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Posted: June 13, 2010 12:01 a.m.

Breaking down recent state bills

Tuesday was the deadline for Gov. Perdue to sign or veto the remaining bills from the 2010 Georgia legislative session and many bills could affect local residents and governments.

Below is a description of some of the recently signed bills. To read any bill, visit www.legis.state.ga.us/ and type in the appropriate bill number in the upper right hand corner.

Senate Bill 360 — texting now prohibited while driving

Effective July 1, this bill will prohibit any driver from texting while driving. The definition of texting includes reading any text based communication, including text message, instant message, e-mail, or Internet data, according to the law. A violation of this law can result in one point being added to your license and a $150 fine. Georgia is the 28th state to enact an anti-texting law, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

House Bill 23 — drivers under 18 can’t use cell phone while driving

Drivers who have an instructional permit or provisional, Class D, license and are under 18 years of age are not allowed to use a cell phone or similar device for any purpose while driving, except to report an accident, crime or related situation. Similar to S.B. 360, violating this law can result in one point being added to your license and a $150 fine.

Senate Bill 458 — pickup truck drivers must now wear seatbelts

This bill redefines pickup trucks as passenger vehicles, which require drivers to wear their seatbelts. However, pickup trucks being used for agricultural pursuits by drivers over 18 are not included as passenger vehicles.

"Pick-ups have changed over the years, and are often used to get back and forth to work on an everyday basis. Today, they are out on our expressways and bypasses, as well as farms," said Governor Perdue in an official press release. "We all recognize that seatbelts save lives. With this legislation we look to continuing to build a ‘Safer Georgia’ for the next generation."

House Bill 277 — overhaul of transportation funding

This bill was capstone of the state’s efforts to revamp transportation funding in Georgia. The final version of this bill creates special tax districts for transportation that mirror the state’s 12 regional planning boundaries, according to a press release from the Governor’s Office.

In 2008, Georgia passed legislation creating regional commission’s to direct planning in those regions. Newton County was placed into the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission along with Barrow, Clarke, Elbert, Greene, Jackson, Jasper, Madison, Morgan, Oconee, Oglethorpe and Walton counties.

Voters in each region will have the ability to decide on new transportation improvements for their region by voting on a one percent sales tax – essentially a transportation-only SPLOST.

Counties cannot opt-out of the process, so if the tax is passed all counties will be taxed even if a majority of voters in a particular county vote against the tax. At a recent legislative wrap-up meeting hosted by the local chamber of commerce, Rep. Doug Holt (R-Social Circle) said an opt-out clause would have been nice, but Newton County should benefit from being one of the largest counties in the NGRC, "a big fish in a small pond."

He said it was favorable that the county didn’t end up in the Atlanta Regional Commission, where it would have had to compete with millions of Atlanta-centric voters. Sen. John Douglas (R-Social Circle) said each county will send a county and municipal representative to be on the regional board. Each county will present projects for consideration.

If a majority of the board members can approve a list of projects, which would be created during 2011, Georgia citizens will vote on the one-cent sales tax in the 2012 General Primary, according to the Association of County Commissioners’ website. The tax would be in effect for 10 years, according to the law.

The T-SPLOST money would be added on to the region on top of local and state money. If voters vote not to have the tax, the region must wait at least two years until it can once again vote on a T-SPLOST.

Holt said that only about 4 percent of the budget is spent on transportation; a figure that falls woefully short of other states. This bill seeks to significantly beef up transportation funding.

House Bill 1055 — increased court fees, eventual elimination of state portion of property tax

This bill contained dozens of changes. The most immediate changes are state-mandated increases to many Magistrate, Probate and Superior Court fees. These took place May 12.

For a full list of all changes view the box next to this story. While many fees are increasing, Clerk of Superior Courts Linda D. Hays said most of the increased money will go to the state.

The most startling increase was a tenfold increase to the per page cost to prepare a court record when a legal party is appealing a Superior Court decision. Before H.B. 1055 was passed, each page of an appeal record would cost the party $1 per page, but that fee was increased to $10 per page. These records are frequently hundreds or thousands of pages.

