By Rep. Jeff Jones
The House reconvened on Monday, February 1 to start our fourth week of the 2016 legislative session. With a month of session behind us, we are hard at work in the General Assembly passing legislation that will hopefully have a positive impact on all Georgians. Numerous bills have been approved and passed out of their respective committees and many made their way to the House floor this week for a vote before the entire House of Representatives. I discuss a variety of these bills later in this newsletter.
Education Remains a Top Priority –Extra GPA for STEM Courses (HB 801)
It is no secret that education is one of the General Assembly’s top legislative priorities; therefore, we unanimously passed House Bill 801 this week to encourage students to take college courses in certain areas. HB 801 would change the GPA weighting system for HOPE Scholarship recipients who take certain science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses. HB 801 would direct the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia to select bachelor-level STEM courses to receive extra weight when calculating the HOPE scholarship GPA while a student attends college. Under HB 801, a student completing a class selected for extra weight would receive .5 added to his or her grade when calculating the HOPE scholarship GPA. To qualify for additional grade weighting, identified core and major courses must be determined to be academically rigorous and lead to jobs in high demand STEM fields. During his State of the State address, Governor Nathan Deal targeted 11 areas, all in STEM related fields, under the Strategic Industries Workforce Development Grants as part of his continued plan to strengthen Georgia’s workforce and address the job skills gap. By providing additional GPA weight to courses where our state sees the most need, we are making strides to bridge the skills gap in Georgia without risking the scholastic fulfillment of our students.
Work Based Learning Programs (HB 402)
A vital workforce is essential to a thriving economy; therefore, enacting legislation that will reinforce our state’s business climate and arm our citizens with the tools they need to succeed in Georgia’s job market is crucial. Much like HB 801, we also passed House Bill 402 this week, which is another measure that seeks to close the skills gap in Georgia. HB 402 passed our body unanimously and is an effort to increase business partnerships and participation with local public school systems for K-12 work based learning programs. Work based learning programs allows students age 16 and older to participate in a structured learning environment at an employer’s job site for a portion of the school day, while also receiving academic credit. Modeled after Georgia’s drug-free workplace program, HB 402 would offer businesses that participate in the program a discount of up to five percent on their worker’s compensation insurance premiums as an incentive to encourage participation. It is important to instill a strong work ethic in our teens, and Georgia’s work based learning program is an excellent way to teach students the true value and responsibility of employment. By encouraging these partnerships through the passage of HB 402, we are not only proving businesses with greater program incentive, but we are also providing students with the invaluable, hands-on experience in the workplace at a young age.
Looking Out for Georgia Public Safety Officers (HB 421, 690)
We also passed two measures this week intended to ease the burden on our public safety officers who spend their entire careers working to protect the well-being of all Georgians. The first was House Bill 421, legislation to provide enhanced disability benefits to community supervision officers employed by the Department of Community Supervision who become permanently disabled due to an act of external violence or injury incurred in the line of law enforcement duty. Under HB 421, deputy conservation rangers with the Department of Natural Resources, parole officers with the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, probation officers with the Department of Corrections, and any community supervision officer with the Department of Community Supervision would be eligible for a monthly disability compensation of $5.00 per month for each year of creditable service. The bill further calls for a minimum monthly disability retirement benefit equal to two percent of their monthly earnings beginning the month their permanent disability occurred until mandatory retirement age. Our community supervision officers do far more than we realize to keep the citizens of our state safe, and I was proud to vote for this legislation to show our appreciation for their sacrifice.
House Bill 690 was another bill passed in the House this week that acknowledges the brave service and sacrifices our public safety officials make for our communities and our state. This bill allows any individual who is a member of the Uniform Division of the Department of Public Safety, a conservation ranger with the Department of Natural Resources, an officer or agent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, a district attorney investigator paid from state funds, or an alcohol and tobacco officer or agent of the Department of Revenue to claim creditable service towards retirement if he or she previously worked for a local law enforcement agency for up to five years. In order to be eligible to claim those retirement years, officers must be vested in the state’s Employee Retirement System (ERS) for at least 10 years and ineligible for a defined contribution retirement or pension plan while employed at the local law enforcement agency. HB 690 will allow our public safety officers to recoup their years of service, but will have a zero dollar cost to the state. I was proud to support this legislation and show my appreciation for the public safety community in Georgia.
