One-third of the legislative session is over, and the pace of legislation is still moving slowly—a situation that is not unusual when you have so many new faces in new jobs. However, committee activity is increasing, and the next one-third of the session will likely see a number of key bills moving toward floor action.

Immigration continues to dominate the legislative agenda as both House and Senate Judiciary committees held extensive hearings on the three primary bills that would extend E-Verify to all businesses while increasing penalties and compliance requirements, particularly on contractors and local governments.

This week the House passed its version of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 amended budget. Highlights include reducing funding for the Georgia Aviation Authority to $1.6 million, reducing Governor Deal’s budget for the OneGeorgia Authority from $19.8 million to $10 million and restoring $166,933 to the Department of Natural Resources for historic preservation planners.

A House bill requiring English-only drivers license tests was, in essence, defeated with that chamber voted to table the legislation after voting to approve an amendment that authors deemed had gutted the bill. Following are the major pieces of legislation currently pending in the General Assembly.

IMMIGRATION/BUSINESS RELATED

HB 66 – Representative Howard Maxwell: This bill, sponsored at the request of the state’s independent insurance agents, collects current state law in one section of the state legal code for easier reference. It says that only certificates of insurance (CoIs) approved by the State Insurance Commissioner may be issued, and it sets a $5,000 fine for violating this provision. The bill has sparked significant debate within the construction industry and other business groups over the validity and accuracy of certificates of insurance as a tool for determining the actual coverages that a contractor or subcontractor has. Insurance agents assert they need the protections found in this bill to avoid pressure from clients and owners to conform to contract requirements and putting coverages on CoIs that are not actually in place or even available in the marketplace. Critics of this bill and the current use of CoIs in business say contractors and owners relying solely on CoIs to verify insurance coverage may not be aware of gaps, exclusions and other qualifiers that may exist to limit the coverage reflected on the CoI. Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) is involved with other contractor groups and the insurance industry to resolve concerns over this legislation.

HB 67 – Representative Roger Williams: The House Regulated Industries Committee recommended passage of this bill that allows local jurisdictions to hold referenda on the Sunday sales of alcoholic beverages.

HB 87 – Representative Matt Ramsey: The primary House bill attempting to crack down on individuals residing in Georgia outside federal immigration statutes, this bill has undergone extensive rewrites and prolonged hearings before the House Non-civil Judiciary Committee. Business interests and local governments are concerned with the penalty, compliance and enforcement costs associated with the bill’s provisions. It will see additional revision in committee before it goes to the House floor, but some bill will emerge with additional penalties and compliance requirements.

HB 96 – Representative Amos Amerson: Reduces the percentage of petition signatures needed to call a distilled spirits referendum from 35 percent to 5 percent of a jurisdiction’s voters.

HB 165 – Representative Alan Powell: Allows counties and housing authorities jointly to permit the sale of alcoholic beverages within 100 yards of a housing authority property.

SB 07 – Senator Bill Heath: Prohibits the payment of workers compensation benefits to non-citizens not employed legally in Georgia. It is currently in the Insurance and Labor Committee. No hearing has been yet scheduled.

SB 10 – Senator John Bulloch: The Senate version of the Sunday alcohol sales legislation. Like HB 69, the Georgia Chamber has designated this as a “scorecard” issue, meaning this vote will count in the pro-business rating given to each legislator before the next election. Senate leaders reportedly are quietly urging Chamber leadership not to score this issue, giving senators from areas where opposition is higher more leeway in voting on this issue.

SB 27 – Senator Judson Hill: Called the Georgia Public Works and Contractor Protection Act, this bill requires electronic verification of all workers on a publicly funded construction site until 2013, when public works contractors must enroll in a more rigorous verification program, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers (IMAGE) program. It stiffens penalties for contractors and local officials, including the possibility that local officials can be removed from office for failing to comply with the legislation’s requirements. This bill is expected to undergo significant revision in committee meetings next week.

SB 40 – Senator Jack Murphy: This is the Senate version of Representative Ramsey’s bill, but varies significantly from its House counterpart. This bill is also undergoing revision in Committee meetings, but will still likely emerge with strong penalties for contractors and local officials who do not comply with its provisions. Penalties include stiff fines, possible incarceration, loss of business licenses for multiple offenses and other provisions.

SB 65 – Senator Bill Heath: Prohibits payment of unemployment compensation to any individual not residing in Georgia legally.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

A group from the economic development community met this week with several of the legislature’s strongest supporters of tax and other job creation / business development incentives to outline several legislative proposals intended to make Georgia’s business recruitment programs more competitive with other states. These legislative leaders were very supportive of the ideas presented, believing that new approaches are needed to boost Georgia’s competitive position. The proposed legislative plan is being reviewed by these legislators for possible introduction this session. I will report in more detail as specific bills are introduced.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT LEGISLATION

HB 73 – Representative Ron Stephens: Creates a local option tax to support economic development initiatives.

