Owners of giant yachts will get a tax break if they get their boats refitted or repaired in Savannah under legislation that takes effect Saturday. (Henrik Fisker)

Raises, tax breaks, school and medical marijuana laws take effect

Pay raises for tens of thousands of state and university employees, the latest plan to help low-performing schools, an expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program, tax breaks for giant yacht owners and funding to pay for more than $1 billion in construction projects across Georgia take effect Saturday.

The start of the new year on the state government calendar Saturday brings more than 120 new laws. Many represent only minor changes, but some will have a big impact. .

“Campus carry,” legislation taking effect allowing anyone with a concealed-weapon permit to carry firearms on public college and university campuses has been the most publicized of the new laws.

But for educators, state employees and the millions served by state government and schools, the new $25 billion state budget will have the greatest impact.

It includes 2 percent more money for raises for tens of thousands of state and university system employees. Their raises take effect Saturday, although how much individuals will get generally depends on the raises their supervisors approved. Teachers will get their portion of the state raises — if school districts pass them along — on Sept. 1 when their new contracts begin.

Some employees, like child protective services staffers, will get much larger raises in an attempt to slow the pace of turnover in those jobs.

The new budget provides more money for schools, public health care, public safety, and many other areas of government services. It also includes funding for dozens of construction projects across the state. The state recently borrowed a record $1.4 billion, based largely on the new budget, to pay for school, bridge and other construction projects.

The new year will also bring a new round of tax breaks. Among those taking effect Saturday are:

Another new law that takes effect Saturday brings the state’s first increase in hunting and fishing fees in 25 years. The cost of a basic annual fishing and hunting license will rise from $17 to $30, and other fees will also be increased.

The aim is to provide additional money for the Department of Natural Resources to hire dozens of new rangers and make other improvements to public sites across the state.

The state’s limited medical marijuana statute, which first took effect in 2015, will be expanded under another law taking effect. The new law adds more conditions eligible for medical marijuana treatment: AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, epidermolysis bullosa, peripheral neuropathy and Tourette’s syndrome. It also allows patients in hospice care to possess the oil.

The state continues to expand the program despite the fact that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has asked Congress to remove federal protections preventing the Department of Justice from cracking down on medical marijuana providers.

Another new law will give the state broader power to intervene in schools it dubs low-performing, creating a state “chief turnaround officer” who would lead an intervention on such campuses.

“Campus carry” isn’t the only new law for colleges, but another one hitting the books Saturday is largely symbolic. It would let the state withhold public funding from any college in Georgia that declares itself a “sanctuary campus” for undocumented students in defiance of President Trump’s immigration policies. The bill was introduced after Emory University and other colleges flirted with the “sanctuary” declaration. Since then, Emory and other Georgia higher education institutions have steered clear of the fight.

The Sine Die 2017 edition of Georgia Legislative Week in Review with Aaron Gould Sheinin, Kristina Torres and the Phrase of the Week by James Salzer. Video by Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

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