Georgia lawmakers add ride-share fee to Hurricane Michael relief bill

ATLANTA – A Georgia Senate committee Thursday tacked a fee favored by ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft onto a measure aimed at relieving income taxes for farmers hit hard by Hurricane Michael.

A proposed 50-cent excise tax for ride-share bookings cleared the Senate Finance Committee after some lawmakers questioned whether it should be added to legislation before the Georgia House of Representatives meant for such a different purpose.

The original meat of House Bill 105, sponsored by Rep. Sam Watson, involves an income-tax exemption for farmers receiving federal disaster aid payments to recover from the destruction the Category 5 storm brought to the heart of Georgia’s agriculture industry in late 2018.

The excise tax, which acts like a flat fee, stems from separate legislation to collect sales taxes from third-party retailers like Amazon and Google that facilitate online transactions for other businesses.

That legislation stumbled last year amid opposition from Uber, which argued paying sales taxes would drive costs up too high for its riders and drivers. The San Francisco-based company supports paying the fee instead of a sales tax.

House and Senate lawmakers hashed out a compromise measure last month after pledging to give Uber an exemption in separate legislation.

An amendment brought to Watson’s bill on Thursday proposes such an exemption, while separately charging Uber and Lyft a new 50-cent fee per ride for single-person bookings and a 25-cent fee for shared rides. The fee would also apply to other transportation companies like taxis and limousines.

Revenues would be dedicated to funding transportation infrastructure repairs and public transit upgrades. Sen. Steve Gooch, who pushed for the amendment to be added onto Watson’s bill, framed the fee as a way to raise as much as $40 million a year for transportation projects, particularly in more isolated rural areas.

“This is an attempt to protect transportation,” Gooch, R-Dahlonega, said Thursday. “We know we need more money. This is a way to do it without having to dip into the general fund.”

Barring a quick passage of the fee into law, Uber and Lyft will be subject to the same sales tax collections that other big marketplace facilitators face starting on April 1.

“If action is not taken by April 1, Georgians will end up paying one of the highest taxes in the county on ridesharing – making trips more expensive for students, seniors, and commuters alike,” said Uber spokeswoman Evangeline Georgia.

The combined Hurricane Michael-Uber fee bill by Watson passed out of the committee by a 9-1 vote. It heads next for the Senate floor.

A similar 50-cent fee on Uber and Lyft rides had previously been slated for inclusion in a measure sponsored by Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, that seeks to drum up more funding for rural transit services.

On Wednesday, state officials announced farmers in in the southern part of the state could start applying next month to receive Hurricane Michael recovery funds as part of a $347 million federal aid package.

Georgia Senate committee approves creosote burning ban

Georgia Sen. John Wilkinson

ATLANTA – Legislation aimed at two biomass plants in Northeast Georgia that have drawn a public outcry over the burning of railroad ties treated with creosote cleared a state Senate committee Thursday.

The bill would ban the practice, which has generated complaints from neighbors that it’s fouling their air and polluting their water. It could reach the full Senate for a vote as early as next week.

Birmingham, Ala.-based Georgia Renewable Power (GRP) opened the plants last year in Madison and Franklin counties northeast of Athens. The plants burn  creosote-treated ties that have outlived their usefulness and sell the ash to Georgia Power Co. as an alternative fuel.

The bill’s supporters say the company misrepresented the project when it first approached local elected officials by claiming the plants would burn clean wood chips rather than railroad ties treated with creosote, which has been linked to some forms of cancer and respiratory problems.

“They need to be burning the material they said they’d burn,” Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, the bill’s sponsor, told members of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee.

David Groves of Veolia Energy, who manages the two plants for GRP, told the committee the complaints from neighbors were the result of start-up issues surrounding the plants’ operation. He said more than $1 million is being spent on conditioners to reduce fly ash and silencing systems that will reduce the noise coming out of the plants.

“The plants are state of the art. The pollution controls are state of the art,” he said. “This is not new technology.”

Groves said the plants rely on railroad ties treated with creosote and might be forced out of business if they have to switch to other types of wood that have been harder to get.

“It would be a real shame for these communities and set a bad precedent for Georgia,” he said.

Testimony before the same committee on Tuesday indicated the two plants have become the largest taxpayers in their respective counties.

Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, noted Thursday the plant in Madison County is generating $4.7 million a year in tax revenue. But he said it must be operated responsibly.

“We want to make sure that plant is a good asset for the community and not a nuisance,” he said.

The committee approved an amendment to the bill Thursday essentially carving out a similar biomass plant operated by WestRock near Dublin.

