Georgia governor vetoes drone bill, ethics amnesty for local officials

Staff writer James Salzer contributed to this article.

Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed more than a dozen bills Tuesday besides the highly publicized measure that would have allowed guns on college campuses, including legislation that would have regulated the use of drones, given local officials amnesty from back ethics fines and made it easier for firefighters to get workers’ compensation benefits if they get cancer.

Deal’s office also announced that the governor had vetoed $600,000 in borrowing to fund construction of a seawall on Hutchinson Island.

Meanwhile, the governor signed into law dozens of bills on the final day for him to sign or veto legislation.

The drone bill, House Bill 779, would have banned weaponized drones, created a drone commission and clarified privacy protections that apply to drones.

In his veto message, Deal said he believed that the state should first allow the Federal Aviation Authority to set federal rules and regulations for the use of drones before the state or local governments get involved in regulating the aircraft.

House Bill 370 would have granted local officials amnesty from several years' worth of outstanding ethics fines.

The bill would have wiped the slate clean for thousands of county commissioners, mayors, school board members and other local officials who did not file campaign finance reports from 2010 to 2014, as long as they made amends by filing those missing reports by Dec. 31.

The state ethics commission’s computer system for years was overwhelmed, and many of those local officials who were fined claimed they filed on time but the commission’s system didn’t work properly.

Deal said, “This retroactive measure amounts to amnesty for individuals who failed to follow correct procedures for the filing of these documents.” And he added that it had the potential to force the commission to refund fines, fees and penalties that have “already been paid by violators.”

House Bill 216 would have let Georgia firefighters with cancer get workers' compensation benefits if they could provide "a preponderance" of evidence that their work caused the disease.

Firefighters applying for the benefit would have had to demonstrate exposure to a known carcinogen as a result of their occupation. Otherwise, state law considers cancer an “ordinary disease of life,” disqualifying it from claims.

Deal said while he supports firefighters, “I am concerned that codifying an exception for one occupation at this relatively low standard of proof with no time limitation on diagnosis or restriction on eligible types of cancer is a broad solution for a problem not yet abundantly demonstrated in Georgia.”

Lobbyists for Georgia cities and counties had raised concerns about the bill.

Deal also vetoed House Bill 219, which would have allowed operators of townhouse, condo and subdivision pools to "opt out" of a 36-item public health inspection, provided each pool served no more than 75 swimmers.

Among the bills that got Deal's signature were the so-called Right to Try Act, House Bill 34, which will allow terminally ill patients to use experimental treatments, and House Bill 768, the Georgia ABLE Act, which will allow disabled Georgians to save for treatment with pre-tax donations to an account similar to a health savings account.

"Both of these pieces of legislation represent significant improvements for the ill and disabled in our state by getting government out of the way and allowing citizens to chart their own course," said state Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, who co-sponsored both bills.

Residents of south Fulton County will also get to vote this fall on whether to create a new city of South Fulton after Deal signed House Bill 514 on Tuesday.

Deal additionally backed a number of education bills, with the most notable being a proposal to reduce the role of state tests in public school classrooms. The signing of Senate Bill 364 drew cheers from the state's teachers, who said it will free them from spending so much time on exam preparation and test-taking by students.

“It’s fitting that Governor Deal signed SB 364 into law on this Teacher Appreciation Day,” said Allene Magill, the executive director of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators — the largest teacher advocacy group in the state. “These critical reforms are necessary to lessen the testing burden on students, parents and schools and to de-emphasize the impact of testing on educators’ evaluations.

The measure will lessen the weight of test results in teacher evaluations. Student test “growth” — the improvement in scores over time — currently counts for at least half of each teacher’s evaluation, but that will now drop to 30 percent.

Proponents say the changes would result in less exam preparation and rote learning, but critics say schools would find it harder to identify weak teachers.

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