The Georgia General Assembly adjourned its 2015-2016 session on March 24, 2016. Legislation passed will have an effect, both for the good and for the bad, on all of Georgia’s families, schools, and businesses.
This year’s session was largely dominated by the debate over numerous pieces of legislation advertised as protecting religious liberty. These proposals included the innocuous Pastor Protection Act, which mostly sought to codify rights already protected by the First Amendment. There was a resurgence of proposals similar to last year’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act that would have allowed individuals and companies to opt out of generally applicable laws based on religious belief, and the brand new First Amendment Defense Act that was intended to protect the revenue stream of publicly funded nonprofits refusing to hire people or provide services based on religious beliefs.
These measures drew significant opposition from LGBT rights groups concerned that these measures are a direct attack on LGBT families in response to the Supreme Court decision that legalized same sex marriage. Most believe the rights of the faith community are already protected under the First Amendment and that promoting discrimination runs counter to the message they preach. The business community also raised concerns, citing the potential for these measures to negatively impact companies directly through boycotts and indirectly by making it harder to attract talent to the region. The end result was a combination bill, HB 757, dubbed the Free Exercise Protection Act that included portions of all three major proposals.
Gov. Nathan Deal responded to concerns from the religious community, the civil rights community, and the business community, vetoing the legislation on March 28. While religious liberty legislation is stopped for 2016, it is sure to be back in some form next year, and voters need to remember this very serious issue at the polls in November.
Transportation was another major topic during the 2016 session. After a lengthy debate and numerous proposals and parliamentary games, SB 369 passed to allow for expansion of MARTA in the City of Atlanta. It would allow the City of Atlanta to levy a 1/2¢ sales tax to fund MARTA. The project list is not finalized at this time, but it is expected that the revenue will be used for in-fill expansion, particularly around the Atlanta Beltline. The full project list will be published in advance of the November vote that considers the 1/2¢ increase.
Other Georgia counties did not fare as well in the transportation debate due to the passage of SB 420 that would require a referendum on any new transit with dedicated right of way outside of the MARTA counties. This is intended to block the proposed bus rapid transit line along US-41 in Cobb County, but the statewide nature of the legislation means it applies to every transit system in the 156 counties not part of MARTA.
Guns on College Campuses, Reproductive Rights, Tax Cuts
Finally, there were a whole slew of election year proposals. The highest impact election year bill was HB 859 that would allow weapons carry permit holders to carry guns on college campuses. It is still pending approval or veto by the Governor.
House Bill 1060 is another firearms bill that includes a provision giving special rights to gun stores and manufacturers when seeking bank loans and other financial services. Senate Bill 308 would spend $2,000,000 on non-medical crisis pregnancy centers that try to convince women not to have abortions.
And of course, there were tons of tax cuts and exemptions, some of which passed and some of which did not. Many of the more expensive ones failed, though legislation was passed to exempt high profile sporting events from sales taxes on tickets and an extremely inefficient $100,000,000 tax credit was created to support rural hospitals that fails to bring down any matching federal funds at all.