Rep. Shaw’s legislation approved, awaits Governor’s signature
Thursday, April 2, was the 40th and final day of the 2015 session of the Georgia General Assembly. I am pleased that during the last week of the session, a number of legislative proposals that I introduced received final approval by the House of Representatives and the Senate. These bills, which now await the signature of Gov. Nathan Deal to become law, include:
• HB 162, which would allow insurance companies to conduct self-audits to ensure practices are legally compliant and help maintain client confidentiality.
• HB 185, which would require life insurers to adopt the Principle-Based Reserving method, the new standard for calculating life insurance reserves from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
• HB 439, the Georgia New Markets Jobs Act, which we tailored to assist underserved and rural areas by allowing for an investment fund to help put more capital investments for small businesses in those areas. The bill was amended in the Senate to include the Invest Georgia Tax Credit, which establishes a venture capital fund to make investments in Georgia-based businesses to keep jobs in Georgia.
• HB 461, which would further crack down on metal theft by imposing stricter conditions on the sale of scrap catalytic converters to secondary recyclers in Georgia. The Senate amendments, which I supported, are to assist law enforcement agencies with database entry and maintenance. I appreciate the support of the state's metal theft task force, the recyclers association, utilities, law enforcement, municipalities, Realtors and others whose support was vital to passing this legislation.
Additionally, I was pleased to work with my colleagues on the House Insurance Committee and key Senators to reach final agreement on legislation requiring Georgia insurance carriers to cover the costs of treatments for young autism patients.
The Senate amended HB 429 to include provisions of SB 1, under which health insurers will provide autism spectrum disorder treatment coverage for children ages 6 and under. Benefits are limited to $35,000 per year, and the measure incorporates insurance guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of autism in young patients.
HB 429 prohibits health insurance plans, including Medicaid and the State Health Benefit Plan, from denying coverage for or placing restrictions on end-of-life care.
HB 429 also goes to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.
Transportation Funding Act: The House and Senate reached final agreement March 31 on legislation to generate an estimated $900 million in additional annual funding for maintenance and improvements to Georgia's roads, bridges and transit systems.
As approved, HB 170 would consolidate the state's current excise and sales taxes on motor fuel into a single excise tax of 26 cents per gallon for gasoline and 29 cents per gallon for diesel fuel. Those rates would be adjusted annually to reflect changes in fuel efficiency standards
To make up for potential losses in sales tax revenue, county governments would be able to seek voter approval for a local sales tax of up to 1 percent, in .05 percent increments, on motor fuel. The legislation would also implement a $5 per night state hotel/motel tax and eliminate Georgia's current tax exemption on jet fuel for airline carriers.
Additional revenue would come from the elimination of a $5,000 state income tax credit on the purchase of an electric vehicle and the establishment of a new annual fee on electric vehicles of $200 for cars and $300 for commercial vehicles, whose owners use the highway system but pay no motor fuel taxes. An annual fee of $50 to $100 would also be charged on heavy trucks.
The legislation also specifically requires the Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank to make every effort to balance any loans or other financial assistance equally among all regions of the state and authorizes preference to eligible projects in tier 1 and tier 2 counties, as designated by economic statistics, as well as projects with local financial support.
To become law, HB 170 needs only to be signed by Gov. Nathan Deal, who has already announced he will do so.
FY 2016 Budget: On March 31, the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve a $21.8 billion annual state budget plan for fiscal year 2016, which begins July 1.
As approved, the budget reflects an estimated revenue increase of $900 million over the current year. The majority of new funds will go toward K-12 education, with additional appropriations going to local school systems for eliminating furlough days, raising teacher pay and continuing health insurance coverage for bus drivers and cafeteria workers. Education accounts for 55 percent of the overall budget.
The final version of the budget legislation (HB 76) includes the following appropriations:
• $280 million to restore previous Quality Basic Education funding cuts to local school systems.
• $100 million for repairing bridges.
• $94 million to fully fund the Teacher Retirement System.
• $17 million in additional state payments to Medicaid providers.
• $3 million to improve the financial health of struggling rural hospitals.
• $2.5 million for the Georgia Film Academy to train workers for the film and video industry.
The budget also includes a $1.1 billion bond package for new construction projects, including $75 million for transportation improvements.
Diploma Barrier Removed: On March 30, legislation that will retroactively provide former students who did not pass the Georgia High School Graduation Test with the opportunity earn a high school diploma was signed into law by Gov. Deal.
The graduation test was phased out three years ago, but it remains a barrier for some students who attended high school when graduation was partly contingent on passing the exam.
HB 91 will allow students who had failed the test but met all other graduation requirements to petition their local school board to obtain a diploma from their high school. The legislation was approved overwhelmingly by the House and Senate.
Individuals no longer enrolled in public school who were denied a high school diploma solely for not achieving a passing score on any of the graduation tests and met all other local and state requirements may submit a petition to their local school system to determine their eligibility to receive a high school diploma under this new law. There is no deadline for filing this petition.
Other legislation receiving final approval in the session's final days included:
• HB 70, which would designate the white-tailed deer as Georgia's official state mammal.
• HB 110, which would legalize and regulate the sale of fireworks in Georgia.
• HB 190, which would require ride-sharing network companies such as Uber and Lyft to maintain commercial liability insurance coverage for their drivers.
• HB 213, which would enable MARTA to expend sales tax revenues on operational expenses, above the current limitation that requires 50 percent of sales tax funding to go toward bonded indebtedness for construction projects. A provision added by the Senate that would have allowed an increase in the MARTA sales tax from 1 to 1.5 percent was removed by the House.
• HB 233, which would revise the state's civil forfeiture law dealing with the handling and disposition of cars, cash and other contraband seized by law enforcement officers.
• HB 279, which would increase the salaries of Georgia's Supreme Court justices, Court of Appeals and Superior Court judges, district attorneys and public defenders, as well as add three new judges' positions to the Court of Appeals.
• SR 7 and SB 8, which would establish the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund and increase criminal penalties against convicted sex traffickers.
• SB 76, which would require drivers to stop at crosswalks with flashing lights for pedestrian safety.
• SB 89, which would allow local schools to use digital and electronic software in place of textbooks and encourages local school boards to purchase all instructional materials in digital or electronic formats for students starting in third grade by July 1, 2020.
• SB 132, the "Move on When Ready Act," which would allow high school students to take post-secondary classes for dual credit.
All of these bills now go to Gov. Deal for his signature.
Legislation failing to achieve final passage by the House and Senate, but still pending for the 2016 session, includes:
• HB 194, which would have reduced the early voting period for Georgia elections.
• SB 129, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
• SB 184, which would have prohibited city and county governments from regulating or banning specific breeds of dogs in their jurisdictions.
In the General Assembly, our work often involves keeping bad legislation from passing. I am pleased that we were able to keep HB 243, the so-called "education savings account" bill from reaching the House floor for a vote. That legislation, which was attached to SB 116 in the closing days of the session, would have amounted to a voucher system, taking tax dollars away from public education. The state government is responsible for funding public schools, not private schools.