The 2021 Legislative Session is over. We passed many good bills, but also several bad bills made it through. I am glad to report that a few bad bills were stopped on day 40. Because this is the first year of a two-year session, those bills are not entirely dead. They will be carried over until next year. That gives us time to improve pending legislation, but it also means we have to stay vigilant and ready to fight the bad!
Session Wrap Up
Senator Halpern and I hope you can attend our Session Wrap-Up Town Hall next Wednesday, April 7th, at 7:30 pm. We will look at what happened over the entire session, from January to March, and answer any questions you may have!
Coweta County suffered tremendous loss in the wake of a tornado last month. If you would like to volunteer to help, please call 910-632-3309.
To donate, please go to www.cowetafoundation.org/donate.
The following bills passed both the House and the Senate in the final two days and await the Governor’s signature.
The Fiscal Year 2022 budget is set by a revenue estimate of $27.2 billion, an increase of $1.34 billion, or 5.2%, over the FY 2021 original budget. The General Assembly restored 60% of the reductions made to K-12 education funding in the FY 2021 budget, increased funding for expanded mental health care and crisis intervention services, and increased transit funds.
In a win for our area, Atlanta Technical College received funds in the budget to create a truck driving training program. This will help create a pathway to good-paying jobs for more people. I’m thrilled that this was included in the budget.
Here is a list of highlights:
Criminal Justice, Public Safety & the Courts
- $1.59 million for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) for medical examiners’ recruitment and retention.
- Restored $700,000 for domestic violence shelters and sexual assault centers cut from the FY 2021 budget.
- $1 million in one-time funds is provided to the Georgia Public Safety Training Center to construct a de-escalation and proper use of force training facility. The new facility will allow for expanded curriculum and training scenarios.
- $2.4 million to establish the Columbia Judicial Circuit and $915,564 to fund three new judgeships created in the Cobb, Flint, and Oconee judicial circuits.
- More than $3 million to restore reductions made throughout the Judicial Branch in the FY 2021 budget, including $523,392 to provide senior superior court judges to work through the COVID-19 related case backlog efficiently; $2.3 million for superior court law clerks in multi-county circuits; $2.3 million for the recruitment and retention of assistant district attorneys and assistant public defenders; and $1.18 million for seven additional assistant district attorney positions and five assistant public defender positions to serve juvenile courts.
- Adds $307,460 for four positions and operating expenses needed for the Georgia Hemp Program and $333,350 to establish the Farmers and Consumers Market Bulletin as the official regulatory and educational tool for the Georgia Agricultural Tax Exemption (GATE) program.
- $168,437 is added for a behavioral health coach to provide client support and clinical consultations to senior adults living in affordable housing communities. This position will be based in Tifton and serve surrounding areas.
- Includes $50,000 for the preservation of historic sites and $100,000 for food banks across the State.
- $10 million is provided to the OneGeorgia Authority to establish a broadband infrastructure grant program.
- $50,000 to restore funding to the Georgia Historical Society to maintain historical markers across Georgia.
- $160.5 million in bonds dedicated to economic development to improve infrastructure and promote tourism throughout the State. The budget includes $90 million for the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center expansion.
- Restores $567 million, or 60% of that reduction, to QBE formula earnings. The sustained decrease to QBE is now $383 million, or (4%).
- Includes $8.1 million in restorations to Department of Education (DOE) programs that provide direct instruction or vital educational services.
- The Nutrition program receives a $5 million increase in funding, providing additional funds for the state share of nutrition worker salaries and a supplement for nutrition managers.
- Includes $179,152 in additional formula funds for pupil transportation and $2 million in bond funding to incentivize the purchase of alternative fuel school buses.
- Includes $250,000 for Law Enforcement Teaching Students (LETS), a character development program to foster positive relationships between law enforcement and students.
- Fully restores the $700,000 reduction to feminine hygiene grants taken in the FY 2021 budget and increases the original appropriation by $250,000 for a total of $1.25 million in FY 2022.
- Includes $1 million for charter facilities grants in the Charter School program.
- Includes $75,000 for a pilot program to expand access to virtual STEM and Advanced Placement (AP) STEM courses to rural areas of the State. $125,000 to develop and supplement the CSforAll Air Force JROTC-Computer Science Initiative, which scales up computer science and cybersecurity education programs by providing AP Computer Science Principles (CSP) courses at school systems that offer no AP CSP courses or no AP courses.
- The Curriculum Development program receives $344,000 in additional funds for computer science grants. $1,630,000 for dyslexia screening.
- Increase of $3.5 million to the Department of Early Care and Learning to fund an additional 625 slots in the Childcare and Parent Services (CAPS) program.
