CountyLogoMdWhile the storms that swept through Georgia captured the focus of much media attention this week, several significant legislative issues began working their way through committees. This week I’ll highlight some of the key bills that Georgia counties are paying close attention to as they move their way through the legislature.

First off, House Speaker David Ralston introduced new Ethics Legislation. The pressure has been building on legislators to address the issue of ethics and this week, the Speaker introduced two bills that covered issues ranging from gifts from lobbyists to the filing of campaign disclosures. HB 142 and HB 143 both were discussed in the House Rules Subcommittee on Thursday. Some of the key items in HB 142 include a complete ban on expenditures on individuals by those who are registered as lobbyists (including but not limited to meals, beverages, tickets to events,etc.), an expansion of the definition of lobbyist and the re-establishment of rule making authority for the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (formerly known as the Ethics Commission). HB 143 changes the requirements for filing campaign disclosure reports and reduces filing requirements for candidates who raise less than $5,000. These bills are likely to see significant change before they are considered on the House floor. Legislators and Governor Nathan Deal appear to agree, however, that the legislation should apply to both state and local elected officials.

Last year, I posted information about legislation that would address the redirection of dedicated fees. During the 2012 legislative session, Rep. Jay Powell introduced legislation to address the redirection of such fees for programs such as the cleaning up of hazardous waste sites, providing indigent defense, training law enforcement officers and teaching driver’s education programs. While the legislation passed with widespread support in the House, it was met with resistance in the Senate. This week, Rep. Jay Powell introduced similar legislation that has the bi-partisan backing of over 40 co-sponsors in the House. Through HB 127, if the fees are not appropriated for their statutorily-dedicated purposes, then the fees will be reduced or eliminated, proportionate to the amount that is redirected. To minimize impact on the state budget, the new appropriation requirements would be phased in over four years. The Association of County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) issued a statewide press release earlier this week to draw attention to the legislation. This legislation is expected to be difficult to move in the Senate once again, so county officials are being encouraged to start talking to state senators in their local delegation about it now.

The new HB 1 is drawing the attention of district attorneys and law enforcement officials from across the state. This legislation rewrites Georgia law regarding how forfeitures and “drug” money are seized, allocated and utilized. Under current law, property, money and other things of value linked to certain crimes (i.e., those related to drugs and organized crime) may be seized and a forfeiture action may be commenced by the district attorney. Depending upon the amount of assets, the court may order that the property be sold and distributed or the district attorney may institute a non-judicial proceeding. This legislation reduces the use of non-judicial forfeiture from $25,000 to $5,000, eliminates the cap on the amount of forfeiture money state agencies can receive and requires law enforcement agencies to file an annual report on the forfeiture funds received and their use and addresses other issues. ACCG has developed a summary of the proposed changes and is currently evaluating this legislation. Those that followed last year’s local Sheriff’s race might remember that this topic was brought up several times by Butts County Sheriff Gary Long, who was elected in November. This legislation was brought about by concerns over possible abuse and misuse of drug funds by law enforcement agencies around the state.

Rep. Don Parsons has introduced the Mobile Broadband Infrastructure Leads to Development (BILD) Act. HB 176 preempts local governments in reviewing and approving applications for both the modification of existing cell towers and structures (collation) and the construction of new cell towers and structures in several key areas. In other words, it would remove the power of local government to review and approve applications for the building of cell phone towers or the modification of existing towers (such as making them taller). In doing so, it would remove the ability of Butts County citizens from being able to voice to their County Commissioners their support or opposition to the placement of new towers, leaving this decision-making authority to outside powers. I am very much opposed to any legislation that disenfranchises the citizens and their local elected officials from being able to make decisions that affect local affairs. The Association of County Commissioners of Georgia has also elected to oppose this legislation.