Lauren Curry, deputy director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said the Dublin facility does not burn creosote – although it is allowed to under current law – and has a larger buffer from nearby properties than the plants in Northeast Georgia. The Dublin plant also has been around longer and, thus, is not experiencing the same start-up challenges, she said.

Georgia officials tout new investigative unit, funding to fight human trafficking

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr talks at the State Capitol on Jan. 27, 2020. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – A new investigative unit tasked with cracking down on human trafficking in Georgia has started paying dividends after its creation last year, according to state law enforcement officials and Gov. Brian Kemp.

Attorney General Chris Carr announced Thursday indictments were handed down recently for four people charged with human trafficking in Gwinnett, Chatham, Greene and Cobb counties.

Carr said more arrests and indictments are expected to come from his office’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, which was launched last spring after.

“This is just the beginning,” Carr said at a news conference Thursday. “We will stop at nothing to seek justice on behalf of these victims.”

Kemp made going after human traffickers a high priority when he took office last year, citing Georgia’s unenviable status as a state with one of the highest rates of human trafficking in the nation. He formed a state commission to tackle the issue and installed his wife, first lady Marty Kemp, as one of three co-chairs.

On Thursday, the governor also highlighted a new training program required for all state employees focused on identifying signs of human trafficking and victimization.

“We won’t stop until we put an end to this modern-day slavery in our state,” Kemp said.

Last year, state lawmakers budgeted about $171,000 for four staff members in the new human trafficking unit. House lawmakers have recommended reducing that budget this fiscal year by about $87,000 due to hiring delays. Kemp’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposes an additional roughly $194,000 for the unit.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers have targeted human trafficking with bills in the 2020 legislative session.

Legislation aimed at helping victims of human trafficking clean up any criminal records they may have cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 158, sponsored by Sen. Brian Strickland, would let victims petition the court to vacate convictions for crimes committed while they were being trafficked. Strickland, R-McDonough, who is one of Kemp’s floor leaders, said the measure would reduce a major barrier that keeps many formerly trafficked persons from finding stable employment.

“These are people that are trying to find their way away from something that’s all they know,” Strickland said Wednesday.

Another measure, House Bill 823 sponsored by Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, would impose a lifetime ban on driving a commercial vehicle for persons convicted of human trafficking-related offenses. The ban would only apply for people who used commercial vehicles to traffic victims.

Other legislation includes a measure closing a loophole in state law aimed at punishing foster parents who sexually abuse children in their care. House Bill 911, introduced by Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, passed out of a House Judiciary Non-Civil subcommittee on Wednesday.

Halloween warning signs for Georgia sex offenders trip up lifetime ankle monitoring bill

ATLANTA – Halloween signs and legal hurdles tripped up legislation aimed at requiring repeat sexual offenders to wear electronic ankle monitors for life in Georgia that a state House panel examined Wednesday.

Lawmakers are hustling to continue monitoring sex offenders classified as “sexually dangerous predators” following a Georgia Supreme Court ruling last year that upended the practice of automatic lifetime ankle monitoring absent a judge’s sentence.

As a result, more than 400 sex offenders deemed at risk for committing future crimes had been freed from their lifetime monitoring punishments as of last October, totaling nearly half of the state’s roughly 1,000 sexually dangerous predators.

House Bill 720 would automatically impose lifetime electronic tracking on sexual predators with multiple sex-offense felony convictions. That should keep the state’s most dangerous sexual predators from flying under the radar while Georgia’s rules on electronic monitoring are in flux, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steven Sainz.

“This looks at trying to identify the population that has committed an offense and are most likely to be needing that additional monitoring,” said Sainz, R-Woodbine.

But the measure does not tackle the overarching issue of giving judges in Georgia full discretion to include lifetime ankle monitoring as a form of probation included in an offender’s original sentence, regardless of whether the crime was a repeat offense, Sainz said.

He noted that proposal on judicial discretion may come in a separate bill not yet introduced in the 2020 legislative session.

Currently, Georgia law gives the state Sexual Offender Registration Review Board sole authority to classify sex offenders in a way that forces them to wear ankle monitors for life.

That was the arrangement until last March, when the state’s high court said lifetime monitoring would be unconstitutional if not part of a judge’s original sentence.

A Georgia Senate study committee recently recommended changing state law to give judges authority to incorporate lifetime ankle monitoring into a sentence, which would factor in information provided by the review board.

