2018 Georgia General Assembly Session — Week Seven Update

The House got back to work at the Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 20, and we had a very busy seventh week of the 2018 legislative session. As we get closer and closer to “Cross Over Day,” our agendas continue to get fuller and our days get longer. This week, the House voted on several bills in the House Chamber, and committees worked diligently to hear important legislation before next week’s Cross Over Day deadline. Also, on Thursday, Feb. 22, we convened for a joint session with our Senate counterparts to hear the Supreme Court of Georgia’s Chief Justice P. Harris Hines deliver the annual State of the Judiciary address.

On Tuesday, Feb. 20, Governor Nathan Deal, along with several House and Senate members, held a press conference to introduce House Bill 918, legislation that would update Georgia’s tax code. After being vetted in committee, HB 918 made its way to the House floor on Thursday, Feb. 22, where it passed overwhelmingly. This legislation would make necessary changes to our state’s outdated tax code, which has not been updated in decades, and seeks to decrease the tax burden on our citizens by cutting individual and corporate state income taxes. HB 918 would double the state standard deduction for Georgia taxpayers for all filing statuses, effective Jan. 1, 2018, and would reduce the income tax rate for individuals and businesses from 6 percent to 5.75 percent beginning on Jan. 1, 2019. The legislation would further reduce the tax rate to 5.5 percent on Jan. 1, 2020, but would require approval of the General Assembly and signature of the governor in order to take effect. Furthermore, the bill would eliminate the sales tax on jet fuel to help our state be more competitive and to encourage airlines to fly additional direct flights from Georgia to global destinations. Finally, this revenue neutral tax proposal would also address the state revenue projections resulting from the recent Federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. This historic tax update would benefit all of Georgia’s citizens by allowing them to keep more of their hard-earned money in their pockets, and I am proud of the General Assembly’s work on this important measure.

This week, the House passed several bills that came from the House Rural Development Council’s (RDC) legislative recommendations. On Wednesday, Feb. 21, the House overwhelmingly passed House Bill 769 in an effort to improve access to quality health care in the rural parts of our state. This bill includes several health care provisions, such as allowing for remote pharmacy orders, updating credentialing and billing practices, establishing the Rural Center for Health Care Innovation and Sustainability, establishing micro-hospitals and creating a grant program for physicians practicing in medically underserved rural areas of the state.

Under HB 769, a Georgia licensed pharmacist located within the United States could remotely place pharmacy drug orders for hospital patients, provided that the orders are reviewed by a pharmacist who is physically in the hospital within 24 hours or by the next business day. The bill would also direct the Department of Community Health to study various ways to streamline and expedite the credentialing and billing process for state medical plans. Additionally, HB 769 would establish a Rural Center for Health Care Innovation and Sustainability through the existing Office of Rural Health. This center would provide leadership training and health data analysis for rural hospitals and would be located at a Georgia postsecondary institution with a health program or college that focuses on rural and underserved areas of the state. The center would educate and train rural hospital leaders on best practices and hospital operating standards. Furthermore, the legislation would allow for the creation of micro-hospitals, a hospital in a rural county that has two to seven inpatient beds and provides 24/7 emergency services, without requiring a new certificate of need when a hospital is closing or has recently closed and is purchased by a hospital in a neighboring county. Finally, the bill would create a grant program within the Georgia Board of Physician Workforce to provide financial assistance for some rural physicians who establish or operate a practice in an underserved area of the state. This measure was the first RDC-related bill to pass the House this session, and the bill’s wide-ranging health care provisions would allow this critical sector to thrive in rural Georgia.

