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Our Wrap-up on the 2014 Legislative Session

In This Issue
Bills Passed in 2014
Bills Not Passed in 2014
Looking Forward
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April 14, 2014

Georgia Watch tracked numerous bills and resolutions impacting consumers during the 2014 General Assembly. Below we highlight the outcome of significant legislation on several of our highest priority issues as a consumer advocacy organization.        

 

For a more detailed report on these issues, click here

 

Bills Passed in 2014
                           

FINANCE

 

House Bill 915

This bill requires consumer credit reporting agencies to have a procedure whereby parents can establish a credit identity in their child's name and then freeze it until the child becomes an adult. This will help prevent child identity theft, which is the fastest growing form of identity theft today. Criminals use children's identities to open new lines of credit, qualify for government benefits, buy homes, and even to commit grand theft auto. Georgia Watch is pleased that the bill passed with overwhelming support from the House and Senate, showing that child protection is an important bipartisan issue.

 

House Bill 824

This bill allows banks to circumvent the limits on interest rates by labeling charges as "fees." The statute that this bill amended, O.C.G.A. 7-4-2, provided for limitations on the legal rate of interest. With this new amendment, however, those interest rate limitations will not apply to "fees" and "charges." This enables banks to charge excessive rates for insufficient funds, returned payment charges, stop payment charges, and charges for automated teller machines. The passing of this bill in the House and Senate was a huge step backward for consumer protection.

 

House Bill 828

House Bill 828's purpose is to prevent ambulance chasers from taking advantage of accident victims. The passing of this bill was a victory for Georgia consumers. It received overwhelming support in both the House and the Senate. HB 828 makes it illegal for any law enforcement worker, wreck services worker, emergency responder, doctor, hospital employee or lawyer to take advantage of accident victims by soliciting, releasing, or selling information about the accident. It also holds ambulance chasers accountable by imposing sanctions on them.

 

HEALTHCARE

 

House Bill 707/Senate Bill 334

In its initial form, this bill would have prohibited any state employee or agent from implementing any provision of the Affordable Care Act. Fortunately, this bill was significantly modified from its original version prior to its passage. It ultimately passed as an amendment to House Bill 943 which was, ironically, a bill expanding access to oral chemotherapy drugs for cancer patients. The final version of the bill prohibits UGA or any other state agency or authority from operating a navigator program "or its equivalent," but it does little else to limit current enrollment efforts.

 

House Bill 990

This bill prohibits the expansion of the Medicaid program in Georgia through an increase in the income threshold without prior legislative approval. The legislative approval necessary could be either an "Act of the General Assembly or the adoption of a joint resolution of the General Assembly." Prior to the passage of this bill, the Governor of Georgia had the authority to expand the Medicaid program with federal funding available under the Affordable Care Act. This bill was sponsored by leaders in the House of Representatives, and its ultimate passage did not come as a surprise. This bill will make it more difficult for Medicaid expansion to become a reality in Georgia.

Bills Not Passed in 2014
                 

COURTS

 

Senate Bill 141/House Bill 662

First introduced in the Georgia legislature in 2013 as SB 141 and in 2014 as HB 662, this legislation would eliminate the cause of action under Georgia law for medical malpractice. The bill instead creates an administrative bureaucracy system to determine compensation for medical injuries.Georgia Watch is actively opposing this legislation because it takes away Georgians' constitutional right to trial by jury. Fortunately, the legislation did not move out of committee in the Senate or House this year.

 

House Bill 643

This bill would have greatly weakened consumer representation in fraud, warranty breach and financial tort cases by making the pre-trial discovery process more burdensome for consumers. HB 643 contained provisions that would make it more difficult to hold parties accountable for purposefully destroying evidence. Its provisions would also open the door to place the burden on consumers to explain why information the defendant is hiding should be revealed in discovery. The bill was passed in Georgia's House of Representatives, but fortunately did not pass in the Senate.  

Looking Forward to 2015

             

ENERGY

 

House Bill 874

HB 874 would give Georgia homes, businesses, churches, schools and military bases the freedom to save money through financing options that reduce the upfront cost of solar installations. The bill received two favorable hearings in the House Energy, Utilities & Telecommunications Committee and has been assigned to a special subcommittee for further review during the session interim. Georgia Watch will be actively monitoring and supporting this legislation next session.

 

FINANCE

 

House Bill 1154

This bill, filed at the end of the 2014 session, would rewrite Georgia's debt adjustment statute to permit UNLIMITED debt settlement fees and higher fees for debt management. Georgia Watch spoke out against HB 465, a similar bill, in the 2013 legislative session, and it was voted down overwhelmingly in committee. We will monitor and oppose this bill in 2015.

 

House Bill 819

Georgia Watch initially supported this bill because it would have disallowed tax commissioners from collecting fees for selling tax debts, extended the time before a tax lien could be transferred, and required greater diligence to find property owners before a lien could be placed and sold. The bill also contained language that protected consumers from "super liens," but to Georgia Watch's disappointment, this language was subsequently removed. The bill was tabled in the Senate. Georgia Watch is optimistic that the failure of this bill to pass presents a great opportunity to bring a stronger version of the bill next session that protects property owners from super liens.

 

Senate Resolution 1186

This resolution forms a study committee to consider legislation that would strengthen consumer protections and keep families in their homes. Thousands of homeowners have shared horror stories of lost applications, requests to send in the same paperwork dozens of times, delayed decisions on their applications, and losing their homes BEFORE ever getting an answer on their request for help. This legislation addresses these problems by ensuring that borrowers who submit timely applications for help are evaluated according to servicing guidelines and the National Mortgage Settlement entered into by Georgia and 48 other states. This legislation would also prevent dual-tracking (pursuing foreclosure and evaluation of loss mitigation simultaneously). In addition, this legislation would lengthen the notice period prior to a foreclosure sale date. Georgia Watch will support this legislation in 2015.

 

COURTS

 

House Bill 801

This bill deals with the regulation of consumer lawsuit lenders' interest rates and loan fees by placing a 10% cap on consumer lawsuit lenders' interest rates. While the regulation of these lenders may be beneficial to Georgia consumers, Georgia Watch is concerned that the current language of the bill may apply to attorneys who work with consumer lawsuit lenders and collect their attorneys' fees on contingency. Georgia Watch is also concerned that the bill's discovery requirements could burden consumers. The bill did not make it out of committee, but Georgia Watch will continue to track this legislation in the event that it is introduced again next session.

 

House Bill 675

This legislation would force the losing party in a lawsuit involving a gas company or electric utility to pay the other party's attorneys' fees. Most consumer-plaintiffs know that they don't have the money to pay for the opposing party's attorneys' fees, especially when that opposing party is a big company. This would discourage plaintiffs from bringing suit. In addition, if consumers are too afraid to bring suit, gas companies and electric utilities will not be motivated to correct their faulty practices. Fortunately, the bill did not make it out of committee. Georgia Watch will continue to monitor this legislation in the event that it is brought up again next session.