Georgia House passes bill suspending tax exemption for data centers

ATLANTA – The Georgia House of Representatives has passed a bill that would call a temporary halt to a sales tax exemption the state has been using since 2018 to attract huge high-tech data centers.

House Bill 1192, which passed 96-71, would suspend the exemptions for two years while a newly formed commission studies the impact data centers are having on Georgia’s power grid.

The drain data centers are putting on the state’s electric supply was documented last month when executives from Georgia Power testified before the state Public Service Commission that 80% of the additional demand for electricity driving the utility to ask for a huge increase in generating capacity is due to data centers.

“This is an immense subsidy for an industry that takes up a tremendous amount of resources, power and water,” Rep. Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said on the House floor Tuesday.

The bill’s supporters stressed that suspending the tax exemption would not affect companies operating existing data centers.

“We’re not pulling the rug out from anybody that’s trying to be in business today,” said Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta.

But opponents, including some lawmakers with data centers in their districts, argued that suspending a tax credit the General Assembly approved just six years ago and extended in 2022 to attract a fast-growing industry to Georgia would send the wrong message.

“We have signaled to this industry that Georgia is open for business,” said Rep. Matthew Gambill, R-Cartersville. Bartow County is home to a data center currently under construction that is expected to generate $44 million in tax revenue during the next 10 years.

“Please don’t change the game at midstream and say Georgia is closed to business,” Gambill said.

House Minority Whip Sam Park, D-Lawrenceville, said House Bill 1192 is one of the few pieces of legislation before the General Assembly that has drawn opposition from both business and labor. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers oppose the bill.

“This bill is bad for business,” Park said. “It will kill thousands of jobs.”

The measure now heads to the Georgia Senate.

Georgia House approves CON reform measure

ATLANTA – The Georgia House of Representatives passed legislation Tuesday that would significantly reform the state law governing hospital construction and medical services but stop short of repealing it entirely.

House Bill 1339, which passed 166-1 and now heads to the state Senate, includes changes to Georgia’s 45-year-old certificate of need (CON) law aimed at making health care more accessible and affordable, particularly in rural Georgia.

A state Senate study committee late last year recommended repealing the CON law as an obstacle to quality health care in Georgia. But on the House side, a committee formed by Speaker Jon Burns last year concluded reforming rather than repealing CON would offer a more realistic approach.

“We wanted to move forward in a measured way,” Rep. Butch Parrish, R-Swainsboro, who chaired the House Special Committee on Health Care and House Bill 1339’s chief sponsor, said on the House floor Tuesday. “We didn’t want to take giant leaps.”

Georgia’s CON law requires applicants wishing to build a new medical facility or provide a new health-care service to demonstrate to the state Department of Community Health that the facility or service is needed in that community.

Parrish’s bill includes provisions aimed at speeding up the state agency’s review of CON applications. The measure also removes spending thresholds governing hospital construction projects and increases the cap on the state’s tax credit supporting rural hospitals from $75 million a year to $100 million.

The legislation focuses special attention on mental health-care and obstetrics needs with new exemptions from the CON law for certain psychiatric and obstetrics services. Also, rural hospitals would be exempt from CON in some circumstances.

Although only one House lawmaker voted against the bill, several argued it doesn’t go far enough. Rep. Michelle Au, D-Johns Creek, said Georgia suffers from the second-highest uninsured rate in the nation, a problem that could be addressed if the state’s political leaders would agree to expand Medicaid coverage in Georgia through the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Forty states, including many led by Republican governors and legislatures, have approved Medicaid expansion in the 12 years since the Congress passed the ACA. But Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia’s GOP legislative leaders have balked at a full Medicaid expansion, citing the cost.

“We need to address our high uninsurance rate and close the coverage gap,” Au said Tuesday. “We know what we need to do. We’re just not brave enough to do it.”

Georgia Senate Minority Leader Butler not running for reelection

Gloria Butler

ATLANTA – State Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler announced Tuesday she will not seek reelection this year.

Butler, D-Stone Mountain, was elected to the upper legislative chamber in 1998. She has been the Senate’s Democratic leader since the beginning of the 2021 legislative session, when she succeeded former Sen. Steve Henson of DeKalb County to become the first Black woman to lead either party’s caucus in the Senate.

“I’ve had an extraordinary journey at this Capitol,” Butler told her Senate colleagues Tuesday.

Republican Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who presides over the state Senate, praised Butler for keeping an even keel when debating issues before the General Assembly, demonstrating an ability to disagree without being disagreeable.

“It’s been a pleasure to work with you,” Jones told Butler after her announcement. “You’ve been a fantastic friend … and a great leader for your caucus.”

Sports betting makes it through Georgia Senate

ATLANTA – A proposed constitutional amendment calling for a statewide referendum on whether to legalize sports betting in Georgia cleared the state Senate Tuesday.

