Living in Suspense

We’ve all watched apocalypse movies — even ones about pandemics. And even though experts warned us we were due for a pandemic, we never expected it to hit in 2020. We feel fear, and when we are fearful we want information. My role as a State Senator gives me access to information from the Governor’s office which I can share with you. I can also share your ideas and concerns back to the Governor’s office staff.

I have been relying daily on the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which is making their publication available free of charge during this crisis. Also, the Georgia Department of Public Health website is helpful.

Non-Essential Businesses Suspended (Stay-at-Home Orders)

During my first week after the legislature was suspended, I spent hours on the phone talking with local elected officials, who were wondering if they should close down areas where people congregate to promote social distancing, or if the Governor was going to use his powers to shut Georgia down. Governor Kemp has a strong local-governance ideology, so I encouraged local governments to move forward quickly, and they did. These decisions made by mayors, council members, county chairs and county commissioners were excruciatingly painful. Because of their leadership, the greater Atlanta metro area has some strong Stay-at-Home Orders. But it’s a confusing patchwork of ordinances, and there are still plenty of people who are not taking it seriously. The strong voice of our Governor ordering people to stay home is needed to save lives.

How Are the Atlanta Hospitals Doing?

Over 600 COVID19 patients have already been hospitalized across the state. As these numbers increase, many are wondering how our hospitals are faring. According to an email I got from Grady, patient volume is still within the normal range, but the acuity of cases is higher than usual. Since Grady consistently operates at or near capacity, Grady is working with state leaders to identify additional hospital bed capacity.

Grady is still in need of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and COVID19 tests. A partnership of Grady procurement, the Dept. of Community Affairs, and the Grady Foundation is working on this. They accept donations and welcome referrals.

Grady is now doing all its own testing. Due to scarcity of tests, testing is limited to patients and frontline health workers.

Grady leaders continue to serve on the Governor’s Coronavirus Task Force and work with Mayor Bottoms and her team to develop solutions for the homeless affected by the virus.

Since the beginning of this crisis, Grady has treated over 200 “People Under Investigation” (PUIs) for COVID19. Of these, 51 have tested positive as of March 27th and 27 remain admitted at Grady.

Grady is grateful for donations, but is especially appreciative of those who are staying home, as this slows the spread of the virus and gives hospitals the time to prepare without being overwhelmed. Grady strongly encourages local jurisdictions to enact these policies if they have not already.

I am beginning to get updates from the Georgia Hospital Association and will share as I get more information.

The Conference Call with the Governor’s Office

The Governor has conducted two conference calls with the legislature and has made his staff available to House & Senate members.

Sixteen questions were submitted by the House and Senate caucuses ahead of the call. Unfortunately, we struggled with insufficient technology as over 250 people logged on, triggering a loud “beep” with every new caller. And many forgot to mute their phones. It was sometimes hard to hear but here’s what I have to share:

Unemployment Claims & Small Business Help: Unemployment claims have doubled and the fund is still robust at this point. The Governor signed a declaration allowing for the Small Business Administration (SBA) to provide low-interest loans to employers. The House & Senate will have a conference call with the Dept. of Labor next week for more updates.

Shelter-in-Place: The Governor’s office is still saying that there are 50 counties with no cases, so Gov. Kemp does not want to declare a Shelter-in-Place that impacts the entire state.

State Revenue Impact/Budget: A sub-committee of the Coronavirus Taskforce has been established to address the state budget. It will be chaired by the State Fiscal Economist. The House & Senate Appropriations Chairs are being continually briefed of the situation, and the Legislature will be involved in budget adjustments. The congressional stimulus package will provide funds to help the states. The state income tax deadline has been postponed, which will also impact the budget.

Essential Businesses/Services: The State has no list. Each locality is coming up with their own list.

Shelter-in-Place for the Medically Fragile: Essential activities for this population include going out for medical care, getting food and travelling back and forth to family.

SNAP (food stamps): P-SNAP has been established. P stands for Pandemic and there is an increase of $60 million. Each family will receive maximum benefits for a total of $167 in additional benefits thru April. Applications can be taken via telephone. Renewals don’t have to be reviewed. Work requirements will be waived through May. Georgia has applied to allow SNAP to be used for hot food too. On-line and telephone applications are available for Medicaid too. SNAP applications have doubled. Some days there are 9000 applications (prior totals were 9000 per week).

Child Welfare: The state is considering participation in P-EBT, which would provide supplemental benefits for families whose children are out of school, and who qualify for free/reduced lunch. Child abuse reporting has dropped by 50% because educators, coaches, etc. aren’t calling. The public should be on the watch for children at risk in neighborhoods. Caseworkers are still doing some visitation, and are also trying to use Skype and FaceTime.

Refunds for College Students: Schools have all finalized refund plans. They should be rolled out next week.

Testing/Lab Turnaround Time: State Labs are turning tests around in 1 – 2 days. Private Labs are lagging, running 7 – 8 days. Two companies, Quest and LabCore, probably took on too much. They are processing for other states too. Georgia is developing additional partnerships, particularly with Universities. By the end of next week, speed will be really ramped up. The intent is to not have to send anything through outside labs. No information was given about testing supply or purchasing, even though this question was asked. Instead, answers were given about PPE.

Physicians: Primary Care physicians can refer to 25 drive-thru testing sites located throughout the state (the locations of these sites are kept private). All physicians were sent a letter from Public Health. Doctors don’t have to see a patient in person. Patients are given a voucher number.

Care for the Indigent: Indigent care is being provided by Federally Qualified Community Health Centers where they are available. These clinics received a grant to expand COVID services.

WIC: Georgia has sought a USGA waiver so recipients don’t have to show up in person to apply.

Police/First Responders: 911 operators are asking callers if there are COVID symptoms so responders know before they show up. GEMA is vetting PPE (protective gear masks, gloves etc.) requests and filling them for first responders. They have gotten LOTS of supplies in to help.

Prisons: A strict visitation process has been in place for a couple weeks. Staff is screened when they enter. If cases are found, the sick and those who have been exposed are isolated. This protocol has been implemented at Lee State Prison, where cases of COVID19 have been diagnosed.

Hospital Space: Previously closed hospitals are being re-opened. Open space is being assessed for building additional hospitals. Modular units and trailers are in the works. They are opening additional bed space in Albany. Mapping, planning & modeling tools along with death and bed utilization numbers are being analyzed to predict the surge. Conversations with the Army Corps of Engineers is ongoing. No options are off the table at this time.

Number of ER Beds: We have just over 3000 in the state. Don’t know how many of these are used regularly.

Number of Ventilators: The state has 2400 probably. 1200 more have been ordered.They have 80 extra to push out. 30 – 50 of those have already been pushed out. Soon all those will have been pushed out.

Grocery Stores: No problem with supply chain. Surge buying will self correct.

Vendors (Labs, Testing, PPE, Ventilators): GEMA (Georgia emergency management) said they are being overwhelmed with vendors who want to help with supplies. Legislators were asked to help pre-screen potential vendors. For instance, the state cannot provide money upfront. They need people with current stock and delivery dates. They are still looking for ventilator vendors.  Everyone is pulling from China and there’s lots of price variation. No information was shared about whether or not Georgia would purchase more COVID19 test kits.

A Suspension of Disbelief

At this point, what is my biggest concern? Testing. The question I submitted to my Caucus was: Will Georgia spend resources to purchase additional test kits so we can conduct more thorough testing? Though there was a great deal of discussion about protective gear and speeding up lab tests, my question was never directly answered. The number of COVID cases reported by the news media every day does not reflect how many people are actually sick, but rather how many people were able to get tested. We’re still told we don’t need to lock Georgia down, as over half of the country has done, because we have no cases diagnosed in 50 counties. But do we? How would we know?

We Are Suspended

How we work, live and play has changed abruptly. For many of us, that means we’re at home utilizing technology to work and stay in touch with friends and family. Our lives as usual have been suspended but our purpose has not. We are stopping the spread of the virus.

