2015 Legislative Session: Week Eight
We returned to the Gold Dome on Monday, March 2nd for the 24th day of the 2015 legislative session. This week, we considered several key pieces of legislation. These bills all address important issues facing our great state, so we reviewed each measure thoroughly and voted on many bills on the House floor.
One of the most significant bills of the Session passed the House last week, House Bill 170. I voted against this legislation for several reasons, but the most compelling reason is its adverse impact on Butts County citizens. HB 170, as currently drafted, will redirect over $1.7 million in sales tax currently collected by Butts County on motor fuel (gas and diesel) to the State. Butts County and its cities derive over 53% of their operating revenue from sales tax on motor fuel. According to county and city officials, this loss in revenue will result in a significant property tax increase, substantial cut in necessary public services, or a combination of both. While I support a shift in the tax code to ensure that users of our roads are paying for the maintenance of our roads, this particular approach deals a crippling blow to the property taxpayers, businesses and citizens of Butts County. My intention is to continue working with leadership in the House and members of the Senate to eliminate the impacts on Butts County.
With that said, let me tell you what HB 170 does assuming it makes it through the Senate without change which is not likely. Transportation improvements have long struggled to match Georgia’s rapid economic progress, resulting in too many roads and bridges that are now in need of critical maintenance. HB 170, or the Transportation Funding Act of 2015, is an attempt to address the critical and urgent need for funding for Georgia’s transportation infrastructure needs. HB 170 seeks to raise just under a billion dollars for maintenance and repair of our state’s bridges and roadways, many of which have been deemed functionally obsolete and structurally deficient; therefore, these funds are crucial to guarantee that our roads and infrastructures are safe for Georgia drivers. Well-maintained roads and bridges will enhance safety and quality of life for our citizens, and should assist with economic development in most of Georgia. Safety and economic development, however, are dependent upon money actually being spent in our counties. As for Butts County in particular, the resulting property tax increase and/or loss of services will greatly discourage new economic development opportunities and may even drive existing businesses away.
If you are interested in the details of how HB 170 works, read on. It provides funding through a variety of measures, including the conversion of the state sales tax on motor fuel to a straight excise tax that will be dedicated to transportation. This excise tax will initially be set at 29.2 cents per gallon, which approximates the sales tax rate that has been imposed on gasoline using a weighted average of the price of gasoline over the previous four years. Unlike the current gas tax, which is a 4% sales tax that varies with the cost of gas, the flat excise tax will provide a more stable alternative. This tax conversion will provide a dedicated, predictable, and steady funding source and a long term solution to our state’s transportation funding issues. Not only will the excise tax conversion provide the necessary funding for transportation maintenance and improvement, it also will help ensure gas taxes remain constant between counties and through periods of high spikes in gas prices.
Additional revenue for our transportation needs will come from a significant bond package that will go towards funding for the 128 transit systems across Georgia. Funding for our transit systems will enable more communities across our state to take advantage of public transportation options. This bond package is a practical way to provide more immediate funding for our transportation needs, while leveraging the state’s high credit.
Other funding sources in the Transportation Funding Act include the establishment of a user fee for alternative fueled vehicles of $200 for non-commercial and $300 for commercial vehicles each year. As these vehicles do not use gasoline, their owners do not currently pay their share of taxes devoted to the maintenance of the roads they use. This fee will provide equality among those who drive on our roads. HB 170 will also eliminate the state tax credit for the purchase of alternative fueled vehicles, as well as the state tax credit on jet fuel, which was established several years ago in a struggling economy, where companies were in jeopardy of bankruptcy. Furthermore, the Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank will grant preference for loans to be given to tier 1 and tier 2 counties, as well as to eligible projects with local financial assistance.
