House passes new state budget as session enters final month
With the 2014 session of the Georgia General Assembly now in its final month, the House of Representatives passed three major legislative measures last week – the fiscal year 2015 state budget plan, the Safe Carry Protection Act and an expansion of the HOPE Grant program for students in Georgia’s technical colleges.
House members voted overwhelmingly Feb. 17 to approve a $20.8 billion state budget plan for fiscal year 2015, which begins July 1. The budget legislation, HB 744, reflects an overall increase of $916 million, or 4.6 percent more than the fiscal year 2014 budget as originally approved. Year-to-date revenues for the first seven months of the current fiscal year show an increase of 5 percent over last year.
The House-approved budget allocates nearly three-quarters of all new revenue to education, with 59 percent of the increase going toward a $538.6 million infusion for K-12 schools, which includes $314.2 million to go toward eliminating teacher furlough days, increasing instructional days or raising teacher salaries, at the discretion of local school boards.
The state’s colleges, universities and technical colleges receive a boost of $120.7 million in the House plan. That amount includes a $22.5 million increase for the HOPE Scholarship program to cover more recipients and increase the award amount; $12.2 million to increase the HOPE Grant program to provide full tuition payment for qualifying technical college students; and $10 million for a new low-interest loan program for technical college students. The University System and Technical College System will also receive $14.4 million for merit-based pay adjustments and employee recruitment and retention initiatives.
The House plan also includes merit-based pay increases for Georgia Public Safety officers, while an additional $5.4 million will go to the GBI and Natural Resources for the final year of a three-year House initiative to retain experienced, certified law enforcement personnel in state service by providing competitive salaries. The Department of Corrections, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the District Attorneys' offices are also allocated additional funds for pay increases.
HB 744 includes health and human services expenditures of $7.3 million for 175 additional child protective services workers, $6.8 million for Mercer and Morehouse Schools of Medicine operating grants and $1 million to enhance trauma care services statewide.
The House budget’s bond package totals $813 million, including $273 million for K-12 capital projects; $215.7 million for construction and repairs on Georgia's college, university and technical college campuses; $175.5 million for economic development projects, with $35 million going toward the state's cost for deepening the Savannah Harbor; and $148.4 million for other projects such as prison upgrades, two helicopters for the Georgia State Patrol and the replacement of law enforcement vehicles across the state. HB 744 now goes to the Senate for its consideration.
On Feb. 18, House members voted to approve the Safe Carry Protection Act, which would expand the number of places where persons 21 and older who have gone through a lengthy licensing process can legally carry firearms, while also protecting the rights of private property owners to determine whether guns may be brought onto their property. Key provisions of HB 875 include the removal of fingerprinting for renewal of Weapons Carry Licenses (WCL); prohibiting the state from creating and maintaining a database of WCL holders; creation of an absolute defense for the legal use of deadly force in the face of a violent attack; codifying the ability to legally carry, with a WCL, in non-restricted areas of airports when there is no criminal intent; incorporation of NICS Improvement Amendments Act for mental health reporting; stating that under a declared state of emergency, law-abiding gun owners will not have their 2nd Amendment rights restricted or infringed by executive authority through Emergency Powers protection; allowing school systems to decide whether staff and faculty may carry a firearm on school property, pending approved training; allowing the lawful carry by WCL holders in government buildings where it is not currently restricted or security screening personnel are posted during regular business hours and in certain private establishments, while leaving the decision to the property owner. A provision to allow college presidents to decide whether weapons could be carried on their campuses was dropped from the bill over constitutional issues. HB 875 now goes to the Senate for its consideration.
Legislation that would restore full tuition reimbursement for HOPE Grant recipients who maintain at least a 3.5 grade point average in Georgia’s Technical Colleges received House approval on Feb. 19. After HOPE Grant tuition funding was reduced three years ago, enrollment in our technical colleges dropped by nearly 20 percent. HB 697 would restore these funds, which would not only help our technical college students, but also help Georgia have a more skilled workforce. The bill now goes to the Senate for its consideration.
Other legislation receiving House approval last week included:
• HB 423, which I co-sponsored to allow the use of live raccoons in sanctioned organization field trial competitions under certain circumstances.
• HB 610, which I co-sponsored to provide for the licensing and regulation of public insurance adjusters.
• HB 749, which would create the criminal offense of cargo theft, involving the theft of trailers or their contents. Mandatory penalties for violators would range from 1 year to 30 years in prison depending on the value of the trailer and its cargo, and whether the cargo includes any controlled substances.
• HB 770, which would create the criminal offense of home invasion, with mandatory criminal penalties ranging from 10 years to life in prison and fines of $10,000 to $100,000.
• HB 783, which would update the rules and regulations used to establish criminal violations of the state’s game and fish, waters, ports and watercraft laws. It also strengthens the implied consent warning for cases of hunting under the influence.
• HB 790, which would strengthen civil action involving timber theft by setting would set a four-year statute of limitations for actions involving the cutting and carrying away of timber from someone else’s property. The bill also includes language that makes a distinction between the damages a plaintiff can recover when the defendant is a willing trespasser versus when the defendant is an unintentional trespasser or has accidentally cut timber across a property line.
• HB 837, which would strengthen the supervision of offenders found guilty of misdemeanors by public or private probation officers.
• HB 838, which would make it a felony offense to post nude photographs of someone on the Internet without their consent, a practice known as “revenge porn.” The legislation carries penalties of up to a $100,000 fine and five years in prison for violations.
• HB 911, which would modify Georgia’s criminal code relating to assault and battery to add strangulation as an aggravated assault.
• HB 943, the Cancer Treatment Fairness Act, which would require that a health benefit policy that provides coverage for intravenously administered or injected chemotherapy for the treatment of cancer must provide equally favorable coverage for orally administered chemotherapy.
Friday, Feb. 21, was the 26th legislative day of the General Assembly session.