Defining Condominium Pools as Private Pools in Georgia (HB 219)
I have been working on House Bill 219, for two years as a direct result of over-zealous health inspectors in Glynn County. HB 219 moves condo pools from the list of public pools regulated by the Georgia Department of Health for health and safety purposes to the list of private ownership pools, like individual homeowner pools and townhouse pools, and therefore not under the jurisdiction of the GA DPH. The bill was passed out of committee with a unanimous DO PASS vote. Here is a clip of video from Georgia Public TV of my appearance before the Rules Committee, the committee that acts as gatekeeper for determining which bills are added to the calendar of bills voted on the House floor. It appears for a couple of minutes at 10:44 on the clip.
Click here to view the clip ( http://www.gpb.org/lawmakers/2016/day-16), select Rules Day 16, and go to the 10 minute and 40 second mark.
Other bills that passed on the House floor this week:
HB 421, by Rep. Chad Nimmer (R-Blackshear) helps to clarify and ensure that community supervision officers at the Department of Community Supervision receive disability benefits. This does not change any benefits and has no fiscal impact. The bill passed by a vote of 165-1.
HB 690, by Rep. Amy Carter (R-Valdosta), allows officers from five different agencies to enter the Employee Retirement System. Those officers include officers of the Department of Public Safety; conservation rangers at the Department of Natural Resources; officers or agents of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation; district attorney investigators; and any alcohol and tobacco officer at the Department of Revenue. Those officers who enter ERS would have to pay the full actuarial cost. It would cost no additional dollars to the State. HB 690 passed with a vote of 162-1.
HB 691 , by Rep. Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville), was dropped last session and specifies that, at a removal hearing for a judge, a governing authority would need to vote to remove the judge with a 2/3 vote of the council. Municipalities may also further define the conduct deemed necessary for the removal of a judge. HB 691 passed with a vote of 155-11. I voted NO on this bill because it changes municipalities’ charter without local governments knowing of this change and it is not an option for them. I support the intent of this legislation, but I would like to see an “opt out” provision for local governments include in its language. As it currently stands, this bill violates a local control principle, which I support.
HB 593 , by Rep. Lee Hawkins (R-Gainesville), was presented; this legislation addresses the required continuing education units to be obtained by low-voltage contractors. In the legislation, it proposes that no more than four hours will be required annually. An amendment was offered by Rep. David Stover (R-Newnan) which failed to be adopted by a vote of 14-147. The legislation was then voted upon and the House failed to have the requisite votes to pass the proposal – it failed with a vote of 81-83. There was notice to reconsider the proposal; that motion was not taken up before the conclusion of the day's business.
HB 730, by Rep. Alan Powell (R-Hartwell), passed with a vote of 167-0. It relates to the Georgia Peace Officers' Training and Standards Council and adds two additional members, the Commissioners of the Departments of Juvenile Justice and Natural Resources (or their designees).
HB 747, by Rep. Terry Rogers (R-Clarkesville), passed with a vote of 161-0. This bill updates the reference date to federal regulations regarding the safe operation of motor vehicles.
HB 800, by Rep. Rick Jasperse (R-Jasper), clarifies the scope of the veterinarian-client-patient relationship. It passed with a vote of 166-0.
HB 815, by Rep Trey Rhodes (R-Greensboro) passed with a vote of 158-7. This bill provides for the inspection and regulation of avian meat (poultry) products and the facilities that process such products for human consumption.
HB 228, by Rep. Jeff Jones (R-Brunswick), passed with a vote of 164-3. It provides that fees for sheriff's services in counties where the sheriff is paid by salary only are to be remitted to the county treasurer or fiscal officer of the county upon 30 days of receipt.
Below are some select bills of interest that went through committee hearings this week:
HB 34 , by Rep. Mike Dudgeon (R-Johns Creek) and Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine), also cleared out of the Health & Human Services Committee. This legislation originally passed in 2015 out of this same Committee; however, the initiative stalled in the House Rules Committee. It permits patients the ability to get access to experimental therapies which have not received full FDA approval. The trials are voluntary and no one is forced to pay for the treatment. Rep. Dudgeon indicated he had worked out issues relating to the legislation with the Medical Association of Georgia and Georgia Trial Lawyers Association. Texas has passed similar legislation along with 23 other states; there are 15 states considering similar proposals. Americans for Prosperity supported the proposal. There were no amendments made and the legislation passed.
