What New Legislation Did Gov. Brian Kemp Sign Into Law This Year?

Sam Whitehead, Molly Samuel, Johnny Kauffman, and Martha Dalton contributed to this report.

Gov. Brian Kemp had until Monday, 40 days since the close of the 2021 General Assembly session, to decide whether to sign or veto the bills the legislature passed. The most controversial bill of the session, the state’s new election law, was signed within an hour of its passage in March, but the legislature was busy passing other bills this year as well. 

Kemp vetoed one bill that would have created a “chief labor officer” within the Department of Labor who would have reported to the state legislature. This was a hot-button issue during the legislative session as a backlog of unemployment claims frustrated jobless Georgians and the lawmakers they appealed to for help. 

In his veto statement Kemp said the bill would have had “significant infringements on the separation of powers guaranteed by Georgia’s Constitution,” since the state labor commissioner is independently elected and this new position would have had been empowered to make decisions with “the same force and effect” as the commissioner. Kemp suggested that rather than the new position, the state should “work with the Labor Commissioner to identify the challenges his agency is facing.” 

The bills Kemp did not formally sign or veto will now automatically become law. One of those laws dedicates fees collected by the state to the funds that those fees are for. For example, when you pay the state’s scrap tire fee, the money will go to the solid waste trust fund, rather than to the general fund. Supporters of this measure worked for years to get it passed. 

Here are some of the other pieces of legislation that Kemp has signed into law:

Citizen’s Arrest

This law change came about a year after the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery became national news, and nearly 15 months after he was shot while jogging down a Brunswick street. The legislation repeals and replaces the state’s vague “citizen’s arrest” law, which allows any citizen to “arrest” another if a crime is committed “within his immediate knowledge.” It’s being used to defend the three men in jail for Arbery’s death. 

The statute has been replaced with specific language to provide for citizen detainment in very specific circumstances, to include shopkeepers who witness shoplifters and restaurant owners and employees who witness “dine and dash” customers. 

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed the overhaul he championed at the state Capitol Monday, alongside a bipartisan group of state lawmakers as well as Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones and sister, Jasmine Arbery.

“I think the state of Georgia is moving in the right direction by passing this particular bill,” Cooper-Jones said at the Capitol. “Unfortunately, I had to lose my son to get significant change. But again, I’m still thankful.”

Paid Parental Leave

A measure that stalled in the state senate last year but passed in 2021 gives state employees who have worked for at least six months three weeks of paid parental leave after giving birth or adopting a child. The law covers about a quarter of a million Georgians, including teachers. 

“Over the past year, state employees have gone above and beyond to deliver essential services and ensure public safety during this unprecedented time,” Kemp said of the new law. 

“I am proud to support legislation that will strengthen Georgia’s reputation as the top state for business by ensuring state employees can take paid time off when they welcome a new child into their home,” he said.

Anti-Defund the Police 

Though no Georgia counties or municipalities proposed measures to cut police budgets, Kemp signed a Republican-led law that will ban them from trimming police budgets by more than 5 percent. 

“Radical movements like the ‘defund the police movement’ seek to vilify the men and women who leave their families every day and put their lives on the line to protect all Georgians,” Kemp said at the bill signing.

“This far-left movement will endanger our communities and our law enforcement officers and leave our most vulnerable at risk,” he added.

Tuition waiver for adopted and foster children

A bipartisan measure that waives fees and tuition for foster children and adopted children who wish to attend schools in the Technical College System of Georgia. It also requires the technical college system to offer in-state tuition to eligible homeless students. 

“Too many of Georgia’s foster and adopted children and their families face significant financial hurdles in order to obtain higher education,” bill sponsor, Republican State Sen. Brian Strickland said. “This legislation is only one small part of Georgia’s effort to ensure that all of Georgia’s children, particularly those who are most vulnerable, have an opportunity to attend one of Georgia’s institutions of higher learning.”

Foster Child Tax Credit

A bipartisan bill that will increase the tax credit available to those who adopt foster children from $2,000 to $6,000.

Healthcare for Pre-existing Conditions 

A measure that prevents health insurance companies from excluding, limiting, denying, or delaying coverage to individuals because of pre-existing medical conditions in the event the Affordable Care Act is struck down. 

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently mulling the fate of Obamacare after a number of states, including Georgia, filed suit arguing the health care law is unconstitutional. The ACA currently provides “pre-existing conditions” protections similar to those laid out in Georgia’s new law.

Medicaid express lane

A bipartisan measure aimed at getting more low-income children signed up for Medicaid health coverage. Under the law, children in families that receive food stamps would be automatically enrolled in the state-federal health insurance program. Georgia still needs to get federal officials to sign off on the new enrollment mechanism.

COVID-19 liability extension 

A law that extends protections for businesses against lawsuits related to the transmission of the coronavirus on their premises. The protections were set to expire in July 2021 but were extended for another year.