Others deemed essential are still out working and cannot stop. They are our healthcare professionals, our childcare and grocery store workers, our food preparers, and all the others we call on when in need. They carry the weight that holds us all.

We need each other.

Right now I’m on official quarantine because a Georgia Senator came to work sick. The quarantine was the right thing to do, because now at least four other Senators are sick, and one was hospitalized in critical condition (he’s doing better now). Fortunately, my family’s fine, but I’ll admit I am worried, frustrated, and restless. And the things that normally sustain me and my family during other troubling times, like our church, our gym, or coffee with a friend, are not possible. 

My husband and I have made a daily walk through our neighborhood part of our routine (keeping six feet of distance from others, of course). On these walks, I think about how the nature around us is waking up from winter, and how we, isolating ourselves in our homes, have woken up to a reality we never imagined. 

So, what can we do or say to our friends and ourselves, as we face these very serious circumstances?

While COVID-19 might be new, we have faced and overcome other great challenges. People in our communities unified after September 11th. During the Cold War, children practiced duck-and-cover drills at school, and parents built fallout shelters. People marched and faced tear gas and church bombings to defeat segregation. Families grew victory gardens, shared ration coupons, and donated their scrap metal during World War II. Some of our grandparents made “Garbage Soup” with their neighbors during the Great Depression by throwing everyone’s week-old produce into one big pot with tomato soup.

It feels like we are facing all of these crises at once — a fight against an invisible enemy, economic uncertainty, and political strife. 

And I think that we can stand up for what is right and make it through this catastrophe if we remind ourselves that we have all the ingenuity and bravery that we need in our own community. 

We must stay home to protect our neighbors. We can appreciate the shelter above our heads, enjoy home-cooked food together, or perhaps do the spring cleaning that we have put off. 

Last night, I attended an online karaoke birthday party with friends through the video conferencing service, Zoom. We sang, laughed, and shared our fears with each other. Those who have a little extra cash to spare could shop or send food to those who might be struggling financially. Those who can  sew are making masks with fabric scraps.

This is our burden and our opportunity: to live up to the examples of our family and neighborhood heroes by giving up what we can, even as we acknowledge that we already are sacrificing so much. 

The situation we are in is horrifying, and for many, this may be the hardest thing that we have dealt with in our lives. 

But we are up to this fight. We will make it to the end of the tunnel. Take a deep, grounding breath and remind yourself that we have “the right stuff.” 

Stay strong, keep hope close, stay socially distant, and stay in touch.  

Here are some resources you might find helpful:

 

The last couple of days I’ve been pleading with local mayors and city council members to take action at the local level to slow the rate of coronavirus pandemic. Since I live in unincorporated DeKalb County, I also reached out to DeKalb County elected officials. The Chief Elected Officer, who has unilateral authority to act, has done NOTHING to shut down gatherings. Nothing. We MUST do this to “flatten the curve” and keep our healthcare system functional.

Local governance matters. It’s where the rubber meets the road, especially when state and national governments fail to act.

Residents in my neighborhood have been discussing local governance issues for a while now. Through the last 15 years, suburban communities outside Atlanta incorporated into cities like dominoes falling. My own neighborhood is now surrounded by cities. Five years ago, the precincts in Senate 40 each voted between 56% and 65% in favor of the LaVista Hills city proposal, but the election narrowly failed.

Now it’s five years later, we’re still talking about it — and things have changed.

Senate 40 has ten cities, so I’ve spent the last year getting to know these cities, and how they are governed. People tell me they are very happy with their cities. I’ve also spent time talking to my own neighbors about various municipalization options. Unfortunately, many of the options I thought could work nicely are not allowed under our state constitution, so our options are limited. We either live in a city, or not. As a State Senator, I have to look beyond my own neighborhood at the greater good of all surrounding communities. That’s one of my core values, and that’s also where things start to get complicated.

This fall, DeKalb County commissioned a study through the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute on the effects of municipalization on DeKalb County. It’s a very long report, but the major takeaway is that DeKalb’s police force will be in jeopardy if we add more municipalities that operate their own police force.

That’s why I, along with two other legislators who represent this area, authored a bill, Senate Bill 507, to create a city that shares police with the county — what some call “city-lite.” It allows for a local governance that handles zoning, parks, and roads, to name a few. The need to file a bill now was urgent, as there is another incorporation bill, filed last year and authored by a non-local legislator, that could be acted on by legislators who don’t live in the district. We thought it best for our community to have a bill authored by legislators who personally know our local community, and will ensure that our constituents’ voices are represented.

We also filed the bill as local legislation, which requires signatures from the majority of DeKalb legislators before it can move. This requires the DeKalb delegation to work together to consider the needs of the entire county in order for this bill to be passed. Legislators in south DeKalb are developing their plan as well. While it is impossible to please all constituencies, from those who want police, to those who don’t want a city at all, it feels like now is the time to act if we want a process that is controlled by the people who know our community the best.

This is only the beginning of a process. Almost all bills get amended before they become law, and I expect it to be the same with this cityhood bill. I have a duty to represent my constituents, the majority of whom want to be governed by a local city, but I will do so in a way that considers other voices and the needs of people outside my district. Ultimately, if we can gain the signatures of a majority of DeKalb legislators, voters will then have final approval through a referendum during a future election.

To those of you who live outside the perimeter in the Evansdale and Midvale neighborhoods, this area is of particular interest to me. Conversations with voters reveal that people are split as to whether they want to annex into existing neighboring cities (Tucker) or be part of a new city. That’s why we left that area off the map — so we have time to allow all voices to be heard, and to allow voters in this area to vote in a separate referendum. We are currently looking for funding to design a professional survey to get a better understanding of people’s opinions.

Local governance matters. It’s the final safety net should the larger government fail the people. Please think deeply about our options, and always feel free to share your thoughts with me. This is not easy, and the solution is evolving all the time.

The following is a joint statement from the authors of SB 507, released on March 12th:

“Legislators in DeKalb County whose districts include parts of the remaining portions of northern unincorporated DeKalb County have been carefully considering various municipalization proposals. We recognize that there are many perspectives on this issue, from those who want to remain unincorporated, to those who support the creation of a new city, to those who would like to be annexed into a neighboring existing city.

While recognizing both the pros and cons of municipalization, we also recognize certain developments making it necessary to move forward with serious discussions about how to represent the residents of the unincorporated area in north DeKalb County.

As the unincorporated area is now surrounded by existing cities, some neighborhoods have been impacted by multiple annexations of nearby areas. This leaves those living in the unincorporated area at a disadvantage when it comes to choosing a path forward. In addition, as the area is impacted by regional developments such as the GDOT top-end managed toll-lane project, the surrounding city leaders have a voice at the table that the unincorporated area lacks.

For these reasons, and in recognition of the growing interest in our districts for municipalization, we have filed a cityhood bill (SB507) in order to generate active discussion and input. In addition, we intend to move forward in a way that takes into consideration the impact municipalization has on the remainder of the county.

The map included with the bill does not initially include certain areas on the north and south ends of the footprint where residents have expressed interest in being annexed into existing cities. We would like citizens in these areas to have more time to consider their options and choose the approach that best suits the unique characteristics of each neighborhood.

We think it is very important for north and central DeKalb communities to engage in active conversations, and we want to hear from you. It is simply not clear that our area will remain unincorporated over the next few years so we feel it is time to be proactive in developing a plan for representation.”
–Sen. Elena Parent
–Sen. Sally Harrell
–Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver

SB-507 VistaGrove-city-2020 map.PDF

Crossing the Rubicon on Crossover Day

Last week began with anticipation as we ramped up to Crossover Day, the day when all bills must pass one chamber in order to be considered by the other chamber before the close of the two-year session, or biennium.

