State Senate panel approves compromise truck weights bill

ATLANTA – A Georgia Senate committee further scaled back legislation Monday that would raise the weight limit on trucks plying state and local highways.

The Senate Transportation Committee voted 7-4 in favor of a compromise version of House Bill 189 to let certain commercial trucks exceed the current legal weight limit of 80,000 pounds by 10%, for a total of 88,000 pounds, on roads other than interstate highways, which are subject to federal restrictions.

The legislation would apply only to trucks carrying timber or agricultural products. Representatives of the logging, farm and livestock industries have complained that having their trucks limited to 80,000 pounds would hurt their businesses by forcing them to make more trips.

Commercial trucks have become accustomed to carrying loads weighing up to 95,000 pounds since the pandemic struck Georgia three years ago. However, an executive order Gov. Brian Kemp issued during the early days of the pandemic to allow heavier trucks expired last week.

The version of the bill the state House of Representatives passed two weeks ago would have allowed commercial trucks hauling additional types of loads – including granite, concrete, and solid waste – to exceed the 80,000-pound weight limit. The original legislation introduced early last month would have applied no matter what a commercial truck was hauling.

But representatives of local governments and state Department of Transportation officials warned as the bill went through the committee process that heavier trucks would do tremendous damage to state and local highways, forcing them to devote large portions of their budgets to fixing existing roads rather than building new ones. Highway safety advocates also raised the greater danger posed by heavier trucks.

“We believe this is a fair compromise,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, said Monday of the bill that emerged from the Senate Transportation Committee.

The legislation allows commercial trucks to exceed the 80,000-pound limit only for trucks hauling timber or a farm or livestock product within 75 miles of the product’s point of origin. It also prohibits heavier trucks inside metro Atlanta.

The bill includes a “sunset” provision that calls for the legislation to expire on July 1 of next year. That’s to give lawmakers time to come up with a plan for increasing state funding of highway and bridge projects.

Georgia currently ranks sixth to last in road infrastructure funding per mile, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, said Monday.

“We have not gone to significant lengths to make sure we invest in the long-term future of our infrastructure,” he said. “If we’re going to do [heavier] truck weights, we need to be responsible for improving the assets of the state.”

House Bill 189 moves next to the Senate Rules Committee to schedule a vote of the full Senate.

Georgia Film Academy brings on new executive director

ATLANTA – A Georgia native with 35 years of experience in the entertainment industry has been named executive director of the Georgia Film Academy (GFA).

C. Scott Votaw got his start in Hollywood working on sets for commercials, film and episodic television, before working for production companies including Saban, Fox, Lucasfilm Ltd. and other independent content creation companies.

Most recently, he worked as an international consultant to studio infrastructure providers, workforce development and emerging technology companies within the film and entertainment production sectors in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Alongside GFA’s amazing team of professionals, I hope to leverage years of global industry expertise and relationships to expand partnerships and train more Georgians for jobs in the rapidly changing film, television and digital entertainment industry,” Votaw said.

“I look forward to increasing collaboration with our partner institutions and industry stakeholders by using emerging technologies to transform how content is created and consumed – all while creating innovative instructional and learning experiences for students and adult learners statewide.”

Votaw succeeds former GFA Executive Director Jeffrey Stepakoff, who left the position last July to form a talent management and production company.

Since its founding in 2015, GFA has met an increasing demand for educational and workforce needs within Georgia’s growing film and creative industries by bringing professional training opportunities to 28 institutions across the state – including those in the University System of Georgia (USG) as well as the Technical College System of Georgia. The film academy is part of the USG, which hired Votaw.

The film academy offers film production, post-production and digital entertainment certification programs, allowing students the opportunity to gain real-life experience through internships working on sets and in the offices of film and television productions and post-production facilities.

Since the General Assembly approved a lucrative film tax credit for the industry in 2008, Georgia has gained significant momentum as a leader in the film industry. With the largest incentive program in the industry and more than 100 sound stages, film and television productions spent a record $4.4 billion in Georgia during the last fiscal year.

Lawmakers weighing overhaul of compensating wrongfully convicted Georgians

ATLANTA – It was eight minutes after midnight last April 5 when the Georgia Senate voted unanimously to compensate Kerry Robinson financially for spending more than 17 years in prison for a rape he did not commit.

One minute later, another unanimous Senate vote awarded financial compensation to Dennis Arnold Perry, who spent more than 20 years behind bars for two murders he did not commit.

Technically, the two resolutions gained final passage after the midnight deadline for the 40th and final day of the 2022 legislative session.

Waiting until the last moment to do right by the two men was a glaring example of the need to overhaul Georgia’s system for compensating the wrongfully convicted, state Rep. Scott Holcomb said on the House floor earlier this month.

“That’s not how this process should be handled,” said Holcomb, D-Atlanta. “We’ve got to do better.”

Holcomb’s remarks came just before the House voted 157-17 in favor of his bill calling for a new system for compensating the wrongfully convicted.

House Bill 364 would create a five-member panel of experts in the criminal justice system, including a judge, retired judge, or retired justice; a district attorney, a criminal defense lawyer; and two attorneys, forensic experts, or law professors with expertise in wrongful convictions.

Georgians who have been exonerated of a crime for which they were wrongfully convicted, often through DNA evidence that was not available at the time of their trial, could submit compensation claims to the Wrongful Conviction Compensation Review Panel.

The panel would determine whether compensation is warranted, fix an amount of compensation, and refer its findings to a newly created Claims Advisory Board chaired by Georgia’s secretary of state and including the state commissioners of human services, corrections, and transportation.

The board, in turn, would report the findings to the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, who would include any recommendations for compensation in that year’s state budget.

Compensation awards under the bill would fall between $50,000 to $100,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration, depending on the panel’s judgment.

The new system would replace a process that requires the wrongfully convicted to find a legislative sponsor for a private compensation resolution and convince the House Appropriations Committee to pass it.

“HB 384 would remove much of the partisan politics from the compensation process and impose clear criteria for determining innocence and granting compensation,” Blis Savidge, spokeswoman for the Georgia Innocence Project, an advocacy group that works to free the wrongfully convicted, wrote in an email to Capitol Beat.

“Rather than snap judgments being made by legislators based upon partial information conveyed in short legislative hearings, the Wrongful Conviction Compensation Review Panel would be composed of relevant experts and have research and investigative capabilities.”

Molly Parmer, a Georgia Innocence Project board member, said 35 states and the federal government already use the compensation system proposed in Holcomb’s legislation.

“It’s been thoroughly vetted,” she said. “It’s modeled after those existing bills.”

Parmer said there’s nothing automatic about the new compensation system. The wrongfully convicted still would have to prove their cases warrant financial compensation but in a more appropriate venue, she said.

“Certainly, the experts will be in a better position to dole out compensation if they think it’s warranted,” she said.

The House passed similar legislation last year, also sponsored by Holcomb, but it died in the Senate. This year’s bill is pending before the Senate Appropriations Committee but has yet to get a hearing.

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 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.