The General Assembly kicked things up a notch this past week, starting Monday with Crossover Day, when bills need to clear at least one chamber to have a good chance of becoming law. (Legislation isn’t necessarily dead if it misses that deadline — its language could be inserted into another measure that made the jump from chamber to chamber.) Progress on proposals continued after Crossover Day, with some bills even making their way to Gov. Brian Kemp, awaiting his signature to become law.
Here’s a look at some of the proposals — more can be found at https://www.ajc.com/politics/ — that moved forward this week.
General Assembly approves property tax cut as part of midyear budget
Georgia property owners will be able to pocket, on average, about $500 through a tax cut in the midyear budget that the General Assembly approved this past week.
That boost to homeowners’ wallets would come through an extra one-time exemption on the value of their homes at tax time. The cost to the state will be about $950 million.
That money would be in addition to a separate $1 billion income tax rebate that would pay $250 to single filers and $500 to married couples who file jointly. That legislation has already cleared the House and moved forward in the Senate this past week.
The $32.5 billion midyear budget covers a lot of territory, including the restoration of about $1.1 billion in funding to the Georgia Department of Transportation that was lost when the state suspended its motor fuel tax to give drivers a break from high gas prices.
The budget, which runs through June 30, also calls for $500 bonuses for 54,000 state government pensioners. That follows last year’s cost-of-living increase for those pensioners, the first one they had received in more than a decade.
Lawmakers also set aside $166.7 million to help fund large economic development projects in the state, including new Rivian and Hyundai car plants.
And they included money for $50,000 safety grants in each school, money to help students who may have fallen behind academically during the COVID-19 pandemic, and more money in dozens of other areas, such as health care, rural workforce housing development, prisons and public safety.
Work also continues on the budget proposal for fiscal 2024 — which begins July 1. A measure advanced in the House this past week that would provide raises of $4,000 to law enforcement officers and $2,000 for other state employees, University System of Georgia workers and teachers.
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com
Senate backs limits on treatment for transgender children
Republicans in the Georgia Senate backed legislation that would prohibit medical professionals from giving certain hormones or surgical treatment to transgender children that assists them in aligning with their gender identity.
Senate Bill 140 would prevent medical professionals from giving hormones such as estrogen or testosterone, although it would not ban medication that slows or stops puberty.
State Sen. Carden Summers, a Cordele Republican who sponsored the bill, said issues stemming from gender dysphoria, the medical diagnosis for many transgender people, will “resolve themselves” as children become young adults.
“This is simply saying this is a pause and we are asking children to be 18 years or older before they make a decision that will alter their lives forever,” he said.
Transgender advocates say it is rare for doctors to perform nonreversible surgeries on minors.
Democrats who opposed SB 140 expressed concern about the impact the legislation could have on the mental health of transgender children.
State Sen Kim Jackson, the chamber’s first openly LGBTQ member, said the bill “actually may be deadly.”
“I know there’s been some concerns about children having procedures that may be irreversible,” Jackson said. “But you know what the ultimate most irreversible thing is? Suicide.”
The bill includes an exception for the treatment of intersex children — those who are not born with the genitalia, chromosomes or reproductive organs of only one gender. There are also allowances for physicians to treat children for nongender-related reasons, such as a sexual development disorder or an injury or infection.
Minors could also continue to receive hormone treatments if they began before July 1, when the bill, if signed into law, would take effect.
SB 140 now goes to the House for its consideration.
Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC
Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC
Legislation targeting antisemitism clears House
The House backed a measure that would define antisemitism so it could be covered under Georgia’s hate crimes law, meaning people could see stiffer penalties if they committed crimes against Jewish people based on their religious orientation or ethnicity.
State Rep. Esther Panitch, the only Jewish legislator in the General Assembly, said the need for House Bill 30 became clear after antisemitic flyers were placed last month in the driveways of predominantly Jewish neighborhoods in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody.
While the legislation wouldn’t make antisemitic flyers illegal, actions that target Jewish people could be used in court as evidence of a motive when prosecuting crimes.
The bill ran into some resistance from several Democrats who said they opposed the measure because religious protections are already covered by the state’s hate crimes law.
“It begs the question as to why the Georgia code doesn’t define anti-Black racism or anti-Latino racism or anti-Asian racism,” said state Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Democrat from Lilburn. “A bill such as this may unintentionally have the effect of having each marginalized group wondering where is their definition in the code.”
But Panitch said that while the state’s hate crimes law includes racial and religious discrimination, it doesn’t necessarily cover the usage of symbols such as swastikas against Jews.
Georgia’s hate crimes law, which was enacted in 2020, allows harsher criminal penalties against those who target their victims on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, sex, national origin, religion, or physical or mental disability. HB 30 would add antisemitism as evidence of discriminatory intent under the hate crimes law.
The bill is headed to the Georgia Senate.
Measure moves forward that would increase oversight of prosecutors
District attorneys could face more oversight — with the possibility of being ousted from their elected offices — under a measure the House approved.
House Bill 231 would create a five-member commission appointed by the Georgia Supreme Court with the power to investigate, punish and remove the state’s 50 district attorneys and solicitors general for a range of violations, including “willful misconduct” in office.
Backers say the panel would pursue both Democratic and Republican prosecutors, but sides are definitely forming along ideological lines.
Former Republican President Donald Trump, the subject of an ongoing probe led by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, has praised the proposal and similar measures that could boost the pressure on prosecutors. So has U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Rome.
Opponents of the measure, including almost every Democrat in the state House, said there are already layers of accountability built into the system, such as oversight by the State Bar of Georgia and a little-used provision that allows the General Assembly to remove prosecutors.
