Gold Dome Report - March 11, 2016
Whew! A long week for the General Assembly has now ended. Today marked the 35th Legislative Day. The Senate's passage of the FY 2017 Budget yesterday indicates that, yes, the end is near. Conferees will meet on Monday, March 14, 2016, to hammer out the differences which the House and Senate have made to HB 751.
Governor Deal issued a statement today announcing an enormous increase in State revenues for the month of February. February tax collections were almost $1.25 billion, which is an increase of $234.5 million (about 24.9 percent) over February 2015. This large increase is partly because tax refunds have not been processed and sent back to taxpayers. The Department of Revenue has indicated that it has implemented new strategies in an effort to prevent tax refund fraud which is causing this delay.
Lawmakers reconvene on Monday for Day 36.
The Senate welcomed CHRIS Kids to its Chambers and Kathy Colbenson talked about the work that her organization has done over the years. This entity takes children who are in the State's child welfare system and has notable results with those children's graduation rates. Ms. Colbenson expressed her gratitude to the Senate for the funding that the organization had received.
Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) took a point of personal privilege about the recent release of the Child Fatality Review Commission's annual report. She noted, in part, that this Report indicated Georgia had experienced the highest number of deaths due to firearms since the Report's inception.
The Senate agreed to the House changes to SB 362 with a vote of 50-1. This was a local bill pertaining to the City of Stockbridge.
The Senate did not have a lengthy calendar, but they did tackle the "campus carry" bill, allowing students on college campuses to carry guns. That discussion, as more fully vetted below, took more than two hours.
HB 34, by Rep. Mike Dudgeon (R-Johns Creek), was carried in the Senate by Sen. Hunter Hill (R-Atlanta). This legislation, if enacted, will be known as the "Georgia Right to Try Act." It adds a new Chapter 52 in Title 31. Sen. Hill explained that the measure will allow terminally ill patients, who, with their physician's approval and with a written informed consent, will be permitted to try drugs in clinical trials (not fully through the FDA process). There are protections for doctors and pharmaceutical manufacturers in the proposal, and it also does not require insurers to provide coverage for these experimental medications. The Senate made no amendments on HB 34, and it passed with a vote of 55-0. This legislation moves to the Governor's desk for his review.
Next up was HB 52, by Rep. Regina Quick (R-Athens), which was presented by Rep. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus). This legislation incorporates the parenting plan into the divorce decree/final order. It will not require a separate court order, exclusively devoted to the parenting plan, unless ordered by the court. The changes are imposed at O.C.G.A. § 19-9-1. There were no questions about this legislation and no changes were made. It passed 55-0. The House must review the changes made by the Senate and either approve or reject those changes.
HB 767, by Rep. Alan Powell (R-Hartwell), amends Georgia's law known as "Spencer Pass Law." Currently, that law at O.C.G.A. § 40-6-16 requires that motorists move over a lane, and if that is not possible, to slow their speed when passing a police car which is on the side of the road with a car stopped. It further requires such if a towing, recovery, or highway maintenance vehicle is on the roadside. The bill adds now that motorists when passing utility trucks and workers (this includes electric, gas, water, waste-water, cable, telephone or telecommunication entities) must also move over a lane if possible and if not then slow their speed. This legislation passed 52-1 (the loan dissenting vote was Sen. Bill Heath (R-Bremen)). Now, the House has to review the changes made by the Senate Public Safety Committee.
HB 886, by Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta), was presented by Sen. Ben Watson, MD (R-Savannah). This legislation amends current law in O.C.G.A. § 26-4-60 regarding using the mail to ship prescription medications. It prohibits the State Board of Pharmacy from promulgating rules and regulations so that mailing prescriptions is more restrictive than what the federal law requires (FDA recognized standards). It also adds that if the State Board of Pharmacy bans a medication from being sold in Georgia (either over the counter or otherwise), then that medication is not permitted to be delivered by mail. HB 886 passed with a 50-0 vote. No changes were made on the Senate Floor. The legislation moves to the Governor's desk.