But that anticipation was coupled with a feeling of nervousness as Georgia began to report more confirmed cases of the coronavirus. On Monday, the House suspended its page program and limited visitors in the House chamber. The Senate did nothing until Tuesday afternoon, when signs went up on Senate Chamber doors saying, “Please be Courteous, Don’t Shake Hands.” I began to be very careful, but watched senators all touch the same door handles. I asked the Senate Leadership to have only the Official Doorkeepers open and close the doors. After all, we still had the 2021 budget to pass before we could go home.

On Wednesday, the Conference Committee on Appropriations — members of the House and Senate working on reconciling the House and Senate bills for the 2020 amended budget — announced that they had included $100 million from Georgia’s rainy day fund to cover the coronavirus response. The last time our rainy day funds were used was to address the Great Recession.

Along with much of the country, Thursday was the tipping point for the legislature when the House and Senate finally crossed the Rubicon together. When we suspended the legislative session without even passing the FY21 budget, we knew we were heading into territory that will change our course in ways we can not yet imagine.

The Capitol had a similar feeling of unease as it did on 9/11 when I was a State Representative, but I was really glad I didn’t have my newborn baby with me like I did on that day. We received limited information in the Chamber and were unable to watch the Governor’s press conference as we worked through the long list of bills on the schedule. We tried to carry on. It was finally announced late afternoon that the House and Senate would suspend the legislative session until further notice. Late Friday, we learned that the Governor was calling for a special legislative session first thing Monday morning to approve a Public Health Emergency.

On the Other Side

In light of the current public health situation, we have cancelled our Peachtree Corners and Chamblee legislative town hall meetings. We will reschedule them for a later date.

Please follow the public health guidance on preventing the spread of coronavirus and what to do when you’re sick. Take time to rest, eat healthy, and enjoy your family. As I told all of my colleagues as we left the Capitol on Thursday, be well. If you do become sick, call your primary doctor first. Don’t go to the ER if you are not at risk and you have mild symptoms. Even if you want to be tested, there are not yet enough tests. If you have non-illness or non-exposure questions, call the Georgia Department of Public Health at 844-442-2681 from 8am – 5pm Monday thru Friday.

If you need help, now is the time to reach out to your support system. If you can, reach out to your neighbors to make sure they are okay. But practice social distancing so we can flatten the curve and keep the hospitals from being overwhelmed.

Unfinished Business

When the 155th Georgia General Assembly reconvenes, we will start on Day 30 of the 40 day session. At that point, the Senate will consider House bills that passed on or before Crossover Day, and the House will consider Senate bills for the remainder of the session. Constitutionally, the only bill the legislature is required to pass is the 2021 budget, which has passed the House, but not the Senate. There is work left to be done, and we don’t have any way of knowing when we can get back to it.

Bills that Crossed Over

The Senate approved a number of bills on or before Crossover Day that will be considered in the House once the session resumes. Here are just some of the bills approved this week:

Special Needs Voucher (SB 386): The Senate approved this bill to expand Georgia’s Special Needs voucher program that allows students with special needs to apply for money to attend private schools. I personally know how difficult it is when the public school system fails a child. However, I voted against this bill for several reasons. We have already shifted millions of public dollars away from public schools to private schools. And Vouchers don’t fully cover the cost of a private school education which leaves many families behind. This is especially true in rural Georgia where many families can’t take advantage of this program because there are no private schools in their communities that address special needs. This creates a two-tiered system for people who can use the program, but many more who can’t.

Voting (SB 463): I wrote about this bill in my last Snapshot when it came to the Senate Ethics Committee in a very rushed process. It has several concerning issues, which could have been fixed had we had more time in committee. Senate Minority leader, Steve Henson, prepared amendments to help improve the bill on the floor, but he was denied the opportunity to present them when Senate Republicans voted to “engross” the bill, a procedural move that locks the bill and blocks it from having any amendments. Preventing the opposing party from having any input into the process is a bad faith move and simply bad government. We had a vigorous debate, but SB 463 passed along party lines.

Ethylene Oxide (SB 426): Last summer, residents in Smyrna and Covington were surprised by a report that ethylene oxide, a known carcinogen, was being released into the air by a nearby medical sterilization company. Since then, local officials and lawmakers have been working to come up with solutions that would keep the community safe and keep the company accountable. SB 426 requires any producer that emits ethylene oxide to report the leak to the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) within 24 hours and the EPD to publish the notice on their website.

Sealing Records for Convicted Felons (SB 288): This bill, passed unanimously by the Senate and sponsored by my suite mate, Senator Tonya Anderson, is a positive step forward for criminal justice reform. It allows former first-time offenders who have not committed a violent or sexual crime and remained free of criminal activity for four years to petition the courts to seal and restrict their records from public view. This will open up more employment and housing opportunities for Georgians needing a second chance.

Tobacco Age (SB 375): This bill raises the minimum age to purchase tobacco in Georgia from 18 to 21. It allows law enforcement to confiscate tobacco products from minors, and penalize minors found with tobacco products with community service. Failure to complete community service could result in a suspended drivers license.

SAT/ACT Testing Locations (SB 486): This bill requires all Georgia school systems to administer the SAT and ACT tests during school hours for all 11th grade students who want to take the test. This allows kids who are unable to test during the weekend, or who find it difficult to get to remote testing locations, a more convenient testing option.

Distracted Driving (SB 479): This bill updates Georgia’s two-year old distracted driving law and increases fines for using electronics while driving. A similar bill has been debated in the House.

Seat Belts (SB 226): Georgia law currently only requires that minors use seat belts in the back seats of cars. This new law would require all occupants, regardless of age, to use seat belts.

Feminine Hygiene Products (SB 349):  The Senate approved this bill to require local boards of education to provide free feminine hygiene products to all students in school bathrooms.

Pumping at Work (SB 327): This bill requires employers to provide a lactation room and allow reasonable break time for new mothers to pump breast milk. It also protects new mothers from discriminatory or retaliatory actions by the employer.

Bills that Didn’t Cross Over

After-School Recess (SB 398): After my bill to prohibit the assigning of grades to homework for grades K-2 passed unanimously in committee, I hoped it would be heard on the Senate floor. Instead, we got an important lesson on the powerful Rules Committee that decides which bills are put on the floor schedule. Every Rules Committee has its own personality and I was happy to learn that Democrats that serve on Rules can select Democratic bills to move forward. But SB 398 never got that far. We learned that once a bill passes committee, a higher power determines which bills can even be considered by Rules. My bill landed on the preclearance list under the “NO” column. I tried hard to advocate for moving the bill forward with the Senate leadership, including the Lt. Governor, and made my case in front of the Rules Committee anyway, but to no avail, leaving me only with several theories as to why such a positive, family-friendly bill would get stuck in the process.

Citizen Voting (SR 818): This bill would change language in Georgia’s constitution about who has the right to vote from “Every person who is a citizen” to “Only individuals who are citizens.” The current language grants a right to all citizens, while the new language omits that right and replaces it with a restriction. Constitutional amendments must get a supermajority, a two-thirds vote, to be approved by the Senate, and SR 818 failed to reach that threshold. At best, this resolution seemed designed to stir up the Republican base, and at worst, could have been used to deny the right to vote to certain citizens, now that the right would no longer be enumerated in our constitution. This is why breaking supermajorities is so important to keeping extreme legislation from passing.

Tort Reform (SB 415): This bill proposed sweeping changes to our civil justice system to address what its proponents called “runaway jury verdicts” and concerns over assigning proper liability. But the bill heavily favored the insurance industry and legislators on both sides of the aisle, many of whom were lawyers, argued that the bill contained too many controversial reforms that were not in the best interests of consumers. After four hours of intense debate on Tuesday, the Senate approved a motion in a very close vote (27 to 26) to finally table the bill. A motion to remove this bill from the table on Crossover Day also failed.

North DeKalb Cityhood (SB 507): This bill was filed as local legislation, so the Crossover Day deadline does not apply. I will have more to say about this in a future email, so I can explain some nuanced details that need more space than this Snapshot can provide.

