by Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]
March 7, 2023
Dozens of bills cleared a key legislative deadline Monday, with some controversial measures – like a ban on some gender-affirming care – squeaking by as the clock wound down.
And in the House, it was notable what didn’t come up for a vote at all: sports betting. The bill likely represented the last shot this session at expanding gambling in Georgia beyond the lottery after two proposals were rejected in the Senate, but the House adjourned without putting it to a vote.
“This year was not the right time for it in the House,” House Speaker Jon Burns told reporters late Monday night.
Some of the most spirited debate in the House Monday happened on a bill creating oversight panels for local prosecutors and another measure that would increase weight limits for tractor-trailers, which narrowly survived with a 93-to-81 vote.
Here’s a rundown on some of the other highlights from Crossover Day, which is the Legislature’s self-imposed deadline for a bill to get a vote in at least one chamber.
School voucher bills passes in the Senate
Georgia’s limited school voucher program could be extended after the Senate passed a toned-down version on a party-line vote Monday.
The bill would provide $6,000 to parents who pull their children out of public schools ranked in the bottom 25% of the state. A previous version applied to nearly all students.
“I would actually argue to you that we have two paths in public school right now, the haves and the have-nots, and this bill levels the playing field for parents who want to get their kids out of schools that are in the lower 25% of all the schools in the state, and gives those parents help they may otherwise (not) have,” said the bill’s author, Cumming Republican Sen. Greg Dolezal.
Democrats said the plan will drain needed funds from public schools and will primarily benefit families that can already afford private school.
The average private school tuition in Georgia is $11,541 per year, according to Private School Review, and prices range from $1,042 to over $57,000.
Democratic Sen. Elena Parent of Atlanta accused Republicans of sabotaging public schools. Georgia has not updated its school funding formula since it was created in 1985 and is one of six states that do not allocate extra money to children whose families are affected by poverty, she said.
“It’s pretty obvious what’s going on here,” she said. “You ruin the schools so they don’t have credibility, you don’t give them the money they need to do a basic job, which is on us, and then use that as an excuse to weaken them further.”
The bill now moves to the House for consideration.
‘Raise the age’ bill clears House
The House backed a plan to move some 17-year-olds who are accused of a crime to the state’s juvenile court system.
The bill, sponsored by Canton Republican Rep. Mandi Ballinger, would not apply to 17-year-olds who are charged with gang-related offenses or serious crimes like murder or those who are not first-time offenders.
“Our 17-year-olds in the state of Georgia do not go to juvenile court. They go to state or superior court. They’re adjudicated just like adults,” Ballinger said Monday. “Anybody who’s ever known a 17-year-old knows how far from adulthood that 17-year-old really is.”
The bill cleared the House with a 145-to-22 vote, sending it over to the Senate for consideration.
Georgia is currently one of three states where the cut-off for juvenile court is 16 years old. Ballinger has championed a so-called raise the age proposal for several years.
This year’s push comes at a time when lawmakers have taken more of a law-and-order response to crime concerns. Her bill overcame opposition from the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, which raised concerns about new demands on local staffing and the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
The bill creates an implementation committee that would map out a plan for absorbing the new age group into the juvenile court system and identify the costs, which will be picked up by the state. The new age cut-off rules would expire in 2030 if left unfunded.
Proposal to define antisemitism in state law sparks debate
A measure that would define antisemitism in state code was approved by the House, where it encountered free speech concerns.
The bill, sponsored by Marietta Republican Rep. John Carson, defers to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition and directs state agencies to consult the definition when applying Georgia’s anti-discrimination and hate crime laws.
Proponents argue the definition is needed to spell out what antisemitism is, giving prosecutors a guide when parsing out intent when a crime has been committed.
“Protections for Jewish people do not come at the expense of anyone else – except antisemites,” said Rep. Esther Panitch, a Sandy Springs Democrat.
Panitch, who is the only Jewish state lawmaker in Georgia, was among those recently targeted by antisemitic flyers that were thrown onto properties in predominantly Jewish areas of Dunwoody and Sandy Springs.
But some Democrats questioned the need to define antisemitism when the hate crimes law passed in 2020 includes acts targeting someone because of the victim’s religion.
“By creating a definition for antisemitism, when antisemitic acts are already covered in statute, it begs the question as to why the Georgia code does not define anti-Black racism or anti-Latino racism or anti-Asian racism,” said Rep. Jasmine Clark, a Lilburn Democrat who voted against the bill. “Each of these groups could make the argument that they have been subjected to an increase and acts of violence over the years.”
Rep. El-Mahdi Holly, a Stockbridge Democrat, argued the alliance’s definition equates hate speech with “sharp criticism of the State of Israel as a political government.”