The final legislation to be heard was HB 859, by Rep. Rick Jasperse (R-Jasper). This bill was presented on the Senate by Sen. Jesse Stone (R-Waynesboro). The Senate passed a motion to engross the legislation with a vote of 34-17, indicating that it was not willing to address any Floor Amendments. The Democrats were angered by this limitation and spoke out about such engrossment. However, after all was said and done, the legislation passed the Senate with a vote of 37-17. Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) railed about the Senate's posture on the lack of any amendments being made and stated that this was politics at its worst. Further, Sen. Fort stated that this bill was "red meat" for the gun lobby which controls the Majority Party in the State. Sen. Fort had several possible amendments, including one which would have permitted guns to be everywhere without restrictions and another which would have placed a non-binding referendum on the ballot asking voters what they thought about campus carry provisions. Many Senators from the Democratic side spoke about the numerous calls, letters, emails that each had received from constituents about their opposition to HB 859. Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) spoke about the legislation which would potentially drive away Georgia's best and brightest students as parents do not wish to send their college students to schools where guns are permitted. Additionally, professors also do not want to teach at institutions where guns are permitted. She reminded her Senate colleagues that the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech enjoyed national rankings and this could place those rankings in peril. One of her parting remarks was that when our nation's founding fathers Jefferson and Madison formed the University of Virginia (her alma mater) they specifically prohibited guns on that campus – and Madison actually authored the Second Amendment. Sen. Parent asked the Senate to oppose the legislation. Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford) tried to ask Sen. Parent some questions, noting that her long history in the Senate had been on Georgia's children and their safety. She asked Sen. Parent if crime was more pervasive on our State's college campuses – Sen. Parent refused to take her bait and countered that the numbers of violent crimes have decreased and crimes on campuses have dropped. Sen. Parent urged that a better approach would be to speak about issues with the schools themselves and to perhaps offer funding for additional campus security. Sen. Parent told Sen. Unterman that all 29 of Georgia's colleges opposed HB 859. Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Stone Mountain) told the Senate that this legislation was simply a solution for a problem which does not exist. Sen. Steve Henson (D-Tucker) told his fellow Senators that a Board of Regents' member had also voiced opposition to this idea. Sen. Josh McKoon (R-Columbus), however, stated that this legislation had been fully vetted in Committee and that individuals with guns will go through criminal background checks before they can carry weapons. Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell) tried a procedural move to end the debate; however, his motion to move the previous question caused a stir and discussion continued. Sen. Gloria Butler (D-Stone Mountain) remarked that 78 percent of Georgians do not want to see guns on campuses. In the end, Sen. Jesse Stone ended the debate, reminding the Senate that guns protect people and crime is down all over the State since the broader permission to carry guns was passed. He stated that crimes on campuses, however, have increased and he hoped that HB 859 would reverse that increase. In the legislation, as passed, it adds revisions to Georgia's law at O.C.G.A. § 16-11-127.1 allowing a license holder of a weapon to carry on school property but not in buildings or on property used for athletic sporting events or student housing (including fraternity and sorority houses). The bill moves to the Governor's desk for his review as no changes were made to the bill on the Senate side.
The House Rules Calendar contained six measures. They also brought back SB 158 as they had held that legislation on Thursday.
SB 273 passed with a vote of 165-0. This legislation previously passed the House in the form of a House Bill by Rep. Lott. It establishes that non-diagnostic laboratories are not subject to State licensure and regulation and that those will be overseen by federal regulations. This bill moves to Governor Deal's desk.
SB 277, by Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell), also passed 113-45 to enact the "Protecting Georgia Small Business Act." A Floor Amendment was offered by Rep. Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta), but it was lost with a vote of 52-111. This legislation heads to the Governor's desk.
SB 279, by Sen. Tyler Harper (R-Ocilla), cleared the House with a vote of 165-0. It addresses the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, adding that the Commissioners from the Departments of Juvenile Justice and Natural Resources are to be part of this Council. This change moves the total membership of the Council from 20 members to 22 members. No changes were made to this legislation so it moves to the Governor's desk.
SB 347, originally authored by Sen. Charlie Bethel (R-Dalton), overhauls Georgia's Captive Insurance Company Laws in Title 33. SB 347 passed 163-0. Changes were made to this legislation by the House so the Senate will have to agree or disagree with those revisions.
SB 137, by Sen. Marty Harbin (R-Tyrone), passed 160-0. It was originally authored by Rep. Jason Shaw (R-Lakeland) and expands the ownership restriction for residential property which has a total fire loss to include limited liability companies. This legislation heads to the Governor's desk.
SB 308, by Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford), enacts the "Positive Alternatives for Pregnancy and Parenting Grant Program." This bill passed the House 103-52. The House Health and Human Services Committee revised this legislation so it will now move back to the Senate for it to either agree or disagree with changes.
