The Georgia General Assembly’s session ended March 31 amid nationwide controversy over its passage of Senate Bill 202, an election reform package decried as voter suppression by advocates who swayed Major League Baseball into moving its All-Star Game out of metro Atlanta. But that was just one of many pieces of legislation that passed this session addressing everything from takeout cocktails to street racing crackdowns.
Several local officials recently voiced their opinions on bills they liked or loathed as they await Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature within 40 days of the session’s end. The following House and Senate bills were spotlighted in interviews and press releases from state Sens. John Albers (R-Roswell) and Elena Parent (D-Atlanta); state Reps. Betsy Holland (D-Atlanta), Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), Shea Roberts (D-Sandy Springs) and Matthew Wilson (D-Brookhaven); and officials from the cities of Brookhaven and Sandy Springs.
SB 236: Permanently legalizing cocktails to go. A lasting legacy of the pandemic will be this practice of allowing businesses licensed to sell mixed drinks to offer them as takeout in sealed containers, an emergency move to help struggling restaurants that can now be part of post-apocalypse life.
HB 534: Street racing crackdown. This bill does what a city of Atlanta ordinance, later imitated by Brookhaven and Sandy Springs, mostly pretended to do by allowing the confiscating of street-racers’ vehicles in some circumstances. Regarding racing and reckless stunt driving, the bill also hikes the fines; mandates prison time; calls for suspending driver’s licenses; makes repeat violations a felony; and at the state level outlaws organizing or “knowingly promoting” street racing. Under the bill, a first offense for reckless stunt driving would mean a fine of $300-$750 and imprisonment for 10 days to 6 months, escalating from there for repeat offenses within 10 years to a maximum of a $1,000-$5,000 fine, one to five years in prison and treatment as a felony. “Municipalities around Atlanta, including the city of Atlanta, asked legislators to consider legislation that would make it easier for law enforcement to manage the street racing problems in the area,” said Holland. “This bill should meet some of those needs.”
HB 732: Permanent Atlanta Public Schools homestead tax exemption. This bill would make permanent a property tax exemption that is scheduled to “sunset” at the end of the year. The change would need to be approved by voters in a question that would appear on the Nov. 2 ballot.
HB 479: Revising the citizen’s arrest law. Sparked by last year’s vigilante killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, near Brunswick, Georgia, this revision eliminates the ability of most people who are not police officers to make an arrest. Security guards, private investigators and some business owners can still make citizen’s arrests. “These updates were long overdue and allow for greater fairness and justice, while still granting individuals the right to protect themselves and their property,” said Albers. Added Holland, “It was particularly powerful to pass this bill in the House just a few days after the one-year anniversary of Ahmaud Arbery’s death, knowing that Ahmaud’s mother was watching the proceedings as they streamed.”
HB 465: Prohibiting security companies from being fined for false burglar alarms. This bill was aimed at wiping out innovative laws in Brookhaven and Sandy Springs that fined companies rather than customers for false alarms in what was said to be a successful attempt to quell false alarms. Sandy Springs won court challenges to its law and Mayor Rusty Paul (who also works as a lobbyist) says it will now lobby for Kemp to veto this bill. Brookhaven is also in opposition, said city spokesperson Burke Brennan: “When there are thousands of false alarms, it drains police resources, especially if these false alarms are uncompensated to any degree. Anything that inhibits law enforcement from its stated goal to serve and protect does affect every resident of Brookhaven.”
HB 231: Victims of dating violence can obtain temporary protective orders from a court. This was among measures aimed at domestic violence that received bipartisan support. “Sometimes lost in the narratives about the work of our state legislature is how much we actually all agree on — especially in an area like victims’ rights,” said Wilson.
HB 98: Authorizing virtual government meetings. The COVID-19 pandemic sent local governments into Zoom mode. This law clarifies their ability to hold tele-meetings in times of emergency and guarantees public input in them.
HB 317: Short-term rental taxation. The bill makes the owner of a short-term rental unit subject to state and local hotel taxes and responsible for paying them.
HB 286: Limiting police department budget cuts. This response to the “defund the police” slogan in Black Lives Matter protests limits local governments to cutting police budgets by no more than 5% in one year and 55% within five years. The bill was criticized by some local legislators as unnecessary and unwise. “This bill was one of many this session where the majority party asserted state overreach at the expense of local control,” said Roberts. Added Parent, “It’s really just kind of a [political] messaging bill. I don’t support defunding the police, but nor is there any inclination that that’s going to happen.”
HB 255: Statewide sexual assault kit tracking system. “This will grant our law enforcement an additional tool at their disposal to ensure that victims of sexual assault receive the justice they deserve,” said Albers in a press release.
HB 655: Filling Brookhaven City Council vacancies. This bill would allow the mayor to appoint a replacement for a vacant City Council seat, with approval of other councilmembers. If the seat became vacant with more than 12 months left in the member’s term, the replacement would serve until a special election; for shorter periods, the replacement would serve until the next general election. “We appreciate the General Assembly passing the legislation, which allows Brookhaven, a city with a small City Council, to ensure continuous operations in the event of a vacancy,” said Brennan.
HB 146: Paid parental leave for some government employees. The bill would grant three weeks of paid leave to eligible employees of the state government and local school boards for the birth of a child or the placement of an adopted or fostered minor child. The employees would be entitled to the leave regardless of whether they are eligible under federal law. “Approximately 250,000 state employees will be affected by this bill,” said Oliver.