Legislature mulling changes to governor’s emergency declaration powers

Georgia Rep. Ed Setzler

ATLANTA – State lawmakers took up legislation Wednesday that would give the General Assembly a say over the declaration of public emergencies in Georgia.

Current state law gives the governor sole authority to declare an emergency, as happened last March when the coronavirus pandemic struck Georgia. The legislature then is required to convene in a special session on the second day following the emergency declaration.

But there’s no end date on public emergencies, Georgia Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, told members of a House subcommittee Wednesday.

“Once it gets started, it’s on cruise control,” he said. “It’s hard to stop it.”

Under a bill introduced by Setzler, emergencies declared by the governor could run no longer than 30 days unless renewed by the General Assembly. Following legislative renewal, lawmakers then would have to revisit emergency declarations every 90 days and either extend or terminate them.

“The idea of having a date certain where [an emergency declaration] ends mandates legislative involvement in the input but not with execution and control,” Setzler said.

Rep. David Dreyer, D-Atlanta, said he felt uncomfortable that the General Assembly had no further role to play after leaving the state Capitol last March for what turned out to be a three-month recess having ratified the open-ended emergency declaration ordered by Gov. Brian Kemp.

“This governor acted in good faith with this emergency declaration,” Dreyer said. “But there’s no guarantee. … The way the system is set up, we’re abdicating responsibility with no real way to get it back.”

Setzler said his bill also would let the legislature set conditions for renewing emergency declarations. For example, lawmakers could have a say on whether daytime curfews should be imposed or whether churches should have to close, he said.

Church closings became a controversial issue last year when some argued churches should be allowed to conduct services in person even while businesses had been shut down by the pandemic.

“This is not a coronavirus bill,” Setzler said. “But as we moved through the months and conditions changed … should the legislature not have had some ability to revisit that? That’s what this does.”

Setzler said his bill also isn’t aimed at Kemp, who he said hasn’t taken a position on the legislation.

“This isn’t a political thing,” Setzler said. “[But] a lot of us left uneasy with the process, not with the outcome. Now, we can affect the process moving forward.”

House Bill 358 is cosponsored by Republican Reps. Timothy Barr of Lawrenceville, Ginny Ehrhart of Marietta, Dewayne Hill of Ringgold, Emory Dunahoo of Gillsville and Steve Tarvin of Chickamauga.

The subcommittee did not vote on the bill Wednesday.

Georgia Senate committee passes standard time-only bill

ATLANTA – Georgia would observe standard time all year long under legislation that cleared a state Senate committee Wednesday.

Senate Bill 100 would do away with the current practice of switching back and forth between standard time and daylight saving time every six months.

“Most people want to stay on the same time all year,” Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, the bill’s chief sponsor, told members of the Senate Government Oversight Committee.

Watson cited studies that point to an increase in heart attacks during the two weeks in spring following the switch from standard to daylight time.

On the other hand, judges have been found to mete out harsher sentences to criminal defendants immediately following the switch from daylight to standard time in the fall, he said.

“It interferes with our sleep … for about a one- to two-week period every fall and spring,” he said.

Watson said his bill calls for going on standard time permanently only because federal law prohibits states from unilaterally going on daylight saving time all year.

He said most people would rather be on daylight time permanently if given the choice.

As a result, he has amended his original bill to provide that Georgia would observe standard time all year until Congress acts to allow states to switch to daylight time permanently. If and when that happens, the substitute version of the legislation the committee approved on Wednesday would move Georgia to daylight time all year.

Before the vote, freshman Sen. Kim Jackson, D-Stone Mountain, said going on standard time permanently could hurt businesses in Georgia. Earlier sunsets would lead to fewer daylight hours during the evenings for shoppers, she said.

“I’m concerned this would have a significant economic impact, particularly in the summer,” she said.

But Watson, who is a physician, said he’s heard from trauma surgeons who worry that later sunrises during the winter if Georgia goes on daylight time permanently would increase the risk of children being hit by cars on their way to school.

Watson’s bill isn’t the only one before the General Assembly dealing with time. The House State Planning and Community Affairs Committee approved legislation sponsored by Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, last month calling for Georgia to observe daylight saving time all year.

Legalizing horse racing aired in Georgia Senate committee

ATLANTA – Legalizing pari-mutuel betting on horse racing in Georgia would generate commercial investment and create jobs without using tax dollars, state Sen. Brandon Beach said Tuesday.

Beach, R-Alpharetta, pitched a proposed constitutional amendment calling for a statewide referendum on horse racing and a separate bill specifying how the industry would operate in Georgia at a hearing held by the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee.

Bringing horse racing to Georgia would produce an economic impact of more than $1 billion a year, not only from racetracks but from breeding racehorses, Beach said.

