Hundreds of bills fell by the wayside as the COVID-19 pandemic rushed into Georgia starting in mid-March. Lawmakers in the General Assembly took a three-month hiatus, then returned earlier this month to pass landmark legislation on hate crimes, a tax on vaping, cuts to standardized tests – and much, much more.
Here’s a roundup of key bills the General Assembly passed before the close of the 2020 legislative session last Friday night:
Hate Crimes (H.B. 426) – Creates punishments for hate crimes that include acts of violent intimidation or property damage perpetrated based on a victim’s race, color, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, sex, gender, or whether they have a physical or mental disability.
Second Chance (S.B. 288) – Allows ex-offenders with certain first-time misdemeanor and non-violent felony convictions to petition the court to have their criminal records shielded from public view. Convictions for certain domestic and nuisance charges like family violence and stalking, plus other major offenses like sex crimes, drunk driving and child molestation, would not be eligible for records shielding.
Glynn County (S.B. 509) – Puts to voters whether to abolish the Glynn County Police Department and transfer the agency’s assets and functions to the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office.
Bail Bonds (S.B. 402) – Abolishes so-called “signature” bonds that allow arrested persons to be released on their own recognizance without having to post monetary bail. Certain kinds of non-monetary bail would still be permitted but not for felony charges including murder, rape, drug trafficking, drunk driving or criminal street gang activity.
Sovereign Immunity (H.R. 1023) – Puts to voters whether to give Georgians the ability to sue their state and local governments over laws or policies deemed unconstitutional. Plaintiffs would not be able to collect monetary damages or attorneys’ fees.
Judge Salaries (S.B. 765) – Raises salaries for chief magistrate judges by several thousand dollars per year in Georgia, taking effect in 2022.
Marketplace Facilitators (H.B. 276) – Collects sales taxes on online transactions overseen by so-called “marketplace facilitator” companies like Google, Amazon and eBay. (Ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft are exempted from the state sales tax and instead must pay a flat fee of 50 cents per ride.)
Film Credits (H.B. 1037) – Requires all film productions located in Georgia to undergo mandatory audits by the Georgia Department of Revenue or third-party auditors picked by the state agency.
Hurricane Michael (H.B. 105) – Allows Georgia farmers who sustained damage related to Hurricane Michael and are receiving federal disaster aid to take an income tax exemption. (This bill also allows ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft to pay a fee of 50 cents per ride instead of the newly implemented “marketplace facilitators” online sales tax.)
Lawsuit Liability (S.B. 395) – Shields Georgia businesses and health-care providers against legal liability from persons who contract COVID-19 on their premises from all but the worst negligence cases. Includes provisions for posting COVID-19 warning signs at premise entrances and on event tickets.
Unemployment Benefits (S.B. 408) – Extends unemployment benefits that have been expanded during the coronavirus pandemic since March. The state labor commissioner would have leeway to extend benefits eligibility from 14 weeks to 26 weeks depending on the jobless rate and to set the weekly deductible threshold at between $50 and $300.
PPE Tax Credits (H.B. 846) — Allows businesses manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE) in Georgia to be eligible for an additional $1,250 tax credit per job. PPE includes gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, face shields, helmets, goggles and respirators used to shield people from contracting coronavirus.
Standardized Tests (S.B. 367) – Reduces the number of standardized tests required to be administered in Georgia public schools by five and allows state education officials to study whether other tests could be eliminated due to redundancy.
Pharmacy Benefit Managers (H.B. 946) – Sets new restrictions on third-party companies that negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmacies to curb price gouging, largely by forcing those companies to stay within 10% of a nationally used price average and offer up full rebates to health plans that are typically given by drugmakers.
Maternal Mortality (H.B. 1114) – Authorizes the state to apply for a federal waiver extending Medicaid coverage to new mothers for up to six months after birth instead of the current limit of two months.
Elderly Care (H.B. 987) – Establishes stricter training and on-site nursing requirements for elderly care facilities in Georgia. Also requires long-term care facilities to report when residents or staff test positive for COVID-19 and to keep a seven-day supply of PPE like masks and hand sanitizer.
ATLANTA – Despite cutting spending by $2.2 billion, the General Assembly found enough money in next year’s state budget to plow more funds into building projects across Georgia.
The final version of the $25.9 billion fiscal 2021 budget lawmakers adopted late last week doubles the bond financing for a series of projects on university, college and technical college campuses. But it does so by zeroing out the funding for other projects.
Throughout the budget review process, the legislature left alone the largest project in the $1.13 billion bond package for the coming fiscal year: a $70 million expansion of the Savannah Convention Center in Gov. Brian Kemp’s original budget recommendations.
