Gold Dome Report - January 14, 2016
Today was legislative day four for the 2016 Session, and it was Addiction Recovery Awareness Day at the Capitol. The Addiction Recovery Collaborative of Georgia held a rally in the rotunda to recognize those people who are in long-term recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.
Both Chambers recognized former long-time State legislator Mike Egan (R-Atlanta), who passed away on January 7 at the age of 89. Speaker Ralston praised the former legislator, saying that "quality guided his entire legislative career." Sen. Egan, a native of Savannah, was a well known lawyer and partner with the law firm of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan until 2000.
The Governor's Budgets were released today for FY 2016 Amended and FY 2017. The below link will allow you to access the Budget Documents (please note that you must select year):
U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland's impassioned speech to the House Floor stole the show. The day's Special Guest was quite special, given his former status as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives from 1993-2005, including a short stint as Minority Leader, prior to his becoming a U.S. Representative for the state of Georgia. In the wake of his approaching retirement later this January, Westmoreland delivered a message that seemed to speak directly to the job of the members seated before him: the responsibility of today's politician. "Some people work to improve government, others stand outside and boo," Westmoreland recited, encouraging the House members, especially those in the majority party, to use their power as elected officials to enact positive change as often and as effectively as possible. The challenge, the U.S. representative said, is to make Georgia better. Westmoreland finished with some parting thoughts, pausing to say, "It's good to be back in this building … [it] has such a sweet odor to it," leaving all who listened to the retiring Georgia politician with a lingering waft of sentimentality.
The House was adjourned until January 15 at 9:30 a.m.
This morning, the Senate got a late start, beginning at 11:00 a.m. so that members could attend the funeral service for Sen. Mike Egan. Lieutenant Governor Cagle asked the chamber to observe a moment of silence in Sen. Egan's honor. Congressman Lynn Westmoreland addressed the Senate about how important it is for elected officials to keep their constituents in mind when making legislative decisions.
The Senate was adjourned until January 15 at 9:00 a.m.
House Ways and Means Committee – Public Finance and Policy
The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Public Finance and Policy met early Thursday morning to discuss HB 356. Sponsored by Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah), the bill intends to establish a system for ad valorem taxation of watercraft, including boats, and to provide for the titling and registration of said watercraft. Rep. Stephens outlined the bill, mostly focusing on two essential points. First noted was the creation of titles for watercraft, a point that no one disputed, given its usefulness in facilitating ownership and transfer of boats as property. In addition, the creation of title would eliminate unwanted casual sales of watercraft. Rep. Geoff Duncan claimed that the eradication of casual sales alone would build enough revenue to make the proposed model work. Rep. Stephens' second primary amendment under the bill was far more contentious amongst the subcommittee: a title ad valorem tax (TAVT) worth 4 percent of the fair market value of the boat, to be required at the purchase of certain watercraft. The TAVT would replace a sales and use tax with a one-time tax composed of the total sum of state and local ad valorem taxes. The TAVT may be more expensive than the sales and use tax and will consolidate different county sales tax rates on boats into a single Georgia title ad valorem tax rate, which should streamline the statewide purchasing process for boats.
Most of the discussion centered on the prudence of switching to a TAVT for watercraft and how the bill, if put into place, would change the amount of tax revenue going forward. Rep. Penny Houston voiced her dissent in length concerning the potentially negative ramifications the bill could have on her constituency. She was worried about the similarities of the TAVT model for watercraft to tax model for motor vehicles, the latter model being a source of frustration for the people of her district since its application in 2013. Rep. Stephens and several others in support of the bill combined to attempt to assuage her concerns. Few members seemed to strongly speak against the bill, save Houston, but most who did speak seemed reserved about the likelihood of its passing. One representative wondered if the subcommittee should consider simply lowering the sales and use tax for boats instead of creating an entirely new tax model. An official from the Georgia Department of Revenue was called upon to assess the viability of the model and said it would be difficult to fit in the new proposed watercraft legislation in light of current changes of the motor vehicle code.
House Ways and Means Committee – Ad Valorem Subcommittee
The House Ways and Means Ad Valorem Tax Subcommittee led off the 2016 session with a hearing on HB 653, sponsored by Rep. Don Parsons (R-Marietta). Parsons briefly discussed the bill to show how it offers taxpayers in default an opportunity to cure their tax liability via written notice or full payment of debt. The bill also allows for a tax execution to be paid by a third party in agreement with the delinquent taxpayer, curing the debt. The first speaker, a gentleman representing interests relating to taxation, objected to the bill, citing that it is unnecessary to create additional liens on real property when the liens are already present. He noted that if taxes are not paid by a taxpayer, the county starts putting interest on tax payments to make it more and more expensive to build debt. Other speakers followed, sharing his dissent. Elise Blasingame, the Director of Community Education and Financial Protection for Georgia Watch, a consumer advocacy organization, made several points regarding what should be done with the bill going forward. Blasingame recommended that the subcommittee should survey what other state legislatures have done regarding tax executions in the fashion of HB 653. She went ahead and noted the other states for the committee – Arizona, Oregon, Missouri and Virginia – adding that the legislation failed to pass in all four states. Frank Alexander, a professor at the Emory University School of Law, passionately voiced his concerns with the bill, claiming that it would be the most dramatic change in Georgia property tax law in 100 years because it would create a private market for tax liens, confusing tax commissioners on due payments. Alexander said that the bill would cause more problems than it would solve. His opinion, combined with the plurality of other dissenting voices before him, left the subcommittee with an overwhelmingly bleak outlook for constituent support for the bill.
