Tax changes, criminal justice reform highlight 2012 legislative session

The 2012 legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly convened Jan. 9 and adjourned March 29. Members of the Senate and House of Representatives approved sweeping revisions to the state’s tax code, comprehensive criminal justice reform legislation and a $19.3 billion state budget plan, along with addressing a number of other high-profile issues.

Meanwhile, there were several proposals that attracted a lot of attention but failed to win the necessary approval by both houses to become law. See the article below for a wrap-up of this year’s session.

Tax Code Revisions: HB 386, which emerged from the Special Joint Committee on Georgia Revenue Structure, awaits the signature of Gov. Nathan Deal. The bill would eliminate the sales tax and annual ad valorem taxes on automobiles, replaced by a one-time title fee of 6.5 percent next year, going up to 7 percent by 2015; set up collection of a state sales tax on products sold online by companies with a physical presence in Georgia; eliminate the sales tax on energy used for manufacturing, agriculture and mining; increase the income tax exemption for married couples from $5,400 to $7,400 to eliminate the “marriage penalty”; cap the exemption on unearned income for retirees at the current level of $65,000; reinstate the sales tax holiday periods for the purchase of back-to-school materials (Aug. 10-11 this year) and energy-efficient appliances (Oct. 5-7); and continue the sales tax exemption on jet fuel purchases, which primarily benefits Delta Air Lines.

Criminal Justice Reform: To address the problems caused by Georgia’s prison population doubling over the past two decades, HB 1176 would implement recommendations of the Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform. The bill would concentrate prison space on violent and career criminals by enhancing penalties for some serious offenders and more effectively punishing low-level drug users and property offenders. It also creates tougher, more effective probation supervision; improves community-based sentencing options, such as accountability courts, that reduce recidivism; and holds agencies accountable for better results through data collection and performance measurement systems. This bill will NOT reduce the sentences for any serious violent felonies or decriminalize or legalize any controlled substance. The changes are expected to save taxpayers an estimated $264 million by averting projected growth in prison costs over the next five years.

State Budget: The $19.3 billion plan reflects an increase of about $800 million over the current year’s state budget. The new budget would fund 214 additional medical residency slots, three new Federally Qualified Community Health Centers in underserved areas of the state and an increased gas allowance for state troopers to account for recent increases in gas prices. Some noteworthy funding increases in education include financial support for a reading mentor program, the school nurse program, and 170 days of instruction and operating costs in our Georgia Pre-K program, as well as fully funding K-12 enrollment growth. The budget legislation (HB 742) now goes to Gov. Deal for his signature. The governor also has the authority to veto specific line-item appropriations in the budget.

Major legislation passed and failed

The following legislation PASSED both the Senate and House and is awaiting the governor’s signature:

SB 302 would increase the revenues bond cap for the Georgia Higher Education Facilities Authority from $300 million to $500 million, enabling construction of more dormitories, parking decks and student centers on the campuses of Georgia’s colleges and universities.

SB 346 would provide more protections for persons who obtain prescription drugs by mail.

SB 402 would allow the Employees Retirement System to invest up to 5 percent of its assets in such alternative investments as leveraged buyout funds, venture capital investments, mezzanine debt investments, distressed debt and derivatives. The bill exempts the Teachers Retirement System.

HB 100 would create a special tax court to hear disputes between taxpayers and the Georgia Department of Revenue.

HB 347, in its amended form, would reduce the payment of unemployment benefits in Georgia from the current maximum of 26 weeks to a period ranging from 14 to 20 weeks.

HB 397 would increase penalties for government officials who break Georgia’s “sunshine” laws and clarifies the definition of open meetings and what activities are allowed in closed meetings. The bill also allows the state Department of Economic Development to withhold information on incentives the state offers to attract large development projects until after the company commits to locating in Georgia.

HB 456 would set up a legislative committee to review all state agencies and programs and could recommend abolishing those the committee finds outdated, redundant or otherwise unnecessary.

HB 477 will allow insurance agents to have their state licenses renewed every two years rather than every year. The legislation has already been signed into law.

