Standard or daylight? Georgia lawmakers disagree

Georgia Rep. Wes Cantrell

ATLANTA – The Georgia House of Representatives and state Senate are at loggerheads over how Georgians should tell time.

The House passed legislation last Friday calling for the Peach State to observe daylight saving time all year.

That followed action the Senate took the week before to put Georgia on standard time permanently.

The one thing both chambers agree on is that the state should stop switching from standard time to daylight every March and back again to standard each November.

“There are some really serious health and safety reasons for eliminating time change,” Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, told his House colleagues shortly before they voted 112-48 to put Georgia on daylight time all year. “Our bodies are meant to adjust slowly to differences in the amount of daylight as the Earth rotates.”

Cantrell cited studies showing an increase in pedestrians being hit by cars during the two weeks after standard time kicks in during the fall because it suddenly gets dark an hour earlier.

Immediately following “spring-forward” in March, heart attacks go up, medical errors increase and even prison sentences handed out by judges increase, all tied to sleep deprivation, he said.

“ ’Spring forward’ sounds a lot nicer than it is,” he said.

Cantrell argued that going on daylight time all year would be better than switching to standard time permanently.

“More sunlight in the evening is good for our health,” he said. “It’s good for the economy. People prefer to shop in the daylight.”

But Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, sponsor of the Senate bill to switch to standard time, said observing daylight time during the winter would lead to dark mornings. The sun wouldn’t come up until almost 8:30 a.m. in December, prompting concerns for the safety of children going to school, he said.

The other advantage to Watson’s bill is that, if it passes and is signed into law by the governor, it could take effect with the next switch to standard time this November.

The House bill, on the other hand, could only move Georgia to daylight time permanently if Congress passes legislation giving states that option.

Watson’s bill includes a provision to make the switch from standard to daylight if and when federal lawmakers allow it.

Georgia House tightens monitoring of coal ash as Democrats call for tougher steps

Georgia Rep. Debbie Buckner

ATLANTA – The Georgia House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation Friday tightening monitoring requirements for ash generated by coal-burning power plants.

But the 161-2 vote came despite concerns some House Democrats expressed over the way the state regulates coal ash ponds.

House Bill 647, which now moves to the state Senate, would require groundwater monitoring at ash ponds that have been closed to continue for 50 years after the closure is completed. A bill the House passed last year that didn’t make it through the Senate would have limited the monitoring to 30 years.

Coal ash contains contaminants including mercury, cadmium and arsenic that can pollute groundwater and drinking water. Long-term exposure has been linked to a variety of cancers.

Atlanta-based Georgia Power has been working since 2015 on a multi-year plan to close all 29 of its coal ash ponds at 11 power plants across Georgia to meet both state and federal regulations for handling coal ash. While the utility plans to excavate and remove the ash from 19 of those ponds, the other 10 are to be closed in place.

For the most part, minority Democrats voted for the bill Friday in the Republican-controlled House. But several complained that Georgia Power is not being required to liners for the 10 ponds that are being closed in place to prevent contamination of drinking water supplies serving communities near the plants.

The utility is being sued by residents of Juliette who claim coal ash stored in an unlined pond at nearby Plant Scherer has contaminated groundwater around the site.

Contamination from coal ash also has turned up on property offsite from Georgia Power’s Plant McDonough in Cobb County.

Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, said the state’s disposal requirements for coal ash are less stringent than for disposal of household garbage, which must be stored in lined landfills.

“An estimated 92 million tons [of coal ash] are being stored in Georgia in unlined ponds,” she said. “These toxic substances can seep into groundwater or flow into streams and cause disastrous contamination.”

“Lengthening the monitoring period acknowledges there is a problem with capping storage [ponds] rather than removing and excavating the material,” added Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates.

But Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville, who chairs the House subcommittee that reviewed the bill this week, said both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division classify coal ash as a “non-toxic” waste.

“Emotionally, we don’t do what we feel is right but look to the science,” he said. “The EPA and EPD are the experts.”

General Assembly eying daunting price tag for critical freight rail

ATLANTA – Legislation moving through the General Assembly would let Georgia start drawing down up to $1.5 billion a year needed to move growing volumes of freight smoothly through the state.

The Georgia House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill Wednesday that would earmark the state’s 4% sales tax on diesel fuel used in locomotives to help fund freight rail improvements. The tax would raise an estimated $10 million per year, said House Transportation Committee Chairman Rick Jasperse, the measure’s chief sponsor.