Celebrating Servant-Leaders

Last week, the Women’s Legislative Caucus, a bipartisan, bicameral group of female legislators, held its annual Nikki T. Randall Servant Leaders Awards breakfast where each Caucus member has the opportunity to honor women in our districts that have done outstanding public service work in their communities.

I was pleased to not only kick off the breakfast as co-chair of the Women’s Legislative Caucus, but to honor Deacon Lesley-Ann Drake of Dunwoody. Lesley-Ann founded “Path to Shine” that mentors at-risk youth with the goal of guiding them toward a positive, successful path. Under Lesley-Ann’s leadership, Path to Shine has grown to 17 programs, working with 194 children and more than 140 volunteer Mentors across Georgia.

As We Move into Uncertainty

The coronavirus crisis reminds us that we, as humans, are undeniably connected to every other human being in this world, and that walls built to protect power and privilege ultimately crumble. As we embark on drafting the public policy to lift our people back up, we must address the fact that people who are not paid livable wages must come to work sick and make us all sick. That a market-based healthcare system cannot be prepared for the overwhelming volume of need that a pandemic presents. That sometimes bad stuff just happens and it’s not always about bootstraps.

Tuesday afternoon these signs appeared on the Senate Chamber Doors. While the House shut down the page program and limited visitors, the Senate took no action.
Senate members pause for a “huddle” on Crossover Day, trying to figure out the future of the 155th Georgia General Assembly in the face of the coronavirus.
Deacon Lesley-Anne Drake was my guest a Servant Leader Award recipient at the 5th Annual Legislative Women’s Caucus Yellow Rose Award Breakfast Tuesday morning.
Tuesday morning I recongnized Senators Orrock, Unterman and Butler from the Senate well for their leadership through the years of the Women’s Legislative Caucus.
Senator Sally Harrell, Georgia Senate District 40
Reminder: Upcoming Town Hall Meetings:

Thanks to everyone who came out to our Dunwoody/Sandy Springs town hall meeting. We had a great turnout! We have two more coming up:.

  • Peachtree Corners with Representative Beth Moore: March 18th, 6-8 pm at the Peachtree Corners Community Chest Annex, 310 Technology Parkway.
  • Chamblee/Brookhaven with Representatives Scott Holcomb and Matthew Wilson: March 26th, 6-8pm at the Chamblee Civic Center, 3540 Broad St., Chamblee.
It’s Raining Bills

While it rained buckets outside this week, it rained bills inside the Georgia Capitol. The Senate was deluged with a backlog of bills that sat idle during the budget meetings. We held marathon committee meetings as we considered dozens of bills in time for Crossover Day on March 12th, the day that all bills must pass one chamber in order to make it to the other chamber to ultimately become law this year. Bills that don’t pass at least one chamber by Crossover Day will have to be re-filed next session or die on the vine.

Come Rain or Shine, We Must Pass a Budget

This week, the Senate passed the 2020 amended budget, also known as the “little” budget. The Senate agreed with many of the House’s decisions to restore funding for critical services like public defenders, accountability courts, food safety inspectors, and mental health services. But the budget still cuts $159 million and 1,255 vacant positions. This budget now goes back to the House, where a Conference Committee will be appointed to work out final differences. The House is still working on the “big” 2021 budget.

It’s highly unusual to have a revenue shortfall during strong economic times — an issue created by a risky 2018 tax cut made on the prediction of income that never materialized. However, I do appreciate the leadership provided by Sen. Jack Hill, the Senate Appropriations Chair, who was able to use his deep knowledge of Georgia government to prioritize services, especially for the elderly, children, and disabled. We will need Sen. Hill’s leadership to deal with economic ramifications of the coming coronavirus.

Storm Clouds Are Gathering

Voting: Georgia’s new voting machines provide a printed ballot as an official record of your votes. Please verify your ballot before scanning it into the system, and alert a poll worker if you see any mistakes. This printout is a ballot, not a receipt — so don’t leave the polling place with it! Help spread the word.

The consequences of last year’s decision to purchase new, expensive voting machines are now becoming clear. Testing last year revealed significant security concerns. Privacy issues recently led one county to reject the new system in favor of hand-marked paper ballots. Last week, the State Election Board voted to conduct election recounts using the scanned barcodes that cannot be read by humans, instead of doing a hand count of the printed names. Last year I proposed a “ban the barcode” amendment, but it failed along party lines.

On the surface, SB 463, a bill filed last Friday on behalf of the Secretary of State’s office and fast-tracked to the Ethics Committee on Tuesday, seems designed to address some of the issues with absentee ballot signatures and long lines at the polls. But the bill is not well thought out. It allows voters to voluntarily include a photocopy of their driver’s license with their absentee ballot to avoid having their signature challenged. I am concerned this will create a two-tiered system in which the ballots of voters without access to a printer will be more harshly scrutinized. And the bill encourages local officials to split precincts with expected high voter turnout. Changes to voting precincts lead to voter confusion and should be considered only as a last resort. Other solutions like additional early voting locations should be considered instead.

The Committee hearing for this bill got contentious as voting rights activists testified against it. Ten Capitol police officers were unnecessarily called in. Sadly, the bill passed out of committee by a party line vote.

Guns: While a variety of gun safety bills sponsored by Democrats have stalled in committee this session, SB 224, a dangerous bill that among other things allows guns in places of worship and public court buildings, and changes the meaning of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon to allow people to brandish guns, passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee along party lines.

I will vote no on both the voting bill and the gun bill when they come to the Senate floor next week.

On The Brighter Side

A number of bills that will bring sunshine to important issues and help ensure a brighter future for Georgians also moved forward this week. I had the opportunity to present five of my bills in committee, two of which will move forward while others will require more work in the interim.

Medicaid Public Option: My week began bright and early at 8 am on Monday when I presented SB 339, my Medicaid Public Option Bill, to the Senate Appropriations Committee. Appropriations Committee Chair Sen. Jack Hill has offered his support for a study committee to conduct an actuarial study in the interim so we can determine what the Peachcare Public Option would cost. I’m thrilled that if the study committee is granted, Georgia will join the ranks of more than a dozen states evaluating this option.

After School Recess: When I presented SB 398, my bill to prohibit graded homework for grades K-2, I reminded Committee members that the Governor vetoed our school recess bill, citing “local control” issues. SB 398 provides the ultimate local control to parents to decide how to spend precious family time. The bill passed unanimously.

SB 398 now goes to the Senate Rules Committee where it is decided if it will go to the Senate floor for a full vote. Each member of the Rules Committee gets to choose a bill that will be heard on the Senate floor the following day. I was heartened to learn that the Democratic members of the Rules Committee move forward Democratic bills without much objection from their Republican counterparts.

Maternal Mortality: Georgia has the dismal distinction of being 50th in our country in maternal mortality. Last year, a bipartisan study committee took a close look at the issue and made a variety of recommendations. This year, the Women’s Legislative Caucus decided to take action. Members have been taking points of personal privilege in the House and Senate during the past few weeks to encourage Republican leadership to expand Medicaid for new mothers beyond the current 2 months postpartum. These efforts have paid off as news broke on Friday that the House will move forward with a bill to expand Medicaid to mothers 6 months postpartum with the Speaker’s support. While it’s not the 12 months that we had been hoping for, 6 months of extended coverage can save lives.

Styrofoam and Plastic Bag Ban: I presented SB 434, my styrofoam and plastic bag bill, to the Agriculture & Consumer Affairs Committee. People spoke both for and against the bill. I didn’t expect action on the bill this year, but it was helpful to hear the feedback and testimony to understand how we can work in the interim to strengthen the bill. Several different groups, from retailers who will need to change the way they do business, to the timber industry who has a stake in alternative packaging, to state government agencies that will have to take on enforcement of the law, to environmental groups who may have ideas about how to best write the law, all have a stake in SB 434.