But the budget that emerged from a joint House-Senate conference committee last Thursday doubled the bond commitments for the following projects:
$5 million for Phase III renovations at the Driftmier Engineering Center at the University of Georgia’s main campus in Athens.
$4.9 million to design, construct and equip Phase II of the Greenblatt Library at Augusta University.
$4.8 million for renovations to the Dublin Center and Library building on the Dublin campus of Middle Georgia State University.
$4.5 million for renovations to the Memorial College Center on the Armstrong campus of Georgia Southern University in Savannah.
$3 million to renovate the Williams Center at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro.
2.5 million to design the Humanities Building at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.
$2.25 million to renovate the Georgia Veterans Education Career Transition Resource Center at Chattahoochee Technical College’s Marietta campus.
$2 million to design, construct and equip the Andalusian Interpretive Center at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville.
$2 million to design, construct and equipment the Science Building Chemistry Lab at Kennesaw State University.
$1.3 million to design the Performing Arts Center at Valdosta State University.
$800,000 to design the Nursing and Health Science Simulation Lab at Albany State University.
An even more generous General Assembly increased from $6 million in the governor’s original budget to $20.1 million the funding to build the Lake Lanier Conference Center in Hall County. The money earmarked for that project rose at every step of the budget review process.
On their own, budget conferees also put up $6.7 million in bond financing for site acquisition, design and construction of the Center for Education and Entrepreneurship at Southern Crescent Technical College in McDonough.
The conferees agreed to $10.24 million the state House of Representatives had added to the bond package for infrastructure improvements to the Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta.
On the down side, lawmakers zeroed out the funding for some major projects, including $30.7 million that had been slated to go toward expanding Technology Square on the Midtown Atlanta campus of Georgia Tech.
Stone Mountain took a huge hit, losing the full $10.24 million that was to have gone for Phase II renovations at the Evergreen Conference Center & Resort. Another $3.56 million for campground renovations at Stone Mountain Park was axed.
On the coast, the conference committee removed $3 million in bonds for an expansion of the campground at Jekyll Island.
ATLANTA – The Georgia Supreme Court cleared the way Monday for the planned $5 billion redevelopment of an area of downtown Atlanta known as The Gulch.
In a unanimous decision, the court ruled the issuance of up to $1.25 billion in bonds to support the largest mixed-use development in the Southeast was “sound, feasible and reasonable.”
A group of city taxpayers known as Redlight the Gulch had sued to stop the project, arguing the sales tax revenue the redevelopment likely would generate wouldn’t be enough to pay back the bonds, leaving taxpayers holding the bag.
But the state Supreme Court upheld a lower court opinion that the evidence in the case justified holding the issuance of the bonds to be legally valid.
“While not all Atlantans, including the intervenors in this case, share the city’s vision for The Gulch, that does not mean that the project is illegal,” Chief Justice Harold Melton wrote for the court. “As the trial court pointed out, the job of the courts is not to question the advisability or estimate the popularity of the city’s decisions regarding the development of The Gulch.”
The Gulch consists of a series of sunken rail yards and parking lots that has languished for decades and is best known as a popular site for tailgate parties before and after football games at adjacent Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Christened Centennial Yards, the ambitious mixed-used project will contain 12 million square feet of hotels, offices, retail shops and residences.
ATLANTA – By the time the 2020 General Assembly gaveled to a close Friday night, lawmakers had dealt with two issues they couldn’t have dreamed of when they came to the Capitol in January.
A hate crimes bill was alive in the legislature at the beginning of the session, having passed in the Georgia House of Representatives last year. Legislative budget writers came in knowing they would have to make some spending cuts to offset sluggish tax revenues last year.
But both issues took on a far greater sense of urgency because of circumstances no one under the Gold Dome had anticipated at the start of the session.
The hate-crimes bill was stalled in the state Senate until the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was gunned down during a pursuit by two white men near Brunswick in February, an incident that didn’t come to public attention until a video of the incident surfaced in April.
Balancing the budget became a much heavier lift in March when Gov. Brian Kemp issued a shelter-in-place order to discourage the spread of COVID-19. Businesses across Georgia closed their doors and laid off workers, and the state’s economy spiraled into a deep recession.
Mixed in with the uncertainty of the global pandemic was a suspension of the legislative session in mid-March. The legislature didn’t return to Atlanta until three months later for a home stretch that saw the General Assembly in session on 11 of 12 days, with only Father’s Day off for lawmakers to catch their breaths.
“It was a challenging session,” House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said minutes after the final gavel fell Friday night. “So many things happened during the suspended time. When we left here, we didn’t know how long we’d be gone.”
When the legislature did return, it was to an atmosphere of street protests over the deaths of Arbery and two black men who died at the hands of white police officers: George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks just down the street in Atlanta,
With that as a backdrop, lawmakers spent much of the resumed session negotiating passage of a landmark hate-crimes bill.
