On Monday, June 15, my colleagues and I in the Georgia General Assembly returned to the State Capitol to resume the 2020 legislative session. We suspended the legislation session indefinitely on March 13 due to the growing threat of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. 

During this unprecedented time, Speaker David Ralston appointed a bipartisan House committee to develop a series of recommendations on how to safely conduct the remaining 11 legislative days of the session, and when we returned to the Gold Dome this week, things were certainly a lot different than when we were last in session. After a more than two-month hiatus, we picked up where we left off, committees got back to work, and we voted on legislation in the House chamber six days this week. 

The threat of COVID-19 has reshaped how we conduct our legislative business in many ways, but it has not stopped the House from working to serve Georgians across our state. The House conducted its first official virtual committee hearings while session was suspended, which allowed us to continue to discuss important issues from earlier in the session. Before we returned last week, additional safety guidelines were put in place, including measures to promote social distancing, at the State Capitol to allow us to meet in-person once again.

One of the most important topics of discussion during the remainder of the session is the Fiscal Year 2021 (FY 2021) budget, which begins July 1, 2020. Our state experienced a drop in tax revenue as a result of COVID-19, which includes a projected loss of more than $1 billion in April and $178 million in May compared to 2019. 

As a result, the House and Senate Appropriations committees held several virtual hearings ahead of our return to session to discuss how the additional loss of revenue will impact the FY 2021 budget. Last week, the Senate passed its version of the FY 2021 budget, and a conference committee was appointed to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget. 

Another priority of the House is to pass hate crimes legislation before the legislative session adjourns “Sine Die.” Georgia is one of four remaining states without a hate crimes law, and during the 2019 legislative session, the House passed House Bill 426, or the “Georgia Hate Crimes Act.” Under the House version of HB 426, anyone convicted of a crime that has been determined to have been committed because of the individual's belief or perception regarding the race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability would be subject to increased penalties for these crimes. The sentencing for a misdemeanor hate crime would range from three to 12 months of jail time and a fine up to $5,000. For a hate crime that is of a high and aggravated nature, sentencing would require between six and 12 months of jail time along with a $5,000 fine. Offenders of a felony hate crime would face a minimum of two years in prison. Last week, HB 426 moved a step forward this week as House members testified to the bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it passed out of committee.

A number of other House bills also passed in the Senate last week, some of which were sent to the governor’s desk to be signed into law. Our Senate counterparts passed House Bill 849, which is one of three legislative measures proposed by Gov. Kemp to combat human trafficking in Georgia. If it is enacted into law, it would impose a lifetime commercial driver’s license ban in Georgia for those who have been convicted of a human trafficking crime. The Senate also gave final passage to House Bill 820, a recommendation of the Georgia Commission on Freight and Logistics, to establish the Department of Transportation’s Georgia Freight Railroad Program to enhance the state’s investment in our freight rail system. House Bill 888 was also sent to the governor, and it would protect patients from unexpected medical bills if they unknowingly receive treatment by out-of-network doctors in emergency situations.

We also took time in the House chamber this week to honor the life and memory of the late state Senator Jack Hill, who served as the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee for a number of years. Sen. Hill was a selfless leader and loved by many in the legislature. He exemplified his dedication to Georgians by the way he helped shepherd countless state budgets through the legislative process. My colleagues and I will continue to remember him as we work to finalize the FY 2021 budget without our dear colleague for the first time in many years.

During the 10th week of the 2020 legislative session, my colleagues and I also passed the following bills and resolutions in the House chamber:

• House Bill 1029, which would make elections for the office of probate judge of Twiggs County nonpartisan for all future elections, and it would not impact the current term of the sitting probate judge of Twiggs County;

• House Bill 1030, which would make elections for the office of chief magistrate judge of Twiggs County nonpartisan for all future elections, and it would not impact the current term of the sitting chief magistrate judge of Twiggs County;

• House Resolution 1507, which would amend the Rules for the House to allow for official virtual or electronic meetings during emergency circumstances as authorized by the speaker of the House. In these instances, public meetings would be available virtually and electronically;

• Senate Bill 38, which would create a method for counties to abolish a county police department and transfer the law enforcement functions of that department to the sheriff of the county; if approved, the county police department would be abolished 180 days after a local referendum. This law would be repealed on January 1, 2022;

• Senate Bill 43, which would revise the definition of “undertaking” regarding revenue bonds by adding electric transmission to the list of undertakings available for the issuance of revenue bonds. These types of undertakings with a net book value of more than $300 million would be available for such revenue bonds without a local referendum;

• Senate Bill 134, which would reassign the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia as the administrative body for the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust. The commission is currently administratively attached to the Department of Community Affairs;

• Senate Bill 144, which would allow for a licensed tobacco dealer to apply for a special event tobacco permit for the off-premise sale of cigars, cigarettes or smokeless tobacco at a temporary location offsite from the licensed location for up to 10 days, and such permits would be issued and regulated by the commissioner of the Department of Revenue;

• Senate Bill 176, which would allow retired members of the Employees’ Retirement System of Georgia (ERS) to return to service, but employers would be required to pay the employee and employer contribution rate. Members would continue to receive their retirement benefit as long as they do not exceed 1,040 hours of paid employment during a calendar year, but they would not earn any additional creditable service;

