2016 Legislative Recap
The mission of the Georgia Conservancy is to protect and conserve Georgia’s natural resources through advocacy, engagement and collaboration. That mission no better manifests itself than in our work at the Georgia State Capitol during the General Assembly’s yearly legislative session.
In our pursuit to strengthen the legal frameworks that provide our state with necessary environmental protections, we must advocate for and against bills, engage with our members and with lawmakers, and collaborate with our partners. Our balanced approach at the State Capitol is key to our goal of forwarding a culture of conservation in Georgia - one in which people and the environment thrive.
Our work during the 2016 Georgia General Assembly was no different. There were wins and losses throughout this year’s exciting legislative session – a session that did not disappoint when it came to last-minute bills, late-night votes and back-and-forth amendments. Georgia Conservancy Advocacy Director Leah Dixon can attest to that. “It’s an interesting and very exciting time of year,” says Dixon. “It’s a great feeling to be a part of the process, see an idea take form, work with lawmakers and ultimately watch your efforts make their way to Governor Deal’s desk in the form of a bill. I truly do love it, though there were a lot of very late evenings under the Gold Dome, followed by very some early mornings.”
A handful of bills remained our focus throughout the session. Some measures that we strongly advocated for, such as the establishment of the Georgia Legacy Trust Fund, never received a vote, while other legislation that we championed passed and will hopefully prove to be of great benefit to our state’s natural resources. Overall, we were very pleased with the how the 2016 Legislative Session turned out, but along with the good there were also some measures that we consider to be a setback. The following report provides an overview of the bills that we worked on during this year’s Georgia General Assembly.
We can happily report that a number of bills had a positive outcome for our state’s land and water. One of the most high-profile of these was the moratorium on petroleum pipelines in Georgia. House Bill 1036, which passed both chambers in an amended form, will, if signed, temporarily close the door to permitting and the use of eminent domain for petroleum pipeline construction in the state until a committee can review the current siting and permitting guidelines and procedures. The bill was forwarded in reaction to the proposed Palmetto Pipeline, a 210-mile petroleum pipeline that would traverse five major coastal rivers and cut right through the heart of some of Georgia’s most bio-diverse coastal ecosystems. Through HB 1036, a thoughtful and detailed approach to permitting would be established, a necessary safeguard to that seeks to prevent and mitigate the potentially disastrous effects of the oil spills and leaks - events that have become all too common across the country. Within days of the HB 1036’s passage, Kinder Morgan, the out-of-state company proposing the Palmetto Pipeline and who formed a robust lobbying team to advocate against HB 1036, announced that they will “suspend further work” on the project. The Georgia Conservancy fought hard for the passage of the final amended version of House Bill 1036, and we would like to thank the work of our partners, our members and members of the House and Senate who forwarded the legislation. A special thank you to House Majority Leader Jon Burns (R-159), Representative Colonel Bill Hitchens (R-161), Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill (R-4) and Senate Judiciary Non-Civil Chairman Jesse Stone (R-23).
Going into this year’s legislative session, a piece of legislation that was at the top of our list to champion was the re-authorization of the state land conservation tax credit. We were more than thrilled that through our engagement with legislative members a bill that sought to do just that was introduced at the beginning of the session. House Bill 1014 received overwhelming support from both chambers and passed the Senate before the close of the session. Only one member of the entire General Assembly voted against the measure. With the signature of the Governor, the sunset date for the land conservation tax credits will be extended to December 31, 2021. The credit was set to expire at the end of 2016. Tax credits for land conservation are major incentive for landowners to protect the natural resources of their private properties, which include species habitat, wetlands and forests. The Georgia Conservancy would like to thank House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jay Powell (R-Camilla) for introducing the bill and Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) for carrying HB 1014 in the Senate.
A surprise late-minute amendment to Senate Bill 369 by the House revived the session's earlier metro Atlanta transit expansion debate. The bill was overwhelmingly approved by both chambers before the end of the session. A previous attempt to provide a pathway to mass transit funding had stalled in the Senate before Crossover Day. The revived push through Senate Bill 369 provided legislators with a more piecemeal approach to expanding MARTA and mass transit in the region that the previous measures provided. SB 369, if signed, will allow for the City of Atlanta to pursue a $0.50 sales tax for transit expansion through referendum, and will allow for the rest of Fulton County to pursue at $0.25 sales tax at a later date. The 40-year sales tax, if approved by Atlanta voters in a referendum, could be used to pursue an estimated $2.5 billion worth of transit projects in the city, including transit along the Beltline.
Other bills that we are excited to report positive results:
- House Resolution 1198, which passed, outlines the recommendations of the House Study Committee on Saltwater Intrusion into the Coastal Aquifer and requests that EPD reviews current regulations as the relate to the preservation of the state’s aquifers. The Georgia Conservancy will continue to support and advocate for future legislation that will protect our state’s precious groundwater.
- The creation of state license plates supporting marine habitat conservation. To further enhance the wildlife tag program, House Bill 736 would create a new wildlife tag to provide voluntary funding for projects to restore and enhance marine habitats through oyster reef creation, construction of man-made reefs along the shorelines of tidal rivers and creeks, and the construction of man-made reefs in the Atlantic Ocean.
