Regional transit, adoption, brunch: Where the biggest bills of the 2018 Georgia legislative session ended up

”The ATL” is in; texting while sitting at a red light is out
Georgia 2018 legislative session
A Capitol worker rakes up paper traditionally thrown in the air at the end of Sine Die, the last day of the legislative session.

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

During an election year, legislative sessions can turn into what feels like a race to the bottom—40 days of proposals and long fights about divisive, hot-button issues such as abortion, guns, and illegal immigration. Opponents and lobbyists dig in their heels for a long battle, winning some and losing others. If elected officials are prohibited from raising campaign funds during the session, they might as well attract some attention.

But something was different this year. Sure, there was a high-profile dispute over whether Delta, the state’s largest private employer, should receive a $40 million tax break after the airline dropped a rarely-used perk for National Rifle Association members. And yes, we saw occasional skirmishes and Hail Mary efforts to attach “religious liberty” language on to bills and strengthen Georgia’s already strict immigration enforcement laws. But in the end, the 2018 meeting of the Georgia General Assembly was relatively low on election year drama. In addition to fulfilling its sole constitutional duty—passing the $26.2 billion budget—the General Assembly created the framework for a new regional transit agency, approved a funding stream to protect nature, and gave brunch enthusiasts an option for drinking even earlier on Sunday. Another big win: for the first time in more than 15 years, the state is fully funding its K-12 education program.

Here’s a brief look at some important bills that passed, some that didn’t, and whether lawmakers will make a rare summertime return to the Gold Dome to woo Amazon, the Moby Dick of economic development projects. Remember: Governor Nathan Deal has 40 days to sign or veto the bills that passed both the House and Senate (or simply allow them to become law).

Georgia 2018 legislative session
Sine Die took place in Georgia this year on March 29.

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

All aboard: After ten years of talking about the importance of regional transit, state lawmakers finally passed a measure that would actually allow counties to build and operate rail and bus systems. Approved roughly 30 minutes before the General Assembly adjourned for the year, the landmark legislation allows 13 counties to opt in to the new agency, dubbed “The ATL.” Counties could authorize a referendum to levy a sales tax to fund the network, with Gwinnett holding a vote as early as this year. As a sweetener to pass the deal, the governor added $100 million in transit funding to the state budget—a large and rare investment.

Voting woes: Georgia is one of five states in the country that don’t give voters a verifiable printout of their ballot. A proposal by state Sen. Bruce Thompson, R-White, would have replaced the state’s antiquated (and hackable) machines with more secure technology. Originally supported by fair election advocates and government watchdogs, the bill met resistance later in the session as groups said the legislation could permit barcodes on ballots, subsequently creating yet another vulnerability. Lawmakers were unable to agree on a compromise and the bill died when the Legislature adjourned.

Let them drink mimosas: In 2011, the General Assembly gave local governments the permission to ask voters to approve the purchase of alcohol on Sundays from stores—provided it was after 12:30 p.m. There was much rejoicing and civilization did not fall apart. This year, lawmakers gave the OK for local cities and counties to roll pour times forward to 11 a.m.—provided voters agree—which would allow you to nurse your hangover with a Bloody Mary a little bit earlier.

Adoption revisions: Alarms were raised over an effort by some Senate Republicans to push a bill that critics said could allow adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples. Fears were allayed—and the debate put to rest for this session—when a piece of legislation sponsored by state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, and which did not include the controversial provision, instead earned Deal’s signature. The bill, the first revision to Georgia’s adoption laws since 1990, aims to make adoptions easier by reducing wait times and allows adoptive parents to reimburse birth mothers for expenses, among other measures.

Tax break: Tax reform approved this past December by Congress meant billions of dollars would flow back to Georgia over the years. Deal decided to use the opportunity to reduce the state’s revenue by cutting the 6 percent income tax rate to 5.75 percent and doubling the standard deduction. A fight erupted over one provision—the fuel tax break for Delta—which was ultimately nixed to ensure the package passed. But fiscal watchdogs like the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute warn that the “proposal comes at a time when Georgia’s fiscal future faces an unusually high degree of uncertainty.” What happens if calculations are off, the federal governments makes cuts to Medicaid or food assistance programs, or we enter a recession?

Tweetheart deal: Data centers are windowless, discrete boxes where our emails, financial information, and tweets get stored (and probably investigated) by the government. And according to some state lawmakers, they could be an economic development godsend for rural areas. Under this legislation sponsored by state Rep. Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, equipment used in data centers would be eligible for sales tax breaks. The bill now moves to Deal’s desk for a signature or veto.

Hang up your phone: State lawmakers OK’ed legislation to prohibit motorists from using their smartphones or electronic devices—for example, talking, texting, looking for music—while driving. The so-called “distracted driving” bill allows the use of devices for reporting accidents or emergency calls while parked. Stopping at a traffic lights, however, doesn’t count. If Deal signs the bill into law, sponsor state Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, says, drivers would have 90 days to grow familiar with the law before getting cited.

The great outdoors: Several years of lobbying paid off for conservationists pushing the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act. If approved by voters in November, the bill would dedicate up to 80 percent of the sales taxes generated by purchases of outdoor equipment to a fund that would maintain wildlife areas, improve parks and trails, and clean up waterways.

Anti-immigration and bail reform: A diverse coalition that included the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, the ACLU of Georgia, the Georgia chapter of the NAACP, and others united to battle Senate Bill 452, an unsuccessful proposal by state Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, that would have required prosecutors to report undocumented immigrants awaiting sentencing to federal authorities. In addition, the bill contained language—apparently added without the sponsor’s knowledge—that the Southern Center for Human Rights said would stymie efforts like Atlanta’s to reform the cash-bail system. A separate and wide-ranging criminal justice reform package, focused on helping offenders re-enter society, passed.

BeltLine blues: With the recent purchase of the CSX segment in southeast Atlanta that will become the Southside Trail, the Atlanta BeltLine is making great strides. But there’s still the issue of finding money to build the bike trails and transit to complete the project. Advocates saw a potential solution in House Bill 642, which would allow commercial and multi-family property owners along the BeltLine to tax themselves more to fund as much as $100 million in improvements. But concerns were raised about the bill’s lack of attention on affordable housing and overall constitutionality, and in the days leading up to adjournment, the state Senate did not bring it up for a vote.

We’ll meet again?: Governor Nathan Deal made clear that, should Atlanta remain competitive as a potential location for Amazon’s second North American headquarters, lawmakers could be called back to the Capitol to discuss incentives to lure the retailer. According to the AJC, an Amazon delegation met with state economic development officials and visited several potential sites in metro Atlanta last week.