Transportation Funding Act awaits Governor's signature
The House of Representatives and Senate reached final agreement March 31 on legislation to generate nearly $1 billion in additional annual funding for maintenance and improvements to Georgia's roads, bridges and transit systems.
The final version of HB 170 converts the state sales tax on motor fuels to an excise tax of 26 cents per gallon on gasoline and 29 cents per gallon on diesel fuel. The rate will be adjusted annually based on an aggregate of fuel efficiency standards (CAFÉ) and the Consumer Price Index beginning on July 1, 2016. After July 1, 2018 the Consumer Price Index will no longer be used and the index will be based only on CAFÉ Standards. Not only will the new excise rate help raise the necessary funds for Georgia's transportation infrastructure, but it will also help keep gas prices more stable and predictable for Georgia's consumers.
Under this legislation, Georgians will pay up to roughly 35 cents per gallon in taxes, 26 cents in state taxes and up to approximately 9 cents in local taxes, an increase of about 7 cents over the current rate. According to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, if you drive 18,000 a year and get 25 miles per gallon, you will pay about $50 more per year for gasoline.
HB 170 also takes precautions to limit its impact on the revenue generated for local counties through local option sales taxes. Under HB 170, local option sales taxes (LOST), homestead option sales taxes (HOST), municipal option sales taxes (MOST), special purpose local option sales taxes (SPLOST) and education special purpose local option sales taxes (ESPLOST) are left untouched. The local sales taxes will not be levied on any price per gallon above $3.00, and the legislation also authorizes counties to seek voter approval for transportation SPLOST of up to 1 percent. These measures ensure that local counties and city governments can continue to generate revenue to provide necessary services for their constituents.
Other sources of revenue in HB 170 will be generated by ensuring everyone pays their fair share in maintaining Georgia's transportation infrastructure. HB 170 adds an annual fee for drivers of alternative fuel vehicles, who currently pay less for Georgia's roads and bridges because they buy little to no gas for their vehicles. The fee totals $200 for non-commercial vehicles and $300 for commercial vehicles. The tax credit for low emission or zero emission vehicles is also eliminated, in recognition of the tax advantage that those drivers already receive from their limited need for gas. Another measure implemented by HB 170 is a fee for heavy vehicles, which cause more wear and tear on Georgia's roads. Required upon registration, the heavy vehicle fee will be set at $50 for vehicles weighing between 15,500 and 26,000 pounds and $100 for vehicles larger than 26,000 pounds. HB 170 also eliminates a tax credit given to commercial airlines and institutes a $5 per night tax on hotel stays, with an exception for extended stay lodging. Combined with the changes to gasoline tax, all of these measures are crucial for raising the necessary funds to support Georgia's transportation infrastructure.
Finally, HB 170 implements measures to improve transparency and accountability in the distribution of state transportation dollars. The bill requires the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) to provide the Georgia General Assembly with a ten year strategic plan, which would outline the department's use of resources for the upcoming years. The Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank must also meet a set of requirements to make every effort to balance any loans or other financial assistance equally among all regions of the state. The Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank may give preference to eligible projects in tier 1 and tier 2 counties. Additionally, Preference for grants and other financial assistance may be given to eligible projects which have local financial support. This bill also creates the Special Joint Committee on Georgia Revenue Structure to review any future tax reform measures that may come before the General Assembly. I'm proud that HB 170 not only addresses Georgia's critical transportation needs, but it also ensures that those needs are addressed fairly. Overall, HB 170 ensures public safety on Georgia's highways and bridges, while also making Georgia a more attractive place for businesses.
To become law, HB 170 needs only to be signed by Gov. Nathan Deal, who has already announced he will do so.
Lawmakers approve $21.8 billion budget for fiscal year 2016
On March 31, the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve a $21.8 billion annual state budget plan for fiscal year 2016, which begins July 1.
