July 1 typically brings a bevy of new laws into effect that were approved by the General Assembly earlier in the year. This year, Georgians can expect to see a new $5 fee tacked on to hotel/motel stays, slight changes to their gas taxes, and will now be able to buy aerial fireworks that were formerly illegal.
Starting Wednesday, fireworks that have long previously been illegal will be available for purchase and shooting off in Georgia. Consumer fireworks - defined as aerial fireworks, or those that explode in the air - will be legal to purchase in Georgia. Residents can already purchase hand-held and ground-based sparkling devices, such as sparklers and fountains.
Consumer fireworks legal to purchase include:
• Sky Rockets and Bottle Rockets
• Missile-Type Rockets
• Helicopter and Aerial Spinners
• Roman Candles
• Multi-Aerial Mine and Shell Devices
• Aerial Shell Kits
These fireworks can be used between 10 a.m. and midnight throughout most of the year. On July 3 and July 4, consumer fireworks can be used from 10 a.m. through 2 a.m. And in celebration of the New Year, consumer fireworks can be used from 10 a.m. through 2 a.m. on December 31 and January 1. You must be 18 years old to purchase consumer fireworks.
Consumer fireworks are prohibited within a school safety zone, at a school function or on a bus or other transportation furnished by a school. Fireworks cannot be exploded within 100 yards of a nuclear power facility or gas station, or a facility that refines, processes or blends gasoline.
Fireworks are also prohibited in Rockdale County parks and facilities, said Rockdale County Recreation and Maintenance Director Jackie Lunsford.
Residents are allowed to shoot fireworks on private property. However, if they move to public property, they would need a permit, points out Rockdale County Fire and Rescue Fire Marshal Jerry Wainright. "Georgia OCGA 25-10-4 has not changed and still requires a permit through the probate court for all displays before an audience or to conduct a public exhibition or display," said Wainright. "The intent is that you are allowed to shoot on private property but when you move to public property where you meet the audience/public display requirements, you need to have a permit which will ensure audience safety based on the display requirements established in NFPA 1123."
Hotel/motel fee for roads/bridges
The new fee on hotel and motel stays was tacked on to a transportation bill passed by the state legislature earlier this year and will generate an estimated $150 million annually to pay for road and bridge improvements across Georgia.
It takes effect Wednesday and is a substitute for a similar charge proposed on rental cars but later scrapped.
A $5 fee on rental cars would only generate upward of $73 million annually, according to lawmakers.
The transportation funding bill also includes a 26-cent-per-gallon state excise tax on gasoline and fees on electric vehicle owners to raise an overall estimate of $850 million or more in the first year.
Lawmakers who supported the bill said they wanted to pay for transportation projects with money raised from motorists and businesses that most heavily use the state's roadways, creating a kind of direct line between users and costs.
And that's why the apparent contradiction of imposing a new fee on hotel and motel stays caught those in the tourism industry off guard. The fee had not been discussed publicly before lawmakers approved it.
The state is counting on hotel occupancy rates to remain stable, or even grow, and pegged the reasoning for the new fee on the argument that out-of-state visitors would cover a large portion of the money raised.
But that's an argument that tourism agencies have disputed, warning that in-state business travel, future hotel development, and the ability to attract conventions and trade shows could be in jeopardy when the new fee takes effect.
Some hotel, motel and inn owners in Conyers are not happy with the new $5 hotel tax.
Ashish Thaker is one of those owners. He owns the Holiday Inn Express located at 1302 Green Street in Conyers and 15 other hotels across the country, including one other hotel in Georgia.
He says that the new Georgia law will have a significant effect on hotel businesses, specifically the lower-income customers.
"It's going to have an effect. We're seeing the resistance from customers already," he told The News.
With July being a major month of family reunions and other get-togethers, families usually book hotel rooms for at least three nights, but having to pay the extra $15 is making the stay too costly for some people. Also, guests staying for business-related reasons will probably reduce their stay from a usual seven nights to about three.
"There's definitely going to be a slowdown (in booking)," said Thaker.
He can speak from experience. Thaker went through a similar situation with his Hampton Inn hotel in Indianapolis after Indiana legislatures passed a similar hotel $5 tax law in 2012. The tax was reduced to $2 only two months after the law went into effect because the owners showed how it was affecting their business, he says.
Thaker doesn't think a similar reduction in tax will happen in Georgia.
"(The owners are) telling the (Georgia lawmakers) but no one is listening," he said. "We've had meetings with them, but no one is budging."
But the biggest hurt is likely to be felt by low-income Georgians who rely on extended-stay hotels for transitional housing.
Critics have argued that the new fee would have been more equitable had it been implemented instead as a percent tax on the price of a room.
Paying an extra $5 a night at a five-star hotel in Atlanta won't mean much to those guests, but it's a significant expense on a $40-per-night room at an extended-stay motel. (The fee is dropped after 30 days in the same hotel or motel).
Gas tax for roads/bridges
An additional $830 million to $850 million is expected to be generated each year through a change in the gas tax structure taking effect Wednesday.
The changes, approved by the General Assembly this year, primarily eliminates the state fuel sales tax and enacts a 26-cent excise tax.
Consumers now pay a 3 percent state motor fuel sales tax, 1 percent state sales tax, a 7.5 cents per gallon state excise tax and 18.4 cents per gallon federal excise tax. Plus local taxes in Rockdale: 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (for county and city capital project), 1 percent Education SPLOST (for school system capital projects), 1 percent Homestead Option Sales Tax (to exempt homeowners from county property taxes).
After July 1, gas buyers will pay 26 cents per gallon state excise and an 18.4 cents per gallon federal excise, plus the local taxes.
The new state law, however, caps the retails sales gas price at $3 per gallon in terms of how local gas taxes are assessed.
The average retail sales price is set by the state every six months, with the last rate set in May of $2.35.
Thus, the average price of gas per gallon, with taxes built in, is now $2.77. Starting Wednesday, it rises to $2.86.
The law also calls for electric car owners to pay an annual $200 fee - $300 for those used for commercial purposes - and removes a $5,000 tax credit serving as an purchase incentive.
Jeff Gill of The Gainesville Times and Martin Rand of The News contributed to this article