By Representative Jeff Jones
We have been very busy in the Georgia General Assembly! But this is typical for this point in the session each year. Let’s just hope and pray that all this “busy” activity is good for the people of Georgia.
The Georgia House of Representatives wrapped up the 29th day (week seven) on Friday, February 26. The following Monday was “Crossover Day”, session Day 30 which is significant in the annual legislative session. Day 30 is an important time because it’s the cut-off date for bills to be passed by either the House or Senate, to “crossover” to the other legislative body. Then, the committee process and floor debate start all over again. This is always a hectic time and requires us, as legislators, to pay very close attention to details of legislation brought for a House vote; Reps are working to get their bills passed and so they can “crossover” to the Senate.
A vote to allow Casino Gambling in Georgia was expected to be the most controversial legislation the House dealt with in 2016. The legislation included both a Constitutional Amendment HR 807, requiring a vote by the people of Georgia to allow Casino Gambling in Georgia, plus the enabling legislation HB 677 that would have allowed Casino Gambling by local referendum. Last Friday, day 29, the bills were scheduled for a House floor vote but unexpectedly Speaker Ralston announced he was pulling them from the voting calendar. The Speaker asked all members to return home over the week-end to talk with our constituents about what the folks back home wanted. I already knew that the answer was that the majority of District 167 voters were opposed. On Monday, day 30, the Speaker announced that the bills were being pulled from the calendar and would not receive a vote in 2016.
The primary justification for bringing the Casino Gambling bill to the General Assembly was to save the HOPE Scholarship Fund. The following piece, written by Rep. Wes Cantrell, (D-22-Woodstock), clearly and factually explains the facts behind HOPE and its financial health:
“HOPE would be fully funded if the Georgia Lottery Corporation (GLC) was abiding by the statute that created the Lottery over 20 years ago.
“The GLC paid the smallest percentage in the history of our lottery to education last year - 24.8%. The statute clearly states that they are to pay "as nearly as is practical at least 35%." If they had paid out at 35% last year, it would have meant an additional $398 Million to Hope which is $100 Million more than the most optimistic of gambling proposals.
“Furthermore, the statue says that prize payouts should be "as nearly as is practical 45%" and we are currently paying out prize money at somewhere near 65%. If we are going to continue to allow the GLC to violate the statute, then the statute should be amended through the legislative process to allow their current practice. A corporation created by this legislative body is in serious jeopardy of being sued for being in violation of the statute which created them.
“I respectfully encourage all members to carefully study this issue. Read the bill and the resolution thoroughly. Please don't fall into the "let the people decide" fallacy. Sometimes that is a good argument but not in this case because the playing field is so uneven. Gambling interests have hired over 20 lobbyists to curry your favor. Many of you, including myself, have been given this incredible picture of the future of Georgia with gambling. Many of you, not me, have received contributions from these interests. They have an almost unlimited supply of money to use to influence us. They will do the same to the voters if this goes to a referendum. They will spend millions of dollars on direct mail, radio and TV to convince Georgians that this is the best thing to ever happen to us.
“On the other hand, anti-gambling interests have few resources at their disposal. It’s not a fair fight.
“Gambling disproportionately hurts low income people. It hurts local businesses located around the casinos. Slot machines cost jobs. They don't create them.
“Take a look anywhere around the country not named Las Vegas, and you will see the eventual outcome of government-sponsored gambling.”
Thank you, Rep. Cantrell for your insightful and thorough analysis. The pro-casino interests are well funded and to them this is big business; Georgia is a ripe target. I will not be surprised to see this issue surface again in 2017 and beyond. I have pledged previously, and reaffirm that pledge now, I will not support an expansion of gambling in Georgia.
BELOW IS A SELECT LIST OF IMPORTANT BILLS THAT PASSED THE HOUSE AND HOW I VOTED ON THESE BILLS:
Protecting Guardsmen's Employment Act HB 831 (I voted YES)
The "Protecting Guardsmen's Employment Act" in requires private employers to re-employ certain members of the National Guard of another state who have been discharged or suspended from employment by his or her employer due to being called into active State service.
Campus Carry HB 859 (I voted YES)
Without a doubt, this is a troubling time in America. Mass shootings have been happening with seemingly greater intensity. The “Campus Carry” bill, sponsored by Rep. Rick Jasperse, will permit 21 year old licensed concealed carry permit holders to carry a concealed weapon on Georgia’s publicly funded college campuses, but not in dorms or at athletic events. Follows is my publicly stated position on this very difficult issue.
