Rep. Tom McCall, R-Elberton, heads for the door just after Crossover Day came to an end early Friday morning. Ben@BenGray.com / Special
Photo: Ben@bengray.com
Photo: Ben@bengray.com

Raises and gang bills pass, gambling and gun measures stall at Capitol

Georgia legislators showed their priorities in a flurry of votes this week before the state Capitol shut down, passing bills to crack down on gangs, impose a tax on ride-share companies and clean up environmental waste.

Contentious proposals on gambling, guns and religion fell short before the clock struck midnight Thursday, the deadline for bills to clear either the House or Senate. It’s possible but unlikely for bills to be revived.

State lawmakers set the stage for the bills they’ll consider during the rest of the General Assembly’s annual session. Legislators suspended this year’s session indefinitely because of the growing coronavirus pandemic, but Gov. Brian Kemp asked them to return to the Capitol on Monday to approve an emergency health declaration.

It’s unclear when lawmakers will return, but at least one bill must pass in the coming months. The Georgia Constitution requires legislators to approve the state’s $28 million state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

PASSED

Budget and taxes

A proposed state budget would give teachers a $1,000 pay raise, half of the $2,000 raise sought by Kemp. The budget also would add 2% pay raises for state employees and government workers, and as much as 5% more for those in high-turnover jobs, including food safety inspectors, prison guards and mental health workers.

In addition, the House passed a bill that would cut state income tax rates again, from 5.75% to 5.375%. The General Assembly previously reduced the top income tax rate from 6% in 2018. The tax cut under House Bill 949 would cost Georgia’s government about $250 million a year, according to a state estimate.

Gangs

People accused of gang crimes could face harsher punishments under a bill that cleared the Georgia House shortly before midnight Thursday.

Kemp has emphasized fighting gangs, but critics of House Bill 994 say it would put more juveniles in the adult court system without reducing crime.

Uber tax

Passengers who use ride-share services such as Uber and Lyft would have to pay a 50-cent-per-ride fee, according to House Bill 105. Proceeds from the fee would be spent on mass transit.

Ride-share companies and their customers have so far avoided paying taxes in Georgia, but that would change as of April 1. The fee would raise up to $40 million annually.

Coal ash

Bills to manage coal ash, a toxic waste material left behind from the burning of coal, passed the Georgia House.

Residents in the city of Juliette have said they believe their water has been contaminated by coal ash stored at a nearby power plant.

The legislation approved Thursday would require notice to communities when coal ash ponds are drained and monitoring of groundwater around ash ponds.

STALLED

Gambling

A proposal to ask Georgians whether they think the state should expand gambling never came to a vote in the state House.

The legislation, House Resolution 378, would have sought an amendment to the Georgia Constitution to allow parimutuel wagering, casino gambling and sports betting.

Religious liberty

The state Senate didn’t move ahead with a bill that would have allowed faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples or those with different religious beliefs.

Backers of Senate Bill 368 said it would allow birth mothers to ensure their children grow up with a specific religious background, but opponents said it’s blatantly discriminatory.

Brandishing guns

Legislation for gun owners to be able to pull or show their firearms failed to advance to a Senate floor vote.

Under Senate Bill 224, licensed gun owners also would have been allowed to carry their weapons in churches and in courts when there are no judicial proceedings. Under current law, a person who pulls a gun on someone can be charged with felony aggravated assault.

Vaping tax

The Georgia House voted down a proposal to tax vaping and other nicotine products. The measure would have also cut in half the tax on smokeless tobacco products.

Since House Bill 364 failed, vaping products will remain subject to Georgia’s sales tax but carry no additional levy. Cigarettes are taxed at 37 cents per pack in Georgia.

Senior care

Two bills tackling issues at the state’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities stalled this week. A broader bill, House Bill 987, passed the House earlier this year.

House Bill 955 was aiming to help make sure local coroners or medical examiners are notified of unexpected deaths in senior care homes. It stalled in committee Monday amid a bevy of concerns from the nursing home industry. House Bill 849 called for families to be allowed to install so-called “granny cams” in rooms at nursing homes and assisted living facilities to monitor what’s going on with their loved ones.

The bills were filed earlier this year on the heels of an investigation in the fall by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that identified significant gaps in the reporting system for elder abuse and neglect in Georgia’s assisted living and personal care homes.

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