State Senate sends tax break bills to Gov. Kemp’s desk

ATLANTA – The Georgia Senate gave final passage Wednesday to several bills offering tax breaks to various types of businesses.

House Bill 1041, which passed unanimously, would increase the annual cap on the state’s rural hospital tax credit program from the current $60 million a year to $75 million. The original version had called for raising the annual limit to $100 million.

Eight rural hospitals in Georgia have closed during the last decade for lack of operating funds, said Sen. Billy Hickman, R-Statesboro, who carried the House bill in the Senate.

“Without a rural hospital, a community is not viable,” he said. “And without being viable, a community dies.”

The rural hospital tax credit offers dollar-for-dollar credits to taxpayers who donate to a rural hospital in their community.

Hickman said the $60 million cap on the tax credit last year was reached in August. This year, donations to rural hospitals are running 75% ahead of last year, he said.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, who was instrumental in creating the tax credit in 2016 as a member of the state House of Representatives, said the key to its success has been its flexibility.

“We don’t try to sit in this building and tell [rural hospitals] how to spend those dollars,” said Duncan, who presides over the Senate

The Senate also voted 48-6 to exempt from state sales taxes the purchase of tickets to nonrecurring major sporting events held in Georgia.

Sponsors of events including the Super Bowl, college basketball’s Final Four, the college football playoffs and soccer’s World Cup demand tax breaks on ticket sales from host states, said Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, who carried House Bill 1034 in the Senate.

The Final Four generated more than $100 million in economic impact in 2013, the last time it was held in Atlanta, Albers said.

“We know the economic results of getting one of these,” he said.

Senators also voted 50-1 to offer Georgia’s timber industry the same exemption from property taxes on equipment used in timber harvesting that already goes to the purchasers of farm equipment.

“This bill is long overdue to bring equity and relief for our forestry community,” said Sen. Larry Walker III, R-Perry, who carried House Bill 997 in the Senate.

The tax break will be subject to a statewide referendum before it can take effect.

All three bills now head to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia suing feds over transportation mask mandate

ATLANTA – Georgia is challenging a mask mandate the Biden administration has imposed on public transportation and at transit hubs.

A lawsuit filed by Attorney General Chris Carr and Gov. Brian Kemp charges the mandate is an unconstitutional overreach of federal power.

The suit comes even as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has walked back similar masking guidance, the White House itself has ended its mask mandate for federal buildings, and states with some of the most restrictive COVID-19 policies have lifted their mask mandates.

“This mask mandate was unlawful from the very beginning,” Carr said. “Yet, the Biden administration has once again inexplicably extended its policy despite recent science-based developments that would indicate otherwise.

“The CDC does not have the authority to force everyone, including children, to wear a mask on public transportation, and to continue to do so is unnecessarily burdensome to both travelers and the industry alike.”

The mandate applies to airplanes, trains, buses, ships and other modes of transportation. Specifically, the rule requires that masks be worn by all personnel and passengers two years of age and older.

 “Though it is just one of many egregious federal mandates imposed by their heavy government hand, this mandate in particular has caused a rise in tensions and incidents between personnel and customers and unnecessarily divided people,” Kemp said. “At this point where cases are dropping and more and more people are taking advantage of the vaccine, travelers should be able to make the choice for themselves about whether or not they want to wear a mask.”

Kemp also has fought mask mandates at the state level. Legislation introduced into the General Assembly on the governor’s behalf prohibiting school districts in Georgia from imposing mask requirements gained final passage last week, and Kemp signed the bill on Tuesday.

With the new federal lawsuit, Kemp and Carr have now filed five separate legal challenges to the Biden administration’s vaccine and mask mandates. In one of those cases, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a vaccine mandate applying to businesses with 100 or more employees.

Twenty other Republican-led states have joined Georgia in the new federal suit, including Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Tampa.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia Senate committee abandons controversial election law changes

Workers would get time off for early voting under a bill a state Senate committee approved Tuesday.

ATLANTA – A state Senate Committee Tuesday scrapped every part of a controversial Republican-backed election bill, leaving only a provision that would expand Georgians’ ability to vote.

The version of House Bill 1464 the Senate Ethics Committee approved unanimously would require employers to give their workers up to two hours off to cast a ballot during the early voting period prior to an election. That would expand upon legislation the General Assembly enacted last year allowing employees time off from their jobs to vote on Election Day.