SB 158, by Sen. Dean Burke, MD (R-Bainbridge), passed with a vote of 167-0. This legislation imposes regulation on health insurance rental networks. It was the subject of a study committee last year. The House altered some of the language in SB 158 so it needs to go back to the Senate for it to either agree or disagree.
HB 1141, by Rep. Emory Dunahoo (R-Gainesville), seeks to enact the "Georgia Fair Tax Act" in Title 48 by repealing income taxes in their entirety. Further, it seeks to enact an entirely new Chapter 8 in Title 48, overhauling Georgia's laws on sales and use taxes. In part, it would tax all consumption goods and services once, without exception, but only once. The rate on the use or consumption of taxable property and services is proposed in O.C.G.A. § 48-8-20(b) at 5.50 percent of the gross payments for the taxable property or service. At O.C.G.A. § 48-8-21 it states that no tax is to be imposed on any taxable property or service purchased for a business purpose in a trade or business in subparagraph (a) and it states that no tax is to be imposed on any taxable property or service purchased for an investment purpose and held exclusively for an investment purpose in subparagraph (b). There are proposed "rebates" on a monthly basis for qualified families at O.C.G.A. § 48-8-40. This legislation was offered late in the Session and is likely proposed to initiate a conversation on revamping Georgia's tax laws.
HB 1142, by Rep. Jason Shaw (R-Lakeland), seeks to authorize retailers of malt beverages and wines to conduct tasting events at which samples of malt beverages and wines may be served in a new Chapter 15 of Title 3. It also amends the current law at O.C.G.A. § 3-3-26, which has a strict prohibition on a retail dealer from permitting the breaking of any package or packages containing alcoholic beverages on the premises or allowing or permitting the drinking of the contents of such package or packages. In the revision in that Code Section, it will allow such for malt beverages and wines.
HR 1684, by Rep. Rusty Kidd (I-Milledgeville), seeks to create the House Study Committee on Casino Gaming. It is to explore the feasibility of casino gaming for the purposes of accurately projecting the tax revenue potential of casinos in Georgia and whether such revenue, if paid in the State's general treasury, would be used to assist the HOPE scholarship program, provide property tax relief and aid healthcare affordability, expand Medicaid, increase reimbursement for indigent care expenses and provide more mental health services. It would look in part at possible sites where casino gaming might benefit tourism and economic development such as at the former Plant Branch owned by Georgia Power in Putnam County and creating additional jobs in the State. This Study Committee would be composed of seven members of the Georgia House.
HR 1704, by Rep. Darrel Ealum (D-Albany), proposes to create the House Study Committee on Restoration of Civil Rights. It will look in part at Georgians who have been sentenced for felony crimes and who serve their punishment but are still not full citizens. This Study is to be conducted by six members of the House who will be appointed by the Speaker.
House Judiciary Committee – Fleming Subcommittee
Rep. Barry Fleming (R-Harlem) and members of this Subcommittee (those present, in addition to Rep. Fleming, included Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs); Rep. Beth Beskin (R-Atlanta); Rep. Johnnie Caldwell, Jr. (R-Thomaston); and Rep. Regina Quick (R-Athens)) met during the early part of the morning to hear from Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford) and her proposal, SB 3. This legislation was introduced in 2015 and has gone through numerous revisions. It is to be known as the "Supporting and Strengthening Families Act" in a new Article 5 of Chapter 9 of Title 19. The underlying idea is to allow more private entities and individuals to take physical custody of children in an effort to prevent them from winding up in the State's child welfare system. It addresses who has the authority to delegate caregiving authority of his or her child to a kinship caregiver for a period not to exceed one year. This power and authority may be delegated without court approval but is required to be in writing. Further, it is not to modify or change parental or legal rights, obligations, or authority which is established by an existing court order. It includes language that the money is to follow the child (concerning child support). It permits the individual who takes custody of this child under the power of attorney to have the right to enroll the child in a public or private school. It further requires that at least 30 days prior to executing a power of attorney to give this authority to a kinship caregiver, the person with sole custody of the child is to notify in writing the non-custodial parent – this notice constitutes a change in material conditions or circumstances for the purpose of a child custody modification proceeding. The language does address emergency instances – such as if a parent, guardian, legal custodian or agent granting temporary written permission to seek emergency medical treatment or other services for a child is needed. There is also language so that it permits a voluntary criminal background check if the agent so desires. Rick Jackson, a healthcare businessman and philanthropist, has pushed similar goals. The Subcommittee heard a newer version on SB 3 which had been worked out by Rep. Regina Quick (R-Athens) who is a lawyer and chairs the State Bar of Georgia's Family Law Section. Rep. Quick had help on this proposal from judges as well as Lt. Governor Cagle's lawyer, Irene Munn, and Sen. Unterman's lawyer, Elizabeth Holcomb. Rep. Quick stated that an attempt was made to address constitutional issues and the rights of parents and delegation of authority in the newer version. Sen. Unterman noted that the newer version addressed the money follows the child; custody questions; and issues around military parents. Rep. Willard voiced his concerns about possibly permitting "bad actors" taking children and possible negative impacts. No public testimony was given at this hearing (in the past, the Division of Family and Children's Services, Office of Child Advocate, and numerous child welfare providers have indicated that there are questions around the legislation). Discussion of amendments for the full Judiciary Committee continued intently after the Subcommittee adjourned, particularly concerning coordination with all other relevant state and federal legislation, including the 2015 revisions to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It is not yet clear how or whether Sen. Willard's concerns will be addressed, as he clearly seems to prefer use of the guardianship provisions of current law. He indicated he was not trying to hold the legislation, but to perfect it.
