APN Legislative Wrap-Up: Georgia General Assembly 2015
(APN) ATLANTA — The Georgia General Assembly wrapped up the 2015 legislative session on Thursday, April 02, 2015. There were a few progressive highlights in the majority-Republican Legislature, including a solar power lease agreement bill; a limited medical cannabis bill; and more flexibility for MARTA on how it spends its funds.
This article provides an overview of the outcome of numerous bills that Atlanta Progressive News covered throughout the Session this year, including several that passed, and several that did not pass.
HB 1 – MEDICAL CANNABIS OIL CRIMINAL IMMUNITY – PASSED
HB 1, sponsored by State Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon), will provide immunity from prosecution in Georgia, for those with qualifying conditions, who use low-THC cannabis oil.
On February 25, 2015, HB 1 passed the House in a vote of 158 to 2.
On March 24, the Georgia Senate passed HB 1, which contained elements of a previously-passed Senate bill, with a vote of 48 to 6.
The Senate version of HB 1 passed the House on March 25, with a vote of 160 to 1. State Rep. Stephen Allison (R-Blairsville) was the only opposition vote in the House.
The medically qualifying conditions are cancer, Multiple Sclerosis, seizure disorders, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Mitochondrial disease, and Sickle Cell disease.
Provisions from SB 185 were added to HB 1 to require a physician’s recommendation and a registration card from the Georgia Department of Public Health for qualifying individuals to receive a low maximum five percent THC oil. The Senate amendments also create the Georgia Commission on Medical Cannabis, which will study the possibility of in-state cultivation in the future.
It awaits Gov. Nathan Deal’s official signature; he already signed an Executive Order earlier alerting certain agencies to prepare for implementation.
HB 57 – SOLAR PANEL LEASE FINANCING – PASSED
HB 57 passed the House on February 09, 2015, with a vote of 165 to 0. It passed the Senate on March 27 with a vote of 51 to 0.
It was authored by State Rep. Mike Dudgeon (R-Johns Creek), an electrical engineer.
It allows for third party solar financing for the installation of rooftop solar panels, instead of homeowners and business having to pay full price up front. The energy generated is to be used by property owned or occupied by customers, and any excess power fed back to Georgia Power.
HB 58 – BALLOT ACCESS REFORM ACT – FAILED
The bill, to reduce the petition requirements for minor party and independent candidates seeking to run for non-statewide office, did not come up in House Committee. It was introduced by State Rep. John Pezold (R-Fortson).
HB 76 – FY 2016 GENERAL BUDGET, NO CUTS TO SCHOOL BUS DRIVER HEALTH CARE – PASSED
The 21.8 billion dollar spending package was passed on March 31, 2015 after both the House and Senate adopted Conference Committee Reports.
The Governor originally proposed eliminating health coverage for public school cafeteria workers and bus drivers, but that provision was rejected by the General Assembly.
HB 160 – RACCOON TRAPPING – PASSED
The full House passed the bill–which repeals a provision prohibiting the trapping of raccoons in certain counties–on February 20, 2015, in a vote of 144 to 18.
The Senate passed the bill with a vote of 32 to 17 on March 25, 2015.
HB 170 – TRANSPORTATION FUNDING ACT – PASSED
A Conference Committee Report (CCR) on HB 170 was adopted and passed by the Senate on March 31, 2015, with a vote of 42 to 12. On the same day, the House adopted and passed the CCR with a vote of 129 to 41.
State Rep. Jay Roberts (R-Ocilla) introduced the bill to increase state funding for transportation projects by one billion dollars, although the final bill is projected to raise an estimated 900 million dollars.
The bill raises the state excise tax on gasoline to 26 cents per gallon on gasoline and 29 cents per gallon on diesel, without exempting gasoline from local sales taxes as the original version of the bill attempted to do.
The initial plan would have resulted in lost revenue for cities and counties.
The bill also eliminates some tax breaks and imposes additional new fees and taxes.
Right-wing Libertarians opposed the bill because it included a tax increase, while progressive opposed it for not including enough money for public transit.
