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Sweeping up confetti in the winds of schadenfreude
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Under a tornado watch, perhaps appropriately, the Georgia General Assembly adjourned its two-year legislative session as the clock struck midnight on April 4.

For the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the session ranks as one of our most successful and productive, far exceeding our hopes and expectations.

Soon we’ll read the political pundits’ and editorial writers’ annual compilation of the session’s “winners” and “losers.”  No doubt, however, the agenda of the Georgia Chamber was advanced, even in a session with fierce policy disagreements.  Key business objectives were met and critical state chamber-backed legislation passed.   

Lost, unfortunately, in the storms of turmoil, was funding for a meaningful trauma care network and funding solutions for existing and future transportation needs.      

• Numerous pro-business, pro-jobs tax bills were passed — many on which the Georgia Chamber has been working for years — including three critical tax priorities for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce:   

HB 237, the “Integrated Plant Theory” bill — championed by the Georgia Traditional Manufacturers Association (GTMA), the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and many others — would exempt the sales tax on all machinery and equipment that is necessary and integral to the manufacturing process as well as all water-pollution eliminating machinery;   

HB 272, to cap the tax on energy paid by manufacturers when energy prices soar; and   

HB 1211, “The Georgia Bona Fide Large Forest Conservation Use Act of 2008,” which bring fairness to a tax code that is currently a disincentive to our timber and forestry industries and large forest conservation.   

In addition, other priority Georgia Chamber tax legislation adopted included: HB 1129, “The Georgia Tourism Development Act,” the top priority of Georgia Chamber affiliate the Tourism Development Alliance of Georgia (TDAG) to provide tax incentives for companies making significant investments in Georgia by building destination/tourist attractions; the traditional annual “back-to-school” sales tax holiday and the energy-efficient-products sales tax holiday, HB 948, which sets the state sales tax holiday on school supplies for July 31-Aug. 3, and for energy-efficient products for Oct. 2-5; House Bill 1100, an economic development tool that boosts the income tax credit for film, video or digital productions in Georgia, so as to make our state more competitive as a location for these productions. Production companies and their affiliates that have not had over $30 million in expenditures in Georgia in 2002, 2003 and 2004 are eligible for this credit if their base investment in qualified production activities in Georgia is at least $500,000. This bill increases the credit from 9 percent of the base investment in Georgia up to 20 percent of the base investment. This bill also provides for an additional credit of 10 percent of the base investment if there is a qualified Georgia promotion.   

HB 1244 — to extend the time period in which companies can use tax credits for allowing employees to telework — got bogged down in the disagreements between the House and Senate over elimination of the “car tag tax” and reduction of the personal income tax.   

Neither Speaker Richardson’s GREAT Plan nor a proposal by the House to eliminate the personal vehicle ad valorem tax (“car tag tax”) nor the Senate’s proposal for a 10 percent reduction in the personal income tax passed.   

• HB 89.  What began as legislation to remove a business owner’s right to set policies pertaining to the introduction of firearms to the workplace was amended on the final day of the session to allow employers, whether they own the land on which they operate or lease it, to ban guns from their parking accommodations if they so choose.   

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution stated, HB 89, formerly the “bring your guns to work” legislation, now “allows employees to leave weapons in parking lots as long as it’s okay with the company.”   

The final adopted bill also de-criminalizes the carry of guns by individuals with Georgia Firearms Licenses (GFLs) into certain restaurants that serve alcohol (the carrier may not drink), state parks, wildlife management areas and “historic sites,” and on local mass transit systems.  The bill also speeds up the process for the renewal of gun permits.      

• A statewide, comprehensive water plan, Senate Resolution 701 and House Resolution 1022, was adopted overwhelmingly early in the session, a plan that was developed in close cooperation with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and with the input of our members.   

Legislation was passed to create one statewide standard for water restrictions during a time of drought, HB 1281, which avoids a patchwork maze of hundreds of different local government restrictions.  A city, county or local water authority could petition the director of the state Environmental Protection Division for an exemption. The bill also would prohibit any restrictions on filling swimming pools unless there is not enough water for humans, farms or industries.   

Georgia Chamber-supported legislation was also agreed upon that gets Georgia’s reservoir building program jumpstarted.   

And a bill was passed to place the Georgia Environment Protection Division (EPD) under the same legislative oversight process to which every other state agency and department is subject, SB 352 ; that is, the General Assembly may override any departmental regulation that isn’t promulgated in compliance with federal rules or regulations or law.

SB 426, SB 427, SB 428 and HB 548 and HB 1289 — Revitalization of Jekyll Island

A number of Georgia Chamber members have expressed interest in several bills that would weaken the planned $341 million revitalization of Jekyll Island.  The above-listed bills failed to pass. Combined, these measures would have prevented additional fulltime residences from being built on the state-owned island, restricted construction near the waterfront, and limited what new hotels could charge overnight guests, many provisions that are already addressed in the revitalization plan approved by the Jekyll Island State Park Authority. Seventy-five percent of the island cannot, by law, be developed and the plan for improvements to Jekyll calls for development of less than that state-mandated ratio.  