HB 636 would authorize a July 31 referendum in a section of DeKalb County to decide whether to establish a new city of Brookhaven.

HB 675 corrects a provision in the state’s licensing laws that prevented military nurses from obtaining state licenses. The governor has already signed the bill.

HB 685 would strengthen Georgia’s dangerous dog laws.

HB 706 would delete obsolete or unused public school regulations and funding requirements.

HB 711 would eliminate the spousal privilege against testifying in domestic abuse cases.

HB 785 and SB 337 would prohibit the state from requiring physicians and dentists to accept insurance such as Medicare or Medicaid as a condition of being licensed by the state.

HB 824 would revise the state formula for determining equalization grants to school systems and would also reduce the money allocated for those grants by more than $400 million.

HB 861 would require drug screening tests for recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Family benefits.

HB 868 would provide more funding for job tax credits to businesses that increase the number of employees on their payroll.

HB 872 would strengthen enforcement against metal theft by increasing the penalties for such crimes and increasing regulatory standards for metal recycling companies.

HB 898 establishes a new category of banking entity in Georgia, authorizing companies that validate credit and debit card transactions to set up what are called “merchant acquirer limited purpose banks” that can charge higher fees for debit cards. The bill has already been signed into law.

HB 954 would criminalize abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy in most cases. The bill was amended to include an exception for “medically futile” cases when conditions are “incompatible with sustaining life after birth.”

HB 1114 would make it a felony to assist someone in committing suicide.

HB 1166 would require Georgia health insurers to offer children’s health insurance coverage, providing an option for families that do not qualify for Medicaid or PeachCare coverage.

HR 1162 will put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot this November that asks voters to decide whether to authorize the state to set up charter schools that have been rejected by their local school boards.

Proposed legislation that FAILED to pass both houses includes:

SB 87 would have authorized tax-paid vouchers for students to attend private schools.

SB 269 would have reduced the penalties for water pollution by allowing the Environmental Protection Division to authorize a voluntary response to problems.

SB 288 would have authorized pharmacists to administer certain vaccines without a doctor’s prescription.

SB 301 would have allowed hunting with silencers.

SB 312 would have required food stamp recipients to take high school courses or “self-development classes.”

SB 362 would have authorized the retrieval and sale of “deadhead logs” that have been submerged in South Georgia’s rivers for more than 100 years.

SB 401 would have paved the way for more widespread use of solar energy panels for the generation of electricity by homeowners and small businesses.

SB 438 would have prohibited the State Health Benefits Plan from providing insurance coverage for abortions.

SB 448 would have enabled developers to avoid having to pay off loans they personally guaranteed if those loans were sold by the bank to a successor creditor.

SB 458 would have prohibited undocumented students from attending the state’s public colleges.

SB 460 would have exempted “religious employers” from being required to include contraceptive prescriptions in the healthcare coverage they provide to employees.

SB 469 would have prohibited mass picketing near private residences and would have required workers to provide written authorization every year for union dues to be deducted from their paychecks.

SR 20 would have amended the Constitution to put a cap on state government spending.

HB 641 would have comprehensively revised the juvenile justice code in Georgia.

HB 679 would have allowed a gun owner to carry that firearm without having to obtain a permit from a local probate judge.

HB 730
would have prohibited state and local government agencies from requiring that bidders for a public works project have union workers on the payroll.

HB 798 and SB 391 would have put a $100 limit lobbyists’ gifts to and entertainment of legislators.

HB 811 would have ended the legislative practice of diverting fees collected for specific purposes, such as the disposal of discarded tires, and using the revenues for other purposes.

HB 875, in its amended form, would have allowed the state ethics commission to keep information regarding some ethics complaints against elected officials sealed from public disclosure.

HB 972 would have given the Georgia Composite Medical Board the authority to license and regulate pain management clinics, part of the state’s efforts to crack down on the operation of “pill mills.”

HB 981 would have expanded the locations where concealed weapons can be legally carried to include the State Capitol, schools, polling places and bars.

HB 1052 would have relaxed the state provision that requires MARTA to spend 50 percent of its sales tax revenues on capital improvements rather than operations.

Click here for details on all legislation.

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