While it is not clear how much money will go to public transit, it will be some portion of 200 to 300 million dollars at most, and can only come from sources other than the gasoline tax increase.
HB 194 – EARLY VOTING FURTHER RESTRICTIONS – FAILED
Sponsored by State Rep. Mark Hamilton (R-Cumming), the bill would have reduced early voting days from 21 to twelve, and would have limited Sunday voting to four hours.
The bill passed out of the House Governmental Affairs Committee on February 12, 2015, but did not come up for a vote in the full House.
However, on March 26, 2015, Rep. Hamilton added the language of HB 194 to an ethics amnesty bill, SB 127, in committee.
That bill passed the House on March 31, 2015, in a vote of 167 to 7, but was rejected by the Senate and sent to a conference committee.
Conference committee was lost in the Senate on April 02, 2015, by a vote of 22 yeas to 33 nays.
HB 213 – PERMANENT SUSPENSION OF 50/50 FUNDING RESTRICTION FOR MARTA – PASSED
HB 213, sponsored by State Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven), permanently suspends the requirement that MARTA spend fifty percent of its revenue on capital expenses, as opposed to operating expenses. The suspension is on condition that MARTA submit an audit report to certain officials.
On March 05, 2015, HB 213 passed the House, in a vote of 144 to 19. On March 31, it passed the Senate in a vote of 29 to 20.
A revised version passed the House on April 02, 143 to 24; and the Senate on the same day, 50 to 3.
HB 397 – ELIMINATING GEORGIA SOIL AND WATER CONSERVATION COMMISSION – PASSED
In his proposed budget, Gov. Deal eliminated funding for the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission (GSWCC) and conferred it upon the Department of Agriculture and Department of Natural Resources. The move sought to effectively eliminate the Commission as an independent agency.
HB 397, introduced by State Rep. David Knight (R-Griffin) on February 19, 2015, subordinates GSWCC to the Georgia Department of Agriculture.
It also creates a separate, Governor-appointed Council that will have ultimate control over the “Green Book,” GSWCC’s manual which sets the standards for protecting against runoff and erosion.
HB 397 passed the House on March 09, 2015, in a vote of 156 to 12.
It passed the Senate on March 26, 2015, in a vote of 31 to 19, one day after GSWCC’s board fired the agency’s director of seven years.
HB 514 – PROPOSED CITY OF SOUTH FULTON – FAILED
See forthcoming article for more.
HB 515 – PROPOSED CITY OF TUCKER – PASSED
The bill, to create a referendum to create a City of Tucker, out of the portion of the historic Tucker neighborhood in DeKalb County, passed the House on April 02, 2015, with a vote of 313 to 33.
It passed the Senate on April 02, 2015, with a vote of 43 to 4.
A deal was finally struck on the shared borders between Tucker and LaVista Hills. The agreement gives Tucker a Walmart and QuikTrip.
Tucker would include approximately 33,300 people and extend eastward from the I-285 perimeter with some land inside. The two cities would share Northlake Mall retail area with LaVista Road forming the border.
The citizens, in the proposed City of Tucker, will vote in a November 2015 referendum to determine if they want to become a new city.
HB 520 – PROPOSED CITY OF LAVISTA HILLS – PASSED
The bill to establish a referendum on whether to create a new city of LaVista Hills, out of a portion of northwest unincorporated DeKalb County, passed the House on April 02, 2015 by a vote of 112 to 52. It passed the Senate on April 02 by a vote of 36 to 8.
The last minute boundary deal between proponents of Tucker and proponents of LaVista Hills will move about 1,500 residents near Livsey Elementary into the proposed LaVista Hills.
As currently envisioned, LaVista Hills would include approximately 67,500 people with an area from outside Emory University to the eastern perimeter of I-285.
Mason Mill and Medlock neighborhoods were removed from the LaVista Hills map because residents there wish to consider annexation into Atlanta.
The citizens, in the proposed City of LaVista Hills, will vote in a November 2015 referendum to determine if they want to become a new city.
SB 129 – RELIGIOUS FREEDOM – FAILED
SB 129, sponsored by State Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus), passed the State Senate on March 05, 2015, with a 37 to 15 vote and was engrossed.
