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.

Bill targeting financial exploitation of Georgia seniors wins final passage

State Rep. Carter Barrett

ATLANTA – The state House of Representatives gave final passage Wednesday to legislation aimed at preventing the financial exploitation of Georgia seniors.

The bill, which the Georgia Senate passed last month, authorizes financial advisors to delay transactions involving their elderly or disabled clients if they suspect fraud.

“Georgia has a strong tradition of protecting elders from abuse,” Rep. Carter Barrett, R-Cumming, who carried Senate Bill 84 in the House, told his legislative colleagues during a short discussion before Wednesday’s unanimous vote.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger backed the legislation, noting during a news conference in January that financial exploitation of seniors has been on the rise since the pandemic struck three years ago. The Securities Division in the secretary of state’s office processes complaints of financial exploitation.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, steered the bill through the Senate, where it also passed unanimously.

The legislation now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp for signing.

Kemp inks $1 billion state tax rebate

Gov. Brian Kemp signs a $1 billion state income tax rebate late Tuesday.

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp wasted no time signing the $1 billion state income tax rebate the General Assembly passed this week.

The Republican governor put his signature on House Bill 162 late Tuesday, just hours after the Georgia Senate gave the legislation final passage.

“While some in Washington D.C., are calling for tax increases, we’re sending money back to hardworking Georgians,” Kemp said in a prepared statement, referring to the federal budget plan President Joe Biden unveiled last week.

“And while they want to grow government, we’re growing opportunity. Last year, we returned over a billion dollars to the taxpayers of our state, and I’m proud we’re doing it again … to help Georgia families fighting through 40-year-high inflation.”

The tax rebates will go to Georgians who filed state income tax returns for both the 2021 and 2022 tax years. Individual tax filers will receive $250, with heads of households receiving $375 and $500 going to married couples filing jointly.

The state Department of Revenue will begin issuing the tax refunds within six to eight weeks, with the overwhelming majority going out by July 1 for those who file on or before April 18.

Lawmakers debate mining near Okefenokee Swamp

ATLANTA – It was jobs versus protecting a national environmental treasure Tuesday when a Georgia House subcommittee held a two-hour hearing on a proposed titanium mine near the Okefenokee Swamp.

Environmental advocates urged lawmakers to pass legislation banning surface mining along Trail Ridge near the Okefenokee. That’s where Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals is seeking state permits to mine titanium oxide.

House Bill 71 failed to make last week’s Crossover Day deadline for bills to pass at least one legislative chamber to remain alive for this year’s General Assembly session. However, the measure boasts 91 cosponsors among the 180 House members and could be resurrected by being attached to another bill that is still before the legislature.

Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville, the bill’s chief sponsor, urged her colleagues on the House Natural Resources & Environment’s Resource Management Subcommittee to give the measure a chance.

“The Okefenokee is one of the largest remaining intact freshwater ecosystems in the world,” she said. “It cannot be replaced. A miscalculation cannot be corrected.”

Rhett Jackson, a professor of hydrology and water resources at the University of Georgia, said the proposed mine would remove enough water from the drought-sensitive swamp to render it more susceptible to wildfires.

Other supporters touted the Okefenokee’s economic benefits as a popular tourist attraction. Michael Lusk, refuge manager at the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, said the swamp draws about 400,000 visitors a year, is responsible for 955 jobs, and generates $24 million in annual economic impact.

The bill’s opponents said the mine, too, would provide an economic boost to an economically distressed area of the state. Twin Pines CEO Steve Ingle, in video testimony, said the mine would create 100 to 200 full-time jobs.

“Our county greatly needs large quantities of high-paying jobs,” said Drew Jones, a Charlton County commissioner. The commission has passed a resolution supporting the project.

Ingle said Twin Pines has pledged to restore the site with indigenous pines after the mining activity is completed.

“There’s no way we’d do anything to expose us to regulatory action or put our investment at risk,” he said.

The bill’s opponents also brought a hydrologist, Sorab Panjay, who told the subcommittee the amount of water the mine would remove from the swamp would be negligible and do no environmental harm.

Bill Sapp, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center and chairman of the Okefenokee Protection Alliance, said it’s the General Assembly’s duty to “protect and preserve” the Okefenokee and not leave it to the discretion of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), which is currently reviewing Twin Pines’ mining land use plan for the project.

But Lewis Jones, a lawyer representing Twin Pines, said it’s the EPD’s job to evaluate permit applications and approve them only if a project will not harm the environment.

“This rigorous process is only going to result in a permit if it can be shown mining can be done safely,” he said.

State Senate gives $1B tax rebate final passage

Gov. Brian Kemp

ATLANTA – The Georgia Senate overwhelmingly passed a $1 billion one-time state income tax rebate Tuesday, sending it to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature.

The 46-7 Senate vote followed House passage of the legislation last month by a vote of 170-2.

The tax rebate will yield $250 to single taxpayers, $375 to heads of households and $500 to married couples filing jointly.

Kemp and the General Assembly have provided income tax rebates two years in row, using portions of a budget surplus that has reached more than $6 billion. The only difference between this year’s bill and the 2022 version is that the rebate also will go to students listed as dependents on their parents’ tax form but who worked during the last tax year.

The rebate fulfills a promise Kemp made on the campaign trail last year.

“We’re sending money back to the people because they know how to use it,” the governor said Monday during a signing ceremony for the mid-year state budget.

But the rebate received pushback on the Senate floor Tuesday from Democrats who argued it isn’t the best use of the state’s surplus revenue.

Sen. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, who voted for the bill, said he was doing so only because Georgia voters have come to expect tax rebates when the state builds up a large surplus. He said the money should be used to address the state’s serious workforce shortage.

“We have a critical understaffing problem in critical areas of government,” McLaurin said. “Our government is starving and has been starving for years.”

Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, who voted against the bill, said Georgia’s workforce shortage is partly a result of the state failing to live up its promise to fund promised 3% cost-of-living increases for state retirees.

Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, another of the legislation’s opponents, suggested the surplus be spent on a state-level earned income tax credit for low- and middle-income families, an idea that has drawn some Republican support in the past.

But Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, said the tax rebate was made possible largely because of one-time revenues – including federal pandemic assistance – that are not likely to reoccur.

“Isn’t it more prudent to give it back to taxpayers rather than have a deficit the following year?” he asked.

After passing the tax rebate, senators followed with a unanimous vote ratifying seven executive orders Kemp issued last year temporarily suspending the state sales tax on gasoline and other motor fuels. The governor issued the first of those orders last March as pump prices spiked in Georgia and across the nation.