax on video streaming, e-books and music downloads failed to gain a floor vote amid opposition from both Governor Kemp and Lt. Governor Duncan.
Representative Bill Werkheiser (R-Glennville), with the support of House Rules Chairman Jay Powell (R-Camilla), introduced House Bill 428 to impose a four percent combined state and local tax rate on communications services other than direct broadcast satellite services and subscription streaming services. The bill was assigned to the House Ways and Means Committee.
The bill did not make it out of committee but the issue is expected to resurface.
Education scholarship accounts
Efforts to expand school choice were given a boost with the election of Lt. Governor Duncan, who firmly supports not only charter schools but also education scholarship accounts that permit parents to spend the state education money allocated to their child.
Senate Bill 173, the Georgia Educational Scholarship Act, passed out of the Senate Finance committee in early March by a vote of 9-3. The legislation would establish “education scholarship accounts” to transfer state dollars equal to the amount the state pays per student in a given district, to parents. The money could have gone to a private school instead, or to other educational costs, including textbooks, tutoring or therapy.
The Senate voted down Senate Bill 173.
After the Senate bill failed, moderated language was attached to House Bill 68 sponsored by Representative John Carson (R-Marietta). The adjusted language capped participation in the program to 2.5 percent of statewide enrollment and restricted access to certain at-risk student demographics.
Then, on Friday, the second to last day of the 2019 legislative session, the Senate Rules Committee reversed course, removing the SB 173 language from HB 68.
While expanded educational choice did not make it over the finish line this year, the support of Lt. Governor Duncan bodes well for future efforts.
House Bill 514 was passed and would, upon approval by the governor, establish a state commission to analyze Georgia’s behavioral health services and recommend improvements.
The commission would be authorized to take ‘‘a very deep dive’’ into the state’s mental health system, said Representative Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville), lead sponsor of House Bill 514.
Emergency medical services
A bill to bring greater transparency to the provision of ambulance services in Georgia fell short. House Bill 264, sponsored by Representative Werkheiser (R-Glennville), would ban private providers from influencing contracting decisions, impose stricter reporting requirements and ensure that those who lobby EMS councils to register with the state ethics commission.
Two different versions of House Bill 264 passed the House and the Senate before ultimately going to conference committee. There the bill was altered to include regulations on tattoo artists and changes to campaign finance law. A consensus could not be reached. The issue has been tabled but will certainly reemerge in the 2020 session.
Freight and logistics
There were two efforts during the legislative session to create a commission to examine the state’s freight and logistics apparatus. Senator Brandon Beach (R-21) sponsored Senate Resolution 318, while Representative Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville) sponsored House Resolution 37. Both bills would have established the Georgia Commission on Freight and Logistics. Ultimately HR 37 passed both chambers and will, upon the governor’s signature, become law and create the commission.
The Georgia Commission on Freight and Logistics will be comprised of three members of the House and three members of the Senate as well as four freight and logistics industry professionals and four mayors or county commissioners. The commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation and the executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority would serve as ex-officio members.
The commission will study and recommend public policy changes concerning freight and logistics in Georgia. It will issue its report by December 31, 2019.
Along with Chairman Tanner, co-signers on the legislation include Appropriations Chairman Terry England (R-Auburn), Representative Brian Prince (D-Augusta), Representative Brett Harrell (R-Snellville) and Representative Vance Smith (R-Pine Mountain).
All in all, the 2019 legislative session featured a few bipartisan successes—teacher pay raises and sexual assault evidence preservation—but was, for the most part, consumed by highly controversial partisan battles, including abortion and voting rights. Going into 2020, expect Republicans to shy away from similarly divisive legislation in an effort to protect suburban members while pushing forward on transportation, mental health and school choice. Finally, keep an eye on two wild cards: gambling and marijuana. Will the state consider additional changes to marijuana laws and permit gambling or will social conservatives continue to halt such efforts? Tune in January 2020 to find out.