- Increases lottery funds for Pre-K classroom operations by $1.7 million, or 2.5%. This is the first increase in operations since FY 2010.
- Provides $650,000 to the Department of Audits and Accounts for auditing expenses related to federal pandemic aid. The budget also restores $350,000 to the department for software maintenance expenses.
- $2.2 million for the Department of Driver Services to increase salaries for critical positions with a high turnover by $2,000. The budget also provides $1.2 million for a commercial driver license (CDL) pad in Southeast Georgia and $250,000 for a new voter identification outreach program to remove the financial barrier to obtaining a state photo ID for voting and other official processes that require one.
- Department of Natural Resources receives $14.8 million in bonds for construction, renovation, and significant improvements needed to maintain existing facilities.
- $1 million for the Department of Revenue for 15 positions and three contractors to regulate the distribution and sale of vaping products
- Provides $622,327 in additional funding for the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission for four positions and other overhead expenses
- Redirects $149.5 million in the Medicaid programs by recognizing the extension of the temporary 6.2% enhanced Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (eFMAP) increase through September 30th, 2021. These funds are repurposed as provider rate increases and other health enhancements throughout the budget to support healthcare programs and providers that deliver Georgians’ essential services.
- It provides $19.6 million for a 10% rate increase for home and community-based services providers, including CCSP, SOURCE, and ICWP waiver providers.
- Adds a total of $43.8 million for skilled nursing centers: $19.9 million to update reimbursement rates to reflect 2019 cost reports with 5% inflation; $3.5 million to update the general and professional liability, property insurance, and property tax pass-through rate components to current costs; $8 million for a one-year hold harmless to mitigate losses in the transition to the 2019 cost report; $387,270 for a 5.9% increase in the nursing home ventilator reimbursement rate; and $12 million for supplemental quality incentive payments to eligible skilled nursing facilities. To support the Department of Community Health with the implementation of quality incentive payments, the FY 2022 budget provides $989,950 for eight support positions, starting October 1st, 2021.
- Provide $7.1 million to increase 18 select primary care and OB/GYN codes to 2020 Medicare levels, as well as $116,647 for a 3% increase in 15 select dental codes to support providers with the cost of treating patients.
- Provides $250,000 to fund Medicaid reimbursement rates for portable radiography and accredited mobile imaging services used in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and in the home.
- Provide $4.86 million to the Department of Community Health’s (DCH) Healthcare Facility Regulation program for contractual services to immediately address the nursing home survey backlog. Also, the House and Senate add $7.5 million to annualize a hiring and retention plan to stabilize the staffing and address the surveying backlog in the nursing home regulatory program. These funds and the additional reporting required will ensure that the program is brought into and remains in compliance with federal requirements.
- Funds $300,000 to provide a three-year grant to rural hospitals for Electronic Intensive Care Units to improve patient outcomes and reduce the need for long-distance travel away from local communities to obtain intensive care.
- Provides $500,000 for two medical examiners/forensic pathologists at the Mercer School of Medicine, $100,000 to expand the physician loan forgiveness program to include the forensic pathology fellowship program at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in partnership with medical colleges, and instructs the Georgia Board of Health Care Workforce to coordinate with medical education programs to develop programs that will address this shortage.
- Fund $2.6 million for 188 new residency slots in primary care medicine. Additionally, the budget provides $300,000 for the initial planning work to establish two graduate medical education programs.
- Provides $35 million to annualize the state match of the Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) payments for privately deemed and non-deemed hospitals that serve a large number of Medicaid and uninsured individuals.
- Provides $300,000 for the Georgia Center for Oncology Research and Education (CORE) to replace the funds cut in the FY 2021 budget to support screening for leading cancers, care coordination and navigation, and prevention education.
- Provide $506,000 to support Grady Memorial Hospital’s efforts to continue coordinating emergency room use in the 13-county metro Atlanta area.
- Provides $300,000 for the Georgia Center for Oncology Research and Education (CORE) to replace the funds cut in the FY 2021 budget to support screening for leading cancers, care coordination and navigation, and prevention education.
- $365,000 is added to the budget for the Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia
- Provides $200,000 for feminine hygiene products to be available in public health departments in order to meet the needs of women and girls outside of school hours. This is also the $950,000 in new funding provided to the Department of Education for feminine hygiene grants for local school systems.
- Provides $150,000 for a nurse peer assistance program to support nurses recovering from substance use
- Includes $58.9 million for the University System of Georgia (USG), reflecting a 0.8% increase in credit hour growth and a 0.6% increase in square footage. Restores $70.1 million in formula earnings not originally funded in FY 2021.