HB 86 – Representative Roger Williams: Exempts energy used in manufacturing from sales and use taxes. This is one of the recommendations by the Special Counsel on Tax Reform that may also be included in an omnibus tax reform bill later this session.

SB 21 – Senator William Ligon: Prohibits the Department of Revenue from initiating an audit on a sales or use tax return more than three years after the return is filed.

HB 48 – Representative Jay Powell: Creates new ad valorem tax exemptions for level 1 freeports.

ENVIRONMENTAL/ENERGY/WATER

HB 43 – Representative Mary Margaret Oliver: Prohibits Georgia power generating utilities from purchasing coal obtained using mountaintop removal methods. This bill was introduced last session and died without action.

HB 57 – Representative Doug Holt: Exempts contractors installing water treatment devices from general contracting, plumbing or utility licensing requirements.

HB 111 – Representative Debbie Buckner; and HB 134 – Representative Alan Powell: Two bills restricting interbasin water transfers.

HB 131 – Representative James Epps: Exempts Georgia Department of Transportation and other state agencies and their contractors from the stream buffer requirements and fines/penalties during construction.  

HB 174 – Representative James Mills: Prohibits a city or county from charging residents outside their jurisdictions water and sewer fees that are arbitrarily higher than rates charged within their jurisdiction.  

HB 179 – Representative Jon Burns: Allows clear cutting near billboards on the state road system.

SR 15 – Senator Ross Tolleson: Creates a Joint House/Senate Committee on Water Supply.

HB 235 – Representative Ron Stephens: Exempts convention and tourist attractions from local sales taxes during construction.

HEALTHCARE

HB 47 – Representative Matt Ramsey: Allows individuals, businesses and business groups to purchase accident and sickness insurance policies approved in other states.

HB 132 – Representative Ben Watson – The Medical Food Equity Act: Requires health insurers to cover the cost of special medical foods whenever a physician determines that a covered individual has a medicallyrelated food disorder.

HB 167 – Representative Steve Davis – Insurance Delivery Enhancement Act: Lowers from 25 to 10 the number of individuals who must be insured by a group of employers, trade association, labor union or similar group organized for the primary purpose of providing insurance coverage.

HB 197 – Representative Barbara Sims: Requires any hospital or licensed healthcare facility that does not have a contract with a county government authority to provide emergency healthcare services to inmates.

HB 214 – Representative Mickey Channell: Removes the public health duties from the Department of Community Health (DCH) and recreates the Department of Public Health. Also, the DCH announced this week the appointment of Carrollton physician, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., as head of its public health unit.

HB 231 – Representative Wendell Willard: Allows a peace officer to request medical transport for mental health patients requiring emergency or involuntary treatment.

SB 6 – Senator Judson Hill: Sets aside one-fourth of one percent of the state insurance premium tax to offset losses in the Individual High Risk Reinsurance Pool.

SB 17 – Senator Tim Golden: Creates the Special Advisory Commission on Mandated Health Insurance Benefits to evaluate the efficacy of state-imposed mandated insurance coverage.

SB 34 – Senator Buddy Carter: Creates an Electronic Database Review Advisory Committee to monitor drug prescribing/dispensing trends.

SB 39 – Senator Johnny Grant: Allows counties to create Mental Health Courts. It does not mandate them, but gives counties discretion. It is intended to save local governments the cost of court, jail and medical costs while providing a judicial alternative composed of mental health specialists with power to divert offenders into community mental health services rather than jail.  

SB 63 – Senator John Albers: The Georgia Medical Assistance Fraud Prevention Program requires the Department of Community Health to develop a pilot program to prevent medical assistance fraud.  

SB 67 – Senator Buddy Carter: Bans the use of the title “nurse” by anyone not licensed as a registered professional nurse or a licensed practical nurse.  

SR 140 – Senator Greg Goggans: Revives the constitutional amendment authorizing a trauma care license tag fee of $10 that was defeated by voters last November.  

LEGAL

HB 24 – Representative Wendell Willard: Modernizes the rules regarding evidence in legal proceedings.  

HB 27 – Representative Mary Margaret Oliver: The Georgia Administrative Procedure Act ensures the right to legal counsel during administrative proceedings, but also allows individuals involved in administrative proceedings to act pro se and for corporations or similar entities to be represented by an officer, director or employee during those proceedings.  

HB 30 – Representative Wendell Willard: Redefines the types of contracts considered illegal or void under Georgia law, removing contracts in restraint of trade. This bill would update the state code after voters approved a constitutional amendment last year strengthening enforcement of non-compete and similar employment contracts.

