The longest legislative session in Georgia’s history came to a close Friday. And for many the 2020 session will be remembered as the year Georgia passed a hate crimes bill, the year the state pushed back on legalized gambling, or the year the lawmakers had to scramble to create a budget when facing the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak and shutdown.
For Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan (R-Carrollton) the 2020 session will not soon be forgotten.
“I’m sure it will be primarily remembered for the passing of bias-based crimes bills including HB 426 and HB 838 but much more than even those historic measures were accomplished,” said Dugan. “Laws protecting us against getting surprise medical bills, giving transparency in prescription drug pricing, making strides to improve maternal and infant mortality rates, and laws to give parity for our brick and mortar stores with online businesses were also among the new laws that we put on the books.
“It was a challenge,” Dugan continued. “We entered the year knowing we were going to have a budget reduction but then suffered through the worst pandemic in over 100 years which caused our economic woes to get magnified significantly. Tragedies took place that generated public outcry and protests. Most were peaceful but there were unfortunately a few that turned violent. On top of all of this we lost two key members of our Senate family. Senators Jack Hill and Greg Kirk both passed leaving holes in their areas of expertise and holes in our hearts fire they were two of our most gentle and beloved statesmen. We accomplished a lot of great things for Georgia that we can be proud of but the loss of these two men from our body will always leave a dark feeling in me when I think of 2020.”
As Dugan mentioned, most will remember the 2020 session for the passage of HB 426 — the Hate Crimes Bill, and HB 838 — known as the Police Protections Bill. HB 426 imposes additional penalties for crimes motivated by a victim’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability. HB 838 create a new crime of bias-motivated intimidation for people who commit offenses against police, firefighter and emergency personnel.
Gov. Brian Kemp signed HB 426 into law Friday saying the signing of the new law is a “milestone worth applauding,” and affirmed that Georgia is a state “too great to hate.” Democratic Rep. Calvin Smyre, the Dean of the House, called it a “defining moment” in Georgia’s history.
Other bills that passed:
House Bill 888: Patients could see fewer surprise medical bills under — the surprise billing law. This bill will require insurers in many cases to pay for care by a doctor or at a hospital not within their network of providers and will limit patient liability for costs.
Senate Bill 376: Public school students in Georgia will see fewer state standardized tests under this bill. The measure, which had the Governor’s support early on, cut four of eight exams in high school and one exam in middle school.
Human Trafficking: Continuing to add tools to the state’s toolbox in the fight against Human Trafficking, lawmakers voted to revoke commercial driver’s licenses for those convicted of human trafficking.
House Bill 912: Allows foster parents to be able to arrange a short vacation for up to two nights, leaving the foster children with family or someone other than certified “respite” care.
House Bill 1114: Extends Medicaid for low-income mothers from two to six months postpartum. Georgia’s maternal mortality rate has long ranked among the worst in the U.S. and a study committee recently found that 60 percent of the state’s maternal deaths between 2012 and 2014 were preventable. The FY 21 Budget included $19.7 million to fully fund six months of Medicaid coverage for low-income mothers.
House Bill 879: Allows Georgians to get beer, wine and other alcohol delivered to their doorstep.
Film Tax Credits: This bill requires all film projects to undergo audits before claiming tax credits under House Bill 1037.
Assisted Living Requirements: Under House Bill 987, assisted living and personal care homes will face higher training and safety requirements.
Senate Bill 375 — This bill will regulate vaping products and impose state taxes on them.
Senate Bill 288 — This bill allows people to ask a judge to restrict public access to criminal records of non-violent or non-sexual misdemeanors if they haven’t committed another offense within four years.
The Budget — Georgia lawmakers agreed to the FY21 budget in the final days of the session. They faced a decrease in revenues as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, but finally agreed on a $26 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins this week. The budget for fiscal 2021 includes spending cuts of $950 million in K-12 funding, but has no furloughs for state employees.
Bills that didn’t pass:
Gambling: Many thought this might be the year that a bill to legalize gambling in Georgia might take off. But lawmakers rejected plans to legalize sports betting and said no to allowing voters to decide a constitutional amendment on legalizing casinos and horse racing.
Paid Parental Leave: Senators turned down an effort backed by House Speaker David Ralston to give paid parental leave to 250,000 state employees and teachers.
Pay Hikes for Teachers: Plans to give teachers additional pay raises of up to $2,000 was cut in the new budget.
Absentee Ballots: A bill that would have barred the Secretary of State or elections officials from mailing absentee ballot applications to Georgia voters failed to pass.
Cigarette tax: Despite a strong push by Democrats, Republicans rejected attempts to increase Georgia’s cigarette taxes.
“The 2020 legislative session will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the General Assembly’s most historic sessions,” said Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan. “In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, we met to address a host of critical issues including the state budget, hate crimes legislation, surprise billing, and liability protections for Georgia businesses as they work to reopen. We could never have imagined the events of the last few months when we convened in January, and I am incredibly proud of all the work the legislature accomplished this year.”