“Let me share one eye-opening statistics about deaths occurring as a result of mass shootings in America; these statistics are from the FBI.
“14.3 = number of deaths, on average, in mass shootings when everyone in the victim group is unarmed.
“2.3 = number of deaths, on average, in mass shootings when at least one person in the victim group is armed.
“The statistics are similar through-out the country - cities and states with the toughest gun laws have the highest number of deaths due to gun violence and have the highest overall violent crime rates.
“Cities and states that allow concealed-carry permits have the lowest number of deaths due to gun violence and have the lowest overall violent crime rates.
“While I certainly do not like what our society has turned into, the facts are clear: Licensed concealed-carry permit holders are among the most law abiding citizens in our great country and they help to keep the rest of our citizens safe.
“As I said in the opening paragraph, the Campus Carry bill allows only licensed concealed-carry permit holders over 21 to carry their weapon on campus, but not in dorms or at athletic events. I agree with the premise that allowing college students who are licensed concealed-carry permit holders to be armed on campus will reduce the number of deaths occurring in these tragic, horrific situations.”
Taser Bill HB 792 (I voted YES)
The Taser Bill is somewhat a companion piece of legislation to HB 859 and changes current law concerning the carrying and possession of firearms to permit the carrying, possession and use of electroshock weapons while in or on any building or real property owned or leased to a public institution of postsecondary This would include a stun gun or Taser. I voted YES for the same reasons I voted for HB 859. This bill provides options to individuals who want to protect themselves that may not be comfortable using a firearm.
Automated License Plate Recognition Records Controls HB 93 (I voted YES)
This bill addresses prohibits law enforcement from retaining license plate data obtained from automated license plate recognition systems beyond 90 days unless the data are the subject matter of a toll violation or for law enforcement purposes. This is a good privacy protection legislation and stops abuses that have occurred sporadically around the state.
ABLE Program HB 768 (I voted YES)
The legislation provides for the establishment of a qualified “ABLE” program to allow the contribution of funds to tax exempt accounts to pay for the qualified expenses of eligible disabled persons. An annual contribution of up to $14,000 can be paid into an ABLE account which are not subject to income tax but must meet requirements of Section 529A of the IRC. There are a number of technical requirements of the law that can be answered by the Georgia Department of Community Health. The legislation helps to empower individuals with disabilities lead productive lives.
Qualifying for Municipal Elections HB 980 (I voted YES)
In some communities in Georgia, periodically no candidates will file to be “qualified” to run for local municipal office. This bill provides for the reopening of “qualifying” for candidates.
Anti -Gang Bill HB 874 (I voted YES)
This bill makes it unlawful for any person to encourage another to become a member or associate of a criminal street gang, to participate in a criminal street gang, or to conduct or participate in criminal gang activity. The main point of the legislation is to limit gang members' ability to use cell phones for conducting gang activity. There was significant opposition from the Democratic Party and some Republicans which argued that the State should not start implementing mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Despite opposition, HB 874 passed by a vote of 106-60. While I generally oppose most mandatory minimums, this one is appropriate because convicted criminals, who are already in jail, seem to otherwise have no incentives to obey the law. Criminals in prison should never be able to use cell phones and the guards who are smuggling the phones in the prison should receive harsher penalties than this bill provides. That is a fight for another day.
Ignition Interlock Devices for DUI Cases HB 205 (I voted YES)
Unfortunately, the statistics are that DUI offenders continue to drive drunk while waiting for court and even after conviction. This bill addresses allowing convicted DUI offenders to keep their drivers' licenses if they agree to the voluntary installation of ignition interlock devices as a condition of probation. It also amends laws concerning individuals who are arrested for driving under the influence and provides for the issuance of an optional ignition interlock device limited driving permit upon arrest for driving under the influence – under certain conditions. The frequency of DUI arrests is troubling, to say the least. Hopefully, this legislation will keep drunk drivers off the road by the expanded use of interlock devices.