HB 41 – Representative Richard Smith: The House Judiciary Committee this week recommended passage of this bill to reduce the fee paid to superior court clerks for preparing trial records for appeal from $10 to $1 per page. Consideration is also being given to increase magistrate filing fees from the current $24 to approximately $34.  

HB 45 – Representative Mike Jacobs: Prohibits the application of international law in Georgia courts where an international law voids a legal or constitutional right under state or federal law. Representative Jacobs intends to exempt international arbitration proceedings from the bill’s provision. Also, economic development groups are concerned how the bill may affect international companies or foreign-based companies with operations in the state. Conversations to adjust the bill to address these concerns continue. Representative Jacobs’ intent is to prevent incidents in Georgia similar to a recent Maryland case where a court there felt compelled to grant child custody to a father based on a Pakistani court order when the mother and child resided in that state.  

HB 64 – Representative Mike Jacobs: Removes a provision that automatically sets attorney fees in debt cases and allows judges to set reasonable attorney fees instead.  

HB 100 – Representative Allen Peake: Creates the Georgia Tax Court to hear cases involving the Georgia Department of Revenue.  

HB 149 – Representative Tim Bearden: Allows a magistrate to be removed from office for cause or failure to complete mandated training.  

HB 196 – Representative B. J. Pak: Allows judges to issue a search warrant after conducting a hearing via video conference.  

HB 203 – Representative Mack Jackson: Requires Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) to notify the head of a law enforcement agency, district attorney and judicial circuit solicitor whenever it initiates a peace officer investigation that could result in disciplinary action.  

HB 238 – Representative Rich Golick: A bill by the chairman of the House Non-civil Judiciary Committee to revamp the state’s indigent defense system.  

SB 47 – Senator John Crosby: Creates a Georgia Magistrates Courts Training Council composed of senior magistrates with the authority to establish minimum annual training standards for all magistrates.  

SB 60 – Senator Barry Loudermilk: Allows vehicle owners receiving a red light citation based on photographs by a permanent red light camera to have the citation dismissed by submitting a notarized statement that he/she was not the driver at the time of the violation.

TAXATION

HB 31 – Representative Edward Lindsey: Limits the increase in tax assessments to a total of nine percent over three years and a maximum one-year increase to three percent.  

HB 115 – Representative Don Parsons: Requires vendors collecting sales taxes to use a nine-digit zip code for its filings to improve accuracy in determining the jurisdiction of origin.  

HB228 – Representative Rick Austin: Authorizes the Department of Revenue to distribute unidentifiable sales tax revenues to local governments on a pro rata basis.  

HB 235 – Representative Ron Stephens: Exempts convention and tourist attractions from local sales taxes on materials during construction.  

HB 240 – Representative David Knight: Allows Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) funds to be dispersed when a project is removed from the project list or when a project is deemed no longer feasible.  

MISCELLANEOUS LEGISLATION

HB 109 – Representative Mark Hamilton: Prohibits the use of government-owned computers, faxes, telephones and other equipment for lobbying purposes.  

HB 110 – Representative Mike Jacobs: Requires any county that develops a registry of vacant property to include all vacant properties, not just foreclosed properties.  

HB 123 – Representative Jay Powell: Adds tasers and stun guns to the list of weapons that cannot be removed from a public safety officer acting in the line of duty.  

HB 164 – Representative Matt Ramsey: Prevents local governments from prohibiting the use of coin-operated amusement machines or limiting the number of machines to fewer than nine per establishment. It does allow jurisdictions to revoke alcoholic beverage licenses if an operator fails to comply with state law, and the bill retains the prohibition against cash payouts.  

HB 181 – Representative Rich Golick: Allows the State Board of Education on a case-by-case basis to waive when medical conditions warrant the one-year public school attendance requirement for students seeking special needs scholarships for a private school.  

HB 186 – Representative Nix: Allows high schools and post-secondary institutions to work cooperatively to develop courses of study to equip students with skills in career, technical and agricultural vocations.

HB 188 – Representative Elena Parent: Requires the Department of Audits and Accounts to create a searchable database updated at least every five days showing the appropriations of the state and the status of any construction projects from appropriated or general obligation bond funds.  

HB 202- Representative Brooks Coleman: Requires local school boards to comply with the Georgia Department of Transportation’s (GDOT) planning and construction guide regarding site accessibility and traffic flow. It also allows school boards to expend funds on roadway improvements and SPLOST funds for road, street, bridge, utility and other improvements necessary to access a school. Current law blocks school systems for spending funds on anything other than direct educational services.  

HB 232 – Representative Edward Lindsey: Clarifying legislation for the new ethics law that exempts individuals who sell goods to state and local governments from lobbyist registration requirements.