At mid-session, Georgia lawmakers take on taxes, transit
By BEN NADLER and R.J. RICO
Feb. 17, 2018
ATLANTA (AP) — Activity at Georgia's Capitol is in full swing as this past week marked the halfway point of 2018's 40-day legislative session.
The session's first half was largely dominated by an overhaul of the state's adoption code, which became one of the first major pieces of legislation to pass both houses this year.
With that out of the way, lawmakers have turned to proposals on taxes and transit, medical marijuana, expanded Sunday alcohol sales and other issues.
Here's a look at some of the recent major activity that will be playing out as the session continues:
The House and Senate are considering similar proposals to establish a new regional transit authority, called the ATL, aimed at improving metro Atlanta's commuting infrastructure.
Under the House version, unveiled Tuesday by House Speaker David Ralston and House Transit Commission chairman Kevin Tanner, the ATL would be responsible for creating a plan to tackle the region's mounting transit concerns and would have the authority to approve access to new sources of funding.
The House proposal specifies several new funding sources, including a statewide fee of 50 cents for all rides in a taxi or car-hailing service such as Uber and a 1 percent tax on services and concessions at the Atlanta airport.
While existing providers — including MARTA — would maintain some operational autonomy, the entire system would be rebranded ATL by 2023 under the proposal.
Tanner, a Dawsonville Republican, said the House and Senate transit groups have been in consultation, but substantial differences remain between the two chambers' bills.
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal earlier this week proposed to reduce a so-called tax windfall by 75 percent before it even arrives.
The most recent estimates from the governor's office indicate Georgia could collect an additional $4.7 billion in business and personal taxes over the next five years because of changes brought about by the federal tax overhaul passed in December.
Deal, in his final year in office, initially hoped to defer the question until 2019 but received swift pushback from GOP legislators, including several running for higher office in November.
The most recent proposal is estimated to cut the increase to just under $1.2 billion by allowing filers who take the standard deduction at the federal level to itemize deductions at the state level, which is currently prohibited in Georgia. The state personal exemption would also be increased by 25 percent.
Gov. Deal's Chief of Staff Chris Riley recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the governor supports a bill that would add post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain to a list of more than a dozen conditions that are covered under the state's medical cannabis oil program.
The news comes days after Gov. Deal told the newspaper that he opposes a bill allowing cultivation of medical marijuana.
The approximately 3,500 Georgians who are legally allowed to have cannabis oil have complained that it's difficult for them to access the product, since it cannot be grown in the state.
Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, a medical marijuana advocate, says cannabis oil users are currently being pushed to violate federal law by driving across state lines to obtain and bring back the product.
CASH BAIL OVERHAUL
Deal on Wednesday unveiled the final pieces of his years-long initiative to reduce the growth of the prison population by keeping fewer non-violent offenders behind bars.
Among his proposals is a bill that would allow judges to forgo cash bail for defendants accused of low-level offenses who cannot afford to post bail.
That proposal prompted Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills to write an email in which he said Deal had done more for perpetrators of crime than "Lucifer and his demons combined."
Bipartisan supporters of the measure condemned Sills' comments on the House floor Thursday.
SUNDAY ALCOHOL SALES
The Senate on Tuesday voted for allowing on-premise consumption of alcohol at restaurants and wineries, beginning at 11 a.m. on Sundays.
Off-premise sales, such as those at supermarkets, would remain illegal until 12:30 p.m. on Sundays.
If the bill passes the House and becomes law, earlier sales would have to be approved in local referendums.
Restaurant groups have been pushing the so-called "brunch bill," saying it's unfair that government-run facilities such as Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium don't face the same restrictions.