UPDATES                SENATE REPORT                                
           UPDATES                SENATE REPORT                                
April 2, 2015

The 2015 legislative session has come to a close. We worked throughout the 40-day session to pass legislation that promotes education, healthcare and Georgia’s positive economic climate.

Tuesday, the Senate was in session past midnight. We vetted and passed 49 bills including the Fiscal Year 2016 Budget. Thursday, or Sine Die, we worked past midnight to vet and vote on 28 general bills and agreed to House changes on more than 30 bills.

As the session starts winding down, legislators often see that their bills will not make it through the other chamber. At that point, legislators start scrambling to find bills dealing with the same Code section that have already passed the opposing chamber and are ready to go to the floor for a vote in their chamber. Once such a bill is found, legislators can then create an amendment out of the original bill that has stalled and attach it to the bill they are using as a vehicle. The worst case scenario is when a committee in the other chamber takes over a bill completely by stripping out all of the original language and substituting their own. This is the situation that happened to one of my bills, SB 116.

SB 116, originally known as “Celebrate Freedom Week,” became an entirely new bill in the hands of the House Education Committee. The bill now deals with educational savings accounts. Due to that sudden turn of events, I worked with Rep. Mike Dudgeon, the sponsor of another education bill, HB 502, which was already in the Senate, to incorporate SB 116 into it. HB 502 passed the Senate as amended to include Celebrate Freedom Week on Day 39, and the House agreed to the change.

SB 129, the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed the Senate 37-15, but it still awaits action in the House as the session comes to an end.

The bill language has been drafted to reflect the language of the federal RFRA, which has a time-tested success record of over 20 years for protecting the religious liberty interests of citizens whose religious rights have been burdened.  As seen in the recent Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case, even laws that appear to be neutral toward religion can burden First Amendment religious free exercise rights.

When considering the actual history of RFRA principles, the courts have applied the RFRA standards of strict scrutiny and the compelling governmental interest balancing test for 50 years. These are the key elements of the Georgia RFRA language in SB 129. It is important that the bill language reflect the original federal RFRA so that Georgians can have the same protection for religious freedom in Georgia's courts as we have in federal courts.

To watch first-hand interviews regarding issues at the Georgia Capitol, tune in to Capitol News, a brand new show just getting underway to keep Georgians more aware of what is happening under the Gold Dome.

The news channel link is https://vimeo.com/channels/875726.

There are a number of shows dealing with the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

There are two shows posted that cover concerns related to the new Advanced Placement U.S. History Framework.

Sen. William Ligon provided a response to an Atlanta Journal Constitution article which misrepresented Senate Resolution 80.

Access Sen. Ligon's article: Leftist Slant to AP U.S. History Turns America's Melting Pot into Boiling Pot
When an amended bill successfully passes on a floor vote, the other chamber must then look over the changes and decide whether to agree with them or disagree. If the author of the bill agrees, the chamber will then vote to either pass the amended bill or defeat it. However, occasionally the author of the bill disagrees, which then sets up a situation that leads to a Conference Committee comprised of three House members and three Senate members.

The Conference Committee seeks to iron out the differences between the original legislation and the amended version. If conferees fail to reach an agreement, the legislation is essentially dead. If the committee is successful and conferees vote with at least a 4-2 majority, the legislation will return for an up or down vote to both chambers.

An example of this situation was SB 127. In its original version that passed the Senate, it was a straightforward four-page bill seeking to correct problems with campaign reporting and errors made by the state. The House provided a substitute which was 16 pages and included new definitions regarding "communication," "election targeted issue advocacy," "expenditure," and "express election advocacy," which raised concerns that in their application in that Code section they would have stifled freedom of speech for many advocacy groups during the 180 days leading up to an election. Of course, the Senate bill sponsor disagreed with the House's language, and a Conference Committee was appointed. I was one of the three senators selected to serve on that committee. In our Senate Caucus meeting, we took the position that all of that language targeting advocacy groups in Section 19 had to be removed.

It took about three hours on the last day of the session, up to about 9:00 p.m., for the House conferees to finally recede from their position. After removing Section 19 and taking out another section of the bill, everyone signed off on the legislation. When the bill came up for a vote in the Senate, however, it was voted down. At that point, legislators were concerned that the bill could affect their own ability to run for office if they inadvertently failed to file campaign reports on time or to pay late fees in a timely manner.

As this legislative session closes, I am truly honored to be able to represent the people of Georgia’s 3rd Senate District at the Capitol. In many ways, it was a very difficult session. It was certainly disappointing to see the passage of the gasoline tax hike while the religious liberty bill was placed on hold. I have tried to keep you informed from the Senate as much as possible, but I am sure you have your thoughts to share. It would be good to hear from you on what you think were the best and worst bills or actions of the session. My email is william@senatorligon.com.

Next week, I will discuss more about some of the bills that passed this session, but I do want to mention HB 17, the Sexual Predator Act.  Georgia’s child sexual abuse victims now have better access to the courts by extending the civil statute of limitations. HB 17 amends current law by specifying that the statute of limitations expires on the day following the victim’s 23rd birthday or after two years following the victim’s discovery of such abuse, known as the “discovery plus two” approach. The provisions only apply to childhood sexual abuse committed on or after July 1, 2015. The bill also seeks to provide victims access to evidence by allowing disclosure of records to be used in civil proceedings when the criminal case has been closed.

The one aspect about HB 17 that I thought should have been different was how the bill handled the responsibility of third parties. A victim not only can seek justice where the sexual predator is concerned, but can also sue that person's employer or an organization with which that person volunteered, if related to how the victim was targeted. By increasing the statute of limitations, non-profits (such as the Boy Scouts of America or churches), businesses (such as child-care facilities), and other groups (such as sports camps or schools) could be sued many years from the date of any alleged act.

With that increase in time, memories fade, records are lost, people die, people move. It becomes harder with the passage of time for innocent people to defend themselves from accusations. In fact, companies are sold and organizations change leadership frequently. The policies followed by people in the past may no longer be current policies. It concerns me that people who had no relationship to the company or organization when an alleged abuse took place could suddenly find themselves in the middle of a lawsuit for something that happened 15 years earlier.

With that concern in mind, I offered and supported amendments to address this situation. One amendment I supported which passed will help prevent frivolous lawsuits due to the fact that a victim would have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the third party was guilty of gross negligence. Therefore, businesses and organizations which have good policies and follow their policies for vetting all employees and volunteers who work with children should be protected under this standard. If something does still happen on their watch, however, an amendment I sponsored will still provide a defense in a court of law if that third party can show it took remedial action, such as reporting any abuse or suspected abuse to authorities to investigate.

                          Third District