According to the chamber’s scorecard, eight bills were tracked throughout the 2014 session in order to come to a ranking for each lawmaker. In addition to the voting record on the eight bills — of which one was passed only in the House — the Georgia Chamber of Commerce also took into account sponsoring bills, speaking for or against bills, voting in committees, offering amendments, intentionally missing a vote when scorecard status was communicated and furthering the organization’s legislative priorities.
Two of the bills focused on economic development: HB 176, which, according to the press release, created a “streamlined regulatory process for companies investing in new or upgraded existing wireless broadband infrastructure,” and HB 958, which created a state income tax credit for qualified entertainment companies.
State Sen. Bruce Thompson (R-White), of the 14th District, said HB 176 was intended to help the state become more competitive as it attempts to acquire tech-oriented investments.
“I serve on [the science and technology committee] and Senator [Brandon] Beach is our chairman. One of the things ... he entertained and the committee entertained and that was to look at how we might be able to compete better with Silicon Valley,” Thompson said. “In other words, bring tech companies here. In Alpharetta they’ve been successful in doing some of that, but we’d like to see if we can do that [in] Georgia as a whole. Some of the things we need to do is if we’re going to lure companies that are technology companies, then we’re going to have to act like a technology state.”
State Rep. Trey Kelley (R-Cedartown), of the 16th District, said the bill also pushes a local planning commission to make a timely decision on whether or not to approve zoning for a cell tower.
“Essentially what that’s doing is just putting in place a shock clock to say that when telecommunication companies are putting in an application to put in new cell towers, that the application itself has to just receive a yes or no from the proper zoning authority or commission in a certain period of time,” Kelley said. “Here historically there’s been some neighborhoods, some commissions — not all, but there have been some bad actors — who just allow the application to sit there dormant without giving a yes or no. That’s a challenge for the telecommunications industry and business in general.”
As for HB 958, Thompson believed it was more than a tax cut for a single industry.
“Obviously as a fiscal conservative, I’m always sensitive to giving tax breaks freely ... but when it leads to economic growth that then increases the taxes that we can collect and be able to use in the general fund and other things, that makes sense,” he said. “That’s an investment. Sometimes people think when you do tax cuts that it’s a specific cut for a specific industry. It’s an investment in a certain industry.”
In addition to the tax cuts for the entertainment industry, Sen. Chuck Hufstetler (R-Rome), of the 52nd District, said the bill also created a state sales tax exemption for food banks.
Two bills focusing on legal reform were also part of the scorecard. HB 643 was only passed in the House, though the Georgia chamber also scored the Senate version. The other legal reform bill, SB 125, provides landowners liability protection against lawsuits brought against them by people who were illegally on their land and might have been injured while on the property.
Before SB 125 was passed, said Christian Coomer (R-Cartersville), of the 14th District, anyone who made an unlawful entry into a storage or shipping container and was later injured there or while attempting to “escape with merchandise” would be able to bring a lawsuit against the container’s owner.
“This law would allow for ... protection that ability to bring a lawsuit for somebody who was injured, but had some legal status for being there in that place on or around those containers,” Coomer said. “Even a person who might be there without the invitation of the owner, they still have some protections in the law. But if they’re there for an unlawful purpose, then in that case they would not be able to bring a lawsuit if they are injured.”
Under the category of business and industry, the Georgia chamber used HB 714, which, “prevents some private educational service contractors from abusing the unemployment insurance system when they encourage and train employees to file for unemployment benefits during summer, holidays and other temporary breaks to supplement their annual income, providing uniformity for unemployment benefit qualifications,” according to the release.
A second bill in the business and industry category, HB 809, amends the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act, is intended to prohibit what is described as a “patent troll.”
“It more importantly protects people who are developing the technology and then having this software ripped off,” Kelley said of HB 809. “We’re really seeing this happen in the financial services sector, like several people have created some specific software and it’s being ripped off by these people who are saying — the technology’s being ripped off and the trolls are trying to say they had the patent for this when they really don’t.
“It’s different software, but they bring these lawsuits against these individuals for claiming that they’re taking their technology, but it’s not. They just file these lawsuits hoping that a big company will just settle with them instead of actually fighting it in court.”
The Georgia chamber considered one environmental bill for its scorecard: SB 213. The bill amends the Flint River Drought Protection Act to ensure its protection.
“[That’s] one of those where all parties were brought together and came up with that agreement so that you basically have a couple of different viewpoints on that that came together and compromised and had a bill that everybody was happy with that passed,” said Hufstetler. “... We had the environmental riverkeepers and the chamber both were in agreement to pass this bill, and that’s fairly unusual.”
The final bill on the Georgia chamber’s scorecard was HB 697, which expands the HOPE Grant to provide full tuition for technical college students in technical certificate and diploma programs with a GPA of 3.5 or higher, according to the release.
Coomer, who was a cosigner on the bill, said it was part of a larger effort to get Georgia residents into well-paying jobs that are available now and are expected to be available in the future.
“Of course there are always going to be entry-level unskilled labor positions available, but what we’re trying to do is encourage the growth and the number of people who are trained and ready to do hard skill jobs like welding or commercial truck driving and other skilled labor jobs that pay really good wages, very good, solid, livable wages, which are currently being unfilled in Georgia because we don’t have enough people with those skilled trades available for the workforce. There are about 50,000 open positions in Georgia right now for skilled labor. So what we’re hoping to do is encourage people to move into skill trades so Georgia’s broader economy can keep growing and at the same time getting people off unemployment and into the employment stream,” Coomer said.
Though all the legislators were appreciative of their ratings, both Kelley and Coomer said it does not affect how lawmakers vote.
“Groups that do these scorecards, they have their own agenda,” Kelley said. “There’s no question about it. The chamber is one that advocates for business interests and for helping us grow our economy. I support that mission and we work together on a lot of issues. ... I think scorecards get dangerous when people look at them and don’t think about that this is a group that is pushing its own agenda. The only unbiased scorecard is for people to get online and look at our voting record just in a roll call format.”
“But I can tell you I’ve never voted one way or another because it was a scorecard vote,” Coomer said. “I don’t want people to have the impression that we sort of decide how to vote based on who we’re making happy or who we’re making mad. At least I don’t anyway. That’s not the way it works.”
Rep. Paul Battles (R-Cartersville), of the 14th District, received an A+ rating, but did not return calls requesting comment.
Joe Frank Harris Jr., CEO and president of the Cartersville-Bartow County Chamber of Commerce, believed the rankings were well-deserved.
“I have never known a delegation to work harder to stay engaged with the business community and the general population as a whole. They are always available for us and work hard to represent us as well,” he said. “... We’ve got folks elected with some business experience, so of course they stay in tune to the needs [of their constituents] and their other involvements.”
To see the full list of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s rankings, visit www.gachamber.com.