2017-2018 Georgia Legislative Environmental Scorecard

Who is standing-up for Georgia’s air, water and greenspaces?
Released by: Environment Georgia

Introduction

The Georgia legislature meets for 40 days every year and sessions last for two years. Over the course of a session hundreds of bills are introduced, debated, amended and some make it to the Governor for final approval. Incredibly important topics like water contamination from toxic coal waste, increased transit, solar power and measures to expand Georgia’s green space were all part of the 2017-18 legislative session.

This scorecard will help you understand your legislator’s conservation record and hold them accountable. We’ve also worked to highlight legislators who went above and beyond for our air, water and greenspace because important work to protect our environment often doesn’t always result in a vote on the floor of the State House or Senate.

You can view 2017-2018 Scorecard Details here.

 About Us

This Scorecard is a joint project of Environment Georgia and Georgia Conservation Voters. Together we have decades of experience in Georgia promoting smart environmental policies and the legislators who help champion those policies. To learn more, explore this scorecard online and find your legislators contact info please visit www.environmentgeorgia.org and www.gaconservationvoters.org

Honorable Mentions

The following legislators are highlighted because they went above and beyond for our air, water and greenspace. Often this important work happens behind the scenes, when a bill gets killed before it is taken to a vote, or when the introduction of a bill forces action of a different type Important work to protect our environment doesn’t always result in a vote on the floor of the State House or Senate, and these stories are important. 

Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act: Georgia has fallen behind its Southeast neighbors in funding for land conservation for decades. In 1998, an attempt to fund land conservation through an increase in the real estate transfer tax failed on the ballot  because of opposition from realtor associations. In 2018, thanks to the leadership of Representative Jon Burns who crafted the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act, Representatives Sam Watson and Chad Nimmer who built support amongst their House colleagues and Senator Steve Gooch who carried the measure through the Senate, Georgians will vote this November on a Constitutional amendment to permit the creation of a $20 million per year fund for land conservation and public access.

Coal Ash: Representative Jeff Jones has been working to protect Georgia communities and water supplies from coal ash for over two years. Jones’ efforts have been opposed by Georgia Power and landfill companies. Rep. Jones’ tenacity and support from Representative Chad Nimmer and freshman Representative Rick Williams and Representative Debbie Buckner led to House passage (169-3) of HB 879 a simple measure that requires Georgia Power to notify neighboring locales when they start dewatering the wet coal ash storage pits at its plant sites and requires a notice in the local official organ. This is minimal protection for water and people, but it is also the first law on this subject. Senator Tyler Harper moved the legislation through Senate Committee but Lt. Governor Casey Cagle never brought the legislation for a Senate vote. In 2017, HB 387, HB 388, SB 165 by Rep Jones, Nimmer and Representative Bill Werkheiser and Senator William Ligon, respectively, deal with the disposal of coal ash.  None of these pieces of legislation made it out of committee but the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) did create a coal ash issues webpage with increased disclosures and tracking.

Another important piece of coal ash legislation, HB 975, by Representative Dan Gasaway (R-Homer) would have protected Georgia communities from coal ash imports from other Southeast states by imposing an excise tax on it. This bill would create a tool the General Assembly could use to curb this waste from coming to our state by simply increasing the tax. Coal Ash disposal is a national issue and because of federal legislation will be an issue for the next 10 years as all states that have used coal to generate electricity will be looking for a place to dispose of this waste. The legislation got a hearing but not a vote in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee.

Nuclear Expansion at Plant Vogtle: Two efforts to limit the negative impact on Georgians from the building of two new nuclear units at Plant Vogtle near Augusta were undertaken this session. Senator Chuck Hufstetler’s SB 355 as introduced limited the rates recovered under the nuclear tariff to those accrued up until the scheduled date for commercial operation. During the process, it was scaled back to simply sunset the collection of the tariff. Senator Elena Parent and Senator Nan Orrock brought Democratic support to the effort. Representative Andy Welch carried the measure in the House.

House Bill 924 would have allowed Dalton Utilities to skip a mandated public referendum before selling any bonds for Plant Vogtle overruns by allowing a local bill to suspend that requirement, and was subsequently amended to SB 189. Representative Jason Ridley refused to sign the local legislation despite pressure from Dalton Utilities. Senator Chuck Hufstetler worked with Minority Leader Senator Steve Henson to table the bill on Day 39. It ultimately passed the Senate and went back to the House to die.

Offshore Drilling: After President Trump included Georgia’s coast in his draft drilling plan resolutions were introduced in the both the House and the Senate urging protection for the coast and the thriving coastal tourism economy from oil and gas drilling. Chairman Ron Stephens, Representative Carl Gilliard, Representative Don Hogan, Representative Jeff Jones and Senator Lester Jackson deserve special recognition for sponsoring these bills and actively advocating for their passage. Unfortunately, none of the anti-offshore drilling resolutions introduced even got a vote in committee.