Higher EducationSB 400, a bill I co-sponsored with Senator Elena Parent, requires thorough evaluation of the state’s Dual Enrollment program. The bill passed unanimously out of the Higher Ed Committee Thursday. Sen. Parent and I were both frustrated that cuts were made to the program without much data to make an informed decision. Also, I presented SB 456 to the Committee, a bill that would prorate tuition and fees for part-time students. The bill got favorable feedback from my colleagues, and I was surprised upon finishing my presentation that the University System Chancellor and Presidents of both UGA and Georgia Tech were sitting right behind me. What an audience!

Hazardous Waste: This year ethylene oxide was added to the list of hazardous waste discussed by the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee. Last summer residents of three Atlanta area communities learned the Sterigenics company had been leaking ethylene oxide, a carcinogen, at ten times the allowed federal level. Several bills addressed the issues through transparency and reporting requirements. The first bill the Committee passed was an improvement, but weak. In an unusual act, the Committee Chair called another “special” meeting after hours, at which point we were presented with a bill substitute with much stronger language. Even though the weaker bill had passed, the author continued to listen to community members and ultimately chose to pass a stronger bill.

Some Silver Linings

With 10 cities in my district, working on city annexation and border issues takes up a great deal of my time. Sometimes these issues cause tension because they’re all about our local communities where we live, work and play. Sometimes it comes down to neighbors sitting down with neighbors working through their concerns. I was happy this week to host a meeting at the Capitol to help the cities of Peachtree Corners and Norcross.

In the coming weeks I look forward to doing the same in my own community and with my own neighbors, as we come together to talk through cityhood and annexation issues.

Next Week’s Forecast

The weather service predicts more rain next week, and I predict more bills for the Senate with Crossover Day upon us on Thursday. We’ll be in session everyday except Wednesday, but there will be lots of committee meetings that day. Crossover Day is a great opportunity to come and watch all or parts of the session from the Senate gallery. It will be a long one!

Reminder: Upcoming Town Hall Meetings:

I’m pleased to be co-hosting several town hall meetings with House Representatives in various parts of Senate District 40 so that we can update you on the legislative session, answer your questions, and hear your thoughts.

  • Dunwoody/Sandy Springs with Representatives Mike Wilensky and Josh McLaurin: March 4th, 7-9 pm at the Dunwoody Annex, 4470 N. Shallowford Rd., Dunwoody
  • Peachtree Corners with Representative Beth Moore: March 18th, 6-8 pm at the Peachtree Corners Community Chest Annex, 310 Technology Parkway.
  • Chamblee/Brookhaven with Representatives Matthew Wilson and Scott Holcomb: March 26th, 6-8pm at the Chamblee Civic Center, 3540 Broad St., Chamblee.
Public Service Announcement: Watch for the US Census

I’m honored to serve on Representative Lucy McBath’s Census Complete Count Leadership Committee. Our charge is to make sure everyone is counted in the year’s Census, especially in hard-to-count areas.

The Census determines everything from how political districts are drawn to how billions of our taxpayer dollars are allocated. Between March 12 – 20th, you will receive a postcard asking you to participate on-line, by phone, or by mail. You can find more information about the 2020 Census here.

Relationship Status: “It’s Complicated”

Being in the Senate often feels like being in a relationship. Sometimes things go really well and it feels like you’re truly accomplishing important things together. Sometimes things are pretty rocky. And sometimes, well…it’s just complicated.

Sometimes We All Agree

Monday could have been called, “The Day Everyone Decided to Agree.” Democrats and Republicans voted together on several bills, the most important of which were aimed at improving the health of people and communities across the state. SB 359 should reduce the number of surprise medical bills people receive. SB 123 raises fees for dumping coal ash in Georgia and is one of several bills circulating this session aimed at addressing safe coal ash storage.

Wednesday, the Capitol halls were teaming with citizens from all over the state. There were more than 500 physical therapists advocating for equitable PT co-pays, Georgia Senior Living Association advocates pushing for assisted living reform, and the Girl Scouts were there learning about government. The sea of red shirts were also there — the Moms Demand Action advocates — pressing for gun safety.

Getting paged to go outside the chamber to meet constituents is my favorite part of the day. People at the capitol often refer to this activity as “working the ropes,” because citizens must stay behind the ropes that protect the Senate chamber doors. I can always tell the nervous look of someone who is at the ropes for the first time and I love putting them at ease, helping to make it a positive experience.

Sometimes We Don’t Agree

Unfortunately, partisanship can and does get in the way of getting things done.

This week I went to the well on Moms Demand Action Day. My Campus Carry repeal bill has yet to be heard in committee. I asked that it and other gun safety legislation be given hearings because democracy is about giving voice to the people, and those Moms and gun safety advocates deserve their chance to be heard, even if the majority party doesn’t agree.

Sometimes We Make Progress

My legislative agenda gained some momentum this week when I got word that three of my bills will be heard in committee next week. I’m particularly grateful to Senator Jack Hill, whom I have known since I served in the House, for allowing me time Monday morning to present SB 339, the Medicaid Public Option bill, to the Senate Appropriations Committee. This is the Committee that’s so busy with the budget! I’m on the schedule at 8am, March 2, in room 341 in the Capitol.

I’ve been promised hearings on my “After School Recess” bill (SB 398), and the “Prorated College Fees” bill (SB 456), but have not yet received specific dates.

I also filed three new bills:

  • The Styrofoam BanSB 434 bans styrofoam takeout cups and containers, as well as single-use plastic bags. I promised this bill to three young constituents who are all very concerned about our environment. The ban is designed to encourage consumers to bring their own bags for free, or pay a small fee for paper bags — just a dime for every $25 of items. Bag fees have been shown to be the most effective way to encourage people to bring their own bags, which is the ultimate goal.
  • Part-time Student Prorated Fees: Last year, I learned that Georgia Gwinnett College students often take eight years to graduate because they attend part-time. Then I realized many part-time students must pay full fees every semester, making their “drive out” degree price much higher than full-time students. So I filed SB 456, which requires the University and Technical College systems of Georgia to prorate fees based on the actual number of credit hours taken. My chamber seatmate happens to be the Chair of the Higher Education Committee and he told me Friday he likes my bill, so it will have a hearing next week.
  • The Permanent Classroom Act (aka “The Trailer Bill”): On Friday, I filed a bill that would better regulate the use of trailers as temporary classrooms in schools. It mandates a variety of safety measures and inspections, requires that a plan is put in place to convert the temporary classrooms into permanent classrooms within 5 years, and puts school funding at risk for those that don’t comply. This bill will be given a number and assigned to a committee on Monday.
Sometimes It’s Just Complicated

On Wednesday, I met with Rudy Bowen, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) Board Vice Chair, and Josh Waller, GDOT’s Director of Policy & Government Affairs, and they caught me up on the history of transportation funding since I left the Georgia House. It’s clear that we now just need a full-throated funding source for transit and there are several potential avenues, including dedicating the rideshare tax that was just passed earlier this year, to transit.

But the biggest complicating factor is inter-regional agreement and cooperation. Getting various counties to agree to fund transit has always been the major challenge, but it’s essential to pulling down federal transportation dollars. The formation of the ATL, the new Atlanta Regional Transit Authority, which just formed in 2018 and is designed to encourage better regional transit planning in the metro area, should address this issue.

Overall, it’s a good time to fight for transit funding, and SR 654, the Constitutional amendment bill that I filed to allow the gas tax to be used for transit funding, put people on notice that I’m ready to be part of the solution.

Sometimes It Takes a Little Horsetrading 

Representative Beth Moore and I have been collaborating on a bill to ban the sale or distribution of products that contain asbestos. The bill was inspired by a constituent whose wife died of Mesothelioma, a terrible and deadly form of cancer that is primarily caused by asbestos exposure.

This week I co-signed SB 407, a bill to discourage illegal palmetto berry harvesting, a problem in south Georgia. The author of this bill is the Chair of the Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Harper. I’m hoping that protecting south Georgia landowners will pay off and Sen. Harper will co-sign my asbestos bill!