Because that cost would be prohibitive for so many residents and businesses, both the Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have created internal rules allowing attorneys to prepare part of the records themselves. This bypasses the increases, because previously the court’s clerks had to prepare the appeal records. Now, the attorneys can print most of the records themselves at their own costs, and need only a few pages from the clerks, said Newton County Superior Court employee Becky White. Most state legislators have said they did not realize the effect of this particular increase on the court system.

This tenfold fee increase is also being applied to the cost to make certified copies at probate courts, said Probate Court Supervisor Peggy Lassiter. She said most of the additional money made by the increased fees will be held locally. She said increased birth and death certificate costs will probably have the largest effect, but the increases for those have not yet been decided.

• This bill will also reduce the state portion of annual property taxes, beginning in 2012. By 2016, the state will no longer charge its portion of the property tax. The effect on the average homeowner will be small compared to local property taxes. According to information previously provided by Newton County Tax Commissioner Barbara Dingler, a homesteaded property valued at $153,500, the average home value according to the U.S. Census Bureau, paid $14.85 in state property taxes, regardless of whether it was incorporated or unincorporated.

• In addition, the bill essentially eliminates taxes on retirement income for citizens above 65 years of age. They will not be taxed on any retirement income below $65,000 after 2012, and by 2016 will not be taxed on that retirement income no matter how much they make. However, earned income, such as wages, will still be taxed after a senior citizen earns more than $4,000.

• It also includes a 1.45 percent hospital provider payment that will allow the state to draw down additional federal dollars and increase Medicaid reimbursements to hospitals and other providers, according to the Governor’s Office. Provider payments are what hospital pays to the government in order to operate.

This voluntary, self-imposed payment agreement will allow the state to receive federal Medicaid dollars by a three-to-one ratio while also preventing a possible 10.25 percent Medicaid rate cut to physicians and hospitals, which could hurt many hospitals, according to a story in our sister paper The Barrow County News.

Senate Bill 308 – clarifying gun carrying laws

This bill was designed to clarify where Georgians can legally carry firearms. Under most circumstances, individuals with a valid weapons carry license can carry a handgun or knife in all parks, historic sites, or recreational areas and on public transportation.

Individuals may not carry guns in a government building, courthouse, jail or prison, place of worship, state mental health facility, nuclear power facility or within 150 feet of a polling place. In addition, guns may only be carried in bars with the owner’s permission. With a few exceptions, if a person has a weapons carry license he can carry a gun in nearly every location not listed above.

According to GeorgiaCarry.org, which describes itself as a non-partisan, grassroots organization and voice for gun owners:

"It is vital for law-abiding citizens who wish to arm themselves for self-defense to know definitively what places are off-limits. This bill, through the leadership of Sen. Seabaugh, eliminates much of the ambiguity inherent in the former law. GeorgiaCarry.org believes that this legislation is an important step in the restoration and full implementation of law-abiding citizens’ right to bear arms."

Senate Bill 250 — anti-bullying bill

This bill changes the definition of bullying by increasing the number of locations where harmful actions are considered bullying, including at school, on school vehicles, at bus stops, at school related functions and through the computers or computer networks of school systems.

Also bullying is redefined as any intentional written, verbal, or physical act, which a reasonable person would perceive as being intended to threaten, harass, or intimidate a child or which causes physical harm, interferes with education, threatens to disrupt general education or disrupts the operation of a school.

Local school boards have to develop policies to notify parents or guardians if bullying occurs, and the Georgia Department of Education is tasked with developing a model policy to address bullying.

House Bill 122 — Local governments must submit their budgets and financial audits to the Carl Vinson Institute of Government to be displayed on the institute’s website — cviog.uga.edu.

House Bill 901 - If an individual commits a fourth felony, and for each subsequent felony, he must "serve the maximum time provided in the sentence of the judge based upon such conviction and shall not be eligible for parole until the maximum sentence has been served."

Senate Bill 435 - This bill establishes a grant program to combat the increase of diabetes cases in Georgia. Without prevention, the burden on the state related to diabetes is expected to more than double to $11.9 billion in 20 years. 

Senate Bill 454 - This bill was co-sponsored by Sen. John Douglas (R-Social Circle) and increases the costs for the licenses that are required for business owners to operate coin-slot machines.

 

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