- Includes $7.78 million for year two of a three-year phase-in for increased medical education funding through the USG formula.
- Provides $500,000 for an eminent scholar for sickle cell research. These funds will be combined with matching research funds from partners at Morehouse School of Medicine, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and Emory University. An additional $500,000 is included to recruit Academy of Eminent Scholars into research fields. The intended focus will be on rural Georgia and historically black colleges and universities.
- To create parity between higher education programs and K-12, includes $8.1 million for University System of Georgia’s B-Unit programs. These funds restore 60% of the reductions from the initial FY 2021 budget. These programs include: Agricultural Experiment Station ($2,851,620); Cooperative Extension Service ($2,652,325); Forestry Cooperative Extension ($64,122); Forestry Research ($198,527); Georgia Tech Research Institute ($359,041); Marine Institute ($71,707); Marine Resources Extension Center ($83,486); Medical College of Georgia Hospital/Clinic ($1,627,793); Georgia Youth Science and Technology Center ($53,733); and the Veterinary Medicine Experiment Station ($162,000).
- Provides for $945,000 to establish a rural coding program at the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center.
- Includes $5.2 million in matching funds for an endowment gift for the Medical College of Georgia’s 3+ Program; $100,000 to partner with Clark Atlanta University for prostate cancer research; and $250,000 to finalize a multi-year implementation plan to establish Middle Georgia State University as Georgia’s flagship aviation career path program.
- Georgia Public Library Service with $547,161 in additional funds to increase the materials grant for public libraries from $.35 to $.40 per capita. This is in addition to $47,146 in enhanced funding due to an increase in population.
- Includes $6.1 million for a formula increase for the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) and restores formula earnings of $3.5 million for FY 2021 not originally funded.
- Restores $58.9 million in the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) and $20.6 million in the Department of Human Services to offset reductions made in the FY 2021 budget.
- Adds $9.2 million for core services to increase the service capacity and promote funding equity of the State’s providers. This investment allows the State to serve an additional 7,415 individuals per year.
- Provides $1.5 million for respite services with priority to rural communities and $300,000 for contracts for facilities in direct care support services.
- $394,289 is added for suicide prevention services, including funds for suicide prevention training in schools and the State’s first suicide epidemiologist.
- $7million is added in DBHDD for a new 16-bed behavioral health crisis center to expand the service of the State’s crisis system.
- $12.3 million is added for a 5% rate increase for providers, contingent on approval by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; $4.6 million is also added to fully restore the FY 2021 reduction to non-waiver services in family support.
- $2 million to accelerate the expansion of the Georgia Apex Program into 59 additional schools statewide. Currently, 188 school districts are served.
- $621,630 is added for six forensic peer mentors to continue the mission of criminal justice reform.
- $951,700 is restored in Child Welfare Services for contracts for educational services with the Multi-Agency Alliance for Children (MAAC) to allow an additional 431 children to be served.
- Includes $6.7 million to establish a therapeutic foster care program (TFC) and leverage federal funds.
- Includes $4.7 million for community partnerships to stem learning loss due to COVID-19 for K-12 students and $65,000 for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) for development and start-up for underserved Echols, Henry, and Lowndes counties.
- Provide $1.2 million for 17 new positions in elder abuse investigations and prevention. These positions will decrease the caseload ratio for elder abuse caseworkers from 1:33 to 1:23.
- Includes more than $200 million in increased motor fuel funds in the Georgia Department of Transportation’s (GDOT) budget. The GDOT budget consists of an increase to the Capital Construction program of $157.1 million; an additional $21.6 million in Local Maintenance and Improvement Grants; $35.2 million in Routine Maintenance; and recognizes the use of $67 million in Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) funds to Capital Maintenance.
- Recognizes $7.6 million in collected ride-share fees; of these funds, $638,448 is appropriated for transit programs across the State; $1 million is appropriated to Athens-Clarke Transit; $6 million is designated for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA). MARTA will use the funds to complete improvements at its Bankhead Station to improve accessibility near the newly announced Microsoft campus
- Moves the Atlanta-Region Transit Authority (ATL) to the Department of Transportation from the Department of Community Affairs.
- Includes a $1 million investment in Airport Aid to advance more projects from the airport priorities developed by the department for airports across the State.
- The Payments to State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) program includes an additional $3.1 million to restore an FY 2021 cut to the Georgia Infrastructure Bank (GTIB).
- Includes $12.5 million to upgrade state-owned short line railroads to Class II standards to help reduce truck traffic on state highways.
Courts & Criminal Justice
I was happy to support SB 78, which clamps down on “revenge porn,” the distribution of sexually explicit content on a pornographic website with the intent of harassing or causing financial harm to someone.
