2017-2018 Legislative Session

Georgia Legislative Update: You Will Like Riding The ATL and You Will Not Touch Your Cell Phone While Driving

The 2017-2018 Georgia Legislative Session wrapped up last week on a relatively quiet note. Georgia was thrown into the national spotlight early in the session when bills related to gay adoption and reduced voting time in Atlanta passed the Senate. On top of that, our lieutenant governor publicly threatened Delta’s tax breaks over the company’s decision to discontinue a program giving discounts to NRA members (the spending bill eliminating the tax break passed). It should be noted that California politicians also put forward a bill that would end tax breaks for companies that participate in the construction of a border wall.

In the end the gay adoption and voting bills failed in the House and the session ended on a more moderate tone. This was Governor Deal’s final legislative session and he will surely be missed. He’s been a needed voice of moderation in a country that has become increasingly polarized. While he’s never been conservative enough for Republicans or liberal enough for Democrats, he’s steered the state in a positive direction.

Let’s quickly re-cap some of the relevant bills that did, or did not, pass during the 2018 portion of the 2017-2018 legislative session. Please see our legislative page for a look at some of the interesting bills debated during both the 2017 and 2018 portions of the session.

Transportation

You’ll Love Riding the ATL. You Will. Perhaps the biggest news this year is the regional transportation bill (HB-930) that finally passed. We posted a previous article about this bill, so we won’t go into too much depth here. The bill allows voters in Fulton, Dekalb, Cobb, Gwinnett, and Clayton counties to vote on raising their sales tax by up to 1 cent to pay for regional transit. Those counties that approve the measure will join a regional commission, called “The ATL”, which will manage transit projects. Most MARTA transit services will be re-branded as “The ATL”. The final version of the bill eliminates a tax on ride-share services that would have gone to transit funding and it creates a committee to formulate a special transit district in Cobb County. A related bill, HB-225, imposing a 4 percent tax on ride-share services failed to pass the Senate.

The Georgia Legislature reduced funding for the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) after an audit found wasteful spending. The ARC works with regional governments on a number of issues, including transit and land use plans. The Beltline Tax Improvement District legislation (HB-642) passed the House, but not the Senate. The bill was designed to raise funds for the Beltline, but it was revised in committee too exclude affordable housing requirements.

Last, but not least, the legislature passed a law banning the use of cell phones while “operating” a car. The major exceptions: using the phone for GPS purposes, using the phone with hands-free devices, using the phone while legally parked, and using the phone to report traffic incidents or potential crimes. One major problem is that the bill does not define “operating,” which makes it unclear when the rules apply.

Environment

The big news here is the passage of the Outdoor Stewardship Act, HB-332.The bill allows the tax collected on outdoor recreational equipment to be used for the protection of green space. This is a logical use for such tax revenue since people buying outdoor equipment probably want green space in order to use the outdoor equipment. Since the dedication of tax funds for a specific purpose requires an amendment to the Georgia Constitution, voters will have to approve this in November. This is an obvious “yes” vote, people.

The legislature also passed HB-205, which creates stronger rules around fracking. Though fracking operations are not substantial in Georgia the practice poses many dangers including earthquakes and water-quality problems.

Marshlands in Tybee Island

Internet

Sales tax will now apply to online purchases as the legislature passed HB-61. More controversial was the passage of SB-315, which makes criminal the unauthorized access of a computer or computer network. While multiple federal laws already cover this crime, Georgia wanted to get in on the action. Many cyber-security practitioners had objections to the legislation since it potentially criminalizes the actions of “white hat” hackers; or those hackers who access networks without authority for the purpose of discovering and reporting potential security vulnerabilities. Such practices can help companies resolve major issues before they manifest into significant data breaches. The legislature also passed a bill, SB-426, to allow electric management corporations to supply broadband internet access in rural areas.

Alcohol+Marijuana

Following the passage of bill allowing beer to be sold at breweries during the 2017 portion of the session, the legislature passed SB-17 in 2018 allowing restaurants to sell alcohol beginning at 11am on Sundays. Restaurants with growing brunch crowds have been asking for such legislation for several years. The bill allows  voters in each jurisdiction to approve the earlier alcohol hours. At the last minute, the legislature approved a bill, HB-65, allowing those with PTSD to use medical marijuana. However, the legislature failed to approve a bill, HB-645, that would actually allow the distribution of medical marijuana in the state; so it continues to be legal in Georgia, you just can’t buy it here. A bill to legalize recreational marijuana, SB-295, predictably failed, though the legislature did pass a resolution, HR-1363, formally asking the US Congress to re-schedule marijuana as a schedule II drug (it’s still a schedule I drug along with cocaine and heroin). The resolution asking Congress to de-schedule marijuana altogether failed.

Voting

The good news is that the two most controversial bills failed to pass the House. SB-309 and SB-363 both sought to reduce voting time in Atlanta by 1 hour in order to conform with voting hours in the rest of the state. SB-363 went further and reduced voting time on Sundays, a significant voting day for black Americans. In a previous article we tried to give SB-309’s sponsor Josh McKoon the benefit of the doubt, but it’s difficult to see how reducing voting time in Atlanta instead of expanding voting time throughout Georgia isn’t just a ploy to minimize Democratic turnout.

Legislation that would allow residents to register to vote in schools, SB-320, failed. Though this was part of the 2017 portion of the session, we’ll mention it here because it’s in the news: the resolution asking voters to establish a bi-partisan re-districting commission failed. This was designed to address gerrymandering, which the US Supreme Court is currently reviewing to determine if partisan gerrymandering is constitutional. Gerrymandering allows the party in power to establish voting districts that maximize votes for their party, which exacerbates partisanship and extreme politics since few districts are competitive; there is no incentive for politicians to moderate their stances since districts are designed to be won comfortably by one party. The legislature also failed to advance a bill, SB-403, that return Georgia to paper ballots, a measure designed to combat the potential for election hacking. Though, as we know, there is nothing stopping people from spreading fake news designed to swing elections.

Housing

Great news on this issue. The legislature passed a bill, HB-834, allowing victims of domestic abuse to terminate their leases without penalty. However, the legislature failed to approve a bill, HB-954, that would prevent landlords from retaliating against tenants when tenants enforce their contractual and other legal rights. A bill, SB-119 that would prevent housing discrimination based on sexual orientation also failed.

Please see our 2018-2018 Georgia Legislative session page for a look at some other bills not mentioned in this article.

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