2015 Legislative Session: Week Twelve
On April 2nd, the House and Senate completed the final legislative day, also known as “Sine Die,” a Latin term meaning “without assigning a day for further meeting. Being the final day, we worked late into the night to ensure the passage of important legislation related to transportation and education in our state. While we passed numerous bills in the final days of session, I would like to bring to your attention several key pieces of legislation that were passed to improve the quality of life for all Georgians.
Throughout this 40 day legislative process in the General Assembly, it is not uncommon to see bills change slightly as they make their way through the committee process and pass the House and Senate. Should any one piece of legislation pass in different versions in the House and the Senate, the Speaker of the House and the Lieutenant Governor can both appoint a conference committee to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of a bill. Once the conference committee reaches an agreement, their final, agreed upon version of that bill then goes back to the House and Senate for a final floor vote. Both chambers must vote on the conference committee’s version of the bill to ensure that all contents are completely agreed upon by both chambers. Finally, if approved by both House and Senate, the legislation is sent to the governor’s desk for consideration. Here is a recap of some of the important bills passed this session.
- This bill establishes a state budget for Fiscal Year 2016, was given final approval during the last week of session through a House and Senate conference committee. As the only piece of legislation that we are constitutionally required to pass, the Fiscal Year 2016 budget passed unanimously and will guide all state spending from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016. This year’s budget was set by a revenue estimate of $21.8 billion, an increase from last year that enables $900 million in new spending. The majority of new funds will go to K-12 education, an investment in our children that accounts for 55%of the state’s budget. These funds will distribute more dollars to local school systems in hopes of eliminating furlough days and raising salaries for teachers. Additionally, the final version of the budget ensures that non-certificated school workers will continue to receive coverage under the State Health Benefit Plan.
- It also prioritizes health and public safety. To address a shortage of healthcare in rural Georgia, HB76 funds new primary care residency slots and includes $3 million to improve the financial health of struggling and closing hospitals in rural Georgia. Public safety is also a key component to the FY 2016 budget, with $100 million dedicated to repairs for Georgia bridges.
- This bill converts the state sales tax on motor fuels to an excise tax of 26 cents per gallon on gasoline and 29 cents per gallon on diesel fuel. The rate will be adjusted annually based on an aggregate of fuel efficiency standards (CAFÉ) and the Consumer Price Index beginning on July 1, 2016. After July 1, 2018 the Consumer Price Index will no longer be used and the index will be based only on CAFÉ Standards. Not only will the new excise rate help raise the necessary funds for Georgia’s transportation infrastructure, but it will also help keep gas prices more stable and predictable for Georgia’s consumers.
- HB 170 also takes precautions to limit its impact on the revenue generated for local counties through local option sales taxes. Under HB 170, local option sales taxes (LOST), homestead option sales taxes (HOST), municipal option sales taxes (MOST), special purpose local option sales taxes (SPLOST) and education special purpose local option sales taxes (ESPLOST) are left untouched. The local sales taxes will not be levied on any price per gallon above $3, and the legislation also authorizes counties to seek voter approval for transportation SPLOST of up to 1%. These measures ensure that local counties and city governments can continue to generate revenue to provide necessary services for their constituents.
- Other sources of revenue in HB 170 will be generated by ensuring everyone pays their fair share in maintaining Georgia’s transportation infrastructure. HB 170 adds an annual fee for drivers of alternative fuel vehicles, who currently pay less for Georgia’s roads and bridges because they buy little to no gas for their vehicles. The fee totals $200 for non-commercial vehicles and $300 for commercial vehicles. The tax credit for low emission or zero emission vehicles is also eliminated, in recognition of the tax advantage that those drivers already receive from their limited need for gas. Another measure implemented by HB 170 is a fee for heavy vehicles, which cause more wear and tear on Georgia’s roads. Required upon registration, the heavy vehicle fee will be set at $50 for vehicles weighing between 15,500 and 26,000 pounds and $100 for vehicles larger than 26,000 pounds. It also eliminates a tax credit given to commercial airlines and institutes a $5 per night tax on hotel stays, with an exception for extended stay lodging. Combined with the changes to gasoline tax, all of these measures are crucial for raising the necessary funds to support Georgia’s transportation infrastructure.
- Finally, HB 170 implements measures to improve transparency and accountability in the distribution of state transportation dollars. The bill requires the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) to provide the Georgia General Assembly with a ten year strategic plan, which would outline the department’s use of resources for the upcoming years. The Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank must also meet a set of requirements to make every effort to balance any loans or other financial assistance equally among all regions of the state. The Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank may give preference to eligible projects in tier 1 and tier 2 counties. Additionally, Preference for grants and other financial assistance may be given to eligible projects which have local financial support. This bill also creates the Special Joint Committee on Georgia Revenue Structure to review any future tax reform measures that may come before the General Assembly. I’m proud that HB 170 not only addresses Georgia’s critical transportation needs, but it also ensures that those needs are addressed fairly. Overall, HB 170 ensures public safety on Georgia’s highways and bridges, while also making Georgia a more attractive place for businesses.
- This would improve safety on Georgia’s roads and highways. One measure in SB 76 requires drivers to stop at crosswalks that have flashing beacons. This will improve safety for pedestrians, who must currently step on the crosswalk in order to halt traffic. Other provisions in SB 76 update our state laws for bicycles and motorcycles. One section of the bill will change the existing state law on handle bar height, while another section allows cyclists and bikers to proceed through a traffic light, in the event that the lightweight design of their bike has caused the traffic light to become inoperable. In these situations, the driver must follow all other traffic rules and must ensure that the intersection is clear of oncoming traffic.
- This companion bill to Senate Bill 2 that was passed last week, would allow all high school students, whether in public or private school, to apply to a post-secondary school in order to take one class or more. If accepted, the student could then earn credit for the class at both the student’s high school and the postsecondary institution. This legislation will allow students to move at an accelerated pace that matches their unique career path and interests.
- This would allow local boards to use digital and electronic software instead of physical textbooks. The bill also encourages local boards to purchase all instructional materials in digital or electronic format and to provide an electronic device for students starting in 3rd grade by July 1, 2020.
- These will address the needs of these youth by establishing a Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund Commission and toughen the fines and penalties against sex traffickers. The Safe Harbor would provide a physical and emotional refuge for children to rebuild their lives after experiencing sexual exploitation. Additionally, human traffickers would be required to register as sex offenders, and pay into a new Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund to help victims with housing, health care and other services. Funding for the harbor will be derived from penalties and fees on strip clubs, an industry that has been known to participate in human trafficking.
- Originally introduced as Senate Bill 1 and passed unanimously in the House, this bill requires insurance companies to cover up to $35,000 for autism treatment for children 6 years of age or younger.
Now that the legislative session has adjourned Sine Die, Governor Deal will begin reviewing legislation that passed both chambers. If approved by him, these bills will become state law in the coming months. If you have any questions about these potential changes to state code or if you have any suggestions for future legislation, I hope that you will contact me. You can reach me at my capitol office at (404) 656-0213 or by email at email@example.com. Additionally, I will be spending a lot more time in the district now, so feel free to contact me locally at (770) 957-3937.