Here is your Weekly Legislative Session 2018 update about what is occurring under the Gold Dome from your State Representative Paulette Rakestraw:
The House began week eight under the Gold Dome on Monday, Feb. 26, and this week was undoubtedly the busiest week of the 2018 legislative session so far. On Wednesday, Feb. 28, we reached legislative Day 28, better known as “Cross Over Day.” Cross Over Day is a critical deadline in the General Assembly, as it is the last day a piece of legislation can pass out of its original chamber and still remain eligible for consideration by the opposite legislative chamber. My House colleagues and I worked well past midnight on Cross Over Day and passed many significant House bills for the state of Georgia. All measures that passed the House this session are now being considered by our Senate counterparts, and conversely, the House will begin to review legislation passed by the Senate.
Georgia’s economy has tremendously grown in recent years, but not all parts of the state have experienced the same level of economic success. For that reason, the House created the House Rural Development Council last session, and this session, we have prioritized legislation based on the council’s recommendations. This week, we passed several important measures to benefit our rural communities and help rural Georgia prosper, such as House Bill 951, which passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support. HB 951 would create the Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation (CRPI) to serve as a central information and research hub for rural leadership training and best practices, including community planning models, industry-specific assistance and cooperative efforts with nonprofits, religious organizations and other higher education partners. The CRPI would be located within a college or institution of the University System of Georgia that awards Bachelor of Science degrees in rural community development, and the president of the college or institution would appoint a center director to be approved by a majority vote of the Georgia Rural Development Council. The 12-member Georgia Rural Development Council would offer guidance to the CRPI, as well as study the conditions, needs, issues and problems affecting rural economic development, education, unemployment and infrastructure. The center would assume the business and responsibilities of the Centers of Innovation Agribusiness administered by the Department of Economic Development, and the CRPI, the Department of Economic Development and the Department of Agriculture would collaborate as necessary to achieve the center’s mission and duties. The bill would also designate a deputy commissioner for rural Georgia under the Department of Economic Development. This center would serve as a rural think tank, and with help from the deputy commissioner for rural Georgia, the CRPI would bring valuable resources together to come up with meaningful solutions to the challenges rural Georgia faces.
On Wednesday, Feb. 28, the House passed another bipartisan, rural-friendly bill that implements several recommendations from the House Rural Development Council. House Bill 887 seeks to expand broadband and other communications services throughout the state by establishing the Georgia Communications Services Tax Act. HB 887 would allow municipal corporations and electrical membership corporations (EMCs) to provide broadband service in unserved areas within its corporate limits. The bill would also establish the Local Government Communication Services Fair Competition Act of 2018 to encompass all communication services, not just cable service. This act would require franchising authorities to meet several requirements prior to allowing public providers to deliver communications services, thus ensuring fairness, transparency and accountability amongst communications services providers. Additionally, HB 887 would allow communities to apply to be certified as broadband ready through the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency (GEMA). In an effort to provide broadband infrastructure expenditure assistance that enables coverage throughout the entire state, HB 887 would also require GEMA’s director to develop a grant program that would award projects to qualified broadband providers who request the least amount of money to expand in unserved areas. Furthermore, this measure would authorize GEMA to create a broadband availability map of the state showing unserved areas and publish the map on GEMA’s website. Finally, HB 887 would regulate an authority’s pole attachment rate. Rural Georgia depends on broadband access to thrive, and this measure aims to increase access to this critical utility to all corners of the state.
This week, my House colleagues and I passed legislation to expand Georgia’s medical cannabis oil program to help more suffering Georgians. House Bill 764 received overwhelming bipartisan support and would add two additional illnesses, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and intractable pain, to the current list of qualifying medical conditions to allow those patients to be treated with low THC oil. Eligible individuals could apply for Georgia’s Low THC Oil Registry under the Georgia Department of Public Health at the recommendation of their physicians, and once approved, such individuals would receive an identification card exempting them from prosecution in Georgia for possessing medical cannabis oil that meets our state’s requirements. These individuals could legally possess a maximum of 20 fluid ounces of cannabis oil with a maximum of 5 percent THC in Georgia. This critical measure would build upon Georgia’s current medical cannabis oil law to allow even more of our state’s hurting citizens, and especially Georgia’s veterans suffering from PTSD, to reap the benefits of Georgia’s popular and successful existing medical cannabis oil program.
