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By Dave Williams
Capitol Beat News Service
The controversial election bill the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed in March garnered the most publicity by far of anything lawmakers did during this year’s session.
But the legislature approved a host of other bills during 40 days under the Gold Dome covering a variety of issues that, like the election measure, take effect on Thursday.
July 1 will see the implementation of a state tax cut and a series of new tax breaks for Georgia businesses. Local police departments will get new protections from budget cuts, and a new crime applicable to a type of theft popularized during the pandemic will go on the books.
The tax cut will increase the standard deduction for married couples who file joint state income tax returns by $1,100. Single taxpayers can deduct an extra $800, while Georgians ages 65 and older can deduct another $1,300. Married couples filing separately will be able to deduct an additional $550.
House Bill 593 is a follow-up to legislation the General Assembly adopted in 2019 lowering Georgia’s income-tax rate from 6% to 5.75%.
Mostly lower- and middle-income families will benefit from the higher standard deduction, said Georgia House Speaker David Ralston.
“Today marks another chapter in Georgia’s continuing commitment to provide sustainable, meaningful tax relief to Georgians to let them keep more of their hard-earned money,” Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said after the mid-March vote passing the bill.
Separate legislation also taking effect Thursday serves up a smorgasbord of new tax breaks aimed at spurring business investment in Georgia. It offers tax credits to medical equipment and pharmaceutical manufacturers, aerospace defense projects, performing arts venues, short-line railroads and developers of corporate “mega-sites.”
While most of the bill doles out more largesse in the form of tax credits, Senate Bill 6 also seeks to rein in tax breaks that don’t give enough bang for the buck. It requires independent audits of up to five tax credit programs each year to determine whether their economic impact justifies the loss of state tax revenue.
“This is a large bill,” state Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, said as the multi-faceted measure was being debated on the Senate floor during the final day of the 2021 legislative session. “It brings checks and balances. It has us measure the return on investment, and it keeps Georgia the No.-1 place to do business.”
Republican legislative leaders focused much of their attention this year on crafting friendly tax policies to help Georgians and Georgia businesses cope with the economic damage wreaked by the pandemic.
But another thread that ran through the 2021 session stemmed from last year’s murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, which sent demonstrators into the streets of America to protest racism and police brutality.
An offshoot of those protests was the “defund the police” movement, as some on the left called for slashing police budgets and redirecting those funds to social programs aimed at the causes of a nationwide surge in violent crime.
Georgia lawmakers reacted by passing legislation limiting local government from reducing funds for police more than 5% during a 10-year span.
“This legislation sends a strong message that we support our law enforcement officers and we will never defund police here in Georgia,” said Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, chief sponsor of House Bill 286.
Legislative Democrats overwhelmingly opposed the bill as a power grab by the state over local governments. Critics also argued it would stall efforts to fund other areas like mental health, housing and education that aim to keep people from landing in jail.
Lawmakers also were divided over a bill criminalizing “porch piracy,” a form of theft that hadn’t been given much thought before the pandemic prompted shoppers hunkered down in their homes to do most of their buying online.
House Bill 94 makes it a felony to be caught in possession of at least 10 different pieces of stolen mail that is addressed to three or more separate recipients – even if it is unclear who exactly stole the mail.
The bill also makes it a felony to steal three or more envelopes, bags, packages or other mailed items from the porch, front or back entrance of a residence.
“This was a problem before the pandemic,” Rep. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee, the measure’s chief sponsor, said during a committee hearing on the bill. “It has become even more of a problem now.”
While the legislation drew some support from Democrats, others questioned the severity of the bill’s penalties, noting porch pirates could face more jail time and a worse criminal record than those who commit petty theft at a retail store.
Other bills the General Assembly passed this year that take effect July 1 include:
• House Bill 112 – extends COVID-19 liability protections for Georgia businesses and hospitals into the summer of 2022.
* House Bill 317 – extends the state tax on hotel and motel rooms to “marketplace facilitators” including Airbnb and Vrbo.
• House Bill 511 – prohibits spending money deposited in nine state dedicated trust funds on any other purpose.
• House Bill 617 – lets student-athletes at Georgia colleges, universities and technical colleges receive compensation for their name, image and likeness.
• Senate Bill 34 – allows victims of human trafficking to petition to change their name without public disclosure.