Deal puts stamp on raises for Georgia judges, benefits for automakers

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Many top state judges will get 10 percent raises under a bill Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law Wednesday.

It was a busy day for the governor, who also put his signature on a number of pieces of legislation that involve automakers and ride-sharing firms.

Deal cleared the way for Supreme Court justices, and Appeals Court and Superior Court judges to all receive raises under House Bill 279. District attorneys and circuit public defenders will see pay increases, as will members of the State Board of Workers’ Compensation and hundreds of county officials whose compensation is tied to the judges’ pay.

The raises will cost the state $5.8 million a year and cost some counties hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Under HB 279, Supreme Court justices and Appeals Court judges will get 5 percent raises, boosting their pay to $175,600 and $174,500, respectively.

Superior Court judges, district attorneys and public defenders will receive 5 percent raises, too. In addition, under a proposal Deal made, those officials in circuits with accountability courts — a majority of the circuits — will see an additional $6,000.

Accountability courts, backed by Deal, require defendants to go to work, stay sober and get treatment. Most offenders enter the programs to stay out of prison and, if they graduate, get their charges dismissed. Judges say they perform accountability court work in addition to their regular duties.

The measure will bump up the pay of some Superior Court judges in places such as Marietta, Augusta and Savannah to above or near $200,000 year.

Supporters of HB 279 say the big raises are needed to make sure top lawyers seek out judgeships when there are openings. But the state seldom has a shortage of top lawyers wanting to be judges.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month that hundreds of county officials have their pay tied to what Superior Court judges make. So a raise for Superior Court judges means a raise for local judges, tax commissioners, county commissioners and others in some counties.

On Wednesday, Deal also signed into law:

  • Tax breaks for Mercedes-Benz workers and a small private Baptist college.

Passage of the tax breaks offered under House Bill 202 was the final act of the Georgia Senate during the 2015 legislative session.

The bill includes several provisions aimed at helping Georgians who want to appeal their property valuations. Deal, however, requested a last-minute add-on to HB 202 to keep the 800 or so employees who will be working at Mercedes-Benz's future U.S. headquarters in north Fulton County from having to pay taxes on the cars they lease.

Instead, the executives and staffers will get special license plates, at a cost of $62. State officials estimate the tax break will cost about $1.2 million a year.

Mercedes-Benz USA confirmed earlier this year that it would build a new $93 million campus in Sandy Springs, creating 800 to 1,000 jobs with an average pay of more than $78,000.

The sponsor of HB 202 in the Senate, Sen. Bruce Thompson, R-White, also tacked on a sales tax break of up to $350,000 on the purchase of construction materials by Truett-McConnell College, a private Baptist school in Cleveland, Ga. Thompson is a trustee of the college.

  • A change in the state's purchasing policy to help one existing Georgia-based automaker — and potentially lure another.

The new law, House Bill 259, would let state purchasing agents buy cars made in Georgia without going through a competitive bidding process.

Kia Motors is Georgia’s only major auto manufacturer, and thousands of employees work at its West Point-based plant and a string of nearby suppliers. But it could soon have company, as Volvo nears a decision on where it will place its first U.S.-based factory. Georgia and South Carolina are both on the short list for the project.

“It’s important that we recognize if somebody makes the investment and creates jobs in our state, they should be given a preference,” Deal said.

  • Regulations for the ride-sharing firms Uber and Lyft, as well as a requirement that their drivers carry up to $1 million in insurance coverage.

Few issues have generated as much feedback from voters as House Bill 190 and House Bill 225 did. But both firms ultimately signed onto the plan after lawmakers made changes that allowed the companies to conduct their own background checks rather than require all drivers to be fingerprinted.

It could have turned out very differently.

Uber left Kansas this week after lawmakers there approved legislation that requires state background checks for its drivers and mandates an increase in their insurance coverage. The company said in a blog post that the new bill “makes it impossible for Uber to operate in the state.”