Online sales tax, other 2019 bills due for return engagement this year

Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Dacula Republican whose hate crimes bill cleared the House last year, chats with a colleague on the first day of the session Monday. His bill stalled in a Senate committee last year and remains there. Photo credit: Georgia House of Representatives

Facing the prospect of tough budget cuts, state lawmakers say they will move quickly to pass legislation that will require some popular third-party sellers to charge a sales tax on online purchases.

It’s a change that could frustrate voters who have grown accustomed to tax-free online shopping on sites like Walmart.com and Etsy.com even as shoppers at traditional brick-and-mortar stores, and even some online retailers like Amazon, pony up extra for the tax. But it’s also a change that even conservative estimates show could pour about $150 million a year into the state’s coffers.

“As someone has said, we may not have a revenue problem. We may have a collection problem, and we need to start collecting on this money that’s due to the state,” Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, a Rome Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, told senators Monday.

The Senate moved Monday – the first day of the new legislative session – to insist on its version of the bill, sending it back to the House. Hufstetler told a Georgia Recorder reporter that his hope is to sort out the details in a conference committee and then finalize the bill as soon as this week.

The proposal, which could also apply to rideshare companies like Uber, is not new. It’s one of several left lingering at the statehouse from last year, but much has changed since lawmakers finished law-making last spring. Lackluster state revenues and a fifty-fifty chance of a mild recession are improving this bill’s chances.

This is the second year of a two-year legislative cycle and many bills introduced last year are still alive and could become law this year. It remains to be seen whether other left-over bills will see any renewed interest, but here are a few to keep an eye on:

Hate crimes bill: Georgia is one of just a handful of states without a hate crimes bill, and a Republican-led effort sponsored by Dacula Republican Rep. Chuck Efstration aimed to change that last year. It narrowly passed the House before stalling in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the measure still sits.

The bill creates sentencing guidelines for offenders who target a person because of the victim’s race, religion, sexual orientation or other identity markers.

But opponents of the measure say such laws suggest that some groups are more important than others and would create “thought crimes.” The bill squeaked out of the House with a 96-to-64 vote.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Cumming Republican, said Monday that he is waiting to hear a report from the Judiciary Committee.

“Right to farm” bill: A proposal to strengthen protections for farmers collided with concerns about private property rights last year.

Farmers troubled by high-dollar verdicts against hog producers in North Carolina pushed for a tighter rules for nuisance complaints. They argue that people shouldn’t move to the country and then complain about the sights and smells of country living.

But critics argue the measure goes too far and limits the ability of homeowners –including those who have deep roots in their community – to challenge new agricultural activities.

The measure cleared the House with a 107-to-58 vote but stalled in the Senate even after clearing the Senate Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee. A priority of the state’s agricultural industry, it remains very much alive for this year.

Dalton Utilities: The utility that owns the smallest portion of the Plant Vogtle expansion project – just 1.6% – has attracted outsized attention the last couple of sessions because of its unrelenting push to be exempted from a public referendum when it borrows money for electric projects.

Dalton Utilities maintains that it doesn’t need the money to help pay for Vogtle, which is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Rather, it makes the case that other utilities aren’t required to hold such a vote and that it isn’t required to go to voters for other types of borrowing.

Some lawmakers were unconvinced or were reluctant to nix an opportunity for public input. Chief among them is a local legislator, Rep. Jason Ridley, who helped orchestrate the proposal’s dramatic collapse in the House (it stalled, only to reemerge as part of another bill that was later narrowly rejected on the last day of the 2019 session). Proponents immediately vowed to try again this year.

School voucher bill: A controversial school voucher proposal that was voted down on the Senate floor last year is likely to make a comeback this year in some form.

Last year’s legislation would have allowed parents to use state funding meant for public schools to pay for educational services like private school tuition, after-school programs or speech therapy sessions.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and other supporters say it would give parents more freedom over how their child is educated. But critics argue that it’s unfair to shift taxpayer dollars away from public schools to benefit private schools and question how transparent the voucher program would be.

Duncan told reporters Monday that such a bill remains important to him.

“Certainly, we’ll continue the conversation,” Duncan said Monday. “We had a robust conversation about it. (Educational scholarship accounts) are something that I felt like were a great idea in certain settings. Obviously, I’m a supporter of public education and see those to be two separate issues.”

Georgia Recorder reporter Stanley Dunlap contributed to this report.