Fracking: Representative John Meadows HB 205 updates Georgia's regulations for oil and gas drilling passed the Senate 51-0 the day after the Georgia Water Coalition recognized him as one of the “Clean Thirteen.” The bill is a carefully crafted mixture of state and local regulatory options that is based on protection of water supply and quality.

Petroleum Pipelines: In 2017, Representative Bill Hitchens and Senator Jack Hill introduced SB 191 to protect communities by strengthening regulation of petroleum pipelines in Georgia. The legislation was the result of a study committees work and provides strong protection for land owners who face eminent domain threats from petroleum pipeline companies.The leadership of Representatives Al Williams and Jon Burns helped to fight off attacks from the pipeline company Kinder Morgan throughout the legislative process and Representative Karla Drenner’s minority report urging that the bill be restored to a measure that protects property rights and the natural environment from the hazards of pipelines resulted in passage of the legislation as HB 413.

Transit: MARTA is the 9th largest transit system in the country, and the only large transit system that receives no ongoing support from its state. In 2012 voters in most regions across the state rejected a TSPLOST referendum, which would have levied a 1% sales tax to fund transportation projects. Forward momentum was gained in 2014 when Clayton County voters overwhelmingly approved joining MARTA, representing a $2.4 billion infusion to the system and the first service expansion in decades. The MARTA Act allows Gwinnett and Cobb Counties to join as well, but the politics have historically been even harder in those places. At the same time, other metro counties, like Douglas and Rockdale have expressed some interest in transit but had no route to come in to a regional system.

Senator Brandon Beach took a highly publicized trip from Marietta to Lawrenceville on transit to draw attention to the inefficiency and service challenges to which the current patchwork of transit services subjects riders, and has been an advocate for expanding transit for several sessions. When the House passed a resolution to undertake a Transit Study Committee, House Transportation Committee Chair Kevin Tanner rolled up his sleeves and crafted a piece of legislation that was sensitive to all the political problems that have dogged efforts in the past while creating an incentive approach for local jurisdictions to want to participate.

Electric Vehicles: Electric Vehicles help to clean up our air and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels but past legislatures eliminated an EV tax credit and instead established punitive fees that hurt only EV drivers. Representative Allen Peake championed an effort to reverse this wrong and put Georgia back on the path to a clean car future but the legislation never got a vote in committee.

Spaceport: Upon the proposal of the Camden Spaceport, which would host up to six rocket launches annually, closing down coastal roads, waterways and Cumberland Island National Seashore, Representative David Knight has sought to recognize but also seek balance between the proposed space port and commercial interests such as shrimping, fishing, as well as private property rights. Rep. Knight serves as the Chairman of the Games, Fish and Parks Committee, and is an avid outdoorsman, and introduced HR 643 to stress that Georgia elected officials have a duty to make sure we understand all impacts of this project and ensure a balanced perspective is represented.

Landfills/Waste: SB 385 and HB 792 raise host fees paid by private landfill operators in the 13 counties hosting regional landfills.  The current fee is $1 per ton, which has been unchanged since initial enactment some 25 years ago. SB 385 is a straight fee hike, but the House NR Committee reduced the fee to $2 and removed all fees for Georgia Power's coal ash. Senator Burt Jones, the sponsor of SB 385 was able to persuade the Senate Natural Resources Committee to restore the increase to $3 on HB 792, a bill that continues collection of fees for the Hazardous Waste Trust Fund for another year and after a compromise, it was passed as HB 792 at $2.50 per ton thanks to the leadership of Representative Andy Welch in the House. Unfortunately, the bill as passed includes a hand-out to utilities and keeps fees low for any coal ash being deposited in a landfill. 

Trust Funds/Good Government: HR 158 by Representative Jay Powell and Representative Andy Welch would have placed a Constitutional Amendment on the November 2018 ballot that would have let voters empower the General Assembly to create and abolish fee-based programs with non-lapsing trust funds so that all funds collected would be used solely for the purposes for which they are collected. This should lead to increased funding for clean-up of hazardous waste sites and illegal tire dumps and other fee based programs. This Honesty for Trust funds provision is very popular and has support from the state’s counties and cities and even groups like the Farm Bureau, as well as Sierra Club and the Georgia Water Coalition but was stopped by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the Senate.

The Bills we Scored 

You can view 2017-2018 Scorecard Details here.

HB 189 Dalton Utilities and Vogtle Debt

House/Senate Scoring: Senate only

Summary of the Bill: Legislation would have allowed cities like Dalton to avoid a referendum for borrowing for Vogtle overruns by passing a local bill in the legislature providing such a waiver.  

Result: Passed the Senate 33-13 and died in the House. The environmental vote was NO.

HB 204 Trash/Stormwater Fee Collection

House/Senate Scoring: House only

Summary of the Bill: HB 204 would have prevented any fees from going on property tax bills. That would mean trash, sewer, storm water fees, etc. might not get collected, crippling local government programs.

