State Senate panel OKs electric vehicles bill

ATLANTA – The General Assembly moved closer Thursday toward putting a framework in place to accommodate the growing popularity of electric vehicles in Georgia.

The state Senate Regulated Industries Committee unanimously approved legislation that would pave the way for a planned network of public EV charging stations across the state. The bill passed in the Georgia House of Representatives early this month, also unopposed.

Under House Bill 406, EV drivers would be charged by the kilowatt-hour for the electricity they purchase to power their vehicles, rather than the current system based on the length of time charging takes. The change is necessary in order for Georgia to qualify for $135 million in federal funding to build the public charging stations.

The legislation calls for the state Department of Agriculture to inspect the charging stations for accuracy, as they do now with gasoline pumps.

To offset the loss of revenue from the state’s sales tax on motor fuels as more motorists switch to EVs, the bill would impose an excise tax of 9 kilowatt-hours on purchases of electricity to power electric vehicles.

Two speakers at Thursday’s committee hearing complained that’s too much. Mark Woodall, legislative chairman for the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, said the proposed excise tax would be the highest in the nation, while the flat annual fee of $217 EV owners now pay is the nation’s second-highest.

“We think we ought to be incentivizing EVs,” Woodall said.

Doug Teper, policy manager for Georgia Conservation Voters, said the proposed tax would send the wrong message at a time Gov. Brian Kemp’s goal is make Georgia a leader in electric mobility.

“We don’t want to be known as the state that taxes the most,” he said.

But Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, who co-chaired a legislative study committee that helped develop the legislation, said the proposed rate is designed to be equivalent to what Georgians pay in taxes on a gallon of gasoline.

“We’re not trying to increase the cost of an electric car more than gasoline,” he said.

Gooch said the General Assembly needs to pass the legislation this year in order to make Georgia eligible for the federal funding.

Committee Chairman Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, suggested there will be time later to make adjustments in the tax if necessary because it wouldn’t take effect under the bill until 2025.

The measure now moves to the Senate Rules Committee to schedule a vote of the full Senate.

State retirement fund managers confident of little impact from bank failures

ATLANTA – Georgia’s Teachers Retirement System (TRS) lost about $33 million when two large banks – Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Signature Bank – failed earlier this month. 

TRS lost $18 million from the SVB failure and $13 million from the Signature Bank failure, TRS Executive Director Buster Evans said Thursday.

But the loss is just a sliver of a fraction of the TRS’ $88 billion in total assets – 0.04% — and is not expected to impact the overall health of the fund or retired employees’ benefits. 

“The impact would be pretty negligible,” Evans said. “Our portfolio is very diverse and we are not dependent on any one industry for performance. Year-to-date, our fund is up.” 

The Employees’ Retirement System of Georgia (ERSGA) also took a relatively small loss of $7.1 million from the two bank failures, Executive Director Jim Potvin told Capitol Beat. As at TRS, the loss represents just 0.04% of the ERGSA’s total assets of $17.7 billion. 

The TRS administers the fund from which the pensions of teachers and many University System of Georgia employees are paid retirement benefits. ERGSA administers a number of retirement plans for state employees, including retired judges and state legislators. 

Both Potvin and Evans said they are confident their funds will thrive despite current market volatility. 

“This occurrence in no way has an impact on either our retirees or active members in their current and future retirement benefits,” Evans said. 

“One of the key features of a defined benefit plan [like ERSGA] … is that sort of insulation from market events,” Potvin added.

Both Potvin and Evans said they are uncertain about whether they will benefit from any restitution plans the federal government develops. 

“Not counting on any of that,” Potvin said. “If we get anything later, it’ll be a nice little bonus.”

As in Georgia, other states’ retirement systems are facing losses from the two banks’ failures. 

“It’s important for everybody to realize TRS didn’t do anything wrong investing in [Silicon Valley Bank]. It was the 16th largest bank in the country,” said Anthony Randazzo, executive director of the Equable Institute, a bipartisan nonprofit focused on retirement plan sustainability and accountability.  “As part of the S&P 500, it was a totally reasonable bet.” 

Georgia teachers also approve of TRS’ overall performance. 

“TRS has a very solid investment policy,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. “Our educators and retirees are very happy with TRS.”

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

State Senate committee resurrects sports betting

ATLANTA – Legislation to legalize sports betting in Georgia left for dead after Crossover Day in the General Assembly last week was brought back to life Thursday.

None of the four measures on sports betting introduced early in this year’s session made it through the Crossover Day deadline for bills to pass at least one legislative chamber to remain alive for the year.

But on Thursday, the Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee inserted a lengthy sports betting bill into a much shorter measure declaring the Southeast Georgia Soap Box Derby the state’s official sports box derby.

The sports betting measure, introduced by freshman Sen. Derek Mallow, D-Savannah, would authorize the Georgia Lottery Corp. to oversee online sports betting in Georgia. Twenty-two percent of the adjusted gross income derived from sports betting would support the state’s HOPE Scholarships and pre-kindergarten programs.

To discourage addictive gambling, the bill would allow bettors to use debit cards only. Betting would be allowed on professional and college sporting events but not high school games.