Here is a rundown on other bills in the legislature that are noteworthy:

HB 0055-Wiretapping by Law Enforcement – Statewide Application
This legislation clarifies the existing statute regarding wiretapping and trace devices to specify that warrants issued to district attorneys or the Attorney General to use trace devices or intercept communications shall have statewide application and shall be permitted in any location of the state. ACCG supports this legislation

HB 0080-Changes to Vehicle Tax Reform
This legislation is a substantial revision of the new state and local title ad valorem tax (TAVT) system. Among other things, the bill changes how fair market value is determined; exempts IRP vehicles from the new system and continues them under the apportioned ad valorem tax; changes registration procedures; changes numerous items regarding dealers who directly finance sales; changes numerous items regarding leases; and provides for new criminal penalties. HB 80 is similar to, but slightly different from, HB 66. It treats used motor vehicles differently in terms of how fair market value is determined. ACCG is evaluating this bill at this time and has not made a determination on whether to support or oppose. It will likely get consideration next week.

SB 0014-Creation of Georgia Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias State Plan Task Force
This legislation creates a Georgia Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias State Plan Task Force to assess the impact of Alzheimer’s on Georgia and to create a state plan. The task force would be abolished on March 31, 2014. Upon its abolishment, a Georgia Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias Advisory would be created to annually review progress made on the state plan.

NEW BILLS

HB 0001-Georgia Uniform Civil Forfeiture Procedure Act
I covered this in more detail above but for a recap: this legislation is a restructuring of the Civil Forfeiture Procedure Act which impacts drug forfeitures and seizures. This statute is one of law enforcement’s most effective tools in bringing down criminal enterprises. The district attorney, through a judicial process, can seize cars, cash and other property of drug dealers and other criminals. Many county commissioners refer to this forfeited property as drug fund money. The funds and property are used for law enforcement training, equipment and investigative expenses. H.B. 1 reduces the amount of drug fund money that can be used by law enforcement and the county, as well as increases the cost of seizing property. ACCG is currently evaluating this bill before deciding whether to support or oppose.

HB 0071-ACCG and GMA Retirement; authorize increased real estate investments
Currently, retirement programs such as those offered by ACCG and GMA may only invest 5 percent of their holdings in real estate investments. This legislation increases the amount of permissible investment to 10 percent. ACCG supports this legislation but I have not heard what the position of the Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) is as of yet.

HB 0088-Free Class E and Class F Driver’s License to Qualified Volunteer Firefighters
This legislation allows volunteer firefighters to receive a Class E or Class F driver’s license free of charge if they bring in a copy of their firefighter certification and a letter from the chief executive officer of the county (or city) stating that they are a volunteer firefighter for the county (or city). ACCG is currently evaluating this bill. As a former volunteer firefighter myself, I personally support this measure (my own opinion of course) because I know of the sacrifices of time, effort and even money that volunteer firefighters give to their communities. Removing the fees a volunteer firefighter has to pay to get the type of licenses required to drive the specialized equipment necessary for the job is one way of thanking them for what they do and I seriously doubt it would impact the state coffers by very much.

HB 0091-Local Governments Restricted in Moving Monuments
In one of the more interesting pieces of legislation introduced this year, HB 0091 would protect “monuments”, which include plaques, statues, markers, flags, banners, displays and memorials, dedicated to a historical entity, event, nation or government and that honors military service to the United States, Confederacy or several states therein. No publicly owned monument located on county property may be relocated, removed, concealed, obscured in any way by the county other than as necessary to preserve or protect the monument. Counties may relocate such a monument when necessary to build or expand edifices, buildings, roads and other transportation construction projects; however, the monument must be relocated to a site of similar prominence, honor, visibility, availability and access within the county. The monument may not be relocated to a museum, cemetery or mausoleum unless it was originally placed there. ACCG is currently in negotiations with legislators about this particular bill.

HB 0100-Guns – No Changing Laws During States of Emergency
This legislation prohibits county officials and employees from changing the requirements regarding guns during a state of emergency. Those found guilty of violating this law will have to pay the prevailing party’s reasonable attorney fees. ACCG is evaluating this piece of legislation.

