By: Sen. Blake Tillery (R – Vidalia)
The 2018 session of the Georgia General Assembly is now complete. While I’m sure there are things we have made worse, as a whole, I believe this session was a net positive. I will recap the changes to law we all must now live by after the Governor gets his say (remember, its not law until he signs it!), but for now I’d like us to take a look back to the early days of this year’s convening of the General Assembly:
January – Two topics dominated the calls from back home during January – the relocating of Confederate monuments and the moving of CTAE classes to the Technical College System. Neither of these things made it any further than rumors. A third topic, a renewed focus on rural Georgia due to the House of Representative’s Rural Study Committee, did not quickly materialize and many, including myself, thought the committee’s ideas would fail to reach any substance. January seemed to start slowly, but in retrospect this was only because the cannons were being loaded.
February – The Senate became focused on finding a solution to two issues plaguing vastly different areas of Georgia: metro traffic and rural broadband. The Senate plan for metro traffic included a rebranding of MARTA and a forced unification of the various transit providers in the metro Atlanta area. Senator Brandon Beach made a point by getting on a bus in Marietta and attempting to reach Gwinnett County. The normal ½ drive took him over 4 hours and he had to use 3 different transit agencies with 3 different fares and ticket systems. On the rural front, Senator Steve Gooch developed a plan to use interstate right-of-ways to deploy fiber optic cable necessary for the fastest internet speeds throughout Georgia. His plan ingeniously could be accomplished at no cost to the state. I immediately rolled my ideas from rural broadband into his plan and began working to pass this initiative. In this process, certain telecom companies began a push to reduce the cost of small cell (5G) technology deployment in Georgia cities. At first, I was very interested in this idea too, but soon realized this push was only to reduce the cost for these companies to do business in dense urban areas. When the big telecom companies could show me no plans to deploy these small cells in Senate District 19, I voted against them and renewed my efforts for statewide fiber optic cable deployment.
March – March brought us through the halfway point of session and through the all-important cross-over day. The Senate began focusing exclusively on House legislation. The first bill we dealt with was the $1 billion tax cut for all Georgians. This bill reduced the top state income tax percentage from 6 percent to 5.75 percent this year, then to 5.5 percent next year, along with a doubling of the state standard deduction for all filing statuses. I firmly believe this will be the most-discussed action of the year. This bill received some national attention late in its vetting after the Senate struck the “Delta tax break” on jet fuel. After one week, the media hype surrounding this issue passed and focus returned to other House legislation.
Last week – Three house bills received substantially more media attention than all others: the Hidden Predator Act, Distracted Driving, and the State Budget. I served on the committees where each of these bills were assigned, so needless to say, particularly when combined with the normal rush at the end of a two-year session, the pressure of March was incredibly stressful and unyielding.
The Hidden Predator Act of 2018 sought to extend civil liability to entities when their members or employees were involved in child molestation. In 2012, the criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse was extend to life, making it equal with murder. In other words, if someone ever commits child sexual abuse after 2012, they can be tried and put in jail at any point, forever. In 2015, the civil statute of limitations, or period by which one would have to file suit in order to recover money, which originally ran for five years after the sexual abuse (until the age of 23 for minors), was extended for a two-year period against the person who allegedly committed the child sexual abuse. The 2018 version sought to again open that window, but this time against the entities (i.e. churches, clubs, or businesses) where the perpetrator worked or volunteered. While the Senate had been willing to open up the statute against the perpetrator in 2015, the idea of holding the church or school responsible did not have enough support to remain in the bill. The Senate and House could not reconcile their versions of the bill by the end of session and this bill failed to make it across the finish line.
The distracted driving bill saw significant changes in the Senate as well. The House version included a first-time penalty of $300 for holding your phone in your hand while driving, even if not texting or surfing the web. Law enforcement testified that the only way they could enforce a “no texting” law would be if holding the phone in one’s hand was criminalized, as the officer could not differentiate between someone reviewing emails or dialing numbers for a call. The Senate reduced the first-time fine to $10, but subsequent violations would see greatly enhanced fines and penalties. Under the Senate version, the first-time offense will result in an adjudication of “Not Guilty” if the ticketed driver can present evidence to the Court of how they have taken steps to make their vehicle hands-free compatible. This bill passed and will become effective on July 1, 2018, if signed by the Governor.
Last but certainly not least, the State Budget, as always, was the biggest piece of legislation passed this year (though some have argued it’s second in importance due to the tax break!). While revenues for Georgia continue to climb, expenses are outpacing growth. As I have frequently discussed in this column, education and Medicaid are the two largest items of the state budget and their growth outpaces income growth. The FY 2019 budget included $167 million to fully fund the QBE formula for local school systems. With the FY 2019 budget and this new spending, education and healthcare now make up 80 percent of the entire state budget.
Other measures of note that passed the General Assembly this year include an expansion of medical marijuana to patients with PTSD and chronic pain (medical marijuana is seen by some as a solution to our opioid epidemic), 100 percent tax credit for donations to local hospitals (including Appling, Wayne, Jeff Davis, Liberty, and Meadows Regional), and Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund wich allows up to half of the sales and use taxes collected on outdoor recreation to fund individual grants to cities, counties, departments and agencies for the preservation of state and local parks across the state.
In closing, while I’m looking forward to being back at my law office in Vidalia for a while, I am so very grateful for the trust you place in me to represent you in Atlanta. I appreciate the interest you have shown again this year in actions that affect you. My door does not close because session ends. Please still feel free to contact me if my office can be of assistance to you. I look forward to seeing many of you in person very soon.
State Senator, District 19