The bill would have purported to change the standard by which courts determine whether government laws or actions burden a Georgian’s freedom of religion, to the compelling interest standard.
LGBTQI equality activists were most vocal against the bill, concerned that the bill could be used as a license to discriminate; other opponents of the bill raised the possibility of religious freedom being used to purportedly justify child abuse or domestic violence.
The bill was tabled in the House Judiciary Civil Committee after State Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Brookhaven) successfully added an anti-discrimination amendment by a narrow 9 to 8 vote.
State Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem) tabled the bill and said he could no longer support it.
Sen. McKoon, on Sine Die day, made a last ditch attempt to attach the language of SB 129, without the non-discrimination language, to HB 71, but it was rejected by the Senate.
SB 133 AND SR 287 – STATEWIDE OPPORTUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT TO TAKE OVER AND PRIVATIZE LOCAL SCHOOLS – PASSED
SB 133, which creates the statewide Opportunity School District, to take over so-called failing schools, passed the House on March 25, 2015 with a vote of 108 to 53.
The Senate agreed to House Substitute on March 27, with a vote of 33 to 16.
Companion legislation, SR 287, to create a referendum to amend the constitution to allow the District to operate, also passed. The referendum will appear on the November 2016 General Election ballot.
SR 287 passed the Senate on March 05 with a vote of 38 to 15. The House voted on March 25 to adopt and pass with a vote of 121 to 47.
The resolution was sponsored in the House by State Rep. Butch Miller (R- Gainesville) and in the Senate by State Sen. Christian Coomer (R-Cartersville).
The Opportunity School District (OSD) would take the place of local school boards with respect to the governance of certain schools. The Governor would appoint the OSD superintendent. The OSD superintendent would have unlimited power to fire, hire, and control finances and curricula.
SB 133 stipulates the OSD would take over no more than twenty schools per year and would have no more than one hundred schools under its jurisdiction at one time. 139 Georgia schools are currently failing, according to one measure.
SB 139 – LIMITING MUNICIPALITIES’ ABILITY TO ENACT PLASTIC BAG BANS – FAILED
Introduced by State Sen. Tyler Harper (R-Ocilla), the bill aimed to prohibit local governments from banning or regulating plastic bags and other disposable items like takeout food containers. Clarke County and Tybee Island are currently considering ordinances to ban plastic bags.
The House voted against the bill 85 to 67 on March 27, 2015.
It had passed the Senate on February 26, 2015, in a vote of 32 to 19.
SB 159 – NO KNOCK CODIFICATION AND REFORM – FAILED
The bill–to codify and place restrictions on no knock warrants–passed out of the Senate Judiciary Non-Civil Committee on March 04, 2015, and went to the Rules Committee. It did not crossover on March 13, however.
An earlier House version, HB 56, sponsored by State Rep. Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville), was essentially withdrawn when Tanner decided not to pursue his bill any further.
State Sen. Jesse Stone (R-Waynesboro) introduced his version, SB 159, which was similar to HB 56.
Controversy developed when attorney Catherine Bernard noted that no-knock warrants were currently not codified in Georgia Code O.C.G.A. 17-5-27. Georgia Code always requires officers to give verbal notice before force can be used in executing a search warrant, she noted.
Bernard warned this bill would actually codify no-knock warrants and make them legal.
However, courts have approved the issuance of no-knock warrants in Georgia for decades.
SR 80 – DEMANDING CHANGES TO AP HISTORY – FAILED
The resolution to demand changes to Advanced Placement history courses in Georgia–to de-emphasize social justice and emphasize American Exceptionalism–was sponsored in the House by State Rep. William Ligon (R-Brunswick) and in the Senate by State Sen. Mike Dudgeon (R-Johns Creek).
The resolution instructs the state Education Superintendent to reject the College Board’s new AP U.S. History program on the grounds that it has a left-leaning bias.
On March 11, 2015, it was adopted by substitute, with a vote of 38 to 17.
On March 26, the House committee passed a substitute of the substitute.
On April 02, it was withdrawn from the House and recommitted; it did not come up for a full House vote.