That being nowhere near enough money, House Bill 588 also would authorize the state to go to the private sector to help finance freight rail projects through the same sorts of public-private partnerships the State Road and Tollway Authority has been using to build toll lanes on interstate highways across metro Atlanta.

“This is an opportunity to lead,” Jasperse, R-Jasper, said during a committee hearing on the bill late last month. “It helps us take the next steps to improve our freight and logistics infrastructure.”

The bill stems from two years of work by the Georgia Freight & Logistics Commission, a panel of lawmakers, local elected officials, business leaders and logistics industry executives created by the legislature.

The commission issued a report in December that suggested Georgia won’t be able to meet its goal of doubling the percentage of freight traveling by rail from 17% to 35% without public-private partnerships.

Brad Skinner, a board member at Denver-based freight railroad operator OmniTrax and a member of the commission, said public-private partnerships have paid off for his company and its government partners.

“I’ve seen what they do to help municipalities and states keep up with demand as their populations grow,” he said. “You’re looking at billions of dollars in investment that’s going to be required to maintain [Georgia] as a growth community and enhance quality of life.”

Seth Millican, executive director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, an affiliate of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said the huge increase in e-commerce brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has built support among legislative leaders for boosting investment in moving freight.

“Leadership is being responsive to things that have come out of the COVID pandemic,” he said. “Those trends toward more e-commerce were already there. But the COVID pandemic dramatically accelerated that.”

Millican said record growth at the Port of Savannah during the past year despite the pandemic has been another key contributor to momentum in the General Assembly behind improving freight rail capacity.

Increasing truck traffic into and out of the port has the Georgia Ports Authority building additional rail, notably the Mason Mega Rail Terminal, which will give the Port of Savannah enough additional capacity to ship goods to cities in the nation’s Mid-South and Midwest regions.

“In some respects, we’re a victim of our own success,” Millican said. “It’s putting pressure on the rest of the system to keep up.”

Jasperse’s bill isn’t the only freight rail measure before the General Assembly. The Senate Transportation Committee passed a similar measure sponsored by Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, on Wednesday.

Like Jasperse’s bill, Senate Bill 98 envisions the state entering into public-private partnerships to build freight rail projects. However, it doesn’t include the sales tax on diesel fuel.

“I would call this freight-and-logistics light,” Beach said during a hearing on the bill Feb. 23. “It doesn’t have a funding component.

A third piece of legislation, Beach’s Senate Resolution 102, would create the Georgia Commission on E-Commerce and Freight Infrastructure Funding as a follow-up to the Freight & Logistics Commission.

It essentially would add a third year to the ongoing discussion over how to pay for needed freight rail improvements. The Senate Transportation Committee approved the resolution late last month.

Georgia House passes $27.2B state budget

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston previewed his priorities for the 2021 legislative session at the state Capitol on Jan. 7, 2021. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp’s $27.2 billion fiscal 2022 state budget cleared the Georgia House of Representatives Friday after lawmakers earmarked $58 million to boost mental health services.

The spending plan, which passed 136-31 and now heads to the Georgia Senate, originally had set aside a $22 million increase for the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. The House added another $36 million for what Speaker David Ralston has made a key part of his agenda for this year’s legislative session.

“I think we’ve added a huge amount of resources to this important issue,” Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said after Friday’s vote. “It’s never as much as you hope to do, but I think this was a realistic effort, and I think it sends a strong message that we’re making mental health a priority in Georgia.”

The additional mental health funding would provide more resources for addiction treatment, suicide prevention and school mental-health specialists.

The budget, which takes effect July 1, also put a special emphasis on education, restoring 60% of the spending cuts lawmakers imposed at the height of the coronavirus pandemic last June on Georgia’s K-12 schools and the state university system.

The House also added $50 million to the $883 million bond package Kemp recommended in January for construction projects around the state. Much of that money would go toward buildings on university and technical college campuses.

Ralston dismissed criticism from House Democrats over not pulling more money from the state’s “rainy-day” reserves fund to plug budget gaps, noting state lawmakers have approved millions of dollars in emergency spending to fight COVID-19 since last summer.

“We have to be very cautious in terms of drawing down large sums out of the rainy-day fund,” he said.

But House Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon, and Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn, the only Democrats who spoke from the House floor Friday, said it’s ridiculous to use federal COVID-19 relief money to plug budget gaps without spending down the reserves.

They also used the budget debate to renew Democrats’ longstanding call to expand Medicaid coverage in Georgia under the Affordable Care Act, which could be done largely with federal money.

“I absolutely cannot reconcile throwing away billions in federal funds that would help all of our constituents have access to health care, that would save our rural hospitals from closing and that would save as well as create jobs, especially when we take federal funds when it’s convenient for us,” Clark said.

