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Tuesday, December 31, 2013 - 11:52am

New Year, New Laws

Almost a dozen new laws will go into effect across Georgia on January 1, 2014. They range from an overhaul of the state’s juvenile justice system to an updated city charter.

Ethics Changes

Some of the most talked-about legislation of 2013, two companion ethics laws will change how lobbyists do business at the state Capitol.

The first law limits lobbyists to spending just $75 on any gift for an individual lawmaker and prohibits them from giving legislators tickets to concerts, sports or other events. It also refines the definition of a “lobbyist” so that those people compensated for campaigning for or against legislation must register with the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. They must also file an expense disclosure report quarterly. Some watchdog organizations, however, point out the law includes loopholes for unlimited expenditures on groups of lawmakers and travel expenses.

The second law tightens campaign finance reporting rules, including requiring candidates to file a report on Jan. 31 of each year, which would reveal any contributions made directly leading up to a legislative session.

Juvenile Justice Reform

The juvenile justice reform law was considered the second part of Governor Nathan Deal’s push to change Georgia’s criminal justice system. The law provides judges more flexibility in sentencing. Instead of jailing all children who commit felonies, judges will decide whether that felony was a serious offense or a minor offense. Serious or dangerous juvenile offenders will go to one of the state’s Youth Detention Centers, but others will go to community-based programs.

“Currently, if we take a child and put them into a called ‘secure detention,’ that child is going to cost the state over $90,000 a year. You could put children through the finest college in this country for less cost than that,” said Rep. Wendell Willard, (R) Sandy Springs, the bill’s primary sponsor.

That high price tag is attributed to the cost of educating a child while he or she is incarcerated. Instead, the community-based programs will keep youth offenders at home with their families and at their regular schools, greatly reducing the cost to the state.

Return to Play

Concussions have been a hot topic of conversation from the NFL to pee wee football. In order to better protect children who may have suffered a concussion, the Return to Play Act creates new guidelines for coaches, parents and student athletes.

The law requires schools to give parents and their children information about concussion dangers, symptoms and treatments at the beginning of the season, no matter what sport they compete in. Return to Play also mandates that coaches or trainers remove a student from activity if he or she exhibits concussion and a licensed health care provider must clear the athlete before returning to practice or competition.

Freeport Exemption for Fertilizer

This law will add the mixing of fertilizer to the list of activities that qualify a good or product to be exempt from property taxes under the state’s Freeport Exemption. The application of Georgia’s Freeport Exemption is left up to individual counties and municipalities. According to the Georgia Department of Revenue, more than 60 percent of local governments have implemented some percentage of the Freeport Exemption.

Senoia City Charter

The law provides a new charter for the City of Senoia, which first became a city in 1905.

Fulton Judges Supplement

Sponsored primarily by representatives from Fulton County, this law raises the minimum salaries of Superior Court judges in Fulton County to $49,748 per year. It also gives the Chief Justice an additional $6,000 annually.

Forsyth County Board of Education

This act outlines the compensation for members of the Forsyth County Board of Education. Board members will be paid $700 per month and the board chair will make $750 per month.

Macon/Bibb Restructuring

Macon and Bibb County consolidated their governments into one, effective January 1, 2014. Legislators amended a law passed in 2012 that included Payne City in the consolidation. People in Payne City voted against joining the consolidated government.

The law also outlines that the new government will reduce its budget significantly over the next several years. Macon-Bibb’s 2015 budget cannot exceed the combined budgets of the City of Macon and Bibb County. In 2016, the consolidated government must reduce its budget to 95 percent of that amount and continue reductions of 5 percent until it reaches just 80 percent of the 2015 budget in 2019, not including inflation.

Stone Mountain Judges

This amended law increases the compensation for superior court judges in the Stone Mountain Judicial Circuit by $9,000.

Temporary Drivers’ Licenses

Lawmakers voted to allow an extension for non-citizens whose drivers’ licenses were expired or set to expire, while they are in the process of filing for an extension with the Department of Homeland Security to stay in the United States. That temporary drivers’ license would be good for 120 days.