Georgia First Amendment Foundation's
2019 Legislative Watch
The Georgia First Amendment Foundation is tracking government transparency legislation as the 2019 General Assembly proposes to make changes that might help - or hurt - the public's right to know. Below are some of the top issues we're following.
Four of the six bills on our watch list failed to get one chamber's approval by Crossover Day, which was March 7th this year. A bill typically needs to pass at least one chamber of the General Assembly by the crossover deadline in order to have a chance of becoming law the same year.
Update: A substitute approved by both House and Senate remedied the reporting loophole as suggested below. Right now elected officials must disclose campaign contributions in non-election years on Jan. 31, just as the General Assembly session is getting underway. Senate Bill 213 would eliminate that disclosure date, which would harm transparency.
“As written, this bill is very problematic,” said Georgia First Amendment Foundation President Richard T. Griffiths. “It would take away the public’s ability to know – early in the legislative session – who contributes to our representatives and senators.”
GFAF is seeking an amendment to Senate Bill 213 to restore the Jan. 31 campaign contribution disclosure requirement. That would preserve the public’s visibility into who's donating to campaigns as lawmakers are set to act on legislation that would affect every Georgian.
“The issue is easily fixed by leaving the existing reporting dates unchanged,” Griffiths said. “We at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation can’t imagine legislators with a commitment to open and transparent government objecting to this easy technical fix.”
Read an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story detailing the politics surrounding Senate Bill 213 and how it could impair transparency.
Current Georgia law generally allows a person to make an audio recording of any conversation that he or she is a part of, including conversations in which the person is subjected to verbal abuse, threats or asked to participate in wrongdoing. The ability to record such conversations with a smartphone or other device is an important tool for citizens seeking to protect themselves. Senate Bill 59 would change the law and require citizens to get permission from every other party to a conversation in a non-public setting before making an audio recording. This bill follows last year’s audio recording of then Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle saying he supported a “bad” bill to gain an advantage in the race for governor. Republican gubernatorial candidate Clay Tippens made the recording.
Read GFAF President Richard T. Griffith’s commentary about how this bill could infringe on citizens’ ability to protect themselves and give a free pass to the bad guys.
GFAF pushed to amend a portion of House Bill 316, which generally lays the foundation for Georgia to adopt a new touch-screen voting system and to rectify issues in its current voting procedures. In Section 7, the Bill authorizes the secretary of state to become a member of a “nongovernmental entity whose purpose is to share and exchange information in order to improve the accuracy and efficiency of voter-registration systems.” The bill then broadly exempts the secretary of state from having to publicly disclose any “information received” from this nongovernmental entity. That provision is far too broad. It may be appropriate to exempt certain confidential voting data provided by the organization, but any “information received” from the organization would conceal information, including routine communications about the goals, purposes and strategies for an organization that will apparently operate outside of traditional governmental checks and balances.
This legislation would amend the state Open Records Act to make it explicit that the law applies to nonprofit organizations to which the assets of a hospital authority have been transferred. Georgia case law already requires such nonprofit organizations to comply with the Open Records Act. In particular, the Georgia Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Smith v. Northside Hospital re-affirmed this point. This statutory change would emphasize even more clearly that the act applies to such nonprofits.
House Bill 308 – Revise open records law such that public records shall not be held exclusively by private entities
(Status: Did not make crossover deadline, held in House Governmental Affairs Committee)
The proposal would prevent public agencies from delegating their responsibility to be custodian of public records exclusively to a private entity. The legislation appears to be aimed at making sure public agencies do not lose control of public records, which are rightly the property of the public, by conferring them to a private entity.
House Resolution 164 – Authorize a constitutional amendment to provide that revenues derived from fees or taxes must be dedicated to the public purpose for which such fees or taxes were imposed
(Status: House approved 169-1 on Feb. 19, Senate approved a limited version 52-0 on March 25, which the House didn't pass.)
This “truth-in-fees” legislation would put a proposed constitutional amendment on next year’s ballot that would limit the ability of state officials to divert money from fees and taxes meant for special purposes. For example, tire and landfill fees were authorized by the General Assembly in the 1990s for the specific purpose of cleaning up hazardous waste areas, and these fees have raised about $230 million over the past decade, but more than $150 million has been diverted to the general fund. This “anti-bait-and-switch” legislation has passed the Georgia House, but the Senate limited the scope to cover cleanups of tire dumps, landfills and hazardous waste sites. So the House will need to reconsider the modified bill for it to pass this year. In prior years, similar legislation originating in the House has failed to pass in the Senate.