Committee Chairman Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, thanked Lt. Gov. Burt Jones for helping put together the sports betting measure. As a state senator, Jones introduced sports betting legislation three years ago.

“He’s been a strong advocate for sports betting for a long time,” Beach said.

But Sen. Mike Duggan, R-Carrollton, objected to sports betting advocates essentially stealing the soap box derby bill for their own purposes. He said passing sports betting that way would set the industry back in Georgia by five years.

“When you hijack a soap box derby and put sports betting on the back of it, every person who was on the fence in Georgia has picked a side of the fence,” Duggan said. “It will not pass on the [Senate] floor.”

Freshman Rep. Leesa Hagan, R-Lyons, the original bill’s chief sponsor, went so far as to ask Beach to remove her bill from the sports betting legislation if the committee was determined to try to push sports betting through the General Assembly that way.

“I don’t want my soap box derby to be associated with sports betting,” she said.

Beach told Hagan he would find another bill moving through the legislature and attach her legislation to it.

The sports betting bill now heads to the Senate Rules Committee to schedule a floor vote.

State Senate committee expands bill banning lengthy housing moratoriums 

A state Senate committee widened the scope of a bill sponsored by Rep. Dale Washburn, R-Macon, that would ban lengthy local moratoriums on the building of housing.

ATLANTA – A state Senate committee Thursday widened the scope of a bill that would prohibit local governments from imposing moratoriums on the building of housing for longer than 180 days.  

As passed by the state House earlier this month, the bill only barred such local government moratoriums on single-family housing. On Thursday, the Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee approved an amendment broadening the bill to include all housing.  

Sponsored by Rep. Dale Washburn, R-Macon, the bill also would prohibit local governments from continually renewing moratoriums and instead require a 180-day break between such moratoriums. 

The bill provides some exceptions to the bar on lengthy moratoriums, such as in the case of natural disasters or other emergencies.  

The bill would also let local governments extend moratoriums if they need more than 180 days to allow for the completion of studies on topics such as land use or infrastructure, whether those studies are completed in house or by third-party contractors.

Local governments would be allowed to waive impact fees for housing that is smaller than 2,500 square-feet in order to incentivize construction. Local governments sometimes impose impact fees to cover the infrastructure costs of new housing developments.  

The bill has drawn the support of a newly formed housing coalition made up of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Home Builders Association of Georgia, the Georgia Association of Realtors and Habitat for Humanity.  

“We think it’s a small, modest step in the right direction,” said Austin Hackney of the Home Builders Association of Georgia. “Unfortunately, some local governments are using those development moratoriums to put a hard stop on new housing, in their local area, in a blanket manner.”  

The bill now moves to the Senate Rules Committee to schedule a vote of the full Senate.

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

State House passes bill banning some gender-affirming care for transgender Georgians under 18 

Rep. Josh Bonner, R-Fayetteville, introduces Senate Bill 140 on the floor of the state House of Representatives.

ATLANTA – The Republican-controlled state House of Representatives approved a controversial bill Thursday that would ban some gender-affirming care for transgender Georgia youths.  
Senate Bill 140, which the House passed 96-75 along party lines, would prohibit hospitals and doctors from providing hormone-replacement therapy or gender-affirming surgeries to transgender minors. However, it would allow some gender-related treatment for certain medical conditions and let transgender youths take puberty blockers.  

Doctors and hospitals could lose their licenses for providing such care. And earlier this week, a House committee amended the bill to allow doctors to be held civilly and criminally liable for providing hormone-replacement therapy or gender-affirming surgeries to Georgians under 18. 

“As legislators we are charged with protecting our most vulnerable population in the state,” said Rep. Josh Bonner, R-Fayetteville, the bill’s House sponsor.  “SB 140 does just that by establishing guardrails to ensure that children struggling with identity issues are not rushed into decisions that would alter their bodies forever.” 

“Nothing in this bill stops an adult from pursuing a different lifestyle based on their feelings,” said Rep. Will Wade, R-Dawsonville, in support of the bill.

“We must draw a line for the long-term of children. … I believe that childhood is about giving young people time to develop and letting them learn by trial and error, but still protecting them from long-term harms.”

Democratic legislators spoke out in opposition to the bill, pointing out that major medical societies including the American Academy of Pediatrics support gender-affirming care that can include hormone-replacement therapy and surgery for transgender youths. 

“We think this bill will in fact do real harm to some of our most vulnerable citizens,” said Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta. “I really do fear that we may lose some lives by passing this, not save lives but lose lives, and that should give everyone pause.”

House Democrats cited studies that show that transgender youths are much more likely to contemplate or commit suicide than other young people. They also contended the bill is at odds with the GOP’s recent push to protect parental rights.  

“Most of us who are parents … want the freedom to make decisions for our families and our children,” said Rep. Saira Draper, D-Atlanta. “Many of you in this chamber have said as much: You have declared that it is a parent’s right to make decisions about where their children go to school, which books they read and which subjects they study.”

“Yet, SB 140 attempts to substitute the judgement of the state for that of the parents of some of our most vulnerable children, those who identify as transgender. That is wrong, and it is not what this body should stand for.”  

Because the House amended the bill in committee, it now heads back to the Georgia Senate.

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