Members of a House Judiciary Non-Civil subcommittee did not vote on Sainz’s bill’s Wednesday amid concerns from some lawmakers and criminal defense attorneys who objected to the measure’s broad scope – as well as a last-minute change requiring repeat sex offenders to post warning signs outside their houses for Halloween.

Rep. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, said he opposed an amendment to the bill brought Wednesday concerning the Halloween sign, which would legally have to say: “No candy, treats, or treat-or-treating at this residence.”

The sign, which McLaurin called a violation of free-speech protections, would have to be displayed every year on Oct. 30 and Oct. 31.

“It’s just downright humiliating to have to post that at your house,” McLaurin said. “And I understand that sexual offenses are extremely serious. My concern would be that the dignity of a person – and particularly with regard to their First Amendment interests – is seriously implicated by this type of statutorily mandated language.”

Sainz said after Wednesday’s hearing that he plans to keep the Halloween sign requirement but might modify what it says.

The bill could also cast too wide a net over who might be subject to a lifetime-tracking sentence, McLaurin said. He noted state law already sets lifetime imprisonment as the maximum punishment for several violent crimes like murder and rape. Adding separate lifetime penalties for various sexual offenses could cause legal murkiness, he said.

“My concern is this bill won’t do the thing it’s supposed to do,” McLaurin said.

Officials on the state review board have said they’re well-positioned to decide who should merit lifetime monitoring because the board has comprehensive access to key information like an offender’s criminal records, psychological profile and behavior history while incarcerated.

But critics argue the review board has too much leeway to set the stiff punishment, often doing so long after a judge hands down a sentence or an offender is released from prison. They have also claimed the review board’s methods for classifying offenders as sexually dangerous predators are not transparent.

Broadening the kinds of sexual offenses that could prompt lifetime monitoring could complicate the issue more than clarifying it, said Jill Travis, executive director of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“We would continue to recommend that the need for this lifetime monitoring should be tied to individuals’ sexual dangerous and not a specific crime,” Travis said.

The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, said he wants to see some tweaks to the bill but expects it to eventually head to the full committee.

Georgia locks in $347 million for Hurricane Michael recovery

Hurricane Michael made landfall as a powerful category 5 storm on Oct. 10, 2018. (National Weather Service)

ATLANTA – Georgia has landed $347 million in federal disaster aid to help farmers in southern, largely rural parts of the state recover from the devastation to crops and structures caused by Hurricane Michael in late 2018.

The flush of federal block grants comes more than 16 months after the Category 5 hurricane hit Southwest Georgia on Oct. 10, 2018, battering farms and forests in the agricultural heartland of the state.

The National Weather Service reported it was the strongest hurricane to directly affect Georgia since the last decade of the 19th century.

Researchers at the University of Georgia estimated the historic storm caused more than $2 billion in damage to numerous crops and commodities including pecans, peanuts, cotton, soybeans, timber, poultry and beef.

With the new federal grants, farmers and forest landowners in 95 counties in the southern half of the state can apply for recovery funds starting next month.

The grants will cover losses in beef, dairy, fruit, vegetable, pecan, poultry and timber operations. It will also be available for “certain losses for uninsured infrastructure,” Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said Wednesday.

Black said the federal aid influx was a long time coming. But he cautioned struggling farmers to temper expectations for restoring their operations fully back to pre-hurricane form.

“No one will approach being made whole,” Black said at a news conference Wednesday. “What I hope is that these resources will help restore a measure of confidence in the marketplace.”

Tripp Cofield, the national policy counsel for the Georgia Farm Bureau, said the aid package will particularly help prop up industries like timber, dairy and beef, which missed out on earlier rounds of recovery funding.

“I think it will absolutely help farmers. I do,” Cofield said Wednesday.

Gov. Brian Kemp said the federal aid package comes as welcome relief after the state allocated nearly $300 million for farmers following the storm to kickstart the recovery process.

“We know that this was a generational event and it will take a long time to recover,” Kemp said. “But we continue to fight for you.”

The application period for the new federal grants runs from March 18 through April 8 and will have to be done entirely online at

The $347 million aid package adds to another share of federal dollars Georgia secured from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Both funding sources come from a 2017 wildfire and hurricane recovery program that earmarked $3 billion for several disaster-struck states.

Georgia counties in the state’s southwestern corner have also received more than $100 million in assistance grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help rebuild damaged public infrastructure like roads, bridges and utilities.

The federal grants announced Wednesday are part of a roughly $19 billion disaster-aid package the U.S. House of Representatives passed and President Donald Trump signed last June following disputes over allocating funds to Puerto Rico for the U.S. territory’s own hurricane recovery efforts.