Georgia governor signs into law 50-plus pieces of legislation

Gov. Nathan Deal signed dozens of pieces of legislation into law Monday, including an overhaul of alcohol laws long sought by craft breweries and liquor distilleries, a measure to regulate autonomous vehicles and changes to family leave policy that divided conservative lawmakers.

They were among more than 50 measures that Deal signed in a marathon day that also includes a new crackdown on crimes against law enforcement officers and another that could pave the way to commercial space launches in coastal Georgia.

The spate of bill signings came ahead of a Tuesday deadline to approve or veto legislation, and the timing unnerved many lawmakers who wondered why the Republican governor waited until near the very end of the 40-day bill-signing period to approve much of the legislation.

Deal’s office explained that the delay was a tactic it believed would keep the spotlight off measures that could be vetoed. Still pending are several other high-profile measures, including an expansion of Georgia’s medical marijuana program and a controversial tax credit for investors in rural projects.

And even though the two most consequential pieces of legislation are already in the books — he signed the state’s budget and a measure legalizing guns on public college campuses last week — the bills he signed Monday will have far-reaching impact on state policy.

A booze mini-boom

Craft beer breweries and liquor distilleries might have had the biggest reason to toast when Deal signed Senate Bill 85, which allows them to sell their products directly to consumers.

It was seen as a final compromise between manufacturers and alcohol wholesalers who currently hold exclusive rights to buy beer or liquor from those who make it.

The new rules are considered a major victory for the state’s growing craft alcohol industry as well as an important compromise from the state’s alcohol wholesalers to erode the state’s “three-tier” system of alcohol distribution.

The brewing industry says the measure could trigger a mini-boom that could splash over into other businesses. Taylor Lamm, the owner and master brewer at the newly opened Oconee Brewing Co., said more than 2,300 people showed up for his grand opening — and he said most were visitors to northeast Georgia.

“The key point to that mix of guests is that they were brought into our community by the brewery,” Lamm said. “They likely spent money at other businesses along the way.”

‘Peace of mind’

A new family leave policy that Deal signed into law Monday sparked a bitter debate under the Gold Dome.

Senate Bill 201 would require some large employers to let their employees use sick leave to care for immediate family members, and the debate over the measure divided Republicans, with some criticizing what they saw as a new mandate.

Supporters cast it as a common-sense change to help Georgians care for their loved ones without risking their pay or employment. Among them was Kim Schofield, a co-chairwoman of the 9to5 Georgia advocacy, who said the new law gives her “peace of mind” knowing that her daughter wouldn’t lose a day’s pay to care for her illness.

Generating less controversy were two other measures that Deal signed into law Monday. Senate Bill 180 increases the value of the state’s rural hospital tax credit from 70 percent to 90 percent, which sponsors said would help attract more investors because so few people had initially agreed to donate at the lower level.

And Senate Bill 160, known as the “Back the Badge” bill, stiffens penalties against people who assault law enforcement officers. That measure earned widespread legislative approval after a provision that targeted protesters was removed.

Rural + tax credit = controversy

Arguably the most controversial measure left unsigned is Senate Bill 133, which would combine two elements that conservatives love to support: tax breaks and help for struggling farm communities. The complex plan would provide $60 million in tax credits for investments in rural Georgia businesses.

But the measure has run into sustained criticism from opponents who say it’s little more than a giveaway to a few giant national capital companies. Deal has raised concerns about the idea, too. He vetoed a similar lending plan, known as CAPCO, in 2015 amid concerns that the programs didn’t create as many jobs or state revenue as promised.

This year’s measure also faced stiff opposition from lawmakers in both parties and narrowly eked out enough support to pass in the final hours of the legislative session. Democrats, in particular, said these programs have a spotty track record and could wind up making profits if no jobs are actually created.

The measure’s supporters say rural Georgia companies desperate for access to capital need an extra edge and point to provisions that would impose financial penalties on firms that failed to make good on their promise of creating jobs.

Also still pending on Deal’s desk is Senate Bill 16, which would expand the list of disorders eligible for treatment under Georgia’s growing medical marijuana program, which now has 1,700 patients and more than 350 physicians.

State Rep. Allen Peake, the Macon Republican who is the godfather of the program, said he has “every expectation that (the governor) will sign the bill” on Tuesday. That would let patients suffering from severe forms of autism, AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease and Tourette’s syndrome have access to cannabis oil. Patients in hospice programs, no matter their diagnosis, would also be allowed to access the oil.

We have liftoff

Two other new laws now in the books could give Georgia a prominent role in emerging transportation technologies.

Senate Bill 219 clears the road for autonomous vehicles to roam Georgia’s streets. The legislation requires the operators of self-driving cars to adhere to insurance requirements and to register such vehicles with the state.

And House Bill 1, known as the Georgia Space Flight Act, is designed to launch a space industry in coastal Georgia. The measure gives commercial spaceports the same legal protections offered by other states that house commercial rocket launch sites.

It was cheered by developers in Camden County on Georgia’s coast, where local authorities have long sought a sprawling spaceport. The county is working with Vector, a satellite launch firm based in Arizona, to conduct a test launch this summer.

Camden County Administrator Steve Howard said the new law will help the state compete for a slice of the $320 billion commercial spaceflight industry, which could bring high-paying jobs to the rural county near Florida’s state line.

And Deal, who often calls Georgia the No.1 place in the nation to do business, said it could pave the way for a new distinction: “The best place in the nation to launch a rocket.”

Staff writers Aaron Gould Sheinin and Kristina Torres contributed to this article.

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