We completed our last day of session Thursday, April 2, also known as “Sine Die,” a Latin term meaning “without assigning a day for further meeting.” We worked late into the night to ensure the passage of important legislation related to transportation and education in our state. I would like to bring attention to a few key pieces of legislation that were passed to improve the quality of life for all Georgians.
House Bill 76
This bill establishes the state budget for Fiscal Year 2016. HB 76 was given final approval during the last week of session through a House and Senate conference committee. As the only piece of legislation that we are constitutionally required to pass, the Fiscal Year 2016 budget passed unanimously and will guide all state spending from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016. The majority of new funds will go to K-12 education, an investment in our children that accounts for 55 percent of the state budget. This will allocate more dollars to local school systems in hopes of eliminating furlough days and raising salaries for teachers. Additionally, the final version of the budget ensures that non-certificated school workers will continue to receive coverage under the State Health Benefit Plan.
The FY 2016 budget also prioritizes health and public safety. HB 76 funds new primary care residency slots and includes $3 million to improve the financial health of struggling and closing hospitals in rural Georgia. Public safety is also a key component to the FY 2016 budget, with $100 million dedicated to repairs for Georgia bridges.
House Bill 170
The Georgia General Assembly gave final passage to House Bill 170, or the Transportation Funding Act of 2015 this week, providing further funding for transportation infrastructures. This final version converts the state sales tax on motor fuels to an excise tax of 26 cents per gallon on gasoline and 29 cents per gallon on diesel fuel. The rate will be adjusted annually based on an aggregate of fuel efficiency standards (CAFÉ) and the Consumer Price Index begins on July 1, 2016. After July 1, 2018 the Consumer Price Index will no longer be used and the index will be based only on CAFÉ Standards. Not only will the new excise rate help raise the necessary funds for Georgia’s transportation infrastructure, but it will also help stabilize gas prices for Georgia’s consumers.
Under HB 170, local option sales taxes (LOST), homestead option sales taxes (HOST), municipal option sales taxes (MOST), special purpose local option sales taxes (SPLOST) and education special purpose local option sales taxes (ESPLOST) are left untouched. The local sales taxes will not be levied on any price per gallon above $3.00, and the legislation also authorizes counties to seek voter approval for transportation SPLOST of up to 1 percent. These measures ensure that local counties and city governments can continue to generate revenue to provide necessary services for their constituents.
HB 170 adds an annual fee for drivers of alternative fuel vehicles, who currently pay less for Georgia’s roads and bridges because they buy little to no gas for their vehicles. The fee totals $200 for non-commercial vehicles and $300 for commercial vehicles. The tax credit for low emission or zero emission vehicles is also eliminated, in recognition of the tax advantage that those drivers already receive from their limited need for gas. Another measure implemented by HB 170 is a fee for heavy vehicles, which cause more wear and tear on Georgia’s roads. Required upon registration, the heavy vehicle fee will be set at $50 for vehicles weighing between 15,500-26,000 pounds and $100 for vehicles 26,000 pounds +. HB 170 also eliminates a tax credit given to commercial airlines and institutes a $5 per night tax on hotel stays, with an exception for extended stay lodging.
HB 170 requires the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) to provide the Georgia General Assembly with a ten year strategic plan, outlining their use of resources for the upcoming years. The Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank must also meet a set of requirements to make every effort to balance any loans or other financial assistance equally among all regions of the state. The Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank may give preference to eligible projects in tier 1 and tier 2 counties. Additionally, Preference for grants and other financial assistance may be given to eligible projects which have local financial support. Overall, HB 170 ensures public safety on Georgia’s highways and bridges, while also making Georgia a more attractive place for businesses.
Senate Bill 76
One measure in SB 76 requires drivers to stop at crosswalks that have flashing beacons. Other provisions in SB 76 update our state laws for bicycles and motorcycles. One section of the bill will change the existing state law on handle bar height, while another section allows cyclists and bikers to proceed through a traffic light, in the event that the lightweight design of their bike has caused the traffic light to become inoperable. In these situations, the driver must follow all other traffic rules and must ensure that the intersection is clear of oncoming traffic.
Senate Bill 132
Senate Bill 132, also known as the “Move on When Ready Act,” which is a companion bill to Senate Bill 2 that was passed last week, would allow all high school students, whether in public or private school, to apply to a postsecondary school in order to take one class or more. If accepted, the student could then earn credit for the class at both the student’s high school and the postsecondary institution. This legislation allows students with unique career paths and interests to move at an accelerated pace.
Senate Bill 89
The “Digital Classroom Act,” SB 89, would allow local boards to use digital and electronic software instead of physical textbooks. The bill also encourages local boards to purchase all instructional materials in digital or electronic format and provide electronic devices for students starting in 3rd grade by July 1, 2020. SB 89 ensures Georgia’s children have access to the most cutting edge advancements in education.
Senate Resolution 7 / Senate Bill 8
Senate Resolution 7 and its companion legislation, Senate Bill 8, address the needs of these youth by establishing a Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund Commission and toughen the fines and penalties against sex traffickers. The Safe Harbor would provide a physical and emotional refuge for children to rebuild their lives after experiencing sexual exploitation. Additionally, human traffickers would be required to register as sex offenders, and pay into a new Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund to help victims with housing, healthcare and other services. Funding for the harbor will be derived from penalties and fees on strip clubs, an industry known to participate in human trafficking.
House Bill 429
HB 429, which was originally introduced as Senate Bill 1 and passed unanimously in the House, requires insurance companies to cover up to $35,000 for autism treatment for children 6 years of age or younger.
Governor Deal will now begin reviewing legislation that passed both chambers. If approved by him, these bills will become state law in the coming months. If you have any questions about these potential changes to state code or if you have any suggestions for future legislation, please reach out to me. You can contact me at my office at 678-438-7181 or by email at dale.rutledge.house.ga.gov. Thank you for allowing me to serve as your representative.