The General Assembly finally ended its 2020 regular session on June 26.
“This year’s session was unlike any other session I’ve ever witnessed at the Capitol,” NFIB State Director Nathan Humphrey said.
The session was to have ended in March, but with only 11 days remaining on the legislative calendar, lawmakers took a three-month break because of the novel coronavirus. They returned to Atlanta on Monday, June 15.
Despite the disruption, lawmakers passed several bills that will have a big impact on Georgia’s small businesses, Humphrey said. “I appreciate every NFIB member that responded to our action alerts and contacted their legislators,” he said. “Those emails and phone calls make a difference.”
Here’s a look at some of the issues affecting small business owners and their employees.
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly changed the course of this year’s budget and presented a difficult challenge for the legislature. Out of an abundance of caution, state agencies were asked to submit budget proposals with a 14% reduction in costs. Thankfully, the final budget, which has been signed by Governor Kemp, recommended a 10% cut instead of 14%. the legislature was able to restore some of those original cuts after the Governor’s announcement that revenue projections were already increasing,
General Contractor Lien and Contract Legislation
Senate Bill 315 clarifies existing state law to allow tradesmen to sue for breach of contract in payment disputes without deference to a waiver of lien. Along with NFIB, this legislation was supported by the Associated General Contractors of Georgia and over 15 other statewide organizations.
Agency Deference and Taxpayer Fairness
House Bill 538 levels the playing field for taxpayers and establishes fairness in cases before the Georgia Tax Tribunal.
Georgia taxpayers are currently faced with an uneven playing field when challenging tax assessments or refund denials. This year, Rep. Todd Jones (South Forsyth) introduced HB 538 to address this question of fairness in Georgia state tax disputes and to fulfill the mission of the Georgia Tax Tribunal which was established by the General Assembly in 2012. Currently, the Tax Tribunal is required to defer to the Department of Revenue’s interpretations of ambiguous tax statutes and regulations because of Georgia’s adoption of this judicial doctrine stemming from a U.S Supreme Court decision.
HB 538 would allow the Tax Tribunal to fulfill its purpose as an independent and autonomous division within the Office of State Administrative Hearings. Other states including Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin and Mississippi have already acted to eliminate agency deference and HB 538 would further enhance Georgia’s status as a fair and equitable place to live and do business. Ending agency deference in tax controversies in Georgia is not just the right thing to do from a legal standpoint, but also from an economic development and fairness perspective. Unfortunately, this bill did not come up for a vote in the Senate after it passed the House.
Covid-19 Liability Protections
The Senate passed one of the strongest pro-business bills in the country with a substitute on HB 167. This legislation is a comprehensive pro-business bill necessary to aid in Georgia’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. To ensure economic recovery, businesses need the assurance that when giving their best efforts to protect employees and the general public, they in turn will be protected from frivolous lawsuits. Our public health officials are learning more about COVID-19 every day and recommendations are ever-changing in response. As businesses adapt to this new economy, they require the support of the legislature to provide a consistent and predictable legal environment. This legislation is narrowly tailored to provide targeted relief against frivolous lawsuits regarding the transmission of COVID-19.
Sen. Jesse Stone offered an amendment to the bill that had strong support from the trial lawyers. If passed, the amendment would have effectively gutted the bill. Thankfully, the amendment failed 24-28.
Premises Liability Protections for Healthcare Facilities and Businesses
While weaker than HB167, SB 359 does provide some protection for businesses.
It provides legal protections to businesses, healthcare facilities, and providers from COVID-19 liability claims for the “transmission, infection, exposure, or potential exposure” of a person to COVID-19 on the premises with the following exception: the Act does not protect facilities against gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, reckless infliction of harm, or intentional infliction of harm.
In addition to the protections described above, a rebuttable presumption for the assumption of the risk by the claimant exists when an individual or entity of certain premises posts a sign at the point of entry using at least one-inch Arial font placed apart from any other text stating the following:
Under Georgia law, there is no liability for an injury or death of an individual entering these premises if such injury or death results from the inherent risks of contracting COVID-19. You are assuming this risk by entering these premises.
Surprise Billing Consumer Protection Act
The General Assembly also passed HB 888, also known as the Surprise Billing Consumer Protection Act. This measure aims to limit surprise medical bills from being sent to Georgia consumers that have undergone a medical procedure. No one should have to bear the financial burden of a bill they did not have the opportunity to plan. I was pleased to see this initiative pass the Senate with overwhelming support.