The House Motor Vehicles Committee held a hearing on HB 797 , a bill by Rep. Tom Kirby (R-Loganville) which would remove the requirement that people, over the age of 18, who ride bikes must wear protective headgear (helmets). Children under the age of 18 would still be required to wear such headgear, however. Harris Blackwood testified that the current helmet law works well and that repealing it will lead to increased fatalities. Additionally, it would be difficult to implement, because riders would still be required to wear protective headgear in neighboring States.
There was a lot of opposition to HB 797. The Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals, the Georgia Hospital Association, and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta all spoke in opposition. The main point of their comments was that removing a protection which keeps people safe will increase the number of injuries and fatalities. This would lead to higher costs for caring for those individuals. Additionally, those individuals would not receive coverage for these types of injuries.
Rep. Kirby argued that this issue is about liberty. He believes that the government should not force people to wear a helmet if they don't want to. Chairman Tom Rice (R-Norcross) asked members of the Committee to speak with him individually about any concerns they might have with this legislation.
(COMMENT by Rep. Jeff Jones: While I certainly support individual liberty, the statistics are clear that changing the helmet law to allow those age 18 and older to decide whether or not to wear results in a huge increases in head injury related fatalities and permanent crippling injury. Because of the severity of head-trauma injuries that do not result in the death of the bike rider, the State, aka taxpayers, end up paying the huge medical bills. For this reason I oppose this bill.)
A sub-committee of the full House Regulated Industries took up several measures but among those included a proposal by Rep. Paul Battles (R-Cartersville) which would revise the law passed in 2015 concerning consumer fireworks. Rep. Battles indicated he had worked with Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga) on this legislation, HB 727. It alters the times when fireworks may be exploded; addresses the use of fireworks when there are "overhead structures;" outlines when fireworks may be used on land or property owned by a local government; speaks to 'density' issues; detonating fireworks "while drunk;" and imposes a new excise tax (which is taken from the State tax with one percent provided to the local government for administering these new requirements). There were comments from the public including Phantom Fireworks which supports the proposal but asked for the Subcommittee to look at closing a loophole concerning the proliferation of temporary fireworks stands. Rep. Paulette Braddock (R-Dallas) inquired about who made the determination if an individual was detonating fireworks under the influence. Rep. Andy Welch (R-McDonough) also raised questions about local law enforcement and the penalties associated with detonating fireworks while under the influence or outside identified times. Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta) indicated that the way in which HB 727 was written it actually would negate local control. In the end, the Subcommittee held the proposal and postponed action until language could be worked out.
(COMMENT by Rep. Jeff Jones: I voted for passage of the fireworks bill in 2015. HB 277, which I support but which needs some work on the language, returns some local control to what hours of the day and night fireworks can be exploded.)
SB 311 , by Sen. Charlie Bethel (R-Dalton), seeks to enact the "Interstate Power Compact" in a new Article 8 of Chapter 10 of Title 12. The purpose of this compact is outlined which is "to protect Member States' sovereignty and the assurances granted under the Tenth Amendment. In accomplishing this, member states shall work in isolation, or with other Member States, to formulate plans for restoring the primary responsibility of States and local governments in the prevention of air pollution and the control of air pollution at its source, in accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 7401(a)(3) of the federal Clean Air Act. Member States agree that the Section 111(d) rule lacks a statutory and constitutional foundation.
HB 919 , by Rep. Geoff Duncan (R-Cumming), provides that the Department of Public Health would need to approve and maintain a list of rural health care organizations in the State. A "rural health care organization" is defined as an organization certified by the Department of Public Health that is in a rural county; participates in both Medicaid and Medicare programs; provides health care services to indigent patients; and receives at least 25 percent of its gross net revenue from treating indigent patients. A new Code Section O.C.G.A. § 48-7-29.20 would be created to allow for an income tax credit in support of a rural health care organization. For a single individual, this tax credit would be either 90 percent of the amount expended, or $2,500 per tax year, whichever is less. In the case of a married couple, the credit would be either 90 percent of the amount expended, or $5,000 per tax year, whichever is less. A corporation would be allowed a credit not to exceed 90 percent of the actual amount expended or 75 percent of the corporation's income tax liability, whichever is less. This tax credit, though, could not exceed the taxpayer's income liability.