As approved, the budget reflects an estimated revenue increase of $900 million over the current year. The majority of new funds will go toward K-12 education, with additional appropriations going to local school systems for eliminating furlough days, raising teacher pay and continuing health insurance coverage for bus drivers and cafeteria workers. Education accounts for 55 percent of the overall budget.
The final version of the budget legislation (HB 76) includes the following appropriations:
- $280 million to restore previous Quality Basic Education funding cuts to local school systems.
- $100 million for repairing bridges.
- $94 million to fully fund the Teacher Retirement System.
- $17 million in additional state payments to Medicaid providers.
- $3 million to improve the financial health of struggling rural hospitals.
- $2.5 million for the Georgia Film Academy to train workers for the film and video industry.
The budget also includes a $1.1 billion bond package for new construction projects, including $75 million for transportation improvements.
Barrier to high school diploma removed
On March 30, legislation that will retroactively provide former students who did not pass the Georgia High School Graduation Test with the opportunity to earn a high school diploma was signed into law by Gov. Deal.
The graduation test was phased out three years ago, but it remained a barrier for some students who attended high school when graduation was partly contingent on passing the exam.
HB 91 will allow students who had failed the test but met all other graduation requirements to petition their local school board to obtain a diploma from their high school. The legislation was approved overwhelmingly by the House and Senate.
Individuals no longer enrolled in public school who were denied a high school diploma solely for not achieving a passing score on any of the graduation tests and met all other local and state requirements may submit a petition to their local school system to determine their eligibility to receive a high school diploma under this new law. There is no deadline for filing this petition.
Final approval for autism insurance requirement
The House gave final approval to legislation requiring Georgia insurance carriers to cover the costs of treatments for young autism patients.
Under an amended version of HB 429, health insurers will provide autism spectrum disorder treatment coverage for children ages 6 and under, with benefits limited to $35,000 per year. The measure also incorporates insurance guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of autism in young patients.
Additionally, HB 429 prohibits health insurance plans, including Medicaid and the State Health Benefit Plan, from denying coverage for or placing restrictions on end-of-life care.
Other legislation receiving final approval in the session's final days included:
- HB 70, which would designate the white-tailed deer as Georgia's official state mammal.
- HB 110, which would legalize and regulate the sale of fireworks in Georgia.
- HB 162, which would allow insurance companies to conduct self-audits to ensure practices are legally compliant.
- HB 190, which would require ride-sharing network companies such as Uber and Lyft to maintain commercial liability insurance coverage for their drivers.
- HB 202, which would provide temporary tax incentives to Mercedes Benz USA, which is moving its corporate headquarters to Georgia, and to Truett-McConnell College for a campus expansion project.
- HB 213, which would enable MARTA to expend sales tax revenues on operational expenses, above the current limitation that requires 50 percent of sales tax funding to go toward bonded indebtedness for construction projects. A provision added by the Senate that would have allowed an increase in the MARTA sales tax from 1 to 1.5 percent was removed by the House.
- HB 233, which would revise the state's civil forfeiture law dealing with the handling and disposition of cars, cash and other contraband seized by law enforcement officers.
- HB 279, which would increase the salaries of Georgia's Supreme Court justices, Court of Appeals and Superior Court judges, district attorneys and public defenders, as well as add three new judges' positions to the Court of Appeals.
- SR 7 and SB 8, which would establish the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund and increase criminal penalties against convicted sex traffickers.
- SB 76, which would require drivers to stop at crosswalks with flashing lights for pedestrian safety.
- SB 89, which would allow local schools to use digital and electronic software in place of textbooks and encourages local school boards to purchase all instructional materials in digital or electronic formats for students starting in third grade by July 1, 2020.
- SB 132, the "Move on When Ready Act," which would allow high school students to take post-secondary classes for dual credit.
All of these bills now go to Gov. Deal for his signature.
Legislation failing to achieve final passage by the House and Senate, but still pending for the 2016 session, includes:
- HB 194, which would have reduced the early voting period for Georgia elections.
- SB 129, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
- SB 184, which would have prohibited city and county governments from regulating or banning specific breeds of dogs in their jurisdictions.