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Lawmakers from Forsyth reflect on 2015 legislative session
Gatto
Gatto

FORSYTH COUNTY — About 11 p.m., with an hour left to go in the 2015 legislative session, the Georgia General Assembly passed a bill that may give two Forsyth County parents some solace.

House Bill 152, or Michael’s Law, was initiated after 18-year-old Michael Joseph Gatto was beat to death in August by an off-duty bouncer at a bar in Statesboro. The 2014 South Forsyth High grad had begun his college career two weeks earlier at Georgia Southern University.

The law had to pass three votes after a Senate amendment late Thursday night, and not all of the original intentions Gatto’s parents sought made it in. But state Rep. Geoff Duncan said it should hold bars and other establishments that sell high volumes of alcohol accountable for breaking the law.

“The reality sunk in that we have the privilege of honoring Michael with legislation that for generations to come will save lives,” said Duncan, a Republican whose 26th district covers a large swath of Forsyth.

Grant James Spencer, the bouncer from Johns Creek charged in Gatto’s death, was 20 at the time.

Michael’s Law includes a rule saying establishments that attribute 75 percent or more of their annual revenue to on-location alcohol sales must employ bouncers who are at least 21. Patrons must also be 21 to enter unless accompanied by a parent or to attend a music or performing arts show.

Businesses and municipalities will have to report any infractions to the department of revenue within 45 days.

“It won’t affect people really truly playing by the rules,” Duncan said. “We want to make life absolutely miserable for those breaking the law and allowing underage drinking within their premises.”

The Senate added a provision to prohibit the possession of powdered alcohol.

“All a kid has to do is mix it with water and you have a cocktail. Right now it’s not illegal, but we just don’t know enough about it yet and we want to take time to learn more,” said Duncan, noting 27 states have enacted similar legislation in the past three months.

Most of the bill should take effect on July 1, 2016, though the powdered alcohol requirements are expected to be signed by Gov. Nathan Deal sooner.

“It’s a great accomplishment, but it’s bittersweet because it’s in memory of Michael,” Duncan said. “[His parents were] the driving force. Because of this, their son’s death is somehow going to make a positive. We don’t just want to create laws. We want to promote public awareness and accountability.”

 

Budget talk

 

Though HB 152 nearly ran out of time, the statewide budget had already been finalized. It passed 55-1 in the state Senate Tuesday night before the House of Representatives unanimously approved the request minutes later.

Included in the $21.8 billion budget — which takes effect July 1 — was $2 million for the expansion and renovation of Sharon Forks Library.

First-term Republican Sen. Michael Williams pushed for the funding, according to Anna Lyle, Forsyth County Public Library assistant director for support services.

The south Forsyth library branch had renovation plans in the works for when it receives $2.8 million in 1-cent sales tax funds — the same program that is building the new courthouse and jail in downtown Cumming — but “this will make the project so much more successful,” Lyle said.

The Forsyth County Board of Education is also set to receive some additional state funding.

Dan Jones, the school system’s chief financial officer, said officials expect an austerity reduction of $6 million. They intend to use about half to cover health insurance premiums for non-certified staff, which includes bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

The governor requested the part-time staff members be covered by local entities, such as school boards, since they’re not state employees.

The remaining $3 million may be used for teacher raises, Jones said.

 

Graduation test no more

 

Local education was addressed in more ways than the budget, with HB 91 having taken effect March 30.

State Rep. Mike Dudgeon co-sponsored the bill that eliminated the Georgia High School Graduation Test as a requirement for a diploma.

“It allows students who went through high school and got everything else completed, all the requirements, but couldn’t pass the graduation test so they couldn’t get a diploma,” said the District 25 representative from south Forsyth.

The new bill works retroactively.

“I know a kid in Forsyth who had almost a 3.0 [grade-point average] but just couldn’t pass one section of that test,” Dudgeon said. “He’s 21 years old, works at a fast-food chain but wants to go to Lanier Tech … Now it will help a lot of people in the state move on with their lives.”

 

Financing solar installations

 

Dudgeon also led a solar financing bill that will allow consumers, starting July 1, to finance solar installations for their homes or small businesses.

Previously, nearly all purchases of solar panels had to be paid up front, which could cost about $20,000.

HB 57, whose local co-sponsors included fellow Republicans District 24 state Rep. Mark Hamilton of Cumming and District 51 state Sen. Steve Gooch of Dahlonega, allows individuals to finance or lease them.

These purchases will not be tax subsidies, Dudgeon said.

Hamilton sponsored a measure by Williams’— co-sponsored by Gooch and four other senators — SB 95, which would allow real estate brokers to put escrow and trust money in any federally insured account, such as a credit union, instead of only a bank account.

Hamilton, who played a role in the state’s massive transportation bill, also sponsored SB 88, which will allow companies to issue paychecks through a debit card.

 

What didn’t pass

 

Not all bills made it to Deal’s desk.

A bill that would change the cutoff date for children entering kindergarten was not approved.

Neither was a bill to create an education savings account for parents to allocate state funds to private or alternative education.

At one point, the kindergarten bill would have required children to reach the age of 5 years on or before Aug. 1 to enroll in kindergarten for the 2017-18 school year.

The cutoff date would have been July 1 for children entering school in the 2018-19 year. The current cutoff date is Sept. 1.

 

Looking ahead

 

Two bills were introduced this session that will be discussed throughout the year before being brought up again in 2016.

HB 660 initiated the process of forming the city of Sharon Springs in south Forsyth. It would be the county’s second municipality.

In addition, Williams proposed the expansion of Forsyth’s governing body by adding a sixth member who would serve as a countywide-elected chairman.