The plan, supported by the Glynn County Commission, the Brunswick City Council and the Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce, calls for rebuilding the crumbling hotels on the island with the new properties charging daily rates as low as $105 and rebuilding the aging convention center.  Sadly, since 1990, traffic to beautiful, historic Jekyll Island is down by half, tours of the historic district are down 29 percent, golf rounds are down 32 percent and hotel stays on the island are down 24 percent.     

• “The Corporate Good Samaritan Act,” to give businesses and non-profits some liability protection when performing “Good Samaritan” acts, in a time of an emergency or crisis, was passed, included in HB 89, mentioned above.  A top priority for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the measure gives some protection for businesses that render aid in times of natural disasters, acts of terrorism, pandemic diseases or other emergencies and encourages non-profits and businesses to assist the state when called upon to respond quickly and effectively to emergencies with private as well as public resources.   

• Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has announced the appointment of a Senate Study Committee on employment contracts to review current Georgia law pertaining to non-compete contracts in Georgia and to develop legislation to address the study committee’s finding. Sens. Judson Hill, Bill Cowsert and David Adelman have been appointed to this committee.   

• HR 47 establishes a Legislative Study Committee on Judicial Election Reform.

• SB 359 was passed establishing a “Made in Georgia” marketing and labeling program to promote goods and products manufactured in Georgia; also, study committees were created in both the House and Senate to examine the future of manufacturing in Georgia, SR 1097 and a version of HR 1364   amended on the final day.   

• Trauma care funding — $60-plus million was added to the 2008 budget for trauma care for the rest of this year.  But the House and Senate failed to reach an agreement to provide a dedicated source of funding for a trauma care network to provide immediate, top-tier treatment for victims of serious car accidents, gun shots and other severe, life-threatening trauma cases.

• Budget victory: Medicaid reimbursements for health care providers will go up beginning in 2009, as the governor, House and Senate found common ground to raise the average reimbursement rate from 80 cents per dollar of cost.   

• Sadly, about the same time trauma care funding was lost, 130 employees at Telfair Regional Hospital in McRae were hit with the news that the county’s sixth-largest employer was closing. Hospital officials say paying for indigent care was a large part of the financial burden that led to the hospital’s closing. In 2005, the hospital provided almost a million dollars in indigent care to the community. With the closing of Telfair Regional, the next nearest hospitals are 30 minutes away in Dodge, Wheeler and Jeff Davis counties. About 15,000 patients annually used the rural McRae hospital.

• CON compromise.  The Georgia Hospital Association, the Alliance of Community Hospitals, the Medical Association of Georgia and other interested parties agreed late in the session to a compromise on Certificate of Need (CON) reform legislation.

• HB 977 to increase availability of health insurance for Georgians passed.  The bill provides tax breaks for the use of high-deductible insurance policies coupled with health savings accounts.  Under 977, small employers would get a $250 tax credit per enrolled worker and individuals would earn a tax deduction.  The legislation’s goal is to help insure 500,000 of the state’s uninsured.

• Objective met: Slow the growing expansion of government regulation of health and property-casualty insurance.  Two bills to vastly expand government regulation of free-market insurance products were defeated, and one to provide more market competition in automobile insurance was passed.  HB 798   would have expanded the authority of the Department of Insurance to regulate Pharmacy Benefit Managers, potentially costing employers billions of dollars, and HB 923 would have given state regulators more power to regulate private market health insurance plans.  SB 276 to give consumers more choice in auto insurance policies and to provide more competition among auto insurers passed.   

• While on the topic of insurance, and health insurance in particular, our friends at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation  (GPPF) have an interesting article in their spring “Georgia Policy Review” newsletter, “What Health Care Crisis?” by Dr. Harold Brown, UGA professor emeritus, which makes a few points worth considering to keep the ever-repeated phrase “health care crisis” in perspective:   

“The percentage of Americans with health care insurance has hovered around 85 percent since 1987, when the Census Bureau first started asking the question.”

“Of those American families who paid any medical expenses in 2004, only 20 percent paid $1,000 or more out-of-pocket. For the average family, out-of-pocket health care expenses increased only $1,184 from 1990 to 2005.  That’s a lot of money, but not out of line with other family expenses.  During those years, families spent 91 cents on entertainment for every dollar spent on health care. In the meantime, housing expenditures went up five times as much as those for health care and [almost three times as much for] transportation.”

While the General Assembly failed to adopt transportation funding, the ball was moved down the field to the goal line just before time ran out, and we are optimistic that our elected leaders will work cooperatively to make this a top priority in 2009. It is too important an economic development issue, too important a quality-of-life issue for our state.

Joe Fleming is senior vice president for government affairs at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.