By Beau Evans
Capitol Beat News Service
Georgia lawmakers just wrapped up this year’s wrangling of bills at the state capitol, managing to push through several pieces of legislation in a hectic two-week period marked by fears over coronavirus.
Hundreds of bills fell by the wayside as the COVID-19 pandemic rushed into Georgia starting in mid-March.
Lawmakers in the General Assembly took a three-month hiatus, then returned earlier this month to pass landmark legislation on hate crimes, a tax on vaping, cuts to standardized tests – and much, much more.
Here’s a roundup of key bills the General Assembly passed.
• Hate Crimes (H.B. 426) – Creates punishments for hate crimes that include acts of violent intimidation or property damage perpetrated based on a victim’s race, color, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, sex, gender, or whether they have a physical or mental disability.
• Police Protections (H.B. 838) – Criminalizes acts of bias-motivated violence and property damage committed based on a person’s occupation as a first responder including police officers, firefighters and medics.
• Second Chance (S.B. 288) – Allows ex-offenders with certain first-time misdemeanor and non-violent felony convictions to petition the court to have their criminal records shielded from public view. Convictions for certain domestic and nuisance charges like family violence and stalking, plus other major offenses like sex crimes, drunk driving and child molestation, would not be eligible for records shielding.
• Bail Bonds (S.B. 402) – Abolishes so-called “signature” bonds that allow arrested persons to be released on their own recognizance without having to post monetary bail.
Certain kinds of non-monetary bail would still be permitted but not for felony charges including murder, rape, drug trafficking, drunk driving or criminal street gang activity.
• Sovereign Immunity (H.R. 1023) – Puts to voters whether to give Georgians the ability to sue their state and local governments over laws or policies deemed unconstitutional. Plaintiffs would not be able to collect monetary damages or attorneys’ fees.
• Judge Salaries (S.B. 765) – Raises salaries for chief magistrate judges by several thousand dollars per year in Georgia, taking effect in 2022.
• Marketplace Facilitators (H.B. 276) – Collects sales taxes on online transactions overseen by so-called “marketplace facilitator” companies like Google, Amazon and eBay. (Ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft are exempted from the state sales tax and instead must pay a flat fee of 50 cents per ride.)
• Vape Tax (S.B. 375) – Levies a 7 percent excise tax on vaping products and raises the minimum age to purchase tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21 in Georgia.
• Film Credits (H.B. 1037) – Requires all film productions located in Georgia to undergo mandatory audits by the Georgia Department of Revenue or third-party auditors picked by the state agency.
• Alcohol Deliveries (H.B. 879) – Allows restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses licensed to sell alcohol to make home deliveries of beer, wine and distilled spirits in Georgia.
• Hemp Licensing (H.B. 847) – Requires licenses to be carried by business owners whose trade involves the cultivation, transportation or selling of hemp products. Coronavirus
• Lawsuit Liability (S.B. 395) – Shields Georgia businesses and health-care providers against legal liability from persons who contract COVID-19 on their premises from all but the worst negligence cases. Includes provisions for posting COVID-19 warning signs at premise entrances and on event tickets.
• Unemployment Benefits (S.B. 408) – Extends unemployment benefits that have been expanded during the coronavirus pandemic since March. The state labor commissioner would have leeway to extend benefits eligibility from 14 weeks to 26 weeks depending on the jobless rate and to set the weekly deductible threshold at between $50 and $300.
• PPE Tax Credits (H.B. 846) -- Allows businesses manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPE) in Georgia to be eligible for an additional $1,250 tax credit per job. PPE includes gloves, masks, hand sanitizer, face shields, helmets, goggles and respirators used to shield people from contracting coronavirus.
• Standardized Tests (S.B. 367) – Reduces the number of standardized tests required to be administered in Georgia public schools by five and allows state education officials to study whether other tests could be eliminated due to redundancy.
• Dual Enrollment (H.B. 444) – Caps the dual enrollment program for high schoolers seeking to acquire college credits at 30 hours per year for most students and scraps several course offerings that do not deal with core subjects, such as aerobics classes.
• Surprise Billing (H.B. 888) – Curbs the chances for patients to receive unexpectedly high hospital bills by requiring health insurers and health-care providers to settle cost disputes arising from emergency medical procedures performed by out-of-network providers.
• Pharmacy Benefit Managers (H.B. 946) – Sets new restrictions on third-party companies that negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmacies to curb price gouging, largely by forcing those companies to stay within 10 percent of a nationally used price average and offer up full rebates to health plans that are typically given by drugmakers.
• Elderly Care (H.B. 987) – Establishes stricter training and on-site nursing requirements for elderly care facilities in Georgia. Also requires long-term care facilities to report when residents or staff test positive for COVID-19 and to keep a seven-day supply of PPE like masks and hand sanitizer.
• Coal Ash (S.B. 123) – Increases fees for storing toxic coal ash at landfills in Georgia from $1 per ton to $2.50 per ton.
• Creosote burning (H.B. 857) – Bans utilities from burning wooden railroad ties treated in creosote to produce electricity.
• Ethylene Oxide (S.B. 426) – Requires power plants and manufacturing companies to report spills of toxic waste or noxious fumes within 24 hours.
• Timber Construction (H.B. 777) – Allows buildings constructed of “mass timber” to rise as high as 18 stories instead of the current limit of six floors.
By Beau Evans