Under legislation Gov. Brian Kemp signed Friday, prison time could be meted out for those who terrorize or physically harm others based on their race, color, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, sex, gender, or whether they have a physical or mental disability.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, was hustled though both chambers in the General Assembly last Wednesday, prompting the legislature’s longest serving member, Rep. Calvin Smyre, to call it his best piece of work.
“I’ve had a lot, a lot, a lot of moments in my career,” said Smyre, D-Columbus, who co-sponsored the bill. “But today is my finest.”
But passage of the bill didn’t come without some serious bumps along the way. Senate Republican leaders, wary of protesters homing in on law enforcement as the focus of their anger, moved to include police officers and other first responders as protected classes alongside race and gender.
Last-minute negotiating led Senate lawmakers to strike a compromise that kept the first-responder protections in place but moved them to a separate bill that also passed out of the General Assembly.
Lawmakers also reached across the aisle to pass second-chance legislation allowing Georgians to clear minor offenses off their criminal records to help them secure jobs and housing.
The bill by Sen. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia, would allow Georgians with certain first-time misdemeanor and non-violent felony convictions in Georgia to petition superior courts to have those records shielded from public view.
Other efforts to move criminal justice reform in the legislature fell short as Democratic lawmakers filed more than a dozen bills this month to repeal the state’s stand-your-ground and citizen’s arrest laws, prohibit police officers from racial profiling, ban no-knock search warrants and punish wayward district attorneys.
Ralston said he found elements of those bills worthy of consideration. But he said the legislature ran out of time to give them the serious debate they deserved.
“We were so focused on the budget and the hate-crimes bill, I thought it wasn’t feasible to take them on,” he said.
Ralston said he has asked Efstration’s House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings this summer with an eye toward proposing additional criminal-justice and policing reform measures during next year’s session.
While the legislature disposed of the hate-crimes bill in the middle of last week, it took until the final hours of the session to pass a scaled-back $25.9 billion fiscal 2021 state budget.
Legislative budget writers imposed 10% spending cuts on state agencies across the board. But after drawing down $250 million from the state’s reserves and getting the welcome news that the recession has had a bit less impact on tax collections than expected, lawmakers found enough money to cancel the furlough days that were looming over teachers and state employees.
“As Georgia’s economy reopened and revenues rebounded slightly … Georgians and Georgians were resilient,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia. “We will continue to weather this storm.”
The final version of the budget restored or lessened spending cuts in a number of areas, including education, health care and public safety. In some cases, the legislature was able to plug in gaps in state funding with available federal dollars.
But minority Democrats complained the 2020 session was a lost opportunity to tap into additional sources of revenue that could have reduced the impact of the spending cuts. Proposals to substantially increase Georgia’s tobacco tax and reduce the size of the tax credits the state hands out to lure new businesses died during the session’s final stages.
“Although the state budget is not as dire as expected, it still devastates citizens across the state of Georgia,” said Rep. Debra Bazemore,” D-South Fulton. “This will be especially difficult, as well as add insult to injury during this pandemic where people have lost or are on the verge of losing their homes and cars or are unable to feed their family.”
Beyond hate crimes and the budget, lawmakers crafted protections for businesses and health-care providers fearful of lawsuits brought by people who contract coronavirus on their premises.
Among the last bills emerging from the session was a measure to shield businesses, hospitals, doctor’s offices, sports teams and other enterprises from lawsuits against all but the most serious negligence cases.
Supporters hailed the measure as needed legal protection for businesses struggling to rebound amid the pandemic, while opponents argued it would leave workers in the lurch.
Lawmakers also moved to extend broader unemployment benefits to people struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic and to offer up tax credits for companies that produce personal protective equipment.
With health care on the minds of many amid the pandemic, Georgians may be able to rest a little easier without having to worry about receiving a huge and unexpected hospital bill if they have to go to the emergency room.
Legislation to curb the practice of “surprise” billing cleared the General Assembly after being touted as a top priority for Republican leaders. It requires health-care insurers and providers to work out costs for medical procedures between themselves, leaving patients out of the mix.
Also in the health-care arena, the legislature expanded Medicaid coverage to new mothers in Georgia to six months post partum and funded the initiative with $19.7 million.
Also topping the legislative agendas for influential Capitol-goers like the governor were bills to reduce the number of standardized tests Georgia students need to take each year and limit participation in the state’s popular dual enrollment program.
On the environmental front, the legislature increased the fee for the disposal of coal ash at landfills from $1 per ton to $2.50 to discourage out-of-state companies from bringing their coal ash waste to Georgia.
Lawmakers banned the burning of railroad ties treated with harmful creosote used in the production of electricity and cracked down on discharges of cancer-causing ethylene oxide, a chemical used to sterilize medical equipment.