SB 105 allows for early termination of probation when specific good behavior benchmarks are met. The bill will apply when a person with no prior felonies is convicted of a felony and sentenced to probation for less than 12 months of imprisonment followed by probation. I was glad to support this bill.
SB 117 closes a loophole in Georgia law by creating a new crime for certain entrusted individuals who engage in sexually explicit conduct with minors. This crime would specifically apply to a “person in a position of trust” such as athletic coaches, educators, or any other person whom a parent or guardian has trusted and entered into an agreement with to educate or supervise their child until the agreement has ended. This bill passed unanimously in both chambers.
I voted against SB 174, which increases the use of cash bail. It takes away the discretion of judges to waive cash bail. This will lead to more people sitting in jails waiting on their court dates. We need to trust our judges to judge the situations in front of them, particularly during a health pandemic. If the judge believes someone should be released on a signature bond to keep them from sitting in a crowded jail during a health pandemic because they cannot afford the cash bail payment, we should respect that decision. No one should sit in jail for low-level offenses simply because they cannot afford cash bail.
I voted yes for SB 235, which would add an exception to the misdemeanor crime of wearing a mask in public for those who wear such masks to follow public health guidance to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. This is common sense and should have been passed in 2020, but better late than never.
HB 479, which would repeal Georgia’s antiquated citizen’s arrest law, also received final passage on Sine Die. In addition to repealing citizen’s arrest, HB 479 would clarify certain instances in which law enforcement officers may make arrests outside of their jurisdiction, as well as authorize retail stores, food service establishments, and certain licensed private security professionals to detain someone if they reasonably believe an individual is committing a crime. Georgia is the first state to repeal its citizens arrest law. I am so proud that we can be first in something good this year! I was very proud to vote yes for this bill. It was the best thing we did this session.
These are a few bills that I supported:
SB 42, the “Dexter Mosely Act,” allows home study students to participate in extracurricular and interscholastic activities within the student’s resident public school system if they take one course on campus.
SB 85, the “Max Gruver Act,” expands how schools and State law address hazing among Georgia students. Under current Georgia law, it is illegal for anyone to haze a student in connection with gaining acceptance to a membership, office, or another status in a school organization, and the penalty for this crime is a high and aggravated misdemeanor. This bill would expand Georgia’s hazing laws to include coercing a student through the use of social or physical pressure to consume any food, liquid, alcohol, drug, or other substance that would cause the student to vomit, become intoxicated, or unconscious. This bill would also apply these laws to more student organizations, such as associations, corporations, orders, or athletic teams with students or alumni as its principal members and include prospectively enrolled students. This legislation is named after Max Gruver, a college student from Roswell, Georgia, who died due to a hazing incident involving alcohol. SB 85 would strengthen Georgia’s hazing laws and help prevent hazing incidents in our State that are highly harmful and even deadly for students. I was glad to see this bill make it to the floor and support the measure. This bill passed unanimously in both chambers.
SB 107 would allow homeless or foster students to qualify for in-state tuition at Georgia colleges. This bill will provide an excellent pathway for homeless or foster students to earn a college degree and, eventually, a career. This bill unanimously passed both chambers.
SB 220, “The Georgia Civics Renewal Act,” would create the Georgia Commission on Civics Education to promote civic engagement and public service among Georgia residents.
SB 204 creates the “Dual Achievement Program,” a pilot program that allows students who are 16 years old or older to earn a high school diploma. Students that have completed the required secondary school coursework will be awarded a high school diploma by the State Board of the Technical College System of Georgia.
SB 46 expands the healthcare professionals who are able to administer vaccines during a public emergency. This bill will help us get more Georgians vaccinated faster. I was glad to support this bill.
Labor & Economic Development
HB 146 received final passage this week and is headed to the Governor for signature. It would provide up to three weeks of paid parental leave to state employees and local board of education employees after the birth or adoption of a child. I voted for it when it was in the House and was happy to support it again after the Senate made some changes.
SB 236 allows restaurants to sell mixed drinks “to go.” We all know that the pandemic has hit the restaurant industry particularly hard. This is one way we can help them re-open a very high-profit revenue stream for the industry. Mixed drinks must be sold along with a food order and must be transported in a locked glove compartment, a locked trunk, or the area behind the last upright seat of a vehicle not equipped with a trunk.
State & Local Government
I voted for SB 6, which will allow for review of tax credits to ensure that Georgia is getting a return on the investment when it provides tax relief to certain businesses. Anytime we give a tax credit it is because a business promises us that we will benefit from an influx of sales tax or job creation for our citizens. We must make sure we are getting what we pay for.
