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‘Slow poke’ bill flies through in time for Crossover Day

POSTED: March 3, 2014 8:11 p.m.

Last week was a very busy one as legislative day 30, more commonly known as “Crossover Day,” was nearing. Monday was Crossover Day, and it is the deadline in which a piece of legislation must pass at least one of the General Assembly’s two chambers or else it is dead for this year’s session.

With this date looming, we spent many long hours at the State Capitol to ensure important pieces of legislation were either passed on the House floor or ready for a vote on Crossover Day.

Many of the bills passed during this crucial week were related to education and the welfare of our children. One such bill was HB 826, which provides local school systems with more flexibility in handling violations of school safety zones.

Under HB 826, schools would no longer be required to expel students who are caught with items such as a fishing/hunting knife or other routinely-used items that could also be used as weapons in their cars on school campuses. Currently, if a student is found on school grounds with these items in their vehicle, they are automatically suspended and charged with a felony.

In these cases under this bill, local school systems will now be able to issue lesser penalties if they have no reason to believe that the student intended to use the item as a weapon.  Granting local school systems the authority to deal with these situations on a case-by-case basis will help prevent a student’s record and reputation from being tarnished when it was an innocent mistake.

Another measure was unanimously passed that I believe will ultimately cut costs and help with the state’s fiscal responsibility. This is HB 412, which allows for county tax commissioners to offer the ability for taxpayers to receive their tax bills and notifications electronically.  Electronic notifications save money, are more efficient and are an effective way to streamline services.

In this technological age, I think it is our responsibility to use technological advancements wisely in saving taxpayers’ money and running our state more efficiently.

I served 12 years as a member of the Georgia State Indemnification Commission, whose responsibility it is to determine, based on the facts of each individual case, whether death benefits for peace officers, firefighters, prison guards and Department of Transportation highway workers meet the criteria of being “in the line of duty.”

Being knowledgeable about how many “in the line of duty” deaths actually occur, I was glad to see the passage of HB 937 that revises the code section relating to the Georgia Firefighters’ Pension Fund.

This is a non-fiscal retirement bill that revises the definition of “fire department” to align to relating to fire protection and safety. Our firefighters put their lives on the line, facing dangerous situations amid unpredictable circumstances in an effort to help and protect the lives of fellow Georgians. I believe it is our duty to provide this pension fund for the loved ones they leave behind upon death. It is my privilege to support the men and women who honorably serve in this way.

In regards to safety, I authored HB 459, more commonly known as the “slow poke” bill that I believe will help decrease motorists’ stress. This bill provides that on a multi-lane highway with more than one lane traveling in the same direction, when a vehicle traveling at a faster speed approaches a slower moving vehicle from the rear, traffic conditions permitting, the slower vehicle should give way to the right and allow the faster vehicle to pass.

There is no prohibition on driving in the left lane, so long as you are not restricting the movement of faster traffic. My hope is that it will expedite traffic and reduce the episodes of reckless driving and road rage that sometimes occur as the result of impeding/obstructing traffic. The bill passed 162-9.

Another bill that passed last week was HB 549, sponsored by Rep. Jon Burns and which I co-sponsored. It serves to protect the health and well-being of Georgians by creating a new code section stating that if any substance that endangers the health or property of downstream water users in Georgia is discharged into these waters, it is the duty of the person in charge of the substance to immediately notify the Georgia Environmental Protection Division of the discharge’s nature and location, and to immediately take all reasonable steps to prevent injury to the health of property of downstream users.

If EPD determines that the health or property of downstream users is threatened, then it will consult with the state and local appropriate emergency response agencies to determine if it is necessary to prepare and distribute a public notice concerning the threat. This is responsible legislation that encourages conscientiousness for our environment and for fellow Georgians.

I believe many of you who live near the Ogeechee or Savannah rivers, or use them for fishing and recreation, understand the necessity of this legislation for our area, particularly in light of the Ogeechee River fish kill a couple of years ago.

Last week, I reported on the HOPE scholarship and this week, HB 810 was unanimously passed which amends HOPE eligibility requirements for students who complete a home study program instead of graduating from an eligible high school. Under this bill, home-schooled students must score in the 80th percentile or higher nationally on a standardized admission test, such as the SAT or ACT to receive HOPE scholarships. As more and more Georgians are home-schooling their children, this is sensible legislation and one that makes the HOPE scholarship available to all of our excellent students across the state.

Finally, as we further considered legislation that affects children and young adults, HB 251 was passed which prohibits the sale of electronic cigarettes and nicotine gum or patches from being sold to persons under the age of 18. This is prudent legislation that protects young people from falling into unwise practices that could detrimentally affect their health.

Please let me know if I can be of assistance to you, as we consider legislation that affects the life of you and your family. It is an honor and privilege to serve you and you can be assured that I weigh every decision carefully. If you would like to communicate with me, I can be reached at (404) 656-0178 or by email at bill.hitchens@house.ga.gov.  My mailing address at the State Capitol is 501 Coverdell Legislative Office Building, Atlanta, GA 30334.

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