Environmental groups also helped kill the so-called Right to Farm Act, which would have limited the ability of property owners to file nuisance lawsuits against farm operations that move into their neighborhoods.
Legislation aimed at shielding Georgia businesses and health-care providers from lawsuits brought by people who contract coronavirus cleared the General Assembly Friday night during the final hours of this year’s legislative session.
The state House of Representatives passed the bill 104-56 largely along party lines, with Republicans supporting it and most Democrats voting against it. The Georgia Senate followed a short time later, approving the measure 34-16.
The bill would protect a range of Georgia enterprises from mom-and-pop shops to sports stadiums from coronavirus-related legal claims, so long as they post certain warning signs and do not willfully or grossly neglect their patrons or workers.
Hospitals and doctors’ offices would also be shielded from civil liability under the measure that lawmakers pushed through in the closing hours of the 2020 session.
Businesses and hospitals where people contract coronavirus on their premises would not be given total immunity from lawsuits under the measure, Senate Bill 359. But the bar would be set high for bringing a legal claim.
The intent is to give local businesses and health-care workers confidence their actions likely won’t lead to lawsuits as they continue struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic, supporters said.
“The COVID crisis is serious,” said House Majority Whip Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown. “It’s affected all of us. We need to offer protections to our business community and our health-care community.”
But Democrats argued the protections the bill offers to businesses would come at the expense of their workers.
“Businesses don’t get COVID. People get COVID,” said House Minority Leader Robert Trammell, D-Luthersville. “This bill doesn’t seek to protect people against COVID. It seeks to protect businesses against people.”
Under the bill, stores, stadiums, offices, hospitals and more would have to show gross or willful negligence in a way that leads people to contract coronavirus in order be held liable in court.
Businesses and health-care providers would also be protected from all but the most serious negligence cases if they install entrance signs warning patrons and patients about the dangers posed by coronavirus.
In part, the signs would have to read: “You are assuming this risk by entering these premises.”
Warning notes printed on event tickets and wristbands would also be enough to alert patrons that businesses have waived civil liability for COVID-19 claims.
Lawsuits could be brought by those who contract coronavirus or any of its mutations before July 15, 2021. Employees would still be covered under the state’s workers’ compensation laws.
The fine-tuned language for the bill was hashed out by lawmakers, business leaders, health-care professionals and trial attorneys in the hours leading up to the session’s ending Friday night.
Kelley, who oversaw negotiating in a House committee Thursday, pledged to revisit the hastily crafted bill during next year’s legislative session.
Supporters of COVID-19 liability protections framed the bill as needed to help businesses resume relatively normal operations without fear of being hammered by litiation.
Doctors and health-care workers, particularly in small communities and rural areas, would be freed up to treat patients and feel less anxious over potentially being served with a crippling lawsuit, said Bethany Sherrer, legal counsel for the Medical Association of Georgia.
“It’s been a really difficult time for smaller practices across the state,” Sherrer told House lawmakers Thursday night. “Obviously, this is really important to them.”
Hospital representatives and trial attorneys largely agreed on the details of legislation containing the liability protections in talks that stretched late into the night Thursday.
Notably, they settled on the legal standard of “gross negligence” as the liability threshold, agreeing that standard was stiff but not impossible for truly injured Georgians to seek court remedies.
“If there’s gross negligence, the assumption of risk is not going to get the venue or owner of a facility out of jail free, so to speak,” said Alan Hamilton, a trial attorney based in Atlanta and St. Simons Island. “[But only] if there’s gross negligence, which is a very high hurdle.”
Debate on the bill ran up to the final moments of the session, as several Senate lawmakers complained the “gross negligence” standard in the House bill would be too weak to protect businesses. But time had run out to make any more changes, they said.
“Unfortunately, I think we are faced with a hostage choice,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-Macon. “It’s not where we need to be. It’s not where our businesses need to be.”
Last-minute talks also centered on whether professional and college sports teams would be protected under the liability terms if they allow fans in their stadiums when games resume.
Atlanta sports teams including the Falcons, Braves, Hawks and United all backed the bill, said Jonathan Crumly, an attorney and lobbyist representing those teams.
“We will have severe interference with sports games and professional teams having fans in the stadiums if we don’t get COVID-19 immunity passed,” Crumly told lawmakers Thursday.
But others condemned the liability protections, arguing lawsuit immunity for all but the least-safe businesses could come at the expense of workers. The Georgia branch of the AFL-CIO workers’ union called liability measures like the one passed Friday night a threat to worker health and safety.
“By shifting the responsibilities of maintaining a clean, healthy environment that offers adequate personal protective equipment, corporations can claim immunity and therefore wash their hands of any responsibility to the working men and women of our state,” the union said.