We also unanimously passed a bipartisan measure this week that would update Georgia’s Hidden Predator Act. House Bill 605 would hold negligent individuals or entities who conceal child abuse accountable for these actions. Firstly, HB 605 would extend the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse cases from age 23 to age 38. Also, HB 605 would lengthen the discovery time period from two years to four years for a victim who experiences psychological or emotional problems as a result of child sexual abuse to report such abuse. Finally, this measure would establish a one-year period for a childhood sexual abuse victim to file civil actions against an entity if the entity: was responsible for the victim’s care; knew or should have known of the conduct that brought about the civil action; or intentionally or consciously concealed evidence of sexual abuse. These changes seek to acknowledge that the effects of childhood sexual abuse can be latent, and the updated Hidden Predator Act would align Georgia’s laws with what scientific research and real world experience have taught us about sexual abuse cases.
Our state has seen an alarming rise in automobile accidents and fatalities in recent years, and it is highly likely that increased cell phone usage has amplified this problem. To address this public safety issue, my colleagues and I passed House Bill 673 this week, which would establish a hands-free driving law in Georgia. HB 673 would prohibit drivers from holding, supporting or reaching for a wireless telecommunication device or a stand-alone electronic device while operating a vehicle. This measure would also ban drivers from texting, browsing the internet or watching or recording videos; however, drivers would be permitted to use GPS navigation and voice-to-text features on their devices. Anyone convicted of violating this proposed law would be fined and charged with a misdemeanor. Moreover, first-time offenders would receive a 2-point deduction on their driver’s license, and the bill would establish a staggered point deduction system for repeat offenders. This hands-free law would not apply while a vehicle is lawfully parked, while reporting an emergency or a hazardous road condition or to utility service providers, law enforcement officers or first responders operating within the scope of their employment. This measure intends to decrease automobile accidents, injuries and fatalities and would make our roadways safer for all Georgia commuters.
Identity theft and credit fraud cases are also increasing annually, and in light of this growing problem, the House overwhelmingly passed House Bill 866 on Monday, Feb. 26. This legislation would prohibit credit reporting agencies from charging a fee for freezing or unfreezing a consumer account. Currently, consumer credit reporting agencies may charge consumers a fee up to $3 for each security freeze placement, any permanent security freeze removal or any temporary security freeze lifting for a period of time. Additionally, under current law, consumer credit reporting agencies may charge protected consumers up to $10 for each placement or removal of a security freeze. HB 866 would remove all of these fees. This bill was introduced in the wake of a security breach that put the private information of 145 million Americans at risk, and other states have passed similar measures to decrease the likelihood of identity theft. HB 866 would empower Georgians to protect their identity and credit accounts without being financially burdened with fees.
My House colleagues and I unanimously passed a measure this week that would benefit our state’s military families, House Bill 718. Under HB 718, schools could grant students up to five excused absences to attend military affairs sponsored events if a student’s parent or guardian currently serves or previously served in the armed forces, Reserves or National Guard. HB 718 would require students to present proper documentation prior to the absence, and absences may not exceed five days per school year for a maximum of two years. This bill would not require all school systems to adopt this excused absence policy. Georgia has a large military population and is home to several military installations statewide, and this measure is one of many military-friendly pieces of legislation the House has passed in recent years to improve quality-of-life for our state’s military members and their families.
Finally, I would like to update you on the status of House Bill 930, legislation that would create a new regional governance and funding structure for transit in the 13-county metropolitan Atlanta region. As I mentioned in a previous column, State Representative Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville) introduced HB 930 a few weeks ago, and on Wednesday, Feb. 28, the House overwhelmingly passed this vitally importation transportation measure by a vote of 162-13. House Bill 930 seeks to improve transit in the metropolitan Atlanta region by facilitating transit coordination, integration and efficiency and promoting a seamless and high-quality transportation system for the area. The bill would create the Atlanta-region Transit Link (ATL) Authority to coordinate transit planning, funding and operations within 13-county metro Atlanta region and would establish state and local funding sources to improve transit access. This comprehensive transportation measure is a product of the House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding and would have a lasting and positive impact on the metro Atlanta region for generations to come.