What’s Next

I have an incredibly busy schedule this coming week with three bill hearings, committee meetings, some significant bills that will come to the Senate floor and a mid-week town hall. As always, I invite you to come down to the Capitol to experience it all in person.

A Public Service Message: Verify your Voting Information!

February 24th is the registration deadline if you want to vote in the Democratic Presidential Primary election on March 24th. Even if you are registered, be sure to verify that your voting status is “Active” and your information is correct. Three legislators learned last week that despite being regular voters, their information was wrong, which could have caused them problems at the polls. Check your record here https://www.mvp.sos.ga.gov/MVP/mvp.do.

Upcoming Town Hall Meetings:

I’m pleased to be co-hosting several town hall meetings with House Representatives in various parts of Senate District 40 so that we can update you on the legislative session, answer your questions, and hear your thoughts.

  • Dunwoody/Sandy Springs with Representatives Mike Wilensky and Josh McLaurin: March 4th, 7-9 pm at the Dunwoody Annex, 4470 N. Shallowford Rd., Dunwoody
  • Peachtree Corners with Representative Beth Moore: March 18th, 6-8 pm at the Peachtree Corners Community Chest Annex, 310 Technology Parkway
  • Chamblee/Brookhaven with Representatives Matthew Wilson and Scott Holcomb: March 26th, time and location TBD. We will update you in a future Snapshot.
When it Rains, it Pours

The Senate reconvened this week after the break that wasn’t really a break. Ironically, my week started by being an hour late to a meeting with the Georgia Department of Transportation (aka GDOT) because of bad traffic and rain. The rain continued falling, but it didn’t keep me from charging forward through the storms of the week.

The Battle of the Bios

Checks and balances, or the lack thereof, have continued to be a theme this week. After refusing to provide Speaker Ralston budget information the House needs to do its job, this week the Governor’s office initially refused to give me information that I need so I know how to vote on Senate confirmation of board appointees. Last week I made a written request for bios for all board appointees. On Monday morning my administrative assistant, Keridan, got a call from the Governor’s office. They said if I want the bios, I must file an open records request.

The Governor appoints people to boards all year long, swears them in, and they begin their service, all before the Senate has a chance to confirm them. This makes me feel like a rubber stamp, so I decided I needed to take a closer look before the vote. Why would a Senator have to file an open records request for information to do his or her job?

I finally got the information from the Governor, but it took a social media post going viral, an inquiry by the AJC, and the remainder of the week.

Budget Battles Slow Down the Bills

On Wednesday, the House voted out the bill that makes adjustments to the current year budget, also known as the amended, or “little” budget. The House restored funding for several important state services like public defenders and programs that encourage doctors to practice in rural Georgia. Now it’s time for the Senate to take a look at the amended budget and for the House to start working on the “big” budget for FY2021.

Speaker Ralston has expressed continued support for another tax cut saying that “people expect Republicans to cut taxes.” This statement really distresses me. We’re making drastic cuts to our state budget during good economic times due to an income tax cut made in 2018.

But what really bothers me are the 7000 developmentally disabled Georgians who have been on a waiting list — some for 10 – 15 years, because the state continually underfunds Medicaid Waivers that allow these people to live in their communities rather than a nursing home. This year the state has funded zero slots. This is not the kind of budget I can support.

What Does the Senate Do on a Day with No Bills?

The budget battles have significantly slowed the number of bills coming to the Senate floor for a vote, and on Wednesday, we had zero bills. So just what do we do when we don’t pass bills? There’s plenty of ceremony.

Lt. Governor Duncan starts every morning promptly at 10am. The first sound of the morning is the voice of Rules Chairman Mullis, who boisterously declares that the journal has been read and approved. And for the ghosts in the chamber, he declares a bit of trivia, such as, “On this day in 1884, the Enigma Tornado Outbreak roared through Cartersville, GA, killing 22 people . . .”

Roll Call: Even the roll call is ceremonial. If a member is absent, another member must make a motion on their behalf to excuse, using specific language: “Mr. President, I ask for unanimous consent to excuse the Senator from the 39th for business inside the Capitol.” After all the motions to excuse are made and approved, we vote electronically to signify our presence.

Pledge: Then we recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States flag, turning afterwards to recite a separate pledge to the Georgia flag (did you even know there’s a Georgia pledge)?

Pastor of the Day: Then comes the Pastor of the Day. A Senator introduces his or her pastor, who offers some words and a prayer, almost always “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Yes, we pray in the Capitol, and not once, but also before every committee meeting. I’ve never been asked to offer the prayer, but one day I would like to step up and share a completely inclusive reflection.

Doctor of the Day: After the Pastor of the Day comes the introduction of the Doctor of the Day, which used to be a Senator’s personal doctor, but now seems to be a doctor chosen by the Medical Association of Georgia — a way to lobby inside the chamber.

Privileged Resolutions: While this is all happening, the side aisles of the chamber fill with people waiting to be honored by their Senator. Privileged Resolutions recognize constituents for their accomplishments or contributions to the state, or they commemorate important causes. These resolutions are filed and assigned a number just like other bills. This particular bill-less day we recognized Alphi Phi Alpha, an African American service fraternity, several Georgia Forestry units, L’Arche, a non-profit for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and Lupus Awareness Day.

Point of Personal Privilege: The favorite part of the day for Senators who like to be in the spotlight are Points of Personal Privilege. Every Senator gets five minutes in the well each day to say whatever they want. Some members use it to recognize special guests. Others use it to mark a special occasion or speak to an important issue. Members of the minority party often use it to make a case for legislation they’ve filed, since there’s less chance of that legislation being heard on the floor.

Floor Votes: After all this, if there are any bills, they are finally heard and debated on the floor.

While some of this pomp may seem unnecessary, it’s important to our special guests who come from across the state, and Senators often use this time to network with colleagues, discuss bills, or go to the rope lines to meet constituents.

Nevertheless, There Were Some Bills

We did discuss and vote on a handful of bills this week. Here are the highlights:

The Liars Bill: In the Ethics Committee, we discussed SR 459, a resolution that would ban anyone who was found to be lying during Public Hearings from testifying the rest of the session. Unlike Congress, people who speak in front of a state Senate committee do not have to swear an oath to tell the truth, and there are no penalties for those who deliberately provide false information. That means that Senate members have to listen with discerning ears to determine which information is credible or not. While there was general support for the intent of this bill, it needed more work to make it viable.

The 90% Admissions Bill: It’s not often that two major university Presidents come to a Senate Higher Education meeting, but University of Georgia President Jere Morehead, Georgia Tech President Angel Cabrera, as well as Board of Regents Chancellor Steve Wrigley all came to testify against SB 282, a bill that would require Georgia research universities like Georgia State, University of Georgia, and Georgia Tech to offer 90% of early admission spots to in-state students. President Morehead called the bill “unnecessary” since Georgia students make up the majority of the UGA student body. President Cabrera discussed how the bill would hurt Georgia Tech’s ability to compete with other major universities. Both spoke to the devastating financial effects of the bill. After such compelling testimony, this bill is unlikely to move out of committee.

The Foster Care Bill: Strengthening the foster care system in Georgia is one of the Governor’s priorities and SB 335 addresses a variety of deficiencies in our system. It increases data collection about foster kids in care, allows the state to contract with child placement services to alleviate the backlog, it eases training requirements for people providing respite care — people who can temporarily step in for foster parents to give them a break — and it waives state park entrance fees for foster families. The bill passed nearly unanimously on the Senate floor.

Looking Ahead

Your government is open to you and I encourage you to come to the Capitol to watch a Senate session live from the gallery. We’ll be back in the chamber on Monday and in session all week.

Putting on the Brakes

The legislature has burned through 12 of its 40 legislative days, and has passed very little legislation. The problem is the budget, but it’s more than that — it’s a constitutional crisis of the balance of powers between Georgia’s legislative and executive branches.

