The Legislative Landscape
The Georgia General Assembly completed legislative day 20 yesterday. The pace of the session has accelerated leading up to legislative day 30, Crossover Day – the critical day when legislation must pass from one chamber to to have a chance of being considered in the other.
As lawmakers completed week five of the session, GFA’s legislative team actively monitored legislative initiatives of interest to the forestry community, including progress on haul weights for forest products and the introduction of legislation to expand buffers along state waterways.
Haul Weights | House Bill 411
HB 411, sponsored by Rep. Sam Watson (R-Moultrie), addresses the allowable truck weights for unfinished wood products. On Tuesday this week, Rep. Chad Nimmer (R-Blackshear) presented the results from the House Transportation Special Subcommittee on Truck Weights to the full House Transportation Committee. Of particular concern was questionable information provided by the Department of Transportation.
Today, a substitute bill was introduced to be considered in the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday. The bill removes the reference to increasing the allowable haul weight to 88,000 lbs. and increases the distance allowed with the current 84,000 lbs. to 250 airmiles from 150 airmiles.
GFA will continue working with legislators to advance legislation that addresses the competitive disadvantage that landowners, haulers, dealers and mills face versus our neighboring states.
Major Expansion of Waterway Buffers | House Bill 966
HB 966, an initiative of the Georgia Water Coalition sponsored by Rep. Johnnie Caldwell, Jr. (R-Thomaston), was introduced on Thursday in an effort to revise definitions of the 25-foot buffer along state waters as outlined in the Georgia Erosion and Sedimentation Act. The bill seeks to set the “ordinary high water mark” as the point of origin for the 25-foot buffer, rather than originating at the point of wrestled vegetation as currently stated in the code section.
Though ongoing silvicultural activities are exempt when following the State Forestry Best Management Practices, the bill may prove to be detrimental to the forestry community because it changes the jurisdiction under the Erosion and Sedimentation Act beyond traditional waterways to other waters, including freshwater wetlands, ponds, estuaries and other areas with standing water for a significant period of time.
GFA’s and environmental committee and legislative team is still digesting the proposed legislation, but it is highly likely that GFA will strongly oppose this legislation.
Georgia Forestry Commission Funding | State Budget
Last year, with the help of the House, Senate and Governor Deal the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) was able to implement the second phase of their pay parity funding initiative, allowing them to raise field level fire control professionals salaries to 85 percent of market average. Since its implementation, the success of these pay increases has been reflected with improving retention and recruitment rates. While private, federal and county government demand for GFC professionals’ highly valued skill sets and certifications continues to increase with improving economies, GFC hopes the improving retention rates will continue into the new year. The Governor’s FY17 recommendation for 3 percent increases for merit-based pay adjustments, employee recruitment and retention initiatives is expected to further help GFC’s employee retention concerns.
A GFC proposal to replace two old Cesena 182’s with two Single Engine Air Tankers was approved and included in the Governor’s FY17 bond proposals. These aircraft are capable of carrying 510 gallons of water or retardant, and will enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of Georgia’s and the GFC’s air operations. The GFC will be transferring its Bell 407 helicopter to the Department of Natural Resources to replace one of their older helicopters but will retain use of the helicopter for wildfire suppression.
At this week’s House appropriations hearings, Director Farris also addressed the critical challenge of replacing the Commissions’ aging firefighting equipment. The agency strives to operate on a 20-year replacement cycle for heavy equipment (which is 5 years longer than many surrounding states) and a 200,000 mile schedule for their wildland fire engines. Past year’s budget constraints have led to an FY17 need to replace 75 crawler tractors, 62 heavy trucks, and 16 wildland fire engines at a total approximate cost of $26.5 million.
This equipment is integral to the agency’s ability to prevent and respond to wildfires. It is essential that these replacement needs are addressed on an ongoing basis as state funds are available to ensure that the GFC can continue to keep Georgia’s forests, citizens, and property safe from wildfires.
Bill Tracker | Other Items of Interest this Week
Georgia Agricultural Tax Exemption (GATE) Program Changes | House Bill 911
HB 911, sponsored by Rep. Geoff Duncan (R-Cumming), would raise the annual income requirement for the program from $2,500 to $10,000. In addition, the legislation would transfer the administrative responsibly from the Georgia Department of Agriculture to the Georgia Department of Revenue.
Status: House Ways & Means Committee, Sales Tax Sub Committee
Solar Panels on Covenanted Land | House Bill 496
HB 496, sponsored by Rep. Matt Hatchett (R-Dublin), would allow property where solar energy is generated to be removed from an existing covenant (such as the Conservation Use Valuation Assessment (CUVA) or the Forest Land Protection Act (FLPA)) without penalty. After the property is removed, it would be subject to property taxation at fair market value.
Status: Currently assigned to a Senate Finance subcommittee chaired by Sen. Bill Heath (R-Bremen).
Farm Vehicle Use | House Bill 579
HB 579, sponsored by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom McCall (R-Elberton), would allow anyone 16 or older to move farm use vehicles (AVTs, golf carts, etc.) on public roads for “agricultural or forestry pursuits” – such as driving from one piece of property to another – provided that a “low speed vehicle” emblem is displayed.
Status: Approved by House Agriculture Committee
Sales Tax Exemption on R&D Equipment | House Bill 415
An initiative of the Georgia Association of Manufacturers, HB 415 would exempt from the sales and use tax machinery and equipment used in research and development. An inaccurate fiscal note held the bill up last year, but Ways & Means Chairman Jay Powell has asked the Department of Revenue to re-visit the potential fiscal impact of this proposed exemption.
Status: House Ways & Means Committee
Medical Marijuana | House Bill 722
HB 722, sponsored by Rep. Allen Peak (R-Macon), is primarily aimed at providing for a system of growing the plants and manufacturing medical cannabis. As introduced, however, HB 722 also has implications for workplace safety, workers compensation, and drug testing programs. It would also provide that “…an employer shall not discriminate against a person in hiring, termination, or any term or condition of employment, or otherwise penalize a person…” because they are “a patient enrolled in the registry program.” This would diminish Georgia’s strong “employment-at-will” policy by creating a new “affected class.” Currently the only affected classes in Georgia are those prescribed by the federal government – age, gender, race, religion, and national origin. A substitute bill is expected to be introduced next week that may address some of the concerns from the business community.
Status: Awaiting consideration in the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee
Property Value During the Appeal Process | Senate Bill 258
SB 258, sponsored by Rep. Fran Millar (R-Atlanta), would prevent the assessed value of property to be increased beyond the initial assessed value established by the board of tax assessors during an appeal by the taxpayer in such taxable year, but may be reduced as a result of the appeal by the taxpayer.
Status: Awaiting consideration in the Senate Finance Committee