May 13, 2021
Georgia: 2021 Post-Session Review
On May 10, the 2021 General Session of the Georgia General Assembly officially came to a close with the end of the governor’s 40-day window to sign or veto legislation. While Georgia’s election legislation (SB 202), which was quickly signed by Gov. Kemp after passage in March, has received the most coverage, lawmakers sent nearly 300 bills to the governor’s desk. Of those bills, all but one was signed by the governor or will become law without the governor’s signature.
The lone veto this year stands in contrast to the four vetoes issued in 2020 and the 14 vetoes issued in 2019 during the first year of Gov. Kemp’s administration. Following a barrage of constituent complaints over the last year regarding their difficulty in obtaining pandemic-related unemployment benefits and warnings that the Department of Labor’s failure to respond to audits in a timely manner could affect the state’s AAA Bond Rating, legislators took action. In one of the more contentious bills of the session (SB 156), lawmakers sought to create a new legislatively appointed Chief Labor Officer within the Department of Labor to address the issues where it was believed the Commissioner of Labor had failed. Among other reasons, the governor vetoed the bill as an infringement on the constitutionally granted power of the Labor Commissioner, which is one of eight constitutional officers in the state.
After bracing for the worst in FY 2021 amidst the uncertain economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Georgia General Assembly fulfilled its sole constitutional duty with the adoption of a nearly $49.9 billion FY 2022 budget (HB 81). The budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 includes $27.3 billion in state general funds. Highlights include:
- $3.5 million for an additional 625 slots in the CAPS program to provide childcare assistance to low income families;
- $10 million to establish the rural broadband infrastructure grant program for accelerating expansion of broadband in high-need areas;
- $39.5 million to establish the Rural Innovation Fund to help communities develop targeted solutions for the most pressing problems facing their region;
- $9.2 million increase for core adult mental health and addiction services;
- $7.2 million in annualized funds to establish a behavioral health crisis center; and
- $10.2 billion for K-12 education, including a restoration of $567 million from FY 2021 cuts.
In 2020, the General Assembly created a dedicated fund source for transit projects across Georgia by adopting a new fee on all trips by for-hire ground transportation. Although initially not expected to become part of the state budget until FY 2023, appropriators eager to improve transit statewide recognized the new funds from the Georgia Transit Trust Fund ahead of schedule. In FY 2022, more than $7.6 million in transit-dedicated funding will go towards capital projects around the state to establish, maintain, or improve transit.
In addition to the Transit Trust Fund, the General Assembly adopted legislation to formally establish nine other trust funds to segregate previously dedicated fund sources for appropriation back to their intended use, including the Trauma Care Network Trust Fund, Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund, and State Children’s Trust Fund (HB 511). Prior to the adoption of a constitutional amendment in 2020, the only way to ensure dedicated funding was through the state constitution. The legislation codifies the new authority to legislatively reserve funds rather than those funds going into the state general fund with hopes that they would be appropriated back for their intended purpose.
After vetoing a similar bill in 2019, the governor signed legislation that will, for the first time, provide the legislature with a mechanism to measure the return on investment from special tax breaks. Under the law, the chair of the revenue raising committee in each chamber can request up to five economic analyses each year on an existing or proposed tax credit, exemption, rebate, abatement, or other preferential tax rate. The analyses, conducted by an independent auditor, will provide a snapshot of the change in state revenue, state expenditures, economic activity, and public benefit directly or indirectly related to the particular tax break. Among the preferential tax provisions that could be reviewed in the future are new tax credits for medical equipment; medical supplies; pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturers; and high-impact aerospace defense projects; or extended exemptions for the rehabilitation of historic structures; the maintenance, refit, and repair on large vessels; and on equipment for freshly mixed concrete. Responding to an industry hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, the legislature also adopted a short-term sales tax exemption on tickets, fees or other charges for admission to performances or exhibitions by organizations and museums with the primary mission of advancing the arts in Georgia (SB 6).
The 2021 legislative session was an active one for education policy. For starters, Georgia appropriators added back substantial funding for K-12 education, including a $1,000 teacher pay raise. Other successful bills signed by the governor include a teacher pipeline bill to increase access to the profession (SB 88), particularly at HBCU’s, an expansion of the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship (SB 47), and a protection for virtual public school students accessing “learning pods” (SB 246). The General Assembly approved several measures to enhance access to and support for state and local charter schools through bills that will increase funding for locally approved charter schools (SB 59), increase access to the State Health Benefit Plan upon charter contract renewal (SB 59), and realigning and redefining non-traditional charter schools focused on dropout recovery and prevention (SB 153).
Energy and Environment
With the passage of a “fuel choice” bill (HB 150), the legislature took proactive steps to preserve consumer access to all fuel types whether for use in new or remodeled homes, backyard grilling, or small businesses. Seeing a trend in other states of municipalities adopting carbon neutral goals and, in furtherance of those goals, potentially restricting fuel choices to those types deemed the most environmentally friendly at the time, the new law seeks to maintain consumer choice by prohibiting municipalities from adopting ordinances that ban certain types of fuel.
In 2004, the state created the voluntary Georgia Carbon Sequestration Registry to facilitate the exchange of carbon credits between forest landowners and businesses seeking to offset their carbon emissions. In 2021, the legislature modified the program to encourage the use of sustainable building products by also including credits derived from the certified use of carbon-capture building materials by registered developers (HB 355).
Other notable legislation adopted this year includes granting up to three weeks of paid parental leave for eligible state employees (HB 146); repealing the state’s citizen’s arrest law (HB 479); criminalizing illegal drag racing (HB 534); extending immunity for COVID-related liability for healthcare facilities and other businesses (HB 112); and authorizing the sale of “to-go” cocktails by restaurants (SB 236).
All legislation that did not make it to the governor’s desk this year will carry-over to the 2022 legislative session.