House Transportation Committee
The House Transportation Committee met today. The Committee heard from the Georgia Department of Transportation on their work concerning the planning list of road and transportation infrastructure projects. Further, the Department unveiled its new system for individuals to conduct searches of road improvement projects, "Transportation Funding Act Project Search." This search engine is found on www.GAroads.org and is similar to GeoTrack. Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway) inquired about the disparity study and its status. Rep. Williams was told that it was "in process" and that the Department was almost finished with the federal portion of this study but that the State-driven portion would take longer to complete. Rep. Brian Prince (D-Augusta) asked how individuals could determine "minority participation" in these road projects – there is no current way to quickly access that information under the current search engine on project searches. It was also announced that the Committee was forming a "Transportation Policy Subcommittee," and appointees include Reps. Mandi Ballinger, John Carson, Brett Harrell, Dale Rutledge, Bill Hitchens, and Brian Prince.
House Regulated Industries Committee – Professions Subcommittee
This Subcommittee, under the leadership of Rep. Tom Dickson (R-Cohutta), met this afternoon and took up two proposals. Both pieces of legislation were authored by Rep. Lee Hawkins (R-Gainesville).
- HB 593, addressing continuing education for low-voltage contractors, moved relatively quickly out of the Subcommittee. There were some small amendments to clarify that these contractors will be required to have at minimum four hours of continuing education units for licensure (this appears to be the industry standard) and they also modified the reference to a 2015 date to a 2016 date (as the bill was offered last year). The amendments passed and the bill moved quickly out of the Subcommittee with a do pass recommendation; it now moves forward for the full House Regulated Industries Committee for its consideration.
- HB 498, addressing a scope of practice issue for licensed professional counselors, also moved forward today to the full House Regulated Industries Committee with a favorable recommendation. HB 498 had a packed room full of licensed professional counselors as well as students who are pursuing degrees in professional counseling. It was outlined that HB 498 sought to add the word "diagnose" to O.C.G.A. § 43-10A-3(10); social workers and marriage and family therapists also added "diagnose" to their scopes of practice in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Sen. Greg Kirk (R-Americus), a licensed professional counselor, spoke to the merits of this legislation – he explained that he became a licensed professional counselor in 1997 after completing a four year "clinical" once he had completed his master's degree. He urged the Subcommittee to vote favorably for the legislation as it is imperative to change the law due to insurance. Rep. Karen Bennett (D-Stone Mountain) inquired about the curriculum required and the four-year clinical; Sen. Kirk explained that now, different than when he first became licensed, the State requires the applicant to pass a national examination. Rep. Chuck Martin (R-Alpharetta), a member of the Subcommittee, indicated that the word "diagnose" would have no effect on individuals who these licensed professional counselors help – the inclusion of the word "diagnose" was to help them complete paperwork for insurance purposes and to get paid. Sen. Kirk provided a story about one of the State's CMOs who had told one licensed professional counselor that he needed to change how he was doing business because he was going to lose his ability to conduct the work with patients without the word diagnose included in the law. Rep. Terry Rogers (R-Clarkesville) asked if this change was clarifying the law, as these professionals have already been diagnosing. Former Sen. Chuck Clay (R-Marietta) and Daniel Rogers, PhD, spoke about the legislation currently pending on defining the term "psychological testing" in HB 395 which they explained was intertwined with HB 498. The Georgia Association of Social Workers did not actually testify but did provide the Subcommittee a letter in opposition to HB 498. Tom Black was the licensed professional counselor who was told by Amerigroup that he needed to address the scope within 30 days (this was in late December after the CMO had met with the Georgia Psychological Association) or otherwise he would lose one third to one-half of his business. The CMO had told his practice that what they were doing was outside of their scope. Mr. Black's company provides stabilization services to children in the Savannah area, working with the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. Rep. Rogers inquired if this affected rural healthcare; Mr. Black explained that professional counseling was an integral part and his company conducts "whole health" as well as "case management." Aubrey Villines, a lawyer and lobbyist, provided the Subcommittee a history on the current law and urged them to include the word "diagnose" in the scope of practice as this was just "semantics" – these professionals evaluate and assess patients and the laws have already been changed for social workers and marriage and family therapists.
Our 2015 Georgia Capitol team consists of Stan Jones, Chuck Clay, Helen Sloat, and Logan Fletcher. We will also try our hand at tweeting this year – so follow us! @GDR_Live
The articles published in this newsletter are intended only to provide general information on the subjects covered. The contents should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Readers should consult with legal counsel to obtain specific legal advice based on particular situations.