The Subcommittee gave SB 3 a do pass recommendation to the full Judiciary Committee.
House Ways and Means Committee – Ad Valorem Subcommittee
Sen. Bill Heath (R-Bremen) presented his Constitutional Amendment, SR 604. This Constitutional Amendment will prohibit the levy of State ad valorem taxes which is currently found in Article VII, Section I, Paragraph II of Georgia's Constitution. The Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Brett Harrell (R-Lawrenceville), cleared SR 604 and it now moves to the full Committee. Representatives questioned about what might occur if the State had an emergency and needed revenues. It still has the ability to increase the sales tax rate. Further, there are a number of credits and exemptions in the current Tax Code, per Rep. Chuck Martin (R-Alpharetta), which if removed would generate billions for Georgia. The Subcommittee all voted favorably except the lone dissenting vote by Rep. Debbie Buckner (D-Junction City).
Senate Health and Human Services Committee
Chairwoman Renee Unterman (R-Buford) and her Subcommittee tackled several pieces of legislation. She also announced that the Committee would meet again on Monday at 3:00 p.m. to look at other proposals.
HB 920, by Rep. Trey Kelley (R-Cedartown), passed out and is on its way to the Senate Rules Committee, but two members of the Committee voted against the legislation. Rep. Kelley told the Senators present that the new Substitute, adding two new Code Sections at O.C.G.A. § 31-7-3.3 and O.C.G.A. § 31-7-3.4, addressed the concerns of Sen. William Ligon, Jr. (R-Brunswick), which dealt with the award of attorneys' fees and expenses, and Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens), which addressed the time by which parties are required to file motions to either stay an action or compel arbitration. The underlying proposal excluded parties in litigation involving nursing homes if those parties are not involved in direct care of patients. Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta) asked if similar laws were in the Code for other industries. Rep. Kelley stated that this was a new exception because the State's nursing homes are essentially funded by Medicaid. This law change, per Rep. Kelley, will allow a freeing up of revenues in totality so that the nursing homes will spend money on care of patients rather than litigation costs.
Rep. Bruce Broadrick's (R-Dalton) bill, HB 926, was held again this afternoon. This Pharmacy Code revision is supposed to have more changes made. The legislation was originally to provide for the licensure of third-party logistics providers and also proposed to permit a temporary pharmacy license to be issued to a service member for a period of six months in O.C.G.A. § 26-4-43. It also would require that the Board of Pharmacy establish rules and regulations relating to drug supply chain security based on federal law requirements.
Rep. Brian Strickland (R-McDonough) presented HB 229, the change in visitation rights of family members when custody issues are in play. It imposes a clear and convincing evidence standard to be used to allow other folks to have family visitation. The State Bar of Georgia's Family Law Section supports HB 229 and reviewed it over last summer. The underlying legislation addresses Title 19 permitting grandparents and great grandparents the ability to intervene and seek visitation rights. Sen. Unterman, indicating that the bill needed to be perfected, added her legislation, SB 3 ("Supporting and Strengthening Families Act"), in the Substitute before the Committee. Despite queries regarding constitutional issues and attempted changes by Sen. William Ligon, Jr. (R-Brunswick), the legislation received a do pass recommendation on this Substitute. The legislation moves on to Senate Rules.