Landon Dunson Act, HB 614 (I voted YES)
The Landon Dunson Act allows the installation of video monitoring camera equipment as a safety measure in self-contained school classrooms that provide special education services. Participation from local schools is voluntary and only with the consent of the parents of the children in the self-contained classroom. Access to the footage from the cameras would be strictly limited to school administrators for educational and safety monitoring purposes only. The Department of Education would have final approval of the local schools that choose to opt-in to the program, but each individual school would be responsible for providing their own video monitoring equipment. This legislation was originally introduced in response to concerns of alleged abuse in classrooms that provide special education services but would also serve as a valuable tool to evaluate educational environments in special needs classrooms. This legislation would not only help to further our special needs programs in Georgia, but it would provide our teachers and administrators with the additional resources to review their work and assure the safety of the students at the same time
Georgia Space Flight Act in support of Spaceport Camden HB 734 (I voted YES)
The following is used by permission from Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine) who has been working hard to help Spaceport Camden become a reality:
“My House colleagues passed my legislation this week in efforts to bring the commercial space industry to Georgia. House Bill 734, the Georgia Space Flight Act (GSA), would define procedures for commercial space flight activity to allow Georgia to be more competitive with our neighboring states. The GSA is modeled after legislation in Texas, Limited Liability for Space Flight Activities, and would create a liability shield to protect space flight entities, while properly informing willing space flight participants of their rights. The bill would limit a willing space flight participant’s ability to sue for damages related to spaceflight activities, and would not protect against injuries suffered by non-consenting third parties. Willing space flight participants would be required to provide informed consent and sign a written waiver at least 24-hours before space flight activity under this legislation. This language is the foundation of the bill, mirroring federal regulations for liability coverage and meets an industry standard that is used in all other “space friendly” states, making Georgia competitive in the estimated $330 billion per year space industry. This legislation was created to establish the groundwork for a space program in Georgia, with the proposed site to be located in Camden County. Spaceport Camden would have a direct economic impact on Camden, Charlton, and Glynn counties, as well as a significant impact on STEM related job growth and tourism for the entire state of Georgia. My colleagues and I are committed to supporting and fostering economic development and scientific cultivation because this is what will continue to drive our great state into the future. The bill passed 164-8. The bill will be heard in the Senate Science & Technology committee.”
Georgia Drone Act HB 779 (I voted YES)
The use of drones has been in the news of late as companies such as Amazon discuss plans to deliver packages by use of drones. Many are concerned that drones could be used in act of terrorism in our country. No doubt, the use of drones is a growing concern around the country. This bill attempts to limit the use of unmanned aircraft systems and the gathering of evidence or information by those systems. The bill states that "except for United States military operations or federal governmental contracts involving research using weaponized unmanned aircraft systems, it shall be unlawful to sell, transport, manufacture, possess, or operate an unmanned aircraft system that is equipped with a weapon." Persons violating such will be guilty of a felony and may be convicted by imprisonment or a fine or both. It provides that it is unlawful for such a vehicle to launch from private property without permission; interfere with a train, aircraft, or motor vehicle; or harass, threaten, or intimidate another person. The penalty for such crimes would be a misdemeanor. It adds that no law enforcement agency (except under certain conditions) is permitted to use an unmanned aircraft system to gather evidence or other information in a private place or of an individual in a private place. Any data that is collected must be destroyed within five days and anything retained longer than that is subject to open records requests. Rep. Tanner indicated that the bill makes clear that state law preempts any local laws or ordinances. Additionally, it provides that drones cannot be used for the purposes of hunting.
Expanding the Georgia Higher Education Savings Plan HB 542 (I voted NO)
This bill would have expanded the parameters for the Georgia Higher Education Savings Plan by adding incentives for low-income families to save for higher education. In addition to the incentives, the state would create and implement a program to match low-income families' contributions with state funds.
While sounding like a good measure, in actuality, it represented a fairly liberal expansion of an otherwise good Plan. The measure had many loopholes and inconsistencies and was fortunately defeated.
Child Abuse Records Protection Act, HB 725 (I voted YES)
This bill provides for greater confidentiality of child abuse records by requiring a court order before the release of such records. Unfortunately, Georgia law previously had a couple of loopholes allowing for access to these records. Victims of child sexual abuse will still be able to access their records despite additional protections added by this bill, but restricts those who should not have the same access to these records.
