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Georgia Legislative Session Roundup

Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue signed around 350 pieces of legislation into law, but took few steps forward as budget debates consumed the legislature. Some better bills included the nation's first mandatory reporting of food contamination tests by food processors, enacted after a Georgia plant released salmonella-laced peanuts. The passage of the budget bill (HB 119) trimmed the state's spending by $3 billion rather than raise taxes. Programs, including an automatic scholarship to top Georgia students who choose to go to school in-state, suffered cuts despite an influx of over $1.3 billion to Georgia from the federal recovery act, much of which went to preserve Medicaid and education spending. Some highly regressive policies became law, including proof of citizenship and a freeze on property tax assessments until 2011 (HB 233). However, Georgians can take comfort in the fact that some of the worst legislation was vetoed, including a bill to pass a capital gains tax break, which would have cost $1 billion in lost revenue.

Despite the desire of conservative legislators to rebel against taking stimulus funds, Georgia will in the end receive $932 million for highway transportation, $144 million in public transportation, $1.7 billion over the next three years to help pay for Medicaid spending, and hundreds of millions for weatherizing and energy improvements in public buildings. Notably, Gov. Purdue admonished Republican legislators that:

"Georgia’s a balanced budget state. And it’s very difficult to do the stimulus-type bills in a state that’s starved for revenue and cash at the same time. So that kind of destroys a supply-side theory within a state government.”

Recently, state officials announced that state revenues for April were down 20% from April 2008, which led to further budget cuts. Fortunately, some of the worst government-reduction bills died.

Tax breaks: Even with the budget in crisis, the legislature continued to enact new tax breaks, although the Governor vetoed a major capital gains tax break (HB 481) which had near unanimous Republican support, with only one Republican voting against it. The bill would have largely benefited the wealthiest Georgians at a time of high statewide unemployment with the richest 1% getting more than 75% of the benefits. It would have eliminated the corporate net worth tax and cut other business taxes while providing employers a tax credit for hiring unemployed workers.

A freeze on property tax assessments until 2011 (HB 233) was enacted, which will have a significant impact on local school funding, as well as a $1800 home-buyers credit that costs $123 million but which is estimated to only generate $2 million in state revenue (HB 261). Another bill which enacted was SB 55, which forces assessors to factor in neighborhood foreclosures when calculating the value of a home.  HB 186 provides a business tax credit for teleworking.  HB 438 revises Georgia's business development tax credit program, at a state revenue cost of $16-42 million in FY 2010, and thus changes the structure of state tax credits for companies that do business in Georgia.

Unemployment Insurance:  HB 581 restructures the Unemployment Benefits Fund, changing the base period of unemployment and allowing some part-time workers to continue drawing on unemployment benefits, in line with federal stimulus regulations.

Culture and Wedge Issues: Although many other states focused on bread and butter issues, Georgia's legislature persisted in rehashing cultural and ethnic wedge issues.

  • Abortion: Georgia passed and signed the first ever embryo adoption act in the nation (HB 388), which is a backdoor attempt to grant legal rights to embryos.
  • Confederate History and States Rights: SB 27 designates April as Confederate Heritage and History Month and celebrates the Confederate States of America and its “citizens of various races and ethnic groups and religions who contributed in sundry and myriad ways to the cause which they held so dear.” The Senate also passed a resolution (SR 632) that upholds the state's right to nullify federal laws that it disagrees with, including criminal statues.
  • Immigration: SB 20, which prohibits state and local governments from having immigration sanctuary policies, was passed and signed. If localities fail to uphold this law, state and federal monies can be withheld. HB 71 outlawed novelty licenses. Proponents of the bill claimed that undocumented immigrants used these licenses to gain public benefits. Notably, SB 67, which would have prohibited Georgians from taking the drivers' licensing exam in languages other than English, passed the House but did not achieve concurrence in the Senate.
  • Elections: Related to the immigration issues, a bill requiring voters to provide proof of citizenship (SB 86) was passed in both chambers and signed into law, making Georgia the second state after Arizona to create such high burdens for voters. The law does not issue free identification to poor voters, and clearly constitutes a poll tax (can we say that?). The legislature missed an opportunity to pass HB 540, a no-excuse absentee ballot bill that made some progress through the legislature but did not pass.

Education:

  • Rep. Alisha Morgan's HB 251 was signed into law allowing public school students to attend any school in their district, not just the ones they are zoned for, provided there is space and parents furnished the transportation. Additionally, it bars nepotism in school board appointments and school administration.
  • HB 484 expands HOPE scholarship eligibility to children of military members stationed in Georgia by deeming them residents of the state, a bill that has interesting implications for supporters of in-state tuition for undocumented students.  HB 280 provides additional compensation for teachers in subjects with severe shortages such as math and science. It will also allow schools to go to a four-day week if gas prices rise.
  • Gov. Purdue vetoed two education bills: HB 100, which would have allowed individuals and businesses to write off 75% of any donations to scholarship funds, and SB 178, which would have created new technical education and career initiative in schools.

Transportation:  SB 200 restructured the state Department of Transportation to remove decision-making power over road building money from the 13 person board, giving the legislature direct control of funding all new projects with 20% of the DOT’s money from motor-fuel and sales taxes. The bill stirred controversy and concern over potential cronyism. The legislature missed an opportunity to allow MARTA, Atlanta's public transit system, to have greater flexibility over spending with SB 120.

Other Notable Bills:

  • Energy: Legislators enacted a measure this year that would allow businesses to receive clean and efficient energy grants (HB 473 ).
  • Consumer rights: A first in the nation law (SB 80) requiring food manufacturers to report internal tests that find tainted products within 24 hours.
  • Health care: HB 160 to increase fines on "super-speeders " driving more than 85 mph passed, and the revenues would fund trauma care in the state.
  • Ethics and Reform: There were six bills which would have introduced good government and accountability reforms, all of which the legislature failed to enact. Senate Bill 96 House Resolution 229, Senate Bill 17, House Bill 601, House Bills 130-136, House Bill 855, SB 17. 
  • Criminal Justice: The Governor signed SB13, which would allow prosecutors to pursue a true life sentence without first asking for the death penalty. Currently, inmates are up for parole every 30 years , and this bill would make the life sentence final.

Resources:
Georgia Budget and Policy Institute - Adding Up the Fiscal Notes
Progressive States Network - Georgia Becomes 2nd State to Require Proof of Citizenship