Next, Rep. Lee Hawkins (R-Gainesville) presented HB 853 which amends Georgia's law on stroke treatment and prevention. It is a modernization of the "Coverdell-Murphy Act" and updates the current system of levels of certified stroke centers, so as to reflect in O.C.G.A. § 31-11-110 et seq., the advances in treatment and therapy for stroke patients. The Department of Public Health is authorized to establish additional levels of these centers. There was little discussed about this proposal which moved along quickly with a do pass recommendation.
HB 900 was presented by Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta). It updates Georgia's prescription monitoring laws in part to address issues with the huge number of prescriptions written for hydrocodone and oxycontin products. Under current law, only a physician or pharmacist may access the prescription monitoring system. This change in HB 900 allows someone who is licensed to be delegated authority to access this system. There is a $100,000 fine imposed if an individual misuses and a misuse could also cause the licensee's license to be revoked. The proposal also requires records to be retained for two years rather than one year. There is also a change permitted to allow the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency to have local jurisdictions issue subpoenas for information. Rep. Cooper indicated that the Medical Association of Georgia and Georgia Pharmacy Association support HB 900. The legislation also received a do pass recommendation from the Committee.
Rep. Tom Kirby (R-Loganville) presented HB 934 on kinship care, noting that a Study Committee last summer had looked at families caring for Georgia's children. The bill creates a new Code Section at O.C.G.A. § 49-1-8, authorizing the Department of Human Services to provide a separate link or portal on its website so that kinship caregivers can access information and apply for public assistance benefits. There were no questions raised or testimony and the legislation moved quickly forward with a do pass recommendation to the Senate Rules Committee.
HB 825 was presented by Rep. Earnest Smith (D-Augusta) which proposes enactment of the "Protecting Military Children Act." It requires that the Division of Family and Children's Services notify the appropriate military entity if a child is found or is suspected to be abused or neglected. There was no testimony on this proposal and no language from SB 3 was apparently added as it was not discussed. The legislation received a do pass recommendation and moves forward to Senate Rules.
HB 916, by Rep. Dusty Hightower (R-Carrollton), presented this legislation which also came about due to a study committee. It addresses recoupment by Georgia's Medicaid program in instances when payment errors are due to clerical errors and no fraud was intended. The changes are made in the current law on "The Pharmacy Audit Bill of Rights" in O.C.G.A. § 26-4-118 (which previously stated that such would not apply to the Department of Community Health) and adds a new Code Section at O.C.G.A. § 49-4-151.1 concerning these clerical or record-keeping errors made by an entity who is a provider under Georgia's Medicaid program. Rep. Hightower shared a story from a constituent of Rep. David Knight (R-Griffin) who had a recoupment action brought for $500,000 (on a $1 million business) which would have forced the business to close. This legislation allows the entity to have 30 days to correct a problem. The State is still permitted to pursue fraud cases. The Georgia Pharmacy Association supported the legislation. HB 916 passed out of Committee.
HB 1070, by Rep. Katie Dempsey (R-Rome), was the final bill of the afternoon. This legislation adds a new subsection (b.1) to O.C.G.A. § 19-8-23 so that the Department of Human Services, in its sole discretion, may "make use of any information contained in the records of the department concerning an adopted child and the adopted child's biological parents in connection with the placement of another child in the home of the adoptive parents of the child or in connection with the investigation of a report of child abuse or neglect made concerning the adopted child's biological parents." Rep. Dempsey's legislation also proved to be a vehicle for Sen. Unterman's SB 3 (as described above) as it was tacked onto HB 1070 in the Substitute presented. This legislation also passed out of the Committee.
House Education Committee
The Committee met briefly this morning to take action on three pieces of legislation. The first was SB 355 by Sen. William Ligon (R-Brunswick) which would set guidelines regarding implementation of standardized assessments. This bill had been heard a number of times by the Committee and quickly received a do-pass.
Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Lindsey Tippins (R-Marietta), presented two bills. The first, SB 348 provides that local school systems can receive funding as a college and career academy as part of a strategic waiver system or charter school system. This bill received a do-pass by the committee.
SB 364, also by Chairman Tippins, was the main bill on the agenda for this meeting. This would overhaul the evaluation and statewide assessment system in the State by reducing weight of student assessments on teacher evaluations. The House Education Committee had previously removed a provision that provided for two additional tests in Reading and Math in the 1st and 2nd grades. This version included that section back into the legislation. Sen. Tippins indicated that he believes that bill is even better now than it was before the House's changes. SB 364 was passed by the Committee and sent on to the House Rules Committee to await a floor vote.
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.