- A bill that would provide for the further protection of wildlife used in the state’s film industry passed both chambers. House Bill 840, if signed, will require any and all possession and use of wildlife in film production to be permitted by the State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and would allow for DNR to make certain requirements as to the housing and sanitation of such wildlife.
- The passage of Senate Resolution 730 which recommends that the Coastal Regional Commission support the implementation of the Georgia Coastal Greenway, a 155 mile coastal bike trail that would create the Georgia segment of the Florida to Maine East Coast Greenway.
- House Bill 1028, passed both chambers and, if signed, will require the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to provide written waste facility permitting notice to the local governing authority, as well as to nearby residents, within five days of receiving an operating permit application by solid or hazardous waste handling facility that seeks to operate in that community. The bill will also require the EPD to issue a written public notice within two days of receiving credible evidence of a violation or release by a local permit holding facility.
- Two measures that we fought against and that did not pass out of their originating chambers before crossover day were Senate Bill 326 and Senate Bill 311. SB 326 sought to weaken permitting for control of soil erosion and sedimentation by shortening the window of time that local issuing authorities have to approve or deny a permit from 45 days to 14 days. SB 311 sought to establish an Interstate Power Compact that would provide members states the ability to remain exempt from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan.
There were also bills that passed the Georgia General Assembly that were a roll back in the protection of Georgia’s natural resources. One of these bills, Senate Bill 346, passed both the Senate and the House, amending the Georgia Environmental Policy Act by exempting certain land disturbing activities from the act. SB 346 would exempt "any project of a department, a municipality, a county, or an authority to construct or improve a public road, provided that such project does not exceed $100 million and such project obtains no contribution from federal funds." Though later amendments were added that addressed concerns relating to potential adverse impacts on historical sites or buildings and cultural resources, the Georgia Conservancy opposed the passage and signing of Senate Bill 346 by the Governor.
A bill to expand tree removal along state highways passed both chambers and the desk of Governor Nathan Deal. Senate Bill 383 allows for agri-tourism businesses in the state to apply for permits to remove trees and vegetation 500 feet horizontal from areas parallel to state roadways for the increased visibility of their billboards by passing motorists.
Senate Bill 324, a measure that would have lowered the annual alternative fuel vehicle fee from $200 to $75 did not pass the Senate before crossover day. The reduction of fees for AFVs lowers the hurdles for many consumers who wish to use more energy efficient transportation.
A major piece of legislation to provide for dedicated funding for land conservation in Georgia did not pass the House before crossover day. Championed by the Georgia Conservancy and our Georgia Legacy coalition members, House Bill 693 sought to establish the Georgia Legacy Trust Fund, wherein 75% of all tax revenue collected annually from the sale of outdoor recreation equipment would be dedicated for the purpose of the protection and preservation of conservation land. To allow for the dedicated allocation of tax revenue into the Georgia Legacy Trust Fund, the Constitution of Georgia would first have to be amended. House Resolution 907 sought to accomplish this through the creation of a ballot initiative presented to Georgia voters during the fall 2016 election cycle. Though legislation was not passed during this session, the Georgia Legacy coalition is continuing its efforts during the interim to work with lawmakers so that this measure, or one similar, will be introduced and ultimately passed during the 2017 session.
An effort to establish an enforceable freshwater buffer along our state’s rivers and streams did not win support in the House. House Bill 966 sought to clarify the statutory intent of regulations regarding the control of soil erosion and sedimentation along waters of the state. HB 966 sought to replace language that establishes the existing 25 foot buffer along state waters (50 feet for trout streams) as being measured horizontally from the point of wrested vegetation, or the location of plants that are uprooted by normal stream flow or wave action, with an enforceable statute that establishes the buffer as 25 feet (50 feet for trout streams) outward from the ordinary high water mark. The Georgia Conservancy strongly supports the clarification of statutory regulations that seek to protect waters of the state. However, we did not believe that this bill, as written, would have achieved the intended goal of clarifying the line of demarcation from which the 25-foot and 50-foot buffers will be measured. We are currently advocating for a collaborative effort to strengthen the enforcement of our buffers and we are looking forward to the debate surrounding HB 966, or any similar measure, during the interim and during the 2017 legislative session.
House Bill 734 sought to establish the Georgia Space Flight Act, which would limit liability for noise and passenger injuries surrounding the proposed Spaceport Camden. The bill was intended to further position Camden County as the chief candidate for the project. Though HB 734 passed the House, it did not come up for a vote in the Senate, and it has been referred to a Senate Study Committee for further review. The proposed Spaceport Camden site is located in the northeast corner of the county near the confluence of the Satilla River and Saint Andrews Sound in Georgia. This area is one of the highest functioning estuarine ecosystems on the East Coast of the United States and, as such, has extensive value to plants, animals, and the people of Camden County. The Georgia Conservancy is currently fully engaged in an environmental subcommittee of the Spaceport Camden Steering Committee and will continue to monitor all legislation relating to the proposed spaceport on the environmental merits.