The following is excerpted from remarks by Rep. Jason Spencer, (D180-Woodbine) who represents Camden County, the location of the proposed Spaceport Camden and author of HB 734, the Georgia Spaceflight Act. I generally support the effort to bring a Spaceport to the Southeast Georgia coast; although the language of HB 734 still requires some work. If it comes to fruition, the Spaceport Camden will be a huge economic boon to the entire Southeast Georgia coastal region, and to the entire state. Aerospace jobs are high paying jobs averaging over $68,000 per year in Georgia. In addition, I would expect that the spaceport will motivate our students into more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses in high school and college.
Update on the Georgia Space Flight Act (HB 734)
House Bill 734 removes language that would prohibit local governments from creating noise ordinances that would be used against space flight operators to shut down operations. While this is seen as a protection from an industry prospective, allowing local governments to address noise issues locally is likely the best policy. That language was removed from the bill.
Other language changes include allowing a nuisance shield to stand, but allow any current resident or business owner that may be affected by a potential nuisance caused by space flight operations to make claims after the first rocket launch, but they will have two years to bring such a claim to court. This is known as a “grandfather” clause. Anyone else moving to the area after the proposed spaceport is built would be barred from making a nuisance claim. This change in the language will introduce more due process and give current property owners a chance to redress any grievances should such space flight operation introduce an intolerable nuisance to the area.
Language pertaining to the waiver that willing space flight participants must sign and be informed about was changed to provide more clarity and convey the legislative intent in HB 743. The waiver language applying to space flight participants has been changed to be similar to that of Georgia’s Agritourism waiver found in O.C.G.A. § 51-3-3 , but modified to rely on Georgia’s “assumption of risk doctrine” when deciding liability cases.
Click HERE to see the most recent draft that includes these changes to the Georgia Space Flight Act, HB 734.
In summary, the newly revised Georgia Space Flight Act (GSFA) will do (and not do) the following:
- Provides a nuisance shield for space flight operators and states space flight is not considered a nuisance; however, “grandfathers” current property and business owners—allowing them to bring nuisance claims—if brought within two years of the commencement of the first launch activities.
- Creates an informed liability shield to protect “space flight entities” against “space flight participant injuries” suffered by “space flight participants”, so long as the required informed consent procedure has been followed (mainly the written waiver). The GSFA waiver space flight participants must sign expressly includes that it is being signed by the space flight participant on behalf of his or her heirs, executors, administrators, successors and assignees.
- Georgia’s waiver requires the participant to think it over for at least 24 hours before signing.
- The GSFA does not protect against injuries suffered by the “uninvolved public”--non-consenting third parties (other than the specific nuisance protection described above). The new draft adds a section stating this expressly--51-3-42(b),(2). The “uninvolved public” are allowed to sue under federal law and space flight operators must have FAA insurance which such losses are covered up to $3 billion at the maximum probable loss under federal law.
- The GSFA does not provide liability protection for gross negligence or intentional harm.
- The bill defines “space flight participant” to include individuals not only “carried aboard” spacecraft, but also those who have taken steps toward being “carried aboard”, such as paying a deposit or fee, if any, or by participating in a training or orientation program.
- The GSFA specifically states that its liability shield is in addition to any other limitations on liability provided by Georgia or federal law.
- Courts are instructed to apply Georgia law for actions against space flight entities relating to space flight activities.
As we continue through the legislative session, I hope that you will contact me if you have questions or concerns about these bills, or any other legislation that may come before us. As your state representative, it is my job to represent your thoughts and opinions in Atlanta, and I would like to hear from you before the session adjourns on March 24. Please stop by and visit if you are in Atlanta during the legislative session, or call my office at the State Capitol and let me know what I can do for you and your family. My Capitol office number is 404-656-0126 and my email is jeff.joneshouse.ga.gov.
As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your State Representative.
Rep. Jeff Jones