By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 26, 2011
The Georgia Catholic Conference successfully lobbied for new laws in front of the state Legislature during the recently concluded 2011 session.
Two of the most prominent laws toughened penalties for sex trafficking of children in the state and another revised the law governing GRACE Scholars, a scholarship program funded with redirected tax dollars. The Georgia Catholic Conference is the public policy arm of the Atlanta Archdiocese and the Savannah Diocese.
The conference was unable to stop passage of the new strict immigration law, known as HB 87. It is working with the Catholic Church in Georgia to understand how it’ll impact ministries and services.
House Bill 200 stiffened penalties against people involved with sex trafficking, especially for victims younger than 18. It expanded the definition of sex trafficking and provides victims with greater protection.
An offender of sex trafficking faces up to at least 10 years behind bars. The previous minimum sentence was one year in jail. If the accused victimizes teens younger than 18, the penalties are more severe. The offender faces imprisonment of 25 to 50 years. The new law also includes a maximum $100,000 fine. The state could also seize any assets used for or bought with proceeds of the crime.
The new law prevents trafficking victims from being treated like criminals. A person who is arrested for sex acts won’t be guilty of prostitution, certain sex acts and soliciting for sex, if the accused is a victim of sex trafficking.
Police officers will get better training to identify and fighting sex trafficking with this law. Law enforcement agencies will be instructed to come up with social service organizations and facilities to assist crime victims.
The law easily passed the Georgia House of Representatives on a 168 to 1 vote and the Georgia Senate with a vote of 54 in favor and none opposed. It was signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal on May 3.
House Bill 325 revised the law governing GRACE Scholars and all other student scholarship organizations and was passed during the legislative session.
In tax year 2010, GRACE received $3.7 million in contributions from 2,100 donors. The money is raised by taxpayers redirecting a portion of their state taxes to the scholarship organization. The payment is a 100 percent tax credit for state tax liabilities up to a certain limit.
Among the changes in the law, it gives donors up to two months to make their contribution to the student scholarship organization once it has been authorized by the state Department of Education. Under the old law, donors had to make the payment within a month to receive the tax credit. The law also directs the state department to set up a website to handle the application process, instead of relying on taxpayers mailing in forms.
The new law also increases the $50 million in tax credits set aside for the program by allowing the amount to grow at the annual rate of inflation set in the Consumer Price Index. This annual increase is set to expire in 2018.
The law also sets up procedures for revoking the authority of a student scholarship organization if it breaks the law.
The law easily passed the Georgia House of Representatives with a final vote of 107 to 60 and the Georgia Senate with a final vote of 32 to 11. It was signed into law by Gov. Deal on May 11.