“This just broadens the ability to vote,” said state Rep. James Burchett, R-Waycross, the bill’s chief sponsor.

“It’s certainly good for the voter and good for the employer,” added Sen. Max Burns, R-Sylvania, the Ethics Committee’s chairman.

When the bill left the House two weeks ago after passing on a party-line vote, it contained provisions aimed at ensuring ballot security through tighter controls on the transfer and custody of ballots. It also would have authorized the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate complaints of voter fraud without being asked by local authorities, derided by critics as the “election police” provision.

Voting rights groups and local elections officials packed committee rooms during hearings on the bill, reminding Republican lawmakers that GOP Gov. Brian Kemp had promised not to push for further election law changes this year after last year’s comprehensive overhaul of Georgia’s election laws.

Senate Republicans responded by backing away from the bill’s controversial provisions, at least for now.

“This is one of the most politicized issues across the country,” Burchett said. “We’ll just continue working on these issues that were in the bill and try to find some middle ground.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

State Senate committee advances COAM reform bill

Georgia Sen. Bill Cowsert

ATLANTA – A Georgia Senate committee approved legislation Tuesday that would raise the state tax on owners of coin-operated amusement machines (COAMs) and retailers where the machines are located.

The Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee voted to advance its version of a COAM bill the state House of Representatives passed two weeks ago. House Bill 1424 could reach the Senate floor by the end of this week.

The committee’s bill would increase the share of revenue from the machines going to the state to support education from 10% to 30%. Machine owners and the convenience stores, restaurants and other businesses that install them would each get 35% of the proceeds, down from the current 45%.

The COAM industry can afford to take a smaller share of the proceeds because sales from the games have increased to the point that they rival what the state takes in from the lottery, committee Chairman Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, said Tuesday.

“This is an industry that has grown from $2 billion [annually] in sales just a few years ago to $4.5 billion today and growing,” he said.

Cowsert said increasing the state’s take from the COAM business could make it possible for every Georgia family that wishes to send their children to pre-kindergarten to do so as well as help narrow the gap between the tuition coverage the HOPE Scholarships program offers and what the state can afford.

But Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, who voted against the bill, objected to the proposed tax hike as punishing the COAM industry for being successful.

“Now, we’re telling folks ‘It’s wrong for you to make money,’ ” Lucas said.

The Senate committee also added a provision to the bill requiring the Georgia Lottery Corp., which oversees the COAM program, to conduct annual audits to identify retailers that are paying illegal cash prizes to game winners.

“All the machines are wired together and centrally report,” Cowsert said. “It ought to be pretty easy to connect the dots to see who’s cheating and who’s not.”

The Senate bill has some major differences with the COAM legislation that passed the House. While the House measure would award gift cards to game winners redeemable anywhere, the Senate version would limit winners to redeeming the cards at the location where they won the game.

Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, said that would require nonprofit veterans groups and fraternal organizations to stock merchandise at their lodges, which are frequently unoccupied and, thus, vulnerable to thieves

“Prior versions had a gift card you could redeem at multiple locations,” he said.

But Cowsert wouldn’t entertain an amendment to the bill at this late date in the legislative session. The 2022 session is scheduled to wrap up on Monday.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

State slaps historic fine on Anthem/Blue Cross Blue Shield

ATLANTA – Georgia’s insurance department has fined Anthem/Blue Cross Blue Shield $5 million for several violations of state law following a months-long investigation.

“This examination uncovered a number of serious issues, including improper claims settlement practices, violations of the Prompt Pay Act, failure to reply to consumer complaints in a timely manner, inaccurate provider directories, and significant delays in loading provider contracts,” state Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John King said Tuesday.

“As a result, our office has issued the largest fine in agency history, with potential additional penalties if certain benchmarks are not reached.”

To avoid additional fines, Blue Cross Blue Shield must develop a new process for handling provider complaints, pay claims within the time frames established under state law, and load provider contracts in a timely manner.

In a statement responding to the state’s action, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield said the company has worked “diligently” to make changes since the investigation was completed.

“We have since migrated to a new platform with the goal of improving accuracy and transparency,” the statement read. “We are dedicated to those we serve and partner with, and we believe the recent enhancements we have made will create an improved overall care provider experience.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.