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Mar. 27 – 10: 49 p.m. - Senate wraps Day 39; Passes Georgia Hands-Free Act, Making it Unlawful to Text Will Driving

By Lou Phelps, Coastal Empire News

March 27, 2018 – The Georgia Senate worked late into the night Tuesday on a long list of bills, with several controversial measures before them. But they also pushed a long list of bills off to Thursday, setting up a mammoth session for day 40. 

HB 887 – The Georgia Communications Services Tax Act passed, which sets fees for attachment to public polls for small cell phone companies. generally large corporations that seek to bring 5G service to Georgia. 14 other states are doing the same thing, according to Sen. Gooch,the bill's sponsor, enabling private companies to invest millions in infrastructure for small cell technology, primarily for cell phone services in downtown areas, buit eventually out into the rural areas.This is versus 4G which is the standard now. The bill would set the rate for private carriers to put polls in a right of way,and attach the box devices, no higher than 50 ft.tall.  But, it would remove local control, according to those opposed. And, the rate proposed was only $25 per antenna, per year, which many questioned.  An amendment was offered to raise it to $125.  If a pole is owned by Georgia Power, it is exempt from the fee, because they have their own fee structure for the use of their polls.

There was an amendment offered for the protection for historic districts, such as Savannah and Dahlonega, Sen. Rene Utterman said the House has rejected the bill, and the lobbyists for the large corporations are “trying to peddle the bill over here (the Senate).” And, she said that if the devices are not installed in historic districts, it would just mean that more would go into suburban neighborhoods. She said the bill would let the companies “run rough shod … they want carte blanche authority to run over local governments… “

She offered an amendment to put authority to grant where the small cell boxes go back to local governments.  Sen. Ben Watson offered an amendment to protect the historic areas. But, she said the companies will ‘hop scotch’ over the historical areas, and put up the polls and boxes in the suburban areas. “They want unbridled growth in this service.”  It eventually passed, with some amendments, and will go back to the House. 

HB 61 would tax all online sales made in Georgia.  The Supreme Court is set to hear the issue.  It will put brick and mortar businesses in Georgia on an equal footing, according to proponents.  The sales tax would be paid by the seller of goods or services. A committee substituted bill was approved 49 – 3.

HB 811 passed 55 – 0, allowing the Dept. of Revenue to contract with a data collection company to find companies that are collecting sales taxes, but not remitting them, assisting in the identification of noncompliant taxpayers. Currently, that is not permitted.

HB 717 – Updates language proposed by Atty. General’s officer regarding lemon laws and other protection laws for autonomous vehicles. Passed unanimously.

HB 749 – Clarifies state income tax exemption as a retirement benefit for non-civilian service in the United States armed forces, and for the surviving spouse. Effective July 1, 2018. This is one of many bills that Georgia continues to pass to insure a supportive environment for the state’s military servicemen and women to protect the state’s eight installations. Exemptions the first $35,000 for an individual or $65,000 for a couple filing jointly. 

HB 982 – Adds instruction to the courts on processes that DFACs must use to try to find a permanent, stable home for a child up for adoption, including if a child is abandoned, adding to the state’s current adoption legislation.  Passed unanimously.

One of the hotly debated bills of the day was HB 673, known as the Hands-Free Georgia Act, wihch passed after debate on a long list of amendments. Sen. Lester Jackson of Savannah was a co-sponsor.

 “We have a public safety emergency,” said the bill’s sponsor Sen. P.K. Martin, who reported that crashes are up 36% since 2014, and fatalities are up 34% over the same period, particularly rear-end crashes. Georgia drivers can still dial or receive a phone call, but will not be able to HOLD their cell phones, broadcast video or use social media (which is actually already illegal.) The bill increases fines and points on someone’s license, if charged. The current texting laws are unenforceable, according to law enforcement.  There were a number of amendments offered, including one to prohibit smoking in a vehicle with a passenger under 15 years of age, saying that you can’t be hands free if you’re smoking a cigarette.  

Georgia Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police support the bill.  Amendment 5 would gut the bill, said proponents of the bill, making it harder for an officer to cite someone who was a distracted driver; it would require that there would have to be “probable cause,” and was not the intent of the bill. A person would have to violating another law AND being a distracted driver, such as they also had a broken taillight.  They urged support of Amendment 5(A) which passed.

A proposed Amendment 6 was tacked onto the bill that would prohibit an individual with an unlawful status Employment Authorization Document Code from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services from obtaining a driver’s license under certain circumstances, filed by Sen.

Amendment #1 was adopted; #2 and 3 lost; #4 passed which reduced the penalities. Amendment #5(A) passed. Amendment #6 – when proponents said would kill the bill in the House – failed 19 – 32, showing the level of support of very conservative senators who continue to push for stricter laws affecting undocumented workers. But the Senate rejected the effort of Sen. McCoom.

The bill, with amendments, passed 55 – 0.

And attempt was made to remove HB 327 from being tabled, but it was ruled that that is not allowed.

At 10:30 p.m. it was agreed that all of the remaining bills on the day’s Calendar be tabled, and moved to Thursday’s Calendar, the 40th and last day of the session.

But, first, HB 870 was taken off the table from a prior session, sponsored by Sen. Donzella James, to allow a referendum on the November ballot to take a portion of unincorporated Fulton County and put it into the new South Fulton, GA, a new city in Georgia, recently created. The bill passed 35 – 15.

They adjourned at 10:38 p.m.

A service will be held at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday for former Gov. Zell Miller, that will be live streamed. 

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  3. Mar. 1 – Sen. Jackson’s bill to create Commission on African American History passes with Bi-Partisan support
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  8. Feb. 13 - January State Tax Revenues up 16.7 percent, Far in Excess of Projections
  9. Jan. 16 - Georgia' Black Caucus issues statement on Pres. Trump's comments on Immigrants
  10. Jan. 11 – $35 Million for Harbor Deepening in 2019 State Budget Proposal; Highlights by Department
  11. FEATURE – STATE of the STATE: Reminding Legislators their actions benefit future generations, Gov. Nathan Deal urges leaders ‘to water the trees’ he has planted
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