40 Days and Some Long Nights for the Georgia Legislature

Due to the budget shortfall, this 40-day legislative session proved to be one of the most challenging in Georgia?s history. Given the amount of party infighting and legislative shuffle boarding between the House and the Senate, a number of legislators may not have minded giving up politics for Lent this session.

As the final votes were tallied on April 14, solar energy was in, a major proposed tax overhaul was out, Sunday alcohol sales decisions were localized, and the country?s second toughest immigration measure was passed.
Georgia Rejuvenates Solar Energy Incentives

Earlier this session, the solar energy income tax credit legislation was largely written off as dead. That is, until Senator Ronnie Chance started marshaling support from House Speaker David Ralston, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle and Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers and their respective leadership teams.  On April 13, Senator Chance presented an amendment to HB 346 that extended and doubled Georgia?s tax credits for solar energy installation. Despite an extremely contentious evening, the amendment was added to the bill with no objections, and the amended bill passed the 56-member Senate by a vote of 53-0. On Thursday night, the amended bill passed the House by a vote of 167-1, making it one of the last measures of the legislative session to pass.

The bill extends the alternative energy solar tax credits for two more years through 2014.  It also doubles the annual cap from $2.5 million to $5 million but stipulates that the recipients must take the credits in equal parts over four years.
Its passage is welcome news for green industry technicians and other workers who install and service solar installations and for companies looking to improve their environmental impact.  The tax credit extension will spur new solar installations, creating work for small Georgia businesses employing electricians, roofers, HVAC and other technicians.

Reece & Associates, the Georgia Solar Energy Association, and Jason Rooks played leading roles in passing HB 346. The legislation also received major impetus when it came up during a meeting of the German American CEO Roundtable group, chaired by Porsche Cars North America President & CEO Detlev von Platen.
Immigration Reform Showdown

The most contentious piece of legislation this session was House Bill 87 sponsored by Rep. Matt Ramsey (R-Peachtree City).  As originally written, the bill required companies to screen all new-hire applicants through the federal database ?E-Verify? to determine if they are legal U.S. residents.  This stipulation pitted business-minded Republicans against Republicans following campaign pledges to take decisive action on illegal immigration.  On the final day of the session, the State Senate amended the bill to exempt businesses with fewer than 10 employees from using ?E-Verify? and granted businesses 30 days to come into compliance. The bill shot back through the House just after 10PM the same night and is now awaiting Governor Deal?s promised signature.

Along with the ?E-Verify? stipulations, HB 87 stiffens a number of other penalties, including punishing the use of fake identification for employment purposes with up to 15 years in prison.  It also empowers local and state police to check suspected illegal immigrants? status and then potentially arrest and jail them.  Anyone caught transporting or harboring illegal immigrants could now face up to 12 months in prison.
Opponents of the measure argue that businesses will be hamstrung by the ?E-Verify? requirement, claiming it creates unnecessary red tape, expense and delays in hiring.  Much of HB 87 resembles Arizona?s controversial Senate Bill 1070, which is currently mired in a number of legal challenges expected to stretch all the way to the Supreme Court.  Though bill author Matt Ramsey reportedly attempted to craft the bill to avoid Arizona?s legal issues, HB 87 is likely to see multiple legal challenges.
Tax Overhaul Goes Out with a Whimper

The biggest news regarding the state budget was what did not happen.  The massive tax code overhaul effort?designed to lower personal income taxes from 6% to 4.6% but hike taxes on repairs and communication services, for example?was abandoned just a few days before the session ended.  Some say part of the plan?s downfall can be traced to tax attorney and House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who said the tax reform would hurt the middle class while giving larger tax breaks to single filers earning more than $80,000 and joint filers earning more than $160,000.

The actual 2012 state budget, weighing in at $18.3 billion, is more measured in its impact.  The budget does not raise taxes, but budget shortfalls were patched by measures, including increasing health insurance premiums for state employees and reducing higher education funding.
Atlanta School Board to Answer to Governor Deal

Thanks to the Georgia legislature, Governor Deal will soon have the power to remove and appoint members of the Atlanta Public School board.  The move follows the Atlanta Public School System?s accreditation probation in January and the ensuing weeks of embarrassing national media coverage regarding the Board?s infighting.

Governor Deal says the bill is designed to pressure the Board to reach an agreement and end its probation.  The Atlanta School Board must appear before the State Board of Education in July, after which time Governor Deal could potentially remove all nine members.
Bill Denies Federal Health Care Law

Along with immigration, Georgia is also now lockstep with Arizona over the federal health care overhaul. On Thursday Georgia became the second state in the nation?after Arizona?to pass a bill designed to defy the federal health care law. Senator Charlie Bethel (R-Dalton) sponsored House Bill 461 to allow Georgia to join other states in a health care compact, asserting states? rights to decide health policy.

Likewise, House Bill 476, designed to establish the Georgia Health Exchange Authority, failed to pass the House. The bill would have paved the way to create the insurance exchanges mandated by the federal health care law.

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