SB 60 will allow for payments to a public safety officer who suffers a heart attack, stroke, or vascular rupture while on duty or if the officer dies 24 hours after completing a work-related activity. Currently, such payments are only available when a public safety officer dies in the line of duty. This passed both chambers unanimously.
Like the late daylight? SB 100 provides that Georgia will observe daylight savings time year-round. This bill requires Congressional approval before it is effective. Stay tuned!
SB 201 deals with the enforcement of tax laws and adds regulation over a county tax commissioner’s ability to set compensation rates for a contract with a city to administer tax collections. This is a good goal, but the bill only applies to 2 of Georgia’s 159 counties. This good policy should apply equally, and I look forward to supporting a bill to apply statewide. For now, because the bill only applies to 2 counties, I voted no.
SB 27 extends the period that current or former military members can apply for a contractor’s license from 180 days to 2 years after discharge. The licensing board may extend this period for situations such as hospitalization or other health emergencies.
SB 225 creates a unique and distinctive license plate for veterans who served in the armed forces of an ally of the United States during the Korean War, Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm, or the Global War on Terrorism that states “Allied Veterans” in place of the county name.
SB 237 creates a special license plate to honor United States Army Rangers veterans. The proceeds from the sale of this special license plate will go to the National Ranger Memorial Foundation, Inc.
I voted for all three of these bills.
Bills That Didn’t Make it This Year
SB 115 would have required the Department of Public Safety and the Georgia Public Safety Training Center to offer an instructional course to educate new drivers on how best to interact with law enforcement officers. I voted against this one-sided policy that perpetuates the myth that, in all cases, civilians are responsible for the way police treat them. It does nothing to better the relationship with the communities that law enforcement is meant to serve, especially communities of color. I voted against this bill. The Senate failed to pass it, and it is dead until the next session when it can be considered again. I would be glad to support a law that provided training for police interactions to both sides of the exchanges, including police officers.
HB 218 would have increased the number of guns on our streets by allowing for more reciprocity for gun licensing between states, and it would have limited law enforcement’s ability to control gun use during emergencies. It passed the House earlier in the session without my support. It was a bad bill and I’m glad it was stopped in the Senate. If it had passed, it would have been a slap in the face to the victims and the families of those in last month’s tragic shootings.
HB 276, HB 372, and HB 401 are all hateful bills that target our transgender youth. HB 276 and HB 372 would prohibit transgender youth from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity and violate the privacy of transgender youth. HB 401 would criminalize medical professionals providing best-practice, medically necessary affirming care to transgender youth — care supported by the leading medical authorities and is often considered lifesaving. I am happy to report that none of these bills made it to the House floor for a vote.
HB 290 was passed earlier in the House. It provides access for patients representatives to visit them in a care facility, which means that even in a pandemic, facilities cannot ban patients from receiving visitors. It came back to the House with changes. Originally there was a severe concern for liability if another patient contracted something and passed away from another patient’s visitor. The Senate changed this to allow for injunctive relief. But another concern came to my attention: hospitals have procedures to limit visitors for sex trafficking and assault survivors, even absent a pandemic. These procedures needed protection. A carve-out was offered to the sponsor, but it was not added. Carve-outs were made for other types of patients, for example, burn victims. While there were some good changes to the bill as it passed back in forth, it still needs a lot of work. I voted no in the House. The Senate tabled it. We can consider the bill again next year, but hopefully, limitations on visitor policies because of COVID-19 will be a thing of the past by then. You can hear my exchange with the bill author HERE.
The Georgia GOP sought revenge against companies speaking out against SB 202, the omnibus voter suppression bill. Delta’s CEO spoke out against it earlier this week, and the House GOP quickly moved to repeal their fuel tax credit in HB 477. I voted no. Luckily, while this bill did pass the House, it did not make it through the Senate, so it will not become law this year. Delta saves $35 million from this credit and employs 33,000 people; it is Georgia’s largest private employer. During the pandemic, Delta was hit particularly hard. Now is not the time to mess with this tax credit and put at risk thousands of jobs. This will be a top priority to watch for next year’s session.
Everyone over the age of 16 years old is eligible to receive the COVID-19 Vaccine. Register NOW! You can call 888-457-0186 or go HERE. Dial 311 for ride assistance is available for the Mercedes-Benz Stadium vaccination site.
HERE is a link if you need to get tested.
Find a Georgia vaccine distributor HERE.
DPH has an interactive dashboard for vaccine distribution in our state; you can view that HERE.
The GEMA mass vaccination sites allow patients to enroll HERE.
If you have any questions about COVID-19 and the vaccine only (not for scheduling appointments), call 888-357-0169.