More telehealth

A bipartisan measure focused on making it easier for Georgians to receive telehealth services.

For example, the law prevents insurance companies from mandating a patient receive an in-person consultation before seeing a health care provider virtually. It also says insurers can’t place additional restrictions on prescribing medications through telehealth visits.

The COVID-19 pandemic put new attention on telehealth services, with many people looking to connect to care remotely through means like video conferencing.

Special Needs Voucher

Georgia’s Special Needs Scholarship program will be expanded to include students who have federal 504 plans. The program has been in place since 2007. Since then it has let students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) receive a taxpayer funded scholarship to attend private schools. The new law will increase the pool of students eligible for the program by including students with 504s, which applies to a wider range of disabilities than IEPs do. 

“For the vast majority of students with special needs, 97-98 percent will best be served by their public school system,” said Sen. Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega), one of the bill’s sponsors. “This scholarship provides opportunities when they are not getting what they need.” 

Critics of the legislation don’t like the idea of sending money meant for public schools to private ones. Groups that oppose the law include the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE), the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE), and the Southern Education Foundation (SEF). 

No Natural Gas Bans

Some cities, in other parts of the country, have begun banning new natural gas connections as a way to address climate change. That’s spurred the natural gas industry to push for laws like this one that prohibit cities from banning natural gas. Georgia is one of a handful of states that has now adopted a natural gas preemption bill.  

State Nut

Georgia now has an official state nut, and no, it’s not a member of the General Assembly. The honor, instead, goes to pecans. Georgia pecan growers had a rough few years, between low prices and damage caused by Hurricane Michael in 2018 that temporarily knocked Georgia down from its status as the number one pecan-producing state in the nation. 

In their bill giving the pecan its status, lawmakers noted, “the pecan is the only edible nut native to North America and is this country’s most successful homegrown tree nut crop. It is known for its health benefits; scientists have discovered that pecans’ golden kernels are good for the heart, with antioxidants and cholesterol-lowering effects.”

Don’t worry about Georgia’s other popular nut; peanuts already had the title of official state crop. 

Permanent Daylight Saving Time

Georgia lawmakers agreed on a bill to switch the state to permanent daylight saving time. The two chambers had originally disagreed on whether to observe standard time or daylight time year-round. The House plan eventually won out. But the measure still needs approval from congress before it can go into effect.

Compensation for College Athletes 

Georgia joins a dozen other states in passing legislation that allows college athletes to receive compensation for the use of their name, image and likeness.

“Simply put, college athletes in Georgia should be fairly compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness,” Gov. Kemp said after signing the measure inside the University of Georgia’s football stadium.

The bill, which passed with bipartisan support, allows universities to decide what percentage an athlete should receive (no less than 25%) and what should go into a collective fund for other athletes. Congress is considering several bills that would address the issue at the federal level; the NCAA is also facing pressure to address athlete compensation rules.

Raising the Standard Tax Deduction

A Republican-led measure that passed with bipartisan support, which increases the state income tax standard deduction to $5,400 for a single taxpayer and $7,100 for a married couple, will apply to taxable income beginning January of 2022. 

Probation Reform 

191,000 individuals in Georgia are serving felony probation sentences, according to the Georgia Justice Project (GJP). This law would allow people serving probation to potentially end their sentences after three years if they’ve paid all the restitution they owe, they haven’t been arrested, and they haven’t had their probation revoked as a result of any infractions. According to GJP, 25 percent of people serving felony probation in Georgia are now eligible to have their sentence terminated early. 

Virtual Court 

Since the pandemic, most court proceedings in Georgia have been virtual, if they’ve been held at all. This new law says state court judges can perform any “judicial act” regardless of where they’re located. The chief justice of Georgia’s Supreme Court, Harold Melton, has said the state faces a backlog of criminal cases. The new law includes a variety of measures that might move those cases through the courts more quickly. 

Teacher Pipeline 

Gov. Kemp has championed this law, which aims to strengthen Georgia’s teacher workforce. The measure charges Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) with developing innovative ways to recruit more teachers of color. 

“[HBCUs] play a significant role in teacher preparation, and they should play a major role in teacher placement,” Kemp said. “I want to ensure they lead the charge to create ways to get more minority teachers into our classrooms so students from all backgrounds and [ethnicities] can see themselves in their teachers.”

The legislation will also beef up teacher preparation programs for veterans and will let Georgia’s Teacher of the Year serve on the state board of education in an advisory role. 

For a deeper exploration of Ahmaud Arbery’s story, listen to WABE’s podcast, “Buried Truths.” Hosted by journalist, professor, and Pulitzer-prize-winning author Hank Klibanoff, season three of “Buried Truths” explores the Arbery murder and its direct ties to racially motivated murders of the past in Georgia.