“I think there’s a better way moving forward,” Beverly said. “We just need to take the time to do it.”

Both Kemp and former Gov. Nathan Deal, his immediate predecessor, have argued there’s no guarantee the federal money would continue flowing into Medicaid indefinitely. They have said any reduction in federal support would leave the state holding the bag.

Sports betting constitutional amendment clears state Senate

ATLANTA – The Georgia Senate passed a constitutional amendment Friday asking voters statewide to decide whether to legalize online sports betting.

Senators voted 41-10 to approve the measure, three votes more than the two-thirds majority needed to pass it and send it to the state House of Representatives.

Friday’s floor vote marked the most progress any proposal to legalize any form of gambling in Georgia other than the lottery has made in the General Assembly in more than a decade of failed efforts.

As has been the case with attempts to put casinos and pari-mutuel betting on horse racing on the ballot, supporters argued Georgians should have the right to vote on sports betting.

“I have never had any problems with allowing the people to vote,” Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, the constitutional amendment’s chief sponsor, said on the Senate floor.

Mullis said an estimated 2 million Georgians already are betting on sports illegally and spending more than $4 billion a year, money that goes into the pockets of bookies instead of the state.

Under Senate Resolution 135, a state tax of 16% on the proceeds from online sports betting would be divided between need-based scholarships, rural health and broadband deployment.

Originally, the constitutional amendment did not specify what percentage of the proceeds should go toward each of those three purposes.

“I feel like we ought to let the legislature have a little latitude in deciding what’s most important to us,” said Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, a cosponsor of Mullis’ resolution.

However, senators amended the resolution on the floor to specify that at least 50% of the proceeds go to need-based scholarships. The lottery-funded HOPE Scholarships program originally was need-based but later began offering awards strictly on merit.

Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, who proposed the amendment, said need-based scholarships would help Georgia meet its workforce needs.

“We need many more people who can afford to matriculate to some form of higher education,” she said.

Some lawmakers have pushed this year for legalizing online sports betting by statute rather than a constitutional amendment because statues only require a simply majority to pass. A bill pending in the Georgia House takes that approach.

But Cowsert cited legal opinions that legalizing sports betting and putting it under the jurisdiction of the Georgia Lottery Corp. requires changing the state Constitution because sports betting doesn’t meet the legal definition of a lottery game.

“It’s cleaner and uncontroversial to let the voters decide,” he said. “We’re not imposing our will on the state without letting them be heard.”

After passing the constitutional amendment, the Senate voted 34-17 to approve an “enabling” bill specifying how sports betting would operate in Georgia.

Senate Bill 142 requires companies interested in running sportsbooks to pay the lottery corporation a nonrefundable application fee of $10,000. At least six companies would be selected and would pay license fees of $100,000 per year. The license fees had been set at $900,000 under the original bill.

Cowsert said the lower fee would prevent giant operators such as DraftKings or FanDuel from monopolizing the business in Georgia.

“Reducing that to $100,000 allows Georgia businesses to offer sports betting, not just Las Vegas,” he said.

Senators approved two amendments to the bill to ensure that women-owned businesses and businesses owned by veterans get a shot at licenses and to make sure the enabling bill would not take effect until the beginning of 2023, and only then if voters approve the referendum in November of next year.

Cowsert, who played a major role shaping both measures as chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, said he opposes casinos and made sure sports betting in Georgia would be online only.

“It’s something that’s not [going to be] in land-based facilities,” he said. “It doesn’t have crime associated with it.”

The enabling bill also prohibits minors from betting, and bettors would have to be physically inside Georgia, a provision that would be enforced through geofencing technology.

To participate, bettors would have to open an online account and could not deposit more than $2,500 per month into the account. Also, betting on credit would be prohibited.

“I want to make sure we protect people from themselves,” Cowsert said. “They don’t bet the mortgage. They don’t bet the groceries.”

The vote on the constitutional amendment was bipartisan. Although need-based scholarships was an important provision Democrats wanted to see in the measure, three of the 10 “no” votes came from Democrats.

The Georgia Professional Sports Integrity Alliance, a coalition of Atlanta’s four major pro sports teams, issued a statement praising Friday’s vote.

“A new state law with strict regulatory requirements that protects consumers will bring significant new revenue to the state; strengthen HOPE Scholarships; and protect the integrity of professional sports, a multi-billion industry in Georgia,” the statement read. “The people in Georgia overwhelmingly support sports wagering and we are confident the legislation will become law.”