HB 0101-Food Sales and Service Establishment Standards – Local Festivals, etc.
Under current law, festivals, fairs and events held by nonprofit organizations (such as the local Exchange Club Food Booth at the County Fair) are not considered “food service establishments” subject to regulation by the department of health when the county issues a temporary permit to the nonprofit for food sales and service. This legislation allows the county to delegate the authority to issue such permits to the county board of health. ACCG is currently evaluating this bill.

HB 0124-Sunday Sales Enhancements
Under this legislation, if the voters do not approve a ballot measure for Sunday sales of beer, wine and liquor by the package, it will not impact a previous vote to approve a ballot measure for Sunday sales of beer and wine only. ACCG is neutral on this bill.

HB 0125-Immigration Reforms – Public Benefit Renewals and Submittal by Mail
This legislation allows applicants for county “public benefits” (e.g., health benefits, retirement benefits, occupation tax registration, licenses, etc.) to submit their SAVE (“Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements) affidavit and copies of their secure and identifiable identification by mail or such other standards as are acceptable to the county. It further allows secure and verifiable documents to be submitted during the nine months prior to the filing of the affidavit so long as the documents have not expired by the time that the affidavit is filed and allows applicants under 18 at the time of application to submit the SAVE affidavit within 30 days after their 18th birthday. The SAVE affidavit and the secure and verifiable documents do not have to be submitted again for the renewal of the public benefit or if the applicant has already submitted the documents to the county for a different public benefit. ACCG supports this initiative.

HB 0127-Redirected Fees – Having Fees Appropriated for Designated Purposes
This legislation, one of ACCG’s top priorities, seeks to halt the now-common state practice of redirecting fees from their designated purposes to the state’s general fund for other uses. If fees for the Solid Waste Trust Fund, Hazardous Waste Trust Fund, Indigent Defense, Peace Officers and Prosecutors Training Fund and teen driver’s education are not appropriated for their intended use, the fees will be reduced or eliminated, proportionate to the amount that is redirected. To minimize the impact on the state budget, the new appropriation requirements would be phased in over four years. Rep. Powell introduced similar legislation last year which passed the House overwhelmingly before being watered down and dying in the Senate. The Association of County Commissioners of Georgia strongly supports this bill.

HB 0141-Requirement to Post Notice Regarding Human Trafficking – Mandated Notices
This legislation requires bars, massage parlors, truck stops, rest areas, airports, hotels, emergency rooms, urgent care centers, job recruitment centers and farm labor contractors and day haulers to post notices on a form developed by the Department of Safety regarding a hot line for victims of kidnapping, slavery and human trafficking. Law enforcement is required to notify any of the businesses who fail to post the required sign in writing that failure to correct the deficiency within thirty days is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500. The legislation purports to exempt the costs of prosecution from taxes and additional penalties, fees or surcharges. ACCG is currently evaluating this bill.

HB 0142-Expand Lobbyist Definition
This legislation provides for changes relating to the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission (formerly known as the Ethics Commission) as well as the definition of a lobbyist and expenditures. ACCG is evaluating this bill. This bill was introduced by the Speaker of the House, David Ralston.

HB 0143-Change and Eliminates Certain Filing Requirements for County Offices
This legislation changes the requirements for filing campaign disclosure reports by allowing candidates for county office to file their reports with the election superintendent in the county of election. This legislation also eliminates the filing requirement for candidates for county office who raise less than $2,500 in a calendar year and file a written notice of intent not to accept contributions in excess of $2,500. For candidates who raise between $2,500-$5,000, they will only be required to file the June 30th and October 25th reports. Candidates who raise more than $5,000 in a calendar year are subject to the full filing requirements of O.C.G.A S21-5-34. This legislation does not extend the filing changes to personal financial disclosures. ACCG supports this measure. I also think it is a good idea because I have seen firsthand the frustration local elected officials have to face trying to file their disclosures electronically instead of being able to hand deliver it to a local election office. Not every person who runs for local office is fluent in the use of computers and not every one owns a computer with an internet connection. This is a good, common sense approach.

