Georgia Legislative Update – March 9, 2020

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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.