Georgia Legislative Update – February 6, 2020

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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.