HB 0146-Issuance of Arrest and Search Warrants by Video Conference
This legislation allows a judge to participate in a hearing for an arrest or search warrant by video conference, regardless of the judge’s location at the time of the conference. ACCG supports this measure.

HB 0148-Tax Accountability Act
This legislation requires a tax exemption bill to be introduced in the first year of the biennial legislative session and eligible for passage in the second year after the bill has been studied and a fiscal analysis conducted. ACCG supports this measure.

HB 0153-Authorization to Impose a Fractional SPLOST
This legislation authorizes a county to request a fractional percentage Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST). There must be an intergovernmental agreement with the cities making up at least 50 percent of the municipal population to request the fractional SPLOST in a referendum. Counties could have multiple fractional SPLOSTs collected at the same time as long as the combined fractions do not exceed 1 percent. ACCG is neutral on this measure.

HB 0159-Prohibit All Fees and Assessments on the Property Tax Bill
This legislation would prohibit counties from placing any fees or assessments on the property tax bill. This would include fees for solid waste, storm water, street lights, speed bumps and fire services. ACCG strongly opposes this measure.

HB 0160-Revises Vacant and Foreclosed Real Property Registry Requirements
This legislation removes the requirement that only properties that have received a land use disturbance permit can be included on the foreclosed real property registry. It also expands the list of properties that do not have to register to include those for which the deed is filed within sixty days of a foreclosure sale. ACCG is evaluating this bill.

HB 0173-Maintenance and Repair Eligible for SPLOST
This legislation, introduced by former ACCG President and current Representative Jan Tankersly, authorizes a county to spend up to 15 percent of the revenues from a future SPLOST on maintenance and repair activities. The authorized percentage would have to be approved in a SPLOST referendum and could only be used to fund maintenance and repair on capital projects acquired through SPLOST. ACCG supports this legislation and we have also expressed our support of this measure. Currently, the laws on SPLOST allow you to use it to build new capital projects but not maintain what you have built. By allowing this measure, SPLOST could be used both to build new facilities as well as help to maintain them during their lifespan.

SENATE BILLS

SB 0066-Increase Penalties for Contempt of Court in Superior and State Courts
This legislation increases the fine for contempt of court from $500 to $1,000. ACCG is currently evaluating this bill from the Senate.

SB 0072-Reduce Interest on Tax Refunds and Past Due Taxes
This legislation reduces from 1 percent per month to 7 percent per annum the rate of interest owed by the government to a taxpayer on refunds and the rate of interest owed by the taxpayer to the government on past due taxes. ACCG is currently evaluating this bill.

SB 0073-Removes T-SPLOST Match Penalty
This legislation reduces the 30 percent match requirement for regions that did not pass TSPLOST to 10 percent. ACCG is neutral on this measure.

SB 0083-County Funded Burials of Paupers – Cremation Authorized
Under current law, counties are required to provide for the decent interment of indigents who pass away within their jurisdiction, as is the Department of Corrections for inmates in their care. This legislation simply clarifies that decent interment allows for cremation. ACCG supports this measure. This problem is one that I have discussed with our County Coroner, Ralph Wilson, who has told me about the financial burden that is sometimes put on counties that have to provide indigent burial. This law would clarify that cremation is an acceptable form of interment, which is much less costly to county governments than a burial would be.

That wraps up this week’s review of legislation going on at the Gold Dome. Commissioner Keith Douglas and I will be attending the annual Capitol Connection meeting in Atlanta this Monday and Tuesday that is hosted by our Georgia county association, ACCG. We will be briefed in more detail about all of the legislation currently being considered in the House and Senate as well as have opportunities to meet with legislators to voice matters of concern to our county. I’ll have more to report next week.

JMB