“When we first got into the movie business, a lot of people thought we weren’t going to be successful,” he said. “I think we can do the same thing in the equine industry.”

The difference, Beach said, is that horse racing can operate in Georgia without state subsidies like the large tax credit the state has provided for the past dozen years to lure film and TV productions to the Peach State.

“It’s all private investment,” he said. “We’re not going to have any public investment in this.”

The legislation calls for the construction of up to three mixed-use developments featuring a racetrack, hotels and restaurants. The facilities also could include convention space, entertainment venues and retail shopping.

One of the racetrack complexes would have to be located within 50 miles of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and require an investment of at least $250 million. The other two facilities would be outside the metro region and require a smaller investment of at least $125 million.

Portions of the betting proceeds would go toward education, health care, rural development and to efforts to address problem gambling and promote the horse racing and breeding industries in Georgia.

Horse racing would generate revenue from three sources: pari-mutuel betting during at least 60 days of live racing, betting on simulcast races conducted at tracks in other locations and betting on historic racing machines, similar to slot machines, located at the racetracks.

Beach said the historical racing machines at tracks in Kentucky generated $700 million in 2017 and nearly $1.4 billion in 2018.

“There’s a lot of money in these historical racing machines,” he said.

Several committee members questioned whether racetracks could operate successfully in Georgia without casinos, pointing to examples of racetracks that have struggled financially without them.

Beach said members of the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition, which supports legalizing pari-mutuel betting on horse racing, have assured him racetracks can make a go of it without casinos.

Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, expressed concern that requiring racetracks to be at least 125 miles apart would disqualify Macon, which is closer than that to Hartsfield-Jackson.

Beach responded that he would be willing to amend those distance numbers in the bill.

The legislation also drew criticism from representatives of religious groups.

Mike Griffin of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board said legalized gambling doesn’t make economic sense. He cited a study showing that every $1 in gambling revenue generates $3 in social costs including gambling addiction and family bankruptcies.

Paul Smith of Citizen Impact, a network of pastors, used a slippery-slope argument.

“Once we get horse racing, it’s hard to argue we won’t get the next type of gambling,” he said. “It will be difficult to do one without the other.”

Opposition to legalized gambling among church congregations has played a large part in sinking past efforts in the General Assembly to approve casino gambling and horse racing.

But Beach cited polls showing strong support for legalizing horse racing in Georgia.

“I don’t think anybody’s going lose a primary or general election letting voters decide whether to allow pari-mutuel betting on horse racing,” he assured his Senate colleagues. “There’s nothing to be scared of.”

‘Express lane’ children’s Medicaid bill clears Georgia House

Georgia Rep. Sharon Cooper

ATLANTA – The Georgia House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation Tuesday that would make it easier to enroll low-income children in Medicaid.

Under House Bill 163, children in families that are eligible for food stamps could be enrolled in Georgia’s Medicaid program automatically rather than having to go through the normal application process.

“For many families, this is difficult,” said state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee and the bill’s chief sponsor. “They don’t have computers, they live in South Georgia where there’s no internet, or don’t have a car to go to the DFCS [Division of Family and Children Services] office.

“We have children today who are eligible for Medicaid but aren’t getting it because of this glitch.”

If it becomes law, the “express lane” bill would allow an estimated 60,000 additional Medicaid-eligible Georgia children to enroll in the joint state-federal health coverage program, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Georgians for a Healthy Future.

Cosponsors of the bill include Reps. Houston Gaines, R-Athens; Katie Dempsey, R-Rome; Spencer Frye, D-Athens; Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee , and Mesha Mainor, D-Atlanta.

The legislation now moves to the Georgia Senate.

Georgia House passes parental leave measure

Georgia Rep. Houston Gaines

ATLANTA – State employees and Georgia teachers would be able to take up to three weeks of paid parental leave under legislation the state House of Representatives passed overwhelmingly Tuesday.

The bill, which passed 155-2, would apply to parents following the birth of a child of their own, an adopted child or a foster-care placement.

The House passed the same bill last March, shortly before the General Assembly was forced to take a three-month break because of the coronavirus pandemic.

When lawmakers returned to the Capitol, the state Senate essentially gutted the bill and swapped in a different measure reducing legislators’ salaries in a bid to cut costs because of the pandemic. When the House refused to go along with the change, the bill died.

“This is something [former] President Trump and Ivanka Trump led on at the national level,” Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, the legislation’s chief sponsor, told his House colleagues Tuesday. “This is a positive step forward for the state.”

The legislation is a priority of House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, who instituted a parental leave policy for House employees two years ago.

The bill’s cosponsors include House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, R-Milton, and Reps. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta; Marcus Wiedower, R-Watkinsville; Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee and Terry England, R-Auburn.

The legislation now moves to the Georgia Senate.