At the core has been the refusal of Governor Kemp to provide the legislature with the information it needs to evaluate the impact of budget cuts he has ordered to the 2020 budget, which was passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor last year. When Speaker Ralston tried to schedule emergency hearings last fall, the Governor instructed department heads to not attend and provide no information to the legislature.

So the Governor put the brakes on the legislature last fall. The idea that all the work of the legislature must be completed within the 40 day session, and not during the remaining 9 months, threatens to reduce the role of the legislature to a rubber stamp of the executive branch.

So far, the legislature is not having it.

Speaking of Brakes, “Have you driven on I-285 lately?”

Telling the Senate Transportation Committee that SD 40 residents did not want “Spaghetti Junction on steroids.”

Last week I shared with you that I filed SR 654, which proposes a constitutional amendment permitting the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) to use gas tax revenue for public transit. I filed this legislation because of the multi-billion dollar managed toll-lane project being planned by GDOT for the top end of I-285. Basically, we’re getting a toll road expansion, which no one seems to want, instead of rails and buses, because GDOT is limited by Georgia’s constitution to spending its $2 billion on nothing but roads and bridges. Our constitution is holding us back.

To my surprise and at the very last minute, I got word that SR 654 was scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee. My team scrambled to put together handouts, spread the word, and call experts to testify. Fortunately, the planets aligned, as it was lobby day at the Capitol for pedestrians and cyclists, who happen to be big transit fans. Several were able to attend the Committee Hearing.

I was happy to see PEDS, a group that advocates for pedestrian-safe society, who were supportive of SR 654 which would provide more funding for public transit.

I’m extremely grateful to Mayor Lynn Deutsch of Dunwoody and Neill Herring of the Sierra Club for coming to testify, and to several Senate 40 constituents who came down to support the bill. Committee members are always on better “behavior” when they know a member’s constituents are in attendance. Together, we were able to pull together an excellent presentation that grabbed the attention of several news outlets.

Passing this constitutional amendment is a heavy lift, but the hearing opened up a productive dialogue with the Senate Transportation Committee about the need for dedicated funding for public transit. Chairman Beach, a fellow Atlanta suburban colleague, pledged to work with me on alternative solutions to public transit funding and I intend to hold him to it. 

If you’d Iike to see public transit instead of toll roads, call or email Senator Beach and thank him for holding a hearing on SR 654 and ask him to keep his commitment to find more funding for public transit. 

Georgia Kids Can’t Catch a “Break”

Making my case for the After School Recess Act from the Senate well

Last week, I announced my intent to file my “After School Recess Act,” a bill that bans graded homework for students in grades K-2. I’d like this bill to be bipartisan, if at all possible, so I pitched the bill to several of my Senate Republican colleagues. The response so far has been favorable and I got a commitment from the Chairman of the Senate Education Committee for a hearing and vote. This week, I’ll be following up with colleagues that said they’d consider co-sponsoring the bill before I file.

You may recall that the Governor vetoed a bill we passed last year guaranteeing recess for our youngest students, an issue I’ve worked on for decades. If kids don’t get recess during school, we should give parents the ultimate “local control” allowing them full choice in how to spend precious family time.

It was a pleasure to speak with this group of Dunwoody High School students on Advanced Placement Day at the capitol, sponsored by the College Board

In-State College Admissions: Higher Education was also high on last week’s agenda as I met with lobbyists from Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia about their opposition to SB 282, a bill that would require Georgia’s designated research universities to allocate at least 90 percent of its early admissions to Georgia residents. Those of us with college-aged kids know how hard it has become for Georgia students to get accepted to our own state-funded schools. Students paying out-of-state tuition bring significant money to our universities. Ninety percent may be a tough benchmark to set, but I appreciate the intent to keep our best and brightest in state. 

Ironically, I learned in the Urban Affairs Committee that Georgia’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have the opposite problem attracting out-of-state students due to the higher tuition rates. Senator Lester Jackson presented a bill to allow Georgia’s HBCUs the ability to offer up to 10 percent of its out of state students waivers to receive in-state tuition. Current law only allows for two percent of out-of-state students to receive in-state tuition. 

Annexation, Coal Ash, and Ensuring the Dam Doesn’t Break

Annexation: With 10 cities and three counties in my district, this is an issue I work on quite often. When a parcel of land is annexed into a city, there are many implications to work through, with tax revenues and schools at the top of the list. Last week, I met with Peachtree Corners’ City Manager to discuss border issues with the City of Norcross. And our Dekalb Delegation meeting focused on a bill that we passed last year that separated the annexation of land from the annexation of schools, to prevent an unfortunate situation between the City of Atlanta and Dekalb Schools from happening again. But Governor Kemp vetoed that bill so we are back to the drawing board.

Coal Ash: The Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved SB 123, a bill that would raise the surcharge for dumping coal ash in Georgia from $1/ton to $2.50/ton, putting it on par with other types of dumping surcharges. Coal ash is a growing problem in Georgia. Georgia’s low surcharge brought coal ash from other states posing health risks to communities near the dumping grounds. A higher surcharge will help curb that problem.

That Dam Bill: I enjoy being on the Natural Resources Committee because I learn about things I might not otherwise. Last week, we had a bit of fun with that dam bill, SB 319, about building downstream from Georgia dams. Once a structure is built downstream from a dam, the dam becomes a Level 1 dam which brings a significant amount of state oversight and cost due to the safety concerns for the downstream structures. SB 319 aims to save the state and builders money by requiring structures built downstream to build to a higher standard to survive possible water flow and keep the dam at a Level 2 instead of changing it to a Level 1. 

Bill Nigut’s Political Rewind: Did you catch me on Political Rewind discussing my Peachcare Public Option proposal to allow all Georgians to buy in to the state’s popular Peachcare program? If not, you can watch it here

It’s Not Really a Break

Some committees will still meet during this week’s recess and we will be looking closely at the budget this week alongside Appropriations meetings of both the House & Senate.

We will not publish a Snapshot next week, and will return to our regular schedule the week after.

A Comedy of Errors, But The Show Goes On

The Republican leadership has been slow to release bills to the Senate floor, which allowed me time to focus on the work my district sent me to do. I filed two bills:

SB 339, A Medicaid Public Option: Modeled after Georgia’s successful Peachcare for Kids program — available to ANYONE, no matter your age, income level or insured status. Don’t like your private plan? You have another option!

SR 654, Funding for Public Transit: Proposes a constitutional amendment to allow the Georgia Department of Transportation to use gas tax revenue for public transit.

Unfortunately a stomach bug and a clerical error threw me a couple of curveballs this week. Thanks to a team effort, we were able to overcome them and keep things moving.  

Was it Dual Enrollment or a Stomach Bug?

This week, the Georgia Senate passed HB444, which outlines program cuts to Georgia’s highly successful and popular Dual Enrollment program. The program allows motivated high school students to “Move on When Ready,” and take college and technical school classes free of charge, earning credits that count both for college and high school, and was a focus of our previous Lieutenant Governor, Casey Cagle.

Governor Kemp wasted no time last year targeting Dual Enrollment for cuts. The legislature is now fast tracking a bill through that only lets students “Move On” with half as many credits as before.

With college tuition crippling students with debt, Dual Enrollment has been a lifeline for Georgia families, including my own. It’s not an exaggeration to say I am heartsick about these cuts. But the morning the bill came to the Senate floor, I literally woke up sick. I was proud to remotely watch my Senate Democratic Caucus colleagues take up the mantle to defend Dual Enrollment and speak against the bill. Sadly, the bill passed along party lines, and will be going back to the House so that they can either agree or disagree to the changes made by the Senate. Call and email your house Representative and let them know where you stand on these cuts.