In addition to HB 170, the House passed another piece of legislation to better ensure safety on Georgia’s highways and roads. HB 190 requires appropriate automobile insurance for drivers in transportation network companies, such as Uberand Lyft. Currently, many of these drivers are offering ride-share services to the public with their personal auto policy, which does not cover commercial activity when the vehicle is being used for hire. Because personal insurance policies will not cover any damages or losses if a vehicle is being used for commercial use, drivers have gaps in insurance coverage, which puts both the driver and passenger at risk in the event of an accident. HB 190 addresses this disparity in coverage by requiring the transportation network company or the driver to purchase a commercial motor vehicle insurance policy that maintains $1 million in insurance coverage for drivers anytime they are logged into the company system, regardless if any passengers are on board. The legislation also requires at least $300,000 in coverage for bodily injury or death and $50,000 for property damage. HB 190 takes the necessary steps to protect the many Georgians who drive or ride with companies like Uber and Lyft.
House Bill 325 also passed this week to improve transportation safety in Georgia. HB 325 expands seat belt laws by requiring vans that have 15 passenger capacities to wear seat belts. Under current law, safety belts are only required for vans that carry 10 passengers or fewer. According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study, approximately 1,111 fatalities occurred between 1990 and 2002 as a result of crashes involving 15 passenger vans, and the study found that 80% of those who died were not wearing seat belts. These are hundreds of lives that could have potentially been saved by the simple act of buckling a seat belt. HB 325 draws attention to this important issue, and will make drivers and passengers on Georgia’s roads more aware of the need to buckle up, ultimately saving lives.
Another life-saving bill passed this week was House Bill 210, which allows Georgia citizens to qualify for organ donation by utilizing state issued I.D. cards. Currently, organ donor status is listed on drivers’ licenses, but not on state issued I.D. cards. HB 210 changes this, so that more people can become organ donors, regardless of their eligibility to drive in Georgia. It is important that we encourage public education and awareness of the value and lifesaving ability of organ donation, and I hope that HB 210 allows for more citizens to engage in this discussion and process.
In addition to passing several measures related to our state’s transportation system, the House also passed a bill to improve the health and safety of our children. House Bill 362 ensures that schools are well equipped to treat students with asthma by allowing schools to obtain and stock levalbuterol sulfate, a medication commonly used to treat asthma. Under HB 362, any school employee who is trained in recognizing symptoms of respiratory distress could administer the medication to students. Asthma is such a common illness and schools should be prepared to help our children handle these types of emergencies.
Another issue that our schools must be prepared to manage is illiteracy. To combat illiteracy, Governor Deal and First Lady Sandra Deal announced Read Across Georgia Month, a campaign to make reading more fun for Georgia’s children. As a part of the celebrations, First Lady Deal visited the House and introduced a new Pre-K book, TJ’s Discovery, which was written by teachers at the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy at the Atlanta Speech School. This book will be given as a gift to every student in Georgia’s Pre-K program and helps teach parents and caregivers how to make reading come alive to the children in their lives. I commend our First Lady for her diligent efforts to help Georgia’s children develop a lifelong love of reading.
Finally, this week we took some time to recognize John Smoltz, a former pitcher for the Atlanta Braves and honoree in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In addition to being named an eight-time All Star, Smoltz is the only pitcher in major league history to top both 200 wins and 150 saves. Smoltz was honored before the Georgia House of Representatives with House Resolution 343 for his accomplishments both on and off the field. I’m proud that such an outstanding athlete and citizen claims Georgia as his home state.
Next week will be an extremely busy week at the Georgia State Capitol. On Friday, March 13, we are scheduled to complete the 30th legislative day, which is also known as “Crossover Day.” Crossover Day is the last date in which a piece of legislation must pass at least one of the General Assembly’s two chambers. With this deadline in mind, we will work diligently to pass legislation through the House chamber. I hope that you will contact me during this crucial week, so that I can address any concerns you might have. You can visit me or call my office at the State Capitol. The number is 404-656-0213. I look forward to hearing from you.
The state House recently honored John Smoltz! He played 21 seasons in MLB for three teams, all but one of which were spent with the Atlanta Braves!