“How far will you go to police our words? Perhaps anyone using the N-word past or present can be charged with a hate crime,” Holly said.
The bill passed with a 136-to-22 vote and heads to the Senate.
Bill limits ability of locals to stop home building
A proposal limiting a local government’s ability to stop new residential building has passed the House, but lawmakers balked at a more controversial plan to curb local regulations on home construction standards.
The bill that has gained traction, HB 514, cleared the House Monday with a 127-to-43 vote and goes now to the Senate. It’s part of the GOP-controlled Legislature’s response to rising housing prices.
The measure would bar local governments from putting a moratorium on new single-family homes for more than 180 days. The measure included exemptions for state of emergency declarations, natural disasters, or when the local government has contracted with a third party to complete a study on public utilities.
In addition, the bill would allow local governments to waive “impact fees,” which are tied to costs for public infrastructure on residential housing under 2,500 square feet, as an incentive for homebuilders.
“We all know that our state is growing and growing rapidly, and the people have to have a place to live,” said the bill’s sponsor, Macon Republican Rep. Dale Washburn. “We are always applauding that growth and applauding the growth of the industry that’s coming.
“The reality is if a local community can just declare a moratorium and say, ‘Well we just don’t want anybody else coming,’ then we are allowing them to build economic walls around that county and city,” Washburn said.
Lawmakers from both parties expressed concerns.
“What happens at 180 days if school projects haven’t been addressed or roads aren’t prepared or water systems aren’t in place? Will they be able to move forward without that?” said Rep. Darlene Taylor, a Thomasville Republican who voted against the bill.
Washburn’s answer: Local governments can’t refuse to issue permits if 180 days have lapsed.
House backs tax on books, video games, other digital goods
Legislators in the state House passed a tax that would tax digital downloads in the same way physical content, like a book, is taxed when purchased at the store.
HB 170 passed on Crossover Day with a 162-to-10 vote and now moves over to the Senate. If signed into law, would make e-books, video games and other types of digital video-audio works a little more expensive.
“We wanted to make sure that our brick and mortar stores that sell video games that sell books that are taxed in our community are facing a parity in the taxation system across the internet as well,” said Rep. Kasey Carpenter, a Dalton Republican and the bill’s sponsor.
The 4% tax would take effect next year and would apply to digital products such as magazines, photos and digital applications. But electronic fund transfers, loans, online classes and advertising services are excluded from the tax.
The authors of the bill are also not pursuing a tax on streaming services like Netflix, for now. Such attempts have failed in the past. But Carpenter said that is something that needs to be looked at as subscription-based services become more prevalent.
“I do think in the future we need to look at that,” Carpenter said.
As for mom-and-pop shops that serve as vital community hubs, and have to pay property taxes, the bill will build support for these businesses that struggle to compete with online retail sales, proponents argue.
“We’re seeing traditional brick and mortar businesses suffer because of the unequal playing field that internet sales have caused,” said Griffin Republican Rep. David Knight, “and that’s a detriment to our communities.”
EV bills on the move
State lawmakers have signed off on changes that would require electric vehicle owners to be charged based on the amount of energy used, not the time it takes to fuel up.
The Senate approved Senate Bill 146 on Tuesday. Last week, the House passed a similar measure, HB 406, which would allow cars and trucks to be charged by the kilowatt hour rather than how long they take to recharge. A taxing mechanism similar to how the state collects motor fuel taxes will also be established.
Convenience store owners and other electric vehicle proponents have been in favor of shifting from a less consumer-friendly metric of charging by the minute to allowing for a conversion rate similar to how gasoline and diesel users are charged when they refill their cars and trucks.
“I want to reiterate the importance of this legislation as Georgia welcomes the growth of electric vehicles,” said Dahlonega Republican Sen. Stephen Gooch, who is the bill’s sponsor. “Gov. (Brian) Kemp has made it clear that he hopes that Georgia will become the electric mobility capital of America and the creation of this framework is definitely a step in that direction.”
In both bills, the Department of Agriculture would inspect charging stations to ensure safety and ensure electric vehicle owners are charged accurately based on how much electricity is required to recharge their cars. Moreover, the legislation specifies that the kilowatt-hour charge be correlated with the gallon-based motor fuel tax rate.
Electric vehicle owners currently pay $211 for small battery-powered cars and $317 for commercial vehicles for an annual fee, which is set aside to repair and build Georgia’s roads and bridges.
Both House and Senate bills call for implementation at the start of 2025 to give enough time to develop rules and regulations and for the development of charging technology.
Georgia is receiving a $135 million federal grant to expand rural access to electric charging stations.
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