Eminent Domain and Petroleum Pipelines HB 1036 (I voted YES)
Kinder-Morgan is proposing to build the “Palmetto Pipeline”, a sophisticated, high tech petroleum pipeline from South Carolina, along the coast of Georgia west of IH95 to Jacksonville, Florida. As crazy as it sounds, Georgia law currently requires that companies interested in developing new pipeline projects must first file for Eminent Domain (“the taking of private land by the government for purposes of the greater public good” – always a highly questionable practice which I broadly oppose) for the “right of way” land they need for laying the pipeline. While I generally support this project, I do not see the “public good” that Eminent Domain requires. I support this bill because it requires that the State of Georgia begin a study commission to conduct a thorough review and update of eminent domain laws.
Notification of Landfill Hazardous Waste Releases HB 1028 (I voted YES)
There is a growing problem of toxic coal ash from out-of-state being brought to Georgia for disposal. At one proposed landfill near Screven, GA in Wayne County, a company is requesting a permit to dump upwards of 10,000 tons per day, or about 100 rail cars, full of toxic coals ash from out-of-state. Rep. Bill Werkheiser (R-Glennville) tried unsuccessfully to put a stop to this project by introducing blocking legislation but ran into a bureaucratic brick wall. Rep. Werkheiser was successful in introducing and passing a new law out of the House that requires the owner or operator of a municipal solid waste landfill to notify the local governing authorities of any city and county, where the landfill is located, of any significant release from there within 14 days of confirmation of such release by the Environmental Protection Division. This measure falls short of Rep. Werkheiser’s goal but is an important step in informing communities about toxic waste problems in their communities.
Medical Cannabis in Georgia HB 722 (I voted YES)
The effort to expand medical marijuana in Georgia to include cultivation in Georgia is a dead issue for the 2016 session. Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon) has long championed the expanded use of "medical marijuana" oil for several years. Although the cultivation effort is not going to happen any time soon, Rep. Peake was successful in expanding the list of medical conditions that are eligible for medical marijuana’s use to autism spectrum disorder; epidermolysis bullosa; human immunodeficiency virus or acquired immune deficiency syndrome; peripheral neuropathy; Tourette's syndrome; terminal illness with a probable life expectancy of less than two years, if the illness or its treatment produces one or more of the following: severe pain; nausea or severe vomiting; or cachexia or severe wasting; and post-traumatic stress disorder. Marijuana oil, of a very low THC content, has proven highly successful in the treatment of many debilitating conditions.
RECOGNITION OF OUTSTANDING GEORGIANS
UGA Head Coach Kirby Smart Recognized
We also took some time this week to recognize some distinguished Georgians in the House chamber. On Tuesday, February 23, we welcomed new University of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart to the Georgia State Capitol. A native of Bainbridge, Georgia, Coach Smart went on to play football for four years at the University of Georgia. He recently coached at the University of Alabama, where he helped coach the Crimson Tide to four National Championships. Our state’s flagship university is fortunate to have his skill and competitive drive, and the young men who play for him will no doubt benefit from his guidance both on and off the field. GO DAWGS!
US Women’s World Soccer Cup Star Morgan Brian
It was my privilege and honor to recognize Morgan Brian, daughter of Vicki and Steve Brian with a House Resolution for her outstanding accomplishments in women’s world class soccer. Morgan is a member of the US Olympic Women’s Qualifying Team as they prepare for the upcoming Rio Olympic Games, where she won the Gold Ball Award as the top player in their recent tournament. Morgan was a three time winner of the Hermann Trophy, the women’s soccer equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Morgan was a star player in the US Women’s Soccer team victory over Japan in the World Cup Soccer finals in 2015. All of Georgia is proud of Morgan’s many accomplishments.
Passing of Representative of Bob Bryant
Finally, the House of Representatives and the state of Georgia lost a true public servant this week. Our dear friend and State Representative Bob Bryant from Garden City passed away on Thursday. Bob was a loving husband, father, grandfather, veteran, and friend to all. He served his constituents with grace and humility as their voice under the Gold Dome for 12 years, and the positive impact he made on the House chamber and in his community will not soon be forgotten. On Thursday morning, the House held a special series of morning orders to honor Bob’s life and his legacy, during which members were able to share their fond memories of this great man. House Speaker David Ralston perhaps said it best when he said, “he served the way he lived with a kind and gentle spirit. When he left us early today, he took part of the best that we have here.”
I hope you will contact me with any questions you may have about any of the legislation we will be considering in these final days of the 2016 legislative session. You may reach me at my Capitol office at (404) 656-0126 or by email at email@example.com.
As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your representative.
Representative Jeff Jones