Senate Resolution 579 passed 41-12, garnering three more votes than the minimum two-thirds majority required to approve constitutional amendments in the General Assembly. Combined with an enabling bill specifying how sports betting would operate that the Senate passed earlier this month, Tuesday’s vote marked the most progress legalized gambling has made in a years-long effort in the legislature.

Under the legislation, sports betting would be overseen by the Georgia Lottery Corporation through a newly created gaming commission.

The enabling bill calls for the awarding of 16 licenses to online sports betting providers. Five would go to Atlanta’s professional sports teams: the Braves, Falcons, Hawks, Dream, and Atlanta United. The Augusta National Golf Club, the Professional Golf Association (PGA), and the Atlanta Motor Speedway would receive one license each.

Seven licenses would be open to sports betting providers through an application process overseen by lottery officials. The lottery corporation also would receive one license.

The vast majority of the tax revenue derived from sports betting – 80% – would go toward education with an emphasis on Georgia’s pre-kindergarten program. Another 15% would fund an education program on the dangers of problem gambling, and the final 5% would be used to promote major sporting events in Georgia.

During years of debate in the General Assembly over legalized gambling, a key issue of contention has been whether a constitutional amendment is necessary or whether it can be done through general law.

Georgia voters deserve the right to decide whether to bring sports betting to the Peach State, Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, Senate Resolution 579’s chief sponsor, said during Tuesday’s floor debate.

“It’s politically appropriate to let the people vote,” he said.

“I trust the people of Georgia to make the right decision,” added Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele, one of the resolution’s cosponsors.

After some senators questioned the proposed sports marketing fund Tuesday, Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, said the state should contribute to a promotional effort that now is largely handled by the private sector.

“We’ve depended on the business community. … (But) you can only go to that well so much,” said Beach, another of the resolution’s cosponsors. “We need those funds if we want to be competitive.”

Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, who has consistently opposed legalized gambling, said the projected $125 million sports betting would generate for Georgia’s economy each year is minuscule compared to the $16 billion budget surplus the state has built up during the last three years.

“We have the money,” Harbin said. “We don’t need this.”

Both the enabling bill and the constitutional amendment are now in the Georgia House of Representatives’ court. Since the Senate has been leading the legalized gambling push in recent years, the fate of sports betting remains uncertain as the General Assembly heads into the final weeks of the 2024 session.

Georgia lawmakers put final stamp on midyear budget

ATLANTA – The General Assembly gave final passage Monday to a $37.9 billion midyear budget loaded with $5.5 billion in new spending.

The midyear budget, which covers state spending through June 30, provided an additional $5 billion in spending when it emerged from the state House and Senate.

But the joint House-Senate conference committee that worked out the final version of the plan added $392 million to fund major renovations at the state Capitol complex both to improve security and enhance public access. Gov. Brian Kemp revised his fiscal 2024 revenue estimate upward to accommodate what promises to be a multi-year project.

“A lot has changed since this building opened in 1889,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Matt Hatchett, R-Dublin, told his House colleagues before they approved the midyear budget 169-2. “We’re bursting at the seams.”

Hatchett said the hallways at the Capitol have grown increasingly crowded during legislative sessions in recent years, and public access – particularly to committee meeting rooms inside the Capitol and Coverdell Legislative Office Building across the street – has become an issue.

“We should be open,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, said before the upper chamber approved the midyear budget 52-1. “People should have access and be able to participate in their government.”

Other than the Capitol complex renovation, House and Senate conferees made few changes to the spending plan Gov. Brian Kemp presented to the General Assembly last month. The midyear budget is highlighted by a $300 million appropriation for $1,000 one-time pay supplements for Georgia’s public school teachers and state and university system employees.

As usual, the midyear budget includes an adjustment to account for school enrollment growth – in this case, $102 million. Lawmakers also restored $66 million the legislature had cut from the university system’s fiscal 2024 budget last spring.

The Georgia Department of Transportation received a big boost in funding, including $593 million for capital projects in the agency’s pipeline and $500 million for projects aimed at improving the movement of freight through the Peach State.

The Georgia Environmental Finance Authority received $250 million to pay for water and sewer projects across the state.

For the first time in memory, capital projects will be paid for out of cash rather than bonds thanks for a bulging budget surplus the state has built up during the last three years. Projects on the list include $436 million for a new state prison in Washington County, $178 million for a new dental school at Georgia Southern University’s Armstrong campus in Savannah, and $50 million for a new medical school at the University of Georgia in Athens.

The midyear budget also includes $37.5 million to renovate the Atlanta Farmers Market in Clayton County and $3.1 million to design a new medical examiner’s office in Macon.

The conferees added a few items to the spending plan, including $10 million in federal funds that will go toward a character education program in the public schools and $4 million to benefit retired state troopers who were injured in the line of duty.

The midyear budget’s final step will be Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature.