Gold Dome Report - February 24, 2016
Today marked the grand celebration of senior week in Georgia. The Georgia Council on Aging, among other organizations, was there to raise awareness of issues and concerns impacting Georgia's senior population.
In the afternoon, the House Governmental Affairs Committee met. While not posted on the Committee's agenda, Chairman Ed Rynders (R-Albany) asked Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) to present HB 1055. This bill is the legislation which proposes to repeal Georgia's Certificate of Need (CON) laws in Title 31 and would also establish freestanding emergency departments. Rep. Willard briefly outlined his proposal for the Committee. HB 1055 also seeks to impose a different licensure and permitting process. Chairman Rynders explained that the concerns involving CON would be studied in the interim, after the Session, by a special legislative workgroup. Hospitals have been divided on this issue as some of the for-profit entities have promoted the idea to repeal or otherwise alter the CON laws. The Georgia Hospital Association and Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals, however, are opposed to the repeal of CON.
City annexations in DeKalb County have percolated this Session and Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta) released some findings from the town hall survey which he, Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Atlanta), and Rep. Michele Henson (D-Stone Mountain) conducted on February 18. On the issue of residents in the "LaVista Hills" area (as proposed in 2015) by the City of Chamblee, folks were essentially divided on the idea of annexation – one third favored the proposed annexation; one third opposed; and one third was undecided. It was clear, though, that 55 percent believe that a referendum for annexation should only be made if a feasibility study has been done.
The Senate had three measures on its Senate Rules Calendar:
SR 558 passed 52-2 by Committee Substitute. This Resolution was presented by Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga) as a Constitutional Amendment to Article III, Section IX, Paragraph VI of the State's Constitution to provide that the proceeds from excise taxes on the sales of fireworks or consumer fireworks be dedicated to trauma care, fire services and local public safety.
SB 350 passed 52-2. This is the enabling legislation for Sen. Mullis's Resolution above. SB 350 adds in O.C.G.A. 48-13-131(b) that the proceeds from the excise taxes collected on the sales of fireworks and consumer fireworks be divided as follows: 55 percent to the Georgia Trauma Care Network Commission; 40 percent to the Georgia Firefighter and Standards Council for training of firefighters and improving the ratings of fire departments; and 5 percent to local governments where the fireworks sales were made and used solely for public safety.
SB 312 passed 51-4. Sen. Charlie Bethel (R-Dalton) presented this legislation addressing HOPE scholarships and grants. It provides that a minimum HOPE scholarship be not less than $2,000.00 per semester or less than $134.00 per credit hour in O.C.G.A. § 20-3-519 (12.2). Sen. Bethel's goal is to encourage more Georgia students to attend lower tier colleges so that they can attend college for free. It also clarifies that the HOPE scholarship, the Zell Miller Scholarship, the Zell Miller Grant, or the HOPE grant, or any combination thereof, cannot exceed a student's tuition for a semester or quarter. If passed, this legislation will go into effect on July 1, 2016.
The House considered a substantial Rules calendar this morning. There was a motion to withdraw HR 502, which was on the calendar for today, and recommit it to the Rules Committee, which was approved. HB 381, by Rep. Andy Welch was also recommitted to the Rules Committee.
HB 980, by Rep. Alan Powell (R-Hartwell) relates to municipal elections and would provide for the reopening of qualifying for candidates in cases where no individual has filed his or her candidacy and paid the qualifying fee. It passed by a vote of 157-0.
HB 916, by Rep. Dustin Hightower (R-Carrollton), addresses the Pharmacy Audit Bill of Rights and removes an exception relating to audits conducted by the Department of Community Health. It also clarifies that typographical or other minor errors do not qualify as a basis to recoup payments. It passed by a vote of 164-0.
HB 773, by Rep. Penny Houston (R-Nashville), increases the outstanding bond limit from $1.3 billion to $3 billion relating to the Georgia Housing and Finance Authority. It passed by a vote of 160-5.
HB 948, by Rep Alan Powell (R-Hartwell), would increase the application fee for non-indigent adult offenders when applying to transfer his or her supervision to another State from $25 to $100.00. It passed by a vote of 165-0.
HB 614, by Rep. Valencia Stovall (D-Lake City) proposed this bill which authorizes the enactment of the "Landon Dunson Act" and requires the Department of Education to establish a pilot program for the placement of video monitoring cameras in classrooms providing special education services. It passed by a vote of 158-6.
HB 166 was introduced by Rep. John Yates (R-Griffin). It would be known as the "Motorcycle Mobility Safety Act" in Title 40. It originally provided for the safe operation of a lightweight motorcycle or motor vehicle through an inoperative traffic control signal. The legislation was amended in Committee and now permits motorcyclists to have 25 inch handlebars in height rather than current law at 15 inches. It passed by a vote of 166-0.
HB 838, by Rep. Shaw Blackmon (R-Bonaire), requires that any health insurance carrier that issues a health benefit plan through an insurance agent in Georgia must fairly compensate that agent for his or her ongoing services. It sets commissions at five percent on group health benefit policies and a minimum of four percent on individual health benefit policies sold. This change does not impact policies sold because of the Affordable Care Act. It does not require these commissions be paid for individual policies sold in special enrollment periods or plans sold to employers with 50 or more employees. It passed by a vote of 145-17.
HB 874, by Rep. Bert Reeves (R-Marietta), would make it unlawful for any person to encourage another to become a member or associate of a criminal street gang, to participate in a criminal street gang, or to conduct or participate in criminal gang activity. The main point of the legislation is to limit gang members' ability to use cell phones for conducting gang activity. There was significant opposition from the Democratic Party and some Republicans which argued that the State should not start implementing mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Despite opposition, HB 874 went on to pass 106-60.
HB 949, by Rep. Alan Powell (R-Hartwell) prohibits constitutional officers from issuing government purchasing cards to themselves or their employees, beginning on July 1, 2016, until they have adopted specific policies regarding the use of such cards. This passed by a vote of 166-0.
HR 1363, by Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) creates the House Special Study Committee on Judicial Qualifications Commission Reform. This resolution was adopted by a vote of 165-2.
HB 1094, by Rep. Margaret Kaiser (D-Atlanta), seeks to impose additional requirements on municipal water supply systems. (No Flint, Michigan situation!) Her proposal in O.C.G.A. § 12-5-177(b) requires that all public water systems which serve a municipality are to be required to monitor "at least once every 12 months for levels of lead exceeding 15 parts per billion and report the results to the Division." If lead is determined to exceed 5 parts per billion, then that information is to be included in water bills to customers until the levels of lead no longer exceed 5 parts per billion. Her legislation also amends O.C.G.A. § 15-8-182 and in part requires that the director, upon receipt of information that a contaminant may pose an "imminent and substantial danger to the public is present in a public water system," is to publish a notice in a newspaper with general circulation within the area which is served by that water system. If the director issues an "order" of emergency, then he or she is to also provide that notice, per O.C.G.A. § 12-5-187, by publication of general circulation within the area affected by the emergency.
HB 1095, by Rep. Mike Cheokas (R-Americus), addresses Georgia's tort system and proposes creation of the "Patient Compensation Act" as an alternative to medical malpractice litigation so that patients will be compensated for medical injuries (including wrongful death). This issue is not new and has been promoted by Richard Jackson, CEO of Jackson Healthcare. It creates a new Chapter 13 in Title 51. It proposes a set of "findings" by the General Assembly in O.C.G.A. § 51-13-3. At O.C.G.A. § 51-13-4, it seeks to create the "Patient Compensation System" which will be housed administratively within the Department of Community Health. A separate "board" is established to govern this Patient Compensation System which will be made up of 11 members who will serve four-year terms (five appointees of the Governor with two of those physicians in active practice; one who is a business representative; one who is a CPA; and one who is an attorney; three members will be appointed by the Lt. Governor with one of those a physician in active practice and one who is a patient advocate; and three members appointed by the Speaker with one of those an active practicing physician and one who is also a patient advocate). The board is to create a "Medical Review Committee and a Compensation Committee." There is to be a chief medical officer and that individual is to convene an independent medical review panel (with three panelists) to evaluate whether an application constitutes a medical injury. In O.C.G.A. § 51-13-5, it states that an individual can utilize medical malpractice litigation or other available remedies to obtain compensation for a medical injury resulting from medical treatment provided prior to January 1, 2017; after that time, the person or his or her legal representative is to file an application with the Patient Compensation System (which provides for what is to be included in this application – if incomplete, the applicant is provided notification from the System within 30 days of receipt of the original application outlining errors/omissions and the applicant is then given 30 days to correct those). Applicants are given two years after the date on which the medical injury occurred to make a filing – but no more than five years (two year statute of limitations and five-year statute of ultimate repose and abrogation). It does permit the applicant to file supplemental information. O.C.G.A. § 51-13-6 sets up how the Office of Medical Review will look at completed applications and determine if there is medical injury and in this Section it requires the Patient Compensation System to provide the Department of Community Health and Georgia Composite Medical Board or other relevant regulatory board with electronic access to applications in which a medical injury was determined to exist where the provider represents an "imminent risk of harm" to the public as determined by the chief medical officer, in consultation with the independent medical review panel – the Composite Medical Board or regulatory boards can then determine if the licensee is subject to disciplinary action. O.C.G.A. § 51-13-7 requires an administrative law judge to make a written determination of award for compensation and determine appeals filed by applicants. The administrative law judge's determination is to be conclusive and binding as to all questions of fact. O.C.G.A. § 51-13-8 requires that the board make an annual determination, by October 1 of each year, of a contribution which is to be paid by each provider for the expense of the administration of Chapter 13 of Title 51 and the compensation schedule as outlined in O.C.G.A. § 51-13-4. There are contribution rates outlined - $500.00 for licensed providers not practicing in Georgia; then there are categories (category 1 is not to exceed $3,100 up to category 19 which is to pay an amount not to exceed $25,300). Providers are to pay the contribution by January 1 of each year. The board has to file annually beginning on July 1, 2018 a report outlining the filing and disposition of applications.
HR 1509, by Rep. Rusty Kidd (I-Milledgeville), proposes the creation of the House Study Committee on Ambulance Service Rates. It will look in part at the large bills for air ambulance service. This Study Committee will be conducted by five members of the House and is to be abolished on December 1, 2016.
HR 1510, by Rep. Rusty Kidd (I-Milledgeville), also seeks to create a House Study Committee – this one on Durable Medical Equipment. It is to determine why access to durable medical equipment from public healthcare programs, private insurance and private pay patients is increasingly unattainable. It also is looking at fraudulent suppliers and other issues leading to increased costs. This Study Committee will be made up of five members of the House and will stand to be abolished on December 1, 2016.
HR 1511, by Rep. Craig Gordon (D-Savannah), proposes a Joint Study Committee on New Market Tax Credits in Georgia. This Study Committee is to look at the feasibility, and to identify the benefits and detriments, of implementing a new market tax credits program in the State. This Joint Committee is to be made up of ten members (three House members; two appointments by the Speaker including an employee of the Georgia Department of Economic Development and an employee of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce; three Senate members; and two appointees of the President of the Senate which includes an employee of the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget and an employee of the Community Bankers Association of Georgia). This Study will also conclude on December 1, 2016.
HR 1513, by Rep. Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna), proposes to create the House Study Committee on Civil Rights looking at discrimination (overall societal discrimination including public accommodations and employment). This Study Committee is to be composed of eight members (four members of the House; one member from the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; a member of the United States Small Business Administration; a member from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce; and a member from the Labor and Employment Law Section of the State Bar of Georgia).
HR 1514, by Rep. Matt Ramsey (R-Peachtree City), recognizes February 24, 2016 as Physical Therapy Day at the State capitol.
HR 1521, by Rep. Rusty Kidd (I-Milledgeville), recognizes March 7, 2016 as Hemophilia of Georgia Day at the State capitol.
SR 1059, by Sen. Bruce Thompson (R-White), proposes the creation of the Senate Study Committee on Nonembryonic and Nonfetal Cell Therapy. This Resolution is in response to a bill Sen. Thompson previously introduced, SB 381, but which stalled in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. This Study Committee will be composed of five Senate members and will stand to be abolished on December 1, 2016.
Senate Education & Youth Committee
The full Senate Education Committee met today to hear a number of bills. Chairman Lindsey Tippins (R-Marietta) called the meeting to order.
SB 357, by Sen. Michael Williams (R-Cumming) and Sen. William Ligon, Jr. (R-Brunswick), provides that a code of ethics for local school board members shall not interfere with such members' rights of free speech. It received a do-pass by the Committee.
SB 409, by Sen. JaNice VanNess (R-Conyers), requires every public school in the State to post a sign that contains the toll-free telephone number for reporting child abuse or neglect to the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS). This bill received a do-pass as well.
SB 355, by Sen. William T. Ligon, Jr. (R-Brunswick), would enact the "Student/Teacher Protection Act." This bill ends the punitive testing consequences for teachers and students regarding mandated standardized assessments. The version which passed out of Committee does not contain evaluation reform and appears to perhaps codify existing Department testing opt-out practices; no Substitute was available at the time this was passed out of Committee.
SB 281 was also by Sen. Ligon and requires that schools provide information to parents about the use of student data gathered from digital-learning platforms. Sen. Ligon argued that it would allow for more transparency. The Department of Education expressed opposition to the bill. They referred to lines 55-57 which require that digital-learning platforms must include a portal or other mechanism to allow parents access to the same platform and content as students. Associate Superintendent Lou Erst referred to these as "draconian restrictions" and indicated that DOE cannot support the bill as written. Two speakers were in support of SB 281: (1) Mrs. Jane Robins, with the American Principals Project, said the opt-out provision has been removed from the bill and asked the Committee for favorable consideration; and (2) Representing Concerned Women for America, Mrs. Tanya Ditty said this is a transparency bill and would allow parents to know what data is being collected. After a one minute break, Chairman Tippins announced that there are issues with the bill that need to be resolved and decided to hold it in committee. Sen. Ligon was agreeable to making changes so as to provide more clarity. This legislation was held.
SR 723, a Resolution by Sen. Donzella James (D-Atlanta), cleared the Committee. This Resolution encourages local boards of education, governing bodies of charter schools, and local elementary and secondary schools to guarantee safety rights to youth athletes. Sen. James had another Resolution on the agenda and it also passed – SR 993. This Resolution creates the Senate Strengthening Parental Participation in Education Study Committee.
The Committee held a couple of proposals: SB 124 (community-based schools by Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta)) and SB 92 (legislation creating a voucher program by Sen. Hunter Hill (R-Atlanta)).
Senate Health and Human Services Committee
Chairwoman Renee Unterman (R-Buford) held a rather lengthy meeting this afternoon. Her legislation, SB 382, addressing "surprise billing" received no vote today; she indicated that a vote would be taken later. Deb Bailey, with Northeast Georgia Health System, spoke to the bill and indicated that her hospitals make every effort to help patients and their families understand financial responsibilities for the care that they receive through scheduled procedures. Ms. Bailey stressed to the Committee that the billing process for services is complex and urged members of the Committee to meet with her hospitals' billing and admissions personnel to learn more. The Georgia Association of EMS also spoke about billing issues – they urged, in part, that insurers look more closely at what they actually cover in transporting patients. Tim Kibler, with the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals, expressed that his hospital members would like to increase clarity of responsibilities of the patients but did have concerns about the website requirements in her legislation.
The Committee then turned to SB 385 by Sen. Judson Hill (R-Marietta). SB 385 addresses medical board certification requirements for physicians to advertise certain specialties and subspecialties. The Medical Association of Georgia has worked on this issue along with others. Rep. Betty Price also has a similar proposal pending in the House. The Committee voted to move this legislation forward with a do pass recommendation. It passed with one dissenting vote by Sen. Gloria Butler (D-Stone Mountain).
The last proposal was SB 389, by Sen. Hunter Hill (R-Atlanta), and was finally passed as a Committee Substitute after amendments were made to the Bill in Committee. This legislation addresses temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) and the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) benefits which are overseen by the Department of Human Services. Sen. Hill's attempt is to move individuals from dependency to self-sufficiency. There has also been a House Bill on similar issues proposed by Rep. David Clark (R-Buford). The legislation addresses food stamp compliance; time limitations on receipt of TANF benefits; a cash diversion program; sanctions; and work requirements.
House Ways and Means Committee
The Committee chaired by Rep. Jay Powell (R-Camilla) passed several proposals to the House Rules Committee late this afternoon:
- HB 364, by Rep. David Knight (R-Griffin), had previously moved forward but was recommitted to the Ways and Means Committee. It addresses the approval of property tax digests in Chapter 5 of Title 48 and particularly usufruct situations.
- Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah) presented HB 471 which adds a new definition for "light duty equipment motor vehicle" in ad valorem taxation on heavy duty motor vehicles.
- HB 793, by Rep. Mandi Ballinger (R-Canton), was presented by Rep. Knight (R-Griffin). It amends O.C.G.A. § 48-5-41(a) to provide an exemption for a fraternal benefit organization which has been in existence for 125 years or more.
- Rep. Virgil Fludd (D-Tyrone) presented HB 828 to the Committee which permits an employer to obtain a $2,500.00 tax credit for hiring a parolee under certain conditions and requirements. This credit will sunset after three years. Rep. Fludd acknowledged the assistance which was provided on this legislation by Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon) and Rep. Knight (R-Griffin).
- HB 960, by Rep. Trey Kelley (R-Cedartown), addresses the tax bill situation which drew lots of attention over the summer and fall, causing a Subcommittee to be created to look further at the issues. Rep. Kelley presented a Committee Substitute. It will permit the sharing of information by the Department of Revenue with the House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee on these issues where large tax refunds are involved. There are notice provisions included so that the local governments are notified if there is a trigger met (10 percent or more over the average of the last three years basis). The interest rate for amounts owed is amended to prime rate plus three percent divided by 12 months for a monthly rate which will accrue when the refund is requested. It requires that if the tax is filed electronically then the refund request also has to be done electronically. There was some discussion about SPLOST collections and how counties are to distribute to cities; there were changes, thus, made on those notices. The one percent administration fee paid by local governments is to also include an audit for large claims. There are penalty assessment provisions (five percent after 90 days which is capped at 20 percent). Cases are to go to the tax tribunal for show cause and that tribunal will conduct show cause hearings and make a determination of who is at fault. There were some questions about the audit provisions and who pays for the audit raised. However, the questions did not cause the legislation to be halted.
- HB 982, by Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah), also moved forward. The legislation addresses ad valorem taxation and provides for an "income approach" on how a determination of fair market value is reached. The legislation amends O.C.G.A. § 48-5-2.
- HB 990, by Rep. Jay Powell (R-Camilla) also cleared a Committee Substitute without discussion. This provides taxpayer protection for ad valorem taxes on property and when valuation assessments are appealed. It addresses the three year "freeze" permitted and makes it clear that this lock in for the value only occurs once action is taken by the board of assessors.
- HB 1014, also by Rep. Jay Powell, addresses conservation easements in an effort to continue to encourage undeveloped land to be kept that way by donating it to the State. This extends the current sunset for the credits provided last year of $30 million annually. The sunset for this credit is set to expire on December 31, 2016; this extends that date to December 31, 2021.
House Juvenile Justice Committee
This Committee considered HB 963, by Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta), today, which would be known as "The Kinship Educational Consent and Transparency Act." It would repeal the "Power of Attorney for the Care of a Minor Child Act," to provide that a non-legal custodian may enroll a child in his or her custody in school through an affidavit. It removes the power of attorney portion from law. While presenting, Minority Leader Abrams indicated that her parents are kinship caregivers and that her brother was a drug addict and could not be easily contacted. She believes this bill would address similar situations and would create a window so that children are not held hostage in the system. Leader Abrams requested that HB 963 be passed out of subcommittee and go through any required changes before the next meeting of the full Juvenile Justice Committee.
Chairman Chuck Efstration (R-Dacula) had a few concerns relating to the bill. Specifically, he had concerns over the language not being perfected and the lack of any judicial review. Rep. Regina Quick (R-Athens) also worried that the bill might or might not pass muster in school systems. This may lead to confusion for parents.
Former State Senator and Minority Leader Chuck Clay spoke on behalf of the Georgia Education Coalition, which represents 10 of the largest schools systems in the State. They have concerns about redundancy and confusion since a bill was passed last year which added these power of attorney requirements.
Polly McKinney, Advocacy Director for Voices for Georgia's Children, spoke in support of HB 963 and thanked Leader Abrams for bringing it forward. She believes that school is one of the safest places for a child to be and this would help children within the juvenile justice system. Rep. Quick asked if she had concerns that this bill would have no legal effect. Mrs. McKinney indicated that it does raise some concern, but that the point of this bill is to get children into school.
Chairman Efstration was concerned that many parts of the bill would be unenforceable. He also worried about timing, since Crossover Day is next Monday. He suggested that they schedule another subcommittee meeting before the full Juvenile Justice Committee next meets. Democrats on the Committee asked Chairman Efstration many times to reconsider that decision. He did not agree and determined that HB 963 would stay in Committee.
House Education Committee
The Committee had three bills on the agenda today. Chairman Brooks Coleman (R-Duluth) called the meeting to order.
HB 895, by Rep. Rahn Mayo (D-Decatur) requires finance directors of charter schools to participate in initial and annual training in financially operating a charter school. It further requires the State Charter Schools Commission to provide for or approve initial training for finance directors of newly approved State charter schools and annual training thereafter. Chairman Coleman asked if it includes CFO's outside of the state commission. Rep. Mayo said that it does apply to locally authorized charter schools. Chairman Tom Dickson (R-Cohutta) said he is in full support of the bill. There was a concern raised by Rep. Margaret Kaiser (D-Atlanta) relating to lines 51-54 that prohibit principals from acting as CFO. She has a school in her district where the principal does act as the CFO. Rep. Mayo said that it could be considered a conflict of interest when the 'leader' of a school is the only one looking at the financial books. Chairman Dickson stated that there needs to be a person of authority who is not the principal to perform oversight of financial decisions. There was an amendment to Line 53, to replace 'state charter school' with just 'charter school.' The bill received a "do pass" from the Committee
HB 864, by Rep. David Casas (R-Lilburn), would change the definition of "eligible postsecondary institution" to also include any postsecondary institution in Georgia that holds institutional accreditation by an accrediting agency that is recognized by either the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the United States Department of Education. Such institution must be a non profit; must offer a bachelors degree; and must be located in Georgia. Rep. Casas said this would provide a vehicle for religious schools that offer undergraduate programs. He did not have an official fiscal note, but his data shows that it would cost approximately $5.9 million on the high end and possibly around $2.1 million on the lower end. He also indicated that 10 institutions would fall under these criteria. The Georgia Student Finance Commission had no position on this bill. Members of the Committee were concerned that we are letting schools use an accrediting agency when we don't know how stringent the accreditation is. The Committee voted on the bill, 7-8; however, a point of order was made because Rep. Casas, who is also a member of the Committee, had a vote. The bill was reconsidered and voted on again. It received a do pass recommendation and moves forward to the House Rules Committee.
HB 1061, by Chairman Tom Dickson (R-Cohutta), relates to annual performance evaluations for teachers. It provides for the composition of factors in annual evaluations for teachers of record, assistant principals, and principals. This bill only received a hearing today so no action was taken.
Our 2016 Georgia Capitol team consists of Stan Jones, Chuck Clay, Helen Sloat, and Logan Fletcher. We will also try our hand at tweeting this year – so follow us! @GDR_Live
The articles published in this newsletter are intended only to provide general information on the subjects covered. The contents should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Readers should consult with legal counsel to obtain specific legal advice based on particular situations.