Legislative Notebook: Ga. Senate, House pass bevy of bills

ATLANTA — Bills that prohibit local governments from requiring fire sprinklers in new homes, allow public school class sizes to increase and require hospitals to offer free flu vaccines to their employees won final passage Wednesday at the Georgia General Assembly.

Those bills and others head to Gov. Sonny Perdue for his signature or veto. Other legislation moved forward but hasn’t won final passage yet, with a week remaining in the 2010 Georgia legislative session.

The following is a rundown of several bills that moved Wednesday before The Telegraph’s deadline. “HB” stands for House Bill, meaning it originated there. “SB” stands for Senate Bill.

SB 1

The “Zero-Base Budgeting Act” basically calls for a closer legislative look at state spending. Legislators would drill down into one-third of state departments a year, rebuilding their budgets from zero. Currently, the Legislature deals more with cuts and increases as opposed to looking at all spending. The bill passed the House on Wednesday and, having already passed the Senate, heads to Perdue for his signature. There are concerns about whether a part-time Legislature can get into this level of detail on the budget, and this legislation had failed to gain final passage repeatedly in past years.

HB 16

This bill makes it illegal to place a GPS tracking device on someone’s vehicle without their consent.

Private investigators can use the devices, but must first go to a judge to get a warrant. Wednesday, the House OK’d this legislation.

HB 311

The bill changes the institutions eligible for tuition equalization grants, which are meant to help students in private colleges and universities. The bill passed the Senate 31-17, but must go back to the House for final passage. Democrats complained that the bill takes schools that have recently started programs in Georgia, such as Troy University and the University of Phoenix, out of the mix for the grants.

SB 346

This bill makes numerous changes to the process of setting property values, which are used to figure property taxes. The changes are meant to make the process easier for taxpayers and to hold down assessment values. The House passed this bill 137-7 on Wednesday, but made changes so it heads back to the Senate for another vote.

SB 421

This bill caps the state’s rainy day fund — also called the revenue shortfall reserve — at 15 percent of the previous year’s net revenue, up from the current 10 percent cap. The account has been used to help balance recent budgets and has shrunk to nearly nothing. The bill passed the House unanimously Tuesday and goes to Perdue for his signature or veto.

SB 447

Initially meant to install a preference for in-state contractors into Georgia law, this bill morphed Wednesday in the House when legislators spliced in another measure meant to strengthen employee immigration checks put into law two years ago. The immigration piece is meant to assure that companies with government contracts verify that all their employers and subcontractors are in the country legally. The amended bill passed the House on Wednesday and heads back to the Senate for another vote.

HB 571

This bill changes the state’s sex offender rules in an effort to address some of the court challenges it has faced. The main issue is that people who do not commit serious sex crimes end up on the list, which limits where they can live. This bill would give relief to low-risk offenders, including teenagers charged with statutory rape over minor age differences. The Senate passed this bill Wednesday, but with changes, so it heads back to the House for final approval.

HB 788

This bill outlaws the gas chamber as a method of euthanasia for stray animals. Advocates say gassing cats and dogs is inhumane, at least in part because they don’t always die. Very few communities still use gas, and Macon changed its animal shelter over to a lethal injection system last year. The Senate passed this bill 38-9, but it first changed the effective date from later this year to Jan. 1, 2013. That change sends the bill back to the House for final approval.

HB 908

This bill allows the state’s K-12 schools to increase class sizes slightly to save money. In the past, this has taken a specific waiver for each system, but this bill includes a blanket waiver for all systems through 2013. The House agreed to Senate changes in this bill Wednesday, sending it to the governor for his signature on a 101-60 vote.

HB 1040

This bill loosens nursing licensing regulations to allow those without a license to perform some services for the sick and dying. Simple services, such as giving medicine to a paralyzed person or giving a diabetic an insulin injection, could be performed by a layperson. This bill passed the Senate on Wednesday but with changes that will send it back to the House for another vote.

HB 1179

This bill requires hospitals to provide free flu vaccines to employees who come in contact with patients, if the employees want them. It passed the House 135-22 on Wednesday and goes to the governor for his signature.

HB 1086

This bill changes the Georgia Open Records Act to protect the home addresses and telephone numbers of private school teachers. Public school teachers are already protected. The bill passed the Senate easily and, having already passed the House, heads to the governor for his signature.

HB 1196

This bill prohibits local governments from requiring fire sprinklers in homes and duplexes. The building industry pushed this change to keep construction costs down, and firefighters have been against it. The prohibition wouldn’t apply to apartment complexes or businesses, just residential buildings with “no more than two dwelling units.”

HB 1198

The underlying bill dealt with the way nonresidents who do some business in Georgia pay taxes. But a separate piece of legislation, which does away with the refundable portion of a tax credit for low-income Georgians, was tacked on in the Senate. That legislation failed to pass the House earlier this session but now has new life. It would save the state more than $20 million a year in money that is usually sent to poor people who have so little money that they don’t actually pay taxes. Because of that, they get checks from the state, often for less than $50. Democrats argue that this helps offset sales taxes they pay throughout the year. They also noted votes earlier this year to do away with income taxes on wealthy retirees, as well as property owners. But Republicans characterized the checks as free money, courtesy of the taxpayers. They also noted that the state doesn’t charge sales taxes on groceries. The Senate voted 33-16 to do away with the credit, and that legislation moves to the House for another vote.

HR 1435

This resolution creates a House committee to study Georgia’s hotel-motel tax law. The law is so complicated that state Rep. Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire, an attorney who is chairman of the House’s tax-code-writing committee, called it “almost totally dysfunctional” earlier this year. The way the law is written, money can only flow to certain organizations, which was the basis for a pushback against Macon and Bibb County’s now seemingly successful push to increase the local tax to help support the sports and music halls of fame downtown.

HB 1221

This bill allows online and other vendors to voluntarily begin paying sales taxes on purchases. Though companies generally have immunity from paying sales taxes on online or catalog purchases, there is a growing concern, for some companies, that their presence in a given state may be enough to prove a “nexus” there, kicking in a tax liability. This legislation allows them to begin paying taxes to avoid potential future prosecution. It passed the Senate easily, but with changes that will send it back to the House for another vote.