Result: Passed the House 111-61 (correct vote was no) and was rejected by the Senate Finance Committee. The House put it onto the rollback, SB 2, from which they later stripped it, and which then failed to pass.

HB 238 Solar Carve Out for Conservation Use Value Assessment (CUVA)

House/Senate Scoring: Senate only

Summary of the Bill: Allows people who own property under Conservation Use Value Assessment, and pay reduced taxes in return for barring development of the land, to remove  some of their CUVA property for use as sites for solar photovoltaic developments.

Result: Passed 42-9 and signed by Governor 4/17/17. The correct vote was yes.

HB 332 Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act

House/Senate Scoring: Both House and Senate

Summary of the Bill: Calls for a referendum on a Constitutional Amendment for .75% of all state sales and use taxes to fund land conservation.

Result: Passed on Sine Die and signed by the Governor 5/7/2018. The correct vote was yes.

HB 413 Pipeline Protections

House/Senate Scoring: Both House and Senate

Summary of the Bill: HB 413 directs Georgia EPD and DOT to develop permits and regulations for petroleum pipelines in Georgia continues the moratorium on petroleum pipeline construction until regulations are in place.

Result: Passed the House (141-21) and the Senate (41-6) on Sine Die 2017 and was signed by the Governor May 9, 2017. The correct vote was yes.

HB 792 Hazardous Waste Clean-up Fund Reauthorization and Increase Landfill Fees for Counties

House/Senate Scoring: Both Senate and House

Summary of the Bill: HB 792, the Governor's bill to extend the hazardous waste trust fund for one additional year was amended with SB 385 by Senator Burt Jones to the minimum landfill host fee for counties from $1 per ton to $2.50 per ton, which will discourage importing trash, but only applies to coal ash starting in 2025.  

Result: The bill passed 155-14 in the House and 48-4 in the Senate and was signed by the Governor 5/3/2018. The correct vote was yes.

HB 879 Coal Ash Pollution Protections

House/Senate Scoring: House

Summary of the Bill: HB 879 requires Georgia Power to officially notify the local legal organ when it has commenced pumping water out of coal ash ponds during closure processes.

Result: After passage by the House (169-3), the bill was tabled in the Senate. The correct vote was yes.

HB 930 Transit

House/Senate Scoring: House and Senate

Summary of the Bill: HB 930 requires transit systems to connect seamlessly, operating under the new name, the Atlanta Transit Link, “The ATL,” and provides two funding methods for getting that unified service underway. The first is a sales tax referendum for transit only, and that can take the form of the existing MARTA tax or a new transit tax to be levied by any county that is in an area designated as “non-attainment” under the Clean Air Act by the US EPA. Each county can choose its own transit plan and provider. All rail services will be run by MARTA, as either the sole provider of all transit, as is the case in Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton and Atlanta, or as a contractor to a non-member county. The second funding source is a $100 million fund appropriated for transit in the FY 2019 Budget.

Result: The transit bill passed the House 155-19 and the Senate 48-6 and was signed by the Governor. The correct vote was yes.

HR 1007 Spaceport Support

House/Senate Scoring: House only

Summary of the Bill: Urges the recruitment of the rocket industry by the state Economic Development agency and the Department of Transportation.

Result: HR 1107 passed the House on March 29 with a vote of 111-59. The correct vote was no.

SB 2 Eliminating Environmental Review

House/Senate Scoring: Scored in the House

Summary of the Bill: This legislation would have undermined permitting for pollution discharges into Georgia’s air and waterways.

Result: The legislation passed the Senate but failed in the House 66 to 107.

SB 156 Prevent DeKalb Transit

House/Senate Scoring: Scored in the Senate

Summary of the Bill: Early versions of this bill would have restricted DeKalb Co. from using sales tax to fund MARTA and expanded transit. This provision was removed from later versions of the bill.

Result: The legislation passed 36 to 18. The correct vote was NO. The bill passed the House 160-6 and was signed by the Governor 5/8/2017.

SB 191 Regulations for Petroleum Pipelines

House/Senate Scoring: Scored in the Senate

Summary of the Bill: The original and scored version of SB 191 contained protections for Georgia’s property owners and environment from petroleum pipelines, including a provision that prohibited pipelines close to Georgia’s salt marsh.

Result: The legislation passed the Senate 40-13. Ultimately it did not pass the House but much of the language was amended on to HB 413, which passed the House 141-21 and the Senate 42-6 and was signed by the Governor 5/9/2017.

SB 355 Vogtle Financing Fairness

House/Senate Scoring: Scored in the Senate.

Summary of the Bill. SB 355 protects Georgians from future out of control nuclear construction costs in light of Georgia Power’s nuclear Plant Vogtle which is over budget and behind schedule.

Result: This scorecard scores the vote in the Senate which passed 51-2, the correct vote was YES. The bill passed the House as well and was signed by the Governor 5/8/2018.