Oconee County got its Superior Court judgeship.
The Georgia Department of Transportation got its $945 million–annually.
The state’s nearly 40 craft breweries–including a few locally–got the right to give souvenir six-packs to customers who pay for a tour.
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And Mercedes-Benz executives and staffers–when they move to Georgia–will get a waiver of taxes on the leases for their cars.
These were provisions of some of the bills passed by the General Assembly in the last two days of the legislative session–on Tuesday and Thursday.
Oconee County’s Sen. Bill Cowsert voted in favor of all four of the bills. Oconee Rep. Chuck Williams did not vote on the judgeship but voted for the funding for GDOT, for the beer bill and for the tax break for Mercedes-Benz.
Oconee Rep. Regina Quick voted for the judgeship and the beer but against the money for GDOT and against the tax waiver for Mercedes-Benz employees.
Cowsert to Rescue
The provision for the Superior Court judgeship for Oconee County was added to HB 279 through the efforts of Sen. Cowsert, according to T.J. BeMent, district court administrator for the 10th Judicial Administrative District of Georgia.
House Bill 367, which was to have provided for the fourth judgeship for the Western Circuit of the 10th Judicial Administrative District, stalled in the House.
The Western Circuit is made up of Clarke and Oconee Counties. The Circuit now has three judges, who serve in both counties but have their primary offices in Clarke County.
The fourth judge will be housed in Oconee County and will be in place on April 16, 2016.
Salaries For Judges
The Western Circuit judgeship was added to HB 279, which independently increases the salaries of Superior Court judges in designated jurisdictions throughout the state. The increase will apply to the three seated judges and the new judge in the Western Circuit.
The judges will get an increase of $12,000 on top of the base salary of $122,000. This is paid by the state.
In addition, Clarke and Oconee counties supplement these payments with another $40,840. Clark picks up $27,434 and Oconee pays $13,406.
BeMent told me in my telephone conversation with him today that the two counties also pay $29,532 for the judge’s secretary and for a law clerk.
That amount also is split between the two counties, and Oconee County will pay $21,732 for the new judge’s secretary and clerk, bringing the total new costs to the county for salaries to $35,138 ($13,406 for the judge and $21,732 for the secretary and law clerk).
Plus the county has to find space in an already crowded courthouse. And there will be additional requests from the district attorney, BeMent said.
Both the Senate and the House passed a version of HB 170, the Transportation Funding Act of 2015, late on Tuesday night.
The bill was the product of a Senate and House conference committee and included a provision neither the original House version nor the approved Senate version had included: a $5 per night charge on hotel bills.
The bill passed increases the gasoline tax from its current 19.3 center per gallon to 26.0 cents per gallon, or an increase of 34.7 percent. It increases the tax on diesel fuel from 21.3 cents to 29.0 cents, or an increase of 36.2 percent.
The fuel taxes will increase over time based on a formula that takes into consideration decreases in fuel consumption because of increased efficience of vehicles and inflation as measured by the federal Consumer Price Index.
The original House version of the bill increased the tax of gasoline to 29.2 cents per gallon and the tax on diesel to 33.0 cents.
The Senate version increased the tax to 24 cents per gallon without differentiating between gasoline and diesel.
The Bill passed on Tuesday is estimated to bring in $945 million in taxes and fees each year for transportation projects.
Both the new fuel tax and the hotel tax go into effect on July 1 of this year.
The version of HB 170 passed on Tuesday sets the rate for payment of the local taxes at 1 percent of the retail price of the motor fuel, provided the retail price of that fuel does not exceed $3.00 per gallon.
At present, the tax is computed based on an estimate of fuel costs during a six-month period.
Oconee County collects three local sales taxes, each at 1 percent.
One is the Local Option Sales Tax. Another is the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. The third is the Education Local Option Sales Tax.
The county now faces the uncertainty of estimating how the changes in these taxes will affect local revenue projections.
Craft brewers had sought the ability to sell beer from their breweries, but they got a bill that gave them much less.
They can charge for a tour and then give away up to a six pack of beer as a souvenir.
Those who take the tour also can consume up to 72 ounces of beer on the premises.
The House rewrote the original senate bill to add the same provision for distilleries.
Oconee County doesn’t have any craft brewers, though there was discussion in the past of the Terrapin Beer Company relocating from Athens to the old Evergreen Nursery property on Dowdy Road that now at the center of the controversy regarding the Daniells Bridge Road flyover.
Terrapin is joined in Athens-Clarke County by Creature Comforts Brewing Company. Another craft brewer, Southern Brewing Company, is building a facility in Athens-Clarke County.
Deal And Mercedes
According to several media reports, Gov. Nathan Deal requested the tax break for Mercedes-Benz employees.
HB 202 would waive the tax normally paid on automobile leases for the estimated 800 employees expected to move to the automaker’s future headquarters in Atlanta.
That same bill also included a $350,000 tax break for a private college that has an enrollment of between 1,000 and 3,000 students.
The college isn’t named in the bill, but the provision was promoted, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, by Sen. Bruce Thompson, R-White, who states in his office biographical sketch that he is a trustee of Truett-McConnell College in Cleveland, the county seat of White County. White County is in Thompson’s senate district.
Truett-McConnell had an enrollment of 1,678 students in the Fall of 2014, according to the college fact book.
Quick And GDOT
Rep. Quick, who represents the precincts of Athens Academy, Malcom Bridge and Bogart in Oconee County, has been an outspoken critic of the Georgia Department of Transportation.
She voted against HB 170 when it was approved by that body on March 5.
The bulk of Quick’s district is in Athens-Clarke County. She shares that county with Williams and Spencer Frye.
Quick, Williams and Cowsert are Republicans. Frye is a Democrat.
Frye voted for the Superior Court judgeship, against the conference committee version of HB 170, for the craft brewer bill, and against HB 202 granting the tax waiver to Mercedes-Benz and tax break to Truett-McConnell.
The votes on the judgeship, the beer bill, and the tax waiver for Mercedes-Benz were all on Thursday.
Frank Ginn, who also represents Athens-Clarke County in the Senate, voted for all of the bills.
NOTE FROM WILLIAMS
Williams sent me this note just after 6 a.m. on April 4.
I missed the judgeship vote because I was off the floor, seeking to craft a compromise to save a key provision of the "downtown Athens grocery store " bill we passed 2 years ago. A superfluous amendment to another bill in the Senate on Tuesday seriously damaged a key provision for Athens...