Georgia Legislative Update

January 25, 2017

Pardon Our Dust

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The Georgia Legislature has picked up work in earnest this week, following a pause last week for events in Washington, D.C. Most committees are now constituted and have begun meeting on substantive bills. With a target adjournment date of March 24 and a new rule moving Crossover Day early, we anticipate rapid action and long weeks beginning on Jan. 30. Following are updates on some specific legislative debates that are of broad interest:

The much-discussed destination gaming resort legislation in Georgia will be introduced by Rep. Ron Stephens and Sen. Brandon Beach. As reported in the news, the package will allow two licenses for new gaming resorts in Georgia, with resulting funds going to shore up the HOPE scholarship and create a new needs-based higher-education funding stream. In a significant change on this front, Gov. Nathan Deal has indicated some level of willingness to consider the concept, provided it does not impinge on revenues collected by the Georgia Lottery. In other gaming news, Rep. Trey Kelley has introduced a bill to regulate fantasy sports contests in Georgia.

Another piece of legislation drawing a good deal of attention is the FAST Act (SB2), which significantly modifies the permitting and professional licensure processes at the state and local levels to give businesses and individuals faster turnaround times and greater access to permits and licenses needed to do business. This legislation is on the fast track to pass the Senate, and likely will be amended in the process.

The surprise billing debate has moved forward with the introduction of a second measure by House Insurance Committee Chair Richard Smith. His legislation would require any physician with hospital credentials to be a member of the insurance networks at the hospital as a condition of access. We also anticipate revisions to the Senate legislation introduced by Health Chair Rene Unterman that would set a statutory pricing mechanism for out-of-network doctors providing services at in-network hospitals. Also in health care news, several senators have introduced a package that attempts to create a line between health insurance and direct-pay arrangements with physician groups.

We anticipate the House Ways and Means Committee will introduce a broad package of sales tax changes that modernize some components of the system, apply sales taxes to new areas, and increase some sales taxes on existing products and services. The resulting revenues will most likely be used to reduce taxes in other areas such as real estate and/or income. This push fits with a longstanding position many legislators have taken in favor of increasing the sales tax base and offsetting other taxes in Georgia. A series of bills have been introduced that open multiple sections of the Georgia code, including taxation on real estate transfers, tobacco, automobiles, hotels and several other sectors. It remains to be seen how these bills may be specifically amended to create substantive impacts.

A rewrite of the school funding formula has been on the table for the past several years, and progress toward a final agreement continues to be elusive due to the sheer complexity of the issue. It appears unlikely a comprehensive rewrite will move this year, leading to some discussion about whether a more limited pilot program for specific schools and school systems that are interested in added flexibility might go forward.

As the budget process moves forward, we are closely watching two new transportation appropriations subcommittees. Historically, the Georgia legislature has taken a largely hands-off role on transportation funding due to the constitutional requirement that Georgia’s Department of Transportation (GDOT) set priorities for expenditures of motor fuel taxes. However, with the passage of HB170, GDOT began receiving significant amounts of new funding from non-motor fuel sources, meaning there is a more direct legislative role. It remains to be seen how the legislature will respond to this change.

Activity on ride-sharing and self-driving vehicles has also picked up, with the introduction of two pieces of legislation dealing with taxation of vehicles for hire and regulation of self-driving vehicles.

Finally, we are seeing the first of several measures expected for discussion of firearms in Georgia this year, with the introduction of a bill by Sen. Bill Heath to increase the size of knives Georgians are allowed to carry.