This week, the House overwhelmingly passed two other bills that would also greatly benefit our rural communities, House Bills 735 and 876. HB 735 would create an income tax credit for track maintenance expenditures on owned or leased short line railroads. This legislation mirrors the Federal Railroad Track Maintenance Credit, and the tax credit would be 50 percent of the maintenance expenditures during the taxable year and would be capped at $3,500 per mile of railroad track. Short line rails serve as a virtual lifeline to our rural communities, and this measure would incentivize investment in rail infrastructure, boost reinvestment, create jobs and keep rural Georgia connected to the rest of the state. Further, HB 876 would prohibit counties and municipalities from banning the use of wood products as a construction material, as long as the products meet the state minimum standard codes and the Georgia State Fire Code. Several cities across the Metro Atlanta area have banned wood products from being used in construction in buildings over three stories high, but the Atlanta region is a crucial lumber market for Georgia tree farmers. This measure would level the playing field for our state’s tree farmers, as well as boost business for Georgia’s 97 sawmills, most of which are located in rural parts of the state. HBs 735 and 876 are also results of the RDC’s rigorous and determined efforts to help further economic growth and prosperity for rural Georgians and businesses.

In addition to passing rural development-related bills this week, the House unanimously passed legislation that would benefit Georgia’s students. Under House Bill 853, public school students who are admitted under a physician’s order into a licensed psychiatric residential treatment center would be exempt from paying tuition or fees to a local school system. Under current law, public school students receiving treatment in medical hospitals are exempt from tuition and fees, but students who are referred to psychiatric residential treatment facilities are not exempt from such fees. There are six psychiatric residential treatment facility hospitals across our state, and approximately 300 to 500 students are treated at these centers annually. This legislation would allow these students to continue their education and stay on track academically while receiving long-term medical and psychological treatment.

This week, the House unanimously passed a measure to help fight the horrific practice of sex trafficking within our state. House Bill 732 would expand the definition of sex trafficking to include anyone who patronizes sexually explicit conduct from a sex trafficking victim. With this clarification to state law, anyone who commits this offense would be charged with a felony and would be required to serve a prison sentence of five to 20 years. HB 732 would ensure that individuals who knowingly engage in sex trafficking acts with victims of sex trafficking are prosecuted accordingly, and this bill is a significant step to address this serious issue in our state.

On Thursday, Feb. 22, the House unanimously passed a bill that would have a great impact on Georgia’s active-duty military members. House Bill 840 would exempt active-duty military members serving in a combat zone from penalty fees associated with unintentionally unpaid special, occupational or sales taxes and license, regulatory or administrative fees incurred while they are in a combat zone. HB 840 does not exempt active-duty military members from paying these taxes, but it does give them 60 days from the time they return from their military service to make full payment of the taxes due without penalties if they present proof of their presence in a combat zone. Oftentimes, active-duty military members are unable to renew licenses, like small businesses licenses, that expire while they are stationed in a combat zone, and this bill would prevent our service members from being penalized with late fees while they are deployed.

Finally, on Thursday, Feb. 22, Chief Justice Hines delivered the annual State of the Judiciary address. Each year, the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court addresses the General Assembly to report on the judicial branch’s accomplishments and future objectives. During his remarks, Chief Justice Hines, who serves as the head of the judiciary, pointed out that 2018 will bring about great change to the judicial branch, as several new judges will be elected, Georgians will elect a new state Supreme Court justice and Gov. Deal will make his fifth appointment to Georgia’s highest court. Chief Justice Hines also highlighted several accomplishments of Georgia’s criminal justice reform, which is one of Gov. Deal’s greatest legacies during his time in office. Furthermore, Chief Justice Hines announced that the Court Reform Council recommended the creation of a statewide business court to handle complex financial cases. This court would have jurisdiction similar to our federal courts and would operate similarly to the specialized business courts that now operate in Fulton and Gwinnett counties. Legislation relating to these courts will likely come before the General Assembly in the future.

Next Wednesday, Feb. 28, marks legislative Day 28, otherwise known as Cross Over Day. This is the last day a bill may pass out of its original legislative chamber and remain eligible for consideration this legislative session. With this deadline in mind, my colleagues and I will be working even longer hours next week to ensure that quality and meaningful legislation passes the House this session. If you have any questions or concerns regarding any legislation up for consideration in the House, or any input on how I may better serve our community, please do not hesitate to contact me or my assistant. Kayla Bancroft. I can be reached at my Capitol office at 404-656-0178, or via email at paulette.rakestraw@house.ga.gov.

As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your state representative.