State Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, has proposed Senate Bill 368, which would allow faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to place children with couples on religious grounds. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

The Follow Up: ‘Religious liberty’ returns in Georgia adoption bill

Faith-based legislation could kindle new fight

“Religious liberty” made its 2020 debut this past week at the General Assembly.

This time, it took the form of a bill that would allow faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to place children with couples on religious grounds.

That could mean atheists, people of another faith or same-sex couples.

State Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, said his legislation, Senate Bill 368, aims to “preserve choice” for birth mothers who want to ensure their children grow up in a particular religious background. It would also protect agencies with religious roots, he said.

Religious liberty bills pop up nearly every year at the Legislature. A previous measure proposed allowing faith-based organizations to deny services to those who violate their “sincerely held religious belief” and to preserve their right to fire employees who aren’t in accord with those beliefs. It cleared the General Assembly before succumbing to a veto by then-Gov. Nathan Deal.

Supporters say religious liberty legislation would add a layer of protection for people of faith. Critics, however, say the measures could allow discrimination against groups such as lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

Democrats in the state have generally opposed such measures. But the real fights occur within Georgia’s dominant Republican Party, pitting social conservatives against other party members more in line with the state’s business interests.

That played out again this week, when officials from the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce quickly opposed Harbin’s bill, saying the proposal “limits options for children in need of a permanent home and takes us further away from our goal of attracting investments that improve the lives of Georgia families.”

Some members of the Senate Republican leadership have signed on as co-sponsors of SB 368, but it could hit a roadblock in the House. Speaker David Ralston said before the session that he didn’t want to see religious liberty bills similar to measures proposed in 2018 that almost scuttled adoption legislation then.

Gov. Brian Kemp is a question mark on the bill.

When he was running for governor, he said he would sign religious liberty legislation, but only if it didn’t go beyond the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That 1993 measure, which President Bill Clinton signed into law, requires the federal government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before it interferes with a person’s exercise of religion.

But the governor was vague early in the session when he was asked whether he would try to pre-emptively block legislation to allow adoption agencies to refuse to work with LGBTQ people. He said he would deal with the issue “when the time comes.”

That time is here.

Supporters stage defense for film tax credits

Defenders of Georgia’s film tax credits — the most lucrative in the nation — took aim at state audits released last month that questioned the administration of the program and the way its economic impact was measured.

Thomas Cunningham, the chief economist for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said the program — which reimburses filmmakers up to 30% of what they spend on production in Georgia — has been a boon for the state.

“A $667 million expenditure gets $4.6 billion in income generated — that’s about a 7-to-1 return,” he told members of the House Working Group on Creative Arts and Entertainment, citing 2016 data from the audit. “That’s not bad.”

The auditors found the impact in 2016 was much less, $2.8 billion, when considering what would have happened if the state had spent that money differently, for example, on education or health care. They also found that credits had been given for millions of dollars in ineligible expenditures.

Officials with Georgia’s Department of Economic Development and Department of Revenue — the two agencies that administer the tax credit program — said they implemented some of the auditors’ recommendations. An outdated formula will no longer be used in determining a film project’s financial benefit to the state, and changes have been made in tracking how many film and TV jobs go to Georgians.

State Rep. Randy Nix, R-LaGrange, made it clear he’s still a film buff, saying he disagreed with calls to limit the tax credits.

“When people come back and tell me, ‘Well, the state is giving away $667 million’ … that $667 million comes from $4.6 billion,” he said. “They look at just the tax credit and they don’t recognize it’s a push-pull thing. You eliminate the tax credit, the $4.6 billion is not there.”

Rural transit gets a lift with a new bill

After stalling last year in the state Senate, a bill aimed at expanding opportunities for transit in rural Georgia appears to be back on the road.

Last year, in a my-way-or-the-highway moment, the Georgia Department of Transportation tapped the brakes on the bill because it would have created a separate agency to oversee rural transit programs.

This year’s legislation, House Bill 511, would move that oversight within GDOT by creating a transit division in the department.

HB 511 bears resemblance to legislation lawmakers approved two years ago to expand transit in metro Atlanta. That law enabled 13 metro counties to raise sales taxes for transit, provided voters went along with it. It also created a regional board to oversee transit planning and funding.

The new bill, proposed by House Transportation Committee Chairman Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, would divide the rest of the state into eight regions for transit planning and funding purposes. It would also create a 50-cent excise tax on ground transportation rides per hire, and 25 cents for shared rides.

Big changes to teacher pensions shelved

Educators and retirees beat back an effort to make big changes in the teacher pension system after targeting lawmakers with a flood of emails.

In recent years, teacher groups have successfully fought off attempts to overhaul the system by turning back efforts to transform the pension system for new hires into a defined-contribution program, such as a 401(k).

Georgia lawmakers have talked about tinkering with the pension system for years after seeing similar retirement programs in other states become severely underfunded. The state’s Teacher Retirement System has been in relatively good shape, although lawmakers had to pour in extra money in recent years to make it more stable.

The costs of the program could increase. A state audit last year projected that if no changes are made to the system, the annual contributions from the state and school districts could grow to $4.4 billion by 2045. That would be more than double what they now pay in a typical year.

