The Georgia General Assembly adjourned its 2019 legislative session Tuesday, April 2. The 40-day session — which kicked off Jan. 14 with the inauguration of a new governor, lieutenant governor and dozens of new House and Senate members — culminated with the traditional flurry of activity until the stroke of midnight on the final day. Gov. Brian Kemp will have 40 days to sign or veto legislation passed by the General Assembly. All legislation not vetoed will become law.

Abortion

One of the most hotly contested bills of the legislative session was the Living Infants Fairness and Equality Act. The bill, which passed the House by the narrowest of margins, would outlaw most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy — before many women realize they are pregnant — when a “heartbeat” is detected. House Bill 481 would allow an exception for abortions up to 20 weeks if a physician determines the pregnancy is “medically futile” or if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest but only after a police report is filed alleging such a crime. Other provisions of the bill would allow an unborn child with a detectable heartbeat to be included in child support calculations and classified as a minor dependent for the purpose of income taxes. The bill, which is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Kemp, would become effective Jan. 1, 2020.

Teacher Pay

Passing a budget each year is the only constitutional duty of the Georgia General Assembly. During the 2019 legislative session, the legislature adopted a $27.5 billion budget for the 2020 fiscal year. House Bill 31 includes a $3,000 pay raise for the state’s certified teachers and personnel, counselors, social workers, psychologists, special education specialists, speech and language pathologists, media specialists, and technology specialists. The 8.8 percent increase to the state’s salary schedule accounts for more than half of the $1.05 billion in additional appropriations over the FY 2019 budget. Bus drivers, lunchroom workers, school nurses and assistant pre-K teachers will also receive a 2 percent pay raise in the FY 2020 budget.

Certificate of Need Reform

Following the recommendation of the House Rural Development Council, members of the House and Senate spent a large portion of the session grappling with reforms to the state’s system for healthcare delivery. Seen as an opportunity to create new options for access to healthcare in rural communities, the council recommended replacing the state’s current Certificate of Need (CON) program with a new accreditation and licensing structure.

Although the final legislation was not as expansive as many had hoped, the General Assembly adopted some reforms to the current system. House Bill 186 expands the ability of cancer hospitals to provide services in Georgia; recognizes free-standing emergency departments and remote hospital locations as authorized healthcare facilities; increases the capital expenditure threshold requiring a CON from $2.5 million to $10 million; eliminates the threshold and provides a limited exemption of the purchase or lease of equipment from CON requirements; exempts nonclinical projects from CON review; and limits the parties that can object to a CON application based on proximity or services providers. The bill also requires the Department of Community Health to study and track the provision of uncompensated indigent and charity care by healthcare facilities; and creates the Governor’s Office of Health Strategy and Coordination to provide high-level coordination in the state’s healthcare system and its component parts, collect data, and develop initiatives to improve healthcare delivery in Georgia.

Medical Cannabis

The legislature passed Georgia’s Hope Act to provide more than 8,000 patients in Georgia with additional options for accessing low-THC oil, which until now has been legal to possess but illegal to produce, grow, manufacture, or dispense in the state. Under House Bill 324, Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission will regulate and oversee up to six production/manufacturing licensees and an unspecified number of dispensing licensees. In addition to dispensing licenses issued by the commission to retail outlets, the State Board of Pharmacy will oversee specialty dispensing licenses for pharmacies in the state. The commission may also issue designated university licenses to the University of Georgia and Fort Valley State University to produce, manufacture and purchase low-THC oil.

Other Issues

The House and Senate also passed legislation to mandate screening for dyslexia in public schools; to replace the state’s electronic voting machines with a touchscreen and paper ballot election system; to allow electronic membership corporations to provide internet services in addition to power; and to establish restrictions on the use of legislative continuances for the state’s lawyer-legislators.

As this is the first year of the biennium, all legislation that failed to pass this year will be available for consideration in 2020. Among the issues falling victim to the clock in 2019 are rural transit funding, regulation of electric scooters, taxing ride-share and peer-to-peer car services, and education vouchers.