• Senate Bill 188, which would authorize the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Insurance to adopt by regulation specific additional requirements relating to or setting forth the valuation of assets or reserve credits, the amount and forms of security supporting reinsurance arrangements and the circumstances in which credit is reduced or eliminated;

• Senate Bill 295, which would stipulate that the minimum salary schedules for specified constitutional officers would not be increased by state cost-of-living or performance-based raises that went into effect prior to January 1, 2020;

• Senate Bill 303, which would require each insurer, except health maintenance organizations, to provide the following information to the public through interactive mechanisms on its website: comparisons of payment amounts accepted by in-network providers for health care services; obtain an estimate of the average amount accepted by in-network providers for the health care services; obtain an estimate of the out-of-pocket costs that a person would owe his or her provider for a health care service; and compare quality metrics applicable to in-network providers for major diagnostic categories;

• Senate Bill 306, which would establish the Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology Interstate Compact to allow Georgia to facilitate interstate practice of audiology and speech-language pathology;

• Senate Bill 310, which would authorize the profession and licensure of professional structural engineers to be governed by the Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors, and it would prohibit any person other than professional structural engineers to practice or offer structural engineering in the state;

• Senate Bill 315, which would increase the time requirement for the payment of a lien from 45 to 90 days, but limited waivers and releases of liens would not affect other rights or remedies made by the claimant;

• Senate Bill 345, which would allow non-profit organizations to prepare and provide food in accordance with Department of Public Health requirements;

• Senate Bill 346, which would authorize the State Board of Veterinary Medicine to operate a professional health program to provide monitoring and rehabilitation services to impaired veterinarians in the state. The bill would also add and set the terms for a seventh member, who would be a registered veterinary technician, to the board;

• Senate Bill 362, which would change the allowable fees charged for impounding, service notice, care and feeding, advertising and disposing of impounded animals that have escaped to the actual cost of the related services provided;

• Senate Bill 372, which would modernize several laws regarding public health, including to allow first responders to purchase Naloxone, add the duty of raising awareness of women's reproductive health issues for the Office of Women's Health and increase the number of years before the records of a deceased citizen are transferred to state archives from 100 to 125 years from the time of birth;

• Senate Bill 377, which would change the time requirement of elevator inspections from six months to 12 months;

• Senate Bill 391, which would require health insurers to waive time restrictions for refills of a 30-day supply of certain prescription medications during emergencies;

• Senate Bill 395, which would allow hospital authorities that have paid off all bonded indebtedness and outstanding short-term and long-term debt obligations, and hold an irrevocable trust wherein the corpus of the trust is $75 million or more, to invest a maximum of 30 percent of their funds into the following: shares of mutual funds registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission of the U.S. and commingled funds and collective investment funds maintained by state chartered banks or trust companies;

• Senate Bill 405, which would allow for juries consisting of six to 12 persons from July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021;

• Senate Bill 408, which would remove the sunset provision on allowing an employee to use sick leave to care for an immediate family member. The bill would also allow the Department of Labor commissioner to set the amount for deductible earnings of $50 to $300, as well as provide the authority and guidelines for the commissioner to adopt emergency rules when the governor declares a statewide emergency. Finally, it would adjust the maximum benefit amount for claims filed after June 14, 2020, dependent on the state’s average unemployment rate. The bill would also give the commissioner the authority to establish a work-sharing program;

• Senate Bill 430, which would allow home school or private school students to enroll in a college and career academy in the student’s resident school system if space is available; the State Board of Education would oversee this new rule, and the local board of education would earn FTE funds for each student who participates in one or more courses at such college and career academy;

• Senate Bill 431, which would allow for an on-time graduation rate; the on-time graduation rate would be a parallel graduate rate that only includes the four-year cohort of students that attend a school continuously the previous four years;

• Senate Bill 443, which would revise the current garnishment statute and provide uniform procedures for garnishment actions, including extending Georgia’s continuing garnishments from six months to three years;

• Senate Bill 451, which would clarify that the statute of repose for actions to recover damages for deficiencies regarding real estate improvements would not apply to actions for breach of contract, including actions for breach of express contractual warranties.

Before we ended the week, we adopted an adjournment resolution which set our schedule for our final week of the 2020 legislative session. The General Assembly convened for Legislative Day 36 when we returned Monday, June 22,, and this week will surely be our busiest week of the session as we make our way to Legislative Day 40, or Sine Die, on Friday, June 26. With only a handful of days left in the legislative session, I encourage you to reach out to your Thomas County delegation. 

We can be reached as follows:  Rep. Sam Watson in his Capitol Office Suite 245, telephone number (404) 463-2246 or via email at sam.watson@house.ga.gov.; Rep. John LaHood 504-B in the CLOB, telephone number (404) 656-0188 and he may be emailed at john.lahood@house.ga.gov. and Rep. Darlene Taylor is located in the Capitol Suite 401-H.  Her Capitol office telephone is (404) 656-7857, or she can be reached via email at darlene.taylor@house.ga.gov. Thank you and please contact us anytime.

As always, thank you for allowing me us to serve as your representatives.

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