The tweaking now sought by House Bill 109 — after the email campaign — would prevent new teachers in the future from counting sick leave toward their pensions, something that can add $1,000 or more a year in payments to retirees. Cost-of-living increases in the teacher pensions — which are 3% annually — would be tacked on once a year. Currently, retirees receive a 1.5% bump twice a year. The move would save $17 million a year, said House Retirement Committee Chairman Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson.

Less testing, more education

You can sum it up this way: There’s really no division between how Gov. Brian Kemp, Georgia teachers and students feel about testing — subtraction is the only way to add to education.

Kemp is pushing for legislation to lessen the influence of testing after meeting with school leaders, parents and teachers across the state who said it was dominating classroom time.

If Georgia were required to show its work, it would actually begin in 2016, when the General Assembly reduced the number of mandatory standardized tests in the state from 32 to 24. That was still more than the 17 tests required by federal law.

The legislation Kemp is backing — which was written with the help of advocacy groups for teachers and school administrators — would bring the state’s test total down to 19.

Is this an idea whose time has come? Making DST N/A.

Could the clock be ticking for daylight saving time in Georgia?

State Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, wants to hold a nonbinding referendum that would give voters the chance to sound off on all that stuff about gaining an hour and losing an hour.

It’s nonbinding, so it wouldn’t bring an immediate end to the need to twice a year reset your alarm clocks, microwave ovens and car radios.

But if Cantrell’s House Bill 709 wins passage, the results of the November vote could shape future legislation. Voters would be asked whether they would prefer to switch to a year-round standard time or year-round daylight saving time. (Warning: The latter would require congressional action.)

The voters could also opt to keep things as they are, but Cantrell doesn’t see that happening.

“By and large,” he said, “people cannot stand the time change.”

Senate decides regulation of scooters is not its job

Georgia senators have decided what scooters are. They still haven’t figured out what to do about them.

That’s a job that now could fall to cities and counties under Senate Bill 159, which is headed to the state House of Representatives.

“We didn’t want to overregulate the industry,” said state Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega. “We want to encourage more development of this kind of technology.”

Last year, lawmakers tried to work out statewide regulations that would satisfy both local governments and scooter companies. This year, they decided that’s better handled at the local level.

SB 159 does define scooters as any device that weighs less than 100 pounds and is:

  • Equipped with handlebars and an electric motor.
  • Powered by an electric motor, human power or both.
  • Capable of a maximum speed of no more than 20 mph.

STAT OF THE WEEK

4%

What is it? That’s the percentage of the decline in Georgia traffic fatalities in 2019, following a 2.2% decrease in 2018.

Why is it relevant? Some of the credit for those declines goes the state’s 2018 distracted driving law, which fines motorists $50 for a first offense if they’re found handling their cellphones or other electronic devices while driving. State Rep. John Carson — out of concern that too many of the state’s drivers ignore the law — has proposed House Bill 113, which would increase the fine to as much as $100 for a first offense, up to $200 for a second offense and as high as $300 for a third offense. The Marietta Republican sees a need to increase the deterrent nature of the law.

The bill, however, met resistance from other lawmakers this past week at a hearing before the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, asked: “When does a fine become a tax? That’s what this is doing.”

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“Thanks for doing this. I will be voting against it only because I don’t think it does enough.” — State Rep. Spencer Frye, D-Athens, speaking to state Rep. Mark Newton, R-Augusta, about legislation Newton sponsored.

House Bill 789 would attempt to stop surprise billing for health care by requiring insurers to post online which hospitals in their network have specialties performed by doctors who are in network for four of the most common independent specialties: anesthesiologists, emergency doctors, pathologists and radiologists.

The legislation, however, does not guarantee that the information listed by the insurers is correct.

SCHEDULE

The floors of the state House and Senate will sit idle for the coming week. The work will be done in committee rooms, and the main task will be working on the budget.

Legislators have been grappling all session with Gov. Brian Kemp’s order to cut spending by 4% this fiscal year and 6% next year. The governor was looking for a hedge against a possible economic downturn amid slow tax collections while also trying to set aside money for his priorities, including a teacher pay raise.

This past week, the House’s leadership put everything else on hold while lawmakers sharpen pencils and look for ways to reduce spending.

In a letter to House members, Speaker David Ralston told his colleagues to suspend all scheduled committee meetings that aren’t related to the budget so they can focus all “time and energies on this important work.”

“Our goal remains to arrive at a conservative, balanced budget that invests wisely and moves our state forward,” Ralston said in the letter.

Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce stressed that “the governor’s budget proposals are conservative and balanced, reflecting our values and vision as a state.”

Lawmakers will wait until after the federal Presidents Day holiday before returning to the floors.

Scheduling has also now set Crossover Day, Day 28 of the session, for March 12. That’s when a bill typically — we can’t stress “typically” enough — needs to pass at least one chamber in order to have a chance at becoming law during the session.

The final day of the 40-day session remains unscheduled.

Here’s the schedule so far:

Feb. 18-21: legislative days 13-16

Feb. 24-28: legislative days 17-21

March 2-5: legislative days 22-25

March 9-10: legislative days 26-27

March 12: legislative day 28

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X