Willis frames HB 231 as part of a broader effort to retaliate against her and other prosecutors representing Democratic strongholds, and she has noted in the past that it follows the election in recent years of a record number of minorities to prosecutorial posts in Georgia.
“I think it’s targeting me and maybe people with similar ideologies,” Willis said, “and wanting to replace it for ideologies that don’t represent the majority of the state’s population.”
Sponsors say HB 231 and the other measures aimed at prosecutors have nothing to do with Willis’ probe.
Republicans have said it’s a way to rein in “rogue prosecutors” who they see as ineffective or inept, and supporters often bring up liberal district attorneys who have declined to enforce low-level drug offenses and other violations.
Nearly two dozen mostly Republican prosecutors recently signed a letter backing the creation of the panel.
“Prosecutors are not legislatures. We do not create laws. We seek justice for violations of Georgia’s laws. We believe prosecutors that decline to enforce a provision of law or an entire body of law go too far,” the letter states.
House OKs measure to boost production of medical marijuana
Two startup companies that now hold licenses to produce medical marijuana in Georgia could soon have company after the House voted to expand production of the drug by awarding up to 15 more licenses.
Lawmakers hope the legislation, House Bill 196, will end court challenges filed by nine companies. Those companies allege the process used to award licenses was secretive and unfair.
Georgia law has allowed the use of an oil with no more than 5% THC, the compound that gives users a high, since 2015 for registered patients. But those patients, who suffer from a number of illnesses and conditions — including severe seizures, Parkinson’s disease and terminal cancers — have never had a legal way to obtain it.
The two companies with licenses, Botanical Sciences and Trulieve Georgia, hope to begin selling medical marijuana by late spring or summer.
State Rep. Alan Powell said that by allowing more producers, HB 196 could prevent a “monopoly” in the medical marijuana market. Under a law passed in 2019, the General Assembly called for six production licenses, but four of them are on hold while lawsuits are pending.
“It’s time for us to move on. This isn’t about us. This is about the people of Georgia,” said Powell, a Republican from Hartwell. “Let’s fix this system.”
The legislation now advances to the state Senate for further consideration.
Bill passes that would make it easier for college students to get needs-based aid
More Georgia college students would be eligible for needs-based financial aid under legislation that cleared the House.
House Bill 249 builds on legislation passed last year that created completion grants to help cover costs for needy students who are close to graduating.
The legislation sponsored by state Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, would reduce the number of credits students must have completed before they qualify for help. To qualify, students in a four-year program would have to complete 70% of their credit requirements; students in a two-year program would have to complete 45%. The program currently requires students to have completed 80% of their credits before they can receive need-based help.
Martin said the current threshold doesn’t make sense since students often do financial planning on an annual basis. For a two-year program, students typically would have completed only half their needed credits as they begin their second year of studies.
The bill also would increase how much students can receive, from the $2,500 current limit to a total of $3,500. It would allow students to receive up to $2,500 in one payment, after which they would be eligible for up to $1,000 more if needed.
In this, the program’s first year, about $4.2 million of a $10 million budget has been used so far, according to the Georgia Student Finance Commission. The current year’s program runs through June 30.
Credit: Apple Music
Credit: Apple Music
Sales tax advances on downloads for books, video games and music
Georgians would pay a sales tax on downloads for books, video games or music under legislation that the House advanced in an effort to bring parity between online retailers and brick-and-mortar stores.
House Bill 170, sponsored by Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, would only apply to downloads a buyer retains possession of. Streaming services — such as Netflix — or subscription-based products would be exempt, he said.
The General Assembly passed legislation in early 2020, a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the economy, to collect more sales taxes on products bought through internet sites.
It was fortunate timing, as Georgians began buying more and more products online. The state has run massive revenue surpluses the past two fiscal years, and the internet sales tax was credited with being one of several factors behind that.
Rep. David Knight, R-Griffin, a longtime member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the panel has been looking in recent years at the issue of parity for local stores that charge the state’s 4% sales tax and local sales taxes when Georgians buy products from them.
Path opens for heavier trucks on Georgia roads
Heavier trucks could soon hit the roads of Georgia under a bill the House approved, pleasing businesses that hope to ship more goods but raising concerns among others about safety.
Commercial vehicles are currently permitted under state law to weigh 80,000 pounds. A 5% variance allowed for trucks carrying certain agricultural and natural resource products allows the weight to increase to 84,000 pounds.
House Bill 189 would up the variance to 10% — meaning some trucks could top out at 88,000 pounds.
The bill’s supporters say it will let businesses deliver more of their products more efficiently and allow them to better compete with their counterparts in neighboring states where heavier trucks are already permitted.
“We want to grow,“ said Rep. James Burchett, R-Waycross. “We don’t want to stymie the growth of our economy.”
Opponents of the bill include the Georgia Department of Transportation and organizations representing local governments. Heavier trucks will add to the wear and tear on roads, they say, boosting the maintenance cost to taxpayers by billions of dollars. GDOT says about 1,200 state bridges cannot safely support trucks weighing 88,000 pounds and would have to be restricted.
Others expressed concern about safety, saying heavier trucks could add to an already increasing rate of fatalities involving commercial vehicles.
“If this bill passes, our taxes will be higher, our roads will be less safe,” said Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna.
The bill does not apply to interstate highways, where the federal government limits trucks to 80,000 pounds.
Gov. Brian Kemp actually cleared the way for heavier trucks in 2020, when he issued an order in response to the supply-chain problems during the coronavirus pandemic to increase the limit to 95,000 pounds. Since then, Kemp has repeatedly renewed the order, which is set to expire again Monday.
HB 189 now goes to the state Senate, which heard testimony on a similar bill but took no action.
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