Medicaid Public Option and a Clerical Error

Speaking from the Senate well about the need for a Medicaid Public Option

On Wednesday, I addressed my Senate colleagues after filing my signature piece of legislation for the year — a Medicaid Public Option that would allow ALL Georgians, regardless of age, income, or insurance status, to purchase Medicaid, at the same cost it takes the government to deliver the services.

I’ve heard from a number of constituents who have private plans with such high monthly premiums and deductibles that they have a hard time finding money to pay the doctor. They feel they have to forgo healthcare even though they have insurance. And they often can’t trust their health insurance because they get billed for services they thought were covered. 

With a public option, the government sets the price instead of a for-profit company. This keeps prices down, increasing competition in the market to keep costs down for everyone, including those with private plans. The plan is modeled after the popular Peachcare for Kids, and would simply be another option on the marketplace that consumers could choose. Close to 20 other states are taking a serious look at how to make a public option work for them. It’s time Georgia does the same.

The Secretary of the Senate’s instructions on how to ask for Unanimous Consent to Withdraw a bill

The concept of a Medicaid Public Option is new, so this was not an easy bill to draft. We went through multiple versions — so many in fact, that I inadvertently filed the wrong one! And I learned this week that some mistakes made in the Senate can be fixed!

The Secretary of the Senate gave me a little cheat card with the formal language you must use on the Senate floor to make a motion to withdraw a bill. In the process, I got to see the inner workings of the Secretary of the Senate’s office, including the script that they prepare for the Lt. Governor that guides him as he presides over each day’s session.

A Course Correction, A Bipartisan Success, and Other Matters

Transportation: This week I filed a Constitutional Amendment to allow Georgia’s gas tax to be used for transit. Georgia’s Constitution currently only allows our gas tax to be used for roads and bridges. This is why we’re seeing managed toll roads instead of transit options to solve our traffic woes. Our Constitution is holding us back and we must change course. It won’t be easy — a Constitutional amendment requires two-thirds of the vote in each chamber and a ballot referendum. But it is time for that fight.

Elected with bi-partisan support, GDOT Board Member Rudy Bowen addresses the 7th Congressional District Delegation, with Chair Sen. Steve Henson and Secretary Rep. Beth Moore.

Speaking of transportation, it’s not often that Republicans and Democrats can all agree on something, so it was nice to participate in a rare example this week as the Gwinnett County Delegation voted unanimously to re-appoint Rudy Bowen, a long-time public servant, to represent the 7th Congressional District on the Georgia Department of Transportation Board.

Gangs: This week, the House and Senate Public Safety Committees held a joint meeting to learn more about gangs, a major focus of the Governor. Young kids are being recruited into gangs as early as elementary school age, so we must focus on ensuring Georgia’s most vulnerable kids see a better path through education and positive programming.We can’t arrest our way out of this problem, and we must tread thoughtfully and carefully. Georgia already has some of the toughest laws on the books. We must make sure that Governor Kemp’s efforts on gangs don’t undo the great progress former Governor Deal made during his term on criminal justice reform. 

We’ll be monitoring this issue closely.

What’s on Deck?

We only have five more days officially scheduled for this session, which will bring us to day 14. House Speaker Ralston held off on releasing the remainder of the calendar until he saw the Governor’s budget proposal. It’s anybody’s guess what happens from here!

It was a pleasure to visit with CG Takeuchi, our new Japanese Consulate of Atlanta while having lunch with the Japan Caucus.

Good to visit with local elected officials from Chamblee, Norcross, Doraville & Tucker at Georgia Municipal Association Day at the Capitol.

A beautiful event where my colleague Sen. Harbison was honored at the Georgia Military Veterans Hall of Fame Class of 2019 unveiling ceremony.

The Battle of the Budget

Georgia Budget Process

Georgia Budget Process – you are here.

The Georgia General Assembly traditionally holds budget hearings the second week of session, but the tone of these hearings was far from normal. The Budget Battle started last fall when the Governor ordered 4% cuts to the budget the legislature passed last year. Speaker Ralston responded by calling the entire House Appropriations Committee to Atlanta last fall. Then this month, he decided to pay the daily per diem of the entire House of Representatives — not just members of the Appropriations Committee — encouraging ALL Representatives to attend the hearings (sadly, the Senate did not do the same). Finally, the Speaker announced that he will not release a full session calendar until he has a sense of where the budget talks are going.

It took both me and my Communications Director, Amy Swygert, working full-time this week to cover both the budget hearings and some important in-district meetings. When Amy and I met to compare notes, we both realized the events of the week brought to our minds certain well known idioms.

“Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch”

Perhaps for the first time in Georgia’s history, despite strong economic times, we’re in major belt-tightening mode. This is because in 2018, Republican lawmakers counted on a windfall from President Trump’s federal tax package and passed an income state tax cut, while also doubling the state’s standard deduction. Revenues came up short, and now we have the painful task of deciding what we must do without.

“Pennywise and a Pound Foolish”

Governor Kemp has downplayed his proposed budget cuts, emphasizing the “common sense savings.” The truth is that our state departments have always looked for operational efficiencies. They come in every budget. The harsh reality is that this budget includes cuts at the expense of everyday Georgians.

Here’s just some of what we’re facing:

— There will be deep cuts to services that have been proven to help mentally ill patients stay in their homes, pay their bills, and avoid psychiatric emergencies. The Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities warned that cuts to these preventive services could increase suicides and substance abuse. And it will put an enormous strain on the already overwhelming demand on our psychiatric hospitals and mental health facilities.

—- There will be significantly less money to monitor diseases and address Georgia’s already dismal maternal mortality and HIV rates. County health departments, which are the only health entity in some of our rural counties, will be the hardest hit.

— Our food, animals, and meat will be inspected less frequently.

— The Georgia Bureau of Investigation will have fewer resources to process the more than 44,000 backlogged crime lab cases. This means certain criminals who could have been prosecuted will roam our streets instead.

— There will be fewer public safety officers and staff in our prisons.

— There will be less money for public defenders and accountability courts which have been proven to reduce the number of repeat offenders

— The Georgia Board of Health Care Workforce will cut numerous initiatives such as loan repayment and medical education that seeks to improve access to medical physicians and specialists in mostly rural, underserved areas.

— As they presented their budgets, some department heads mentioned challenges with costly staff turnover because Georgia pays its employees sometimes as much as 40% under market rate.

Republicans and Democrats alike were dismayed at the proposed cuts. Lawmakers have worked hard to fund these important initiatives only to see them gutted. Representative Al Williams remarked “Whether you end up paying on the front end or the back end, it’s going to cost you.

According to Georgia’s constitution, budget bills must originate in the House of Representatives. The first bill to make its way through the House will be the FY-2020 amended budget, followed by a second bill containing the FY-2021 budget.

“All Politics is Local”

Emory Lavista Parent Council

ELPC & Peachtree Gateway Parent Council Legislative Forum

This week I joined several of my Dekalb colleagues to provide a legislative update at a joint meeting of the Emory LaVista Parents Council and the Peachtree Gateway Council on Schools to talk to parents around the district about education. Teacher salaries, testing waivers, dyslexia services, portable classroom conditions, and dual enrollment cuts were just a few of the topics we covered.

I also attended the Georgia Department of Transportation’s public information meeting in Chamblee about the top-end 285 toll lanes project which impacts most of my district. There I viewed a video animation of what the entire project will look like from west (Paces Ferry Road) up 400 north (North Springs) to east (Henderson Road). I was struck by the enormity of the project and the lack of long-term vision. We must eventually work toward traffic solutions that do not cater to single occupancy cars. I will have more about this issue in later “Snapshots.”

“Be True to Your Values”

Yellow Card

My yellow values card guides my decisions during my time in the Senate

Next week, as the session begins in earnest, I will start rolling out my legislative agenda which is rooted in my core values — my trusty yellow card that I keep on my Senate desk — and based on feedback from you. The bills I’ll be filing are aimed at increasing access to affordable healthcare, improving education opportunities for all, and protecting our children and our earth.

I’m excited to share more details with you in the weeks ahead.