Tuesday is Sine Die

The last day of the 40-day legislative session is called Sine Die, Latin for “without a day,” meaning that the body adjourns without appointing a day to return. Sine Die is the trickiest day of the session, as bills sent over to the House begin returning back to the Senate with changes made, and the Senate must quickly vote to “agree or disagree” to those changes. It’s a perfect time to slip something controversial into a bill in hopes that no one will notice.

Georgia’s legislature is set up as a Biennium, or two year process. All bills introduced this year automatically roll over and can still be passed next year.

The Man Behind the Curtain

In previous Snapshots, I’ve mentioned the forces that influence the legislative process. But I haven’t talked much about one of the most powerful — Georgia’s Governor.

I have not seen Governor Kemp since the beginning of the session, but for the last few weeks, I’ve very much felt his presence. The Governor is the driving force behind a number of bills that advance his agenda, and his House and Senate floor leaders work to make that happen.

National Association of Women’s Business Owners

Welcoming our guest speaker from the National Association of Women’s Business Owners to the Women’s Legislative Caucus weekly meeting with co-Chair, Rep. Pam Dickerson

This week, I personally bumped up against the Governor’s agenda more than any other time in the session. I watched the Chair of the Higher Ed Committee act on behalf of the Governor by passing a bill out of Committee that had huge unresolved issues, cutting Georgia’s popular Dual Enrollment program (fortunately the bill was tabled on the Senate floor). The Chair of the Public Safety Committee told me that the Governor wouldn’t let him hold a hearing on my Campus Carry repeal bill. And throughout the week, we waited to hear whether Governor Kemp and Speaker Ralston would be able to whip enough votes in the House to pass HB481, the 6-week abortion ban. Sadly, this bill passed 92 to 78. Earlier in the session, the Governor pushed the voting machine bill, and though we defeated school vouchers on the floor of the Senate, the Governor’s voucher bill has been attached to another bill that’s on the Senate calendar for Sine Die.

The only force more powerful than the Governor is you — your voice and your vote. Imagine the impact of picking up 15 more House seats! Continue to put pressure on Senator Albers to advance SB50 to repeal Campus Carry. Write postcards to the Governor letting him know you want better gun safety laws in Georgia. The work doesn’t stop because the legislative session is over. Continue to BE LOUD on issues important to you.

We’re Feeling the Heat!

At 4am Monday morning, my family awoke to the red lights of fire trucks and a dozen firemen running up my neighbor’s driveway. Thankfully no one was hurt and the fire was contained. But it was one of those life experiences you never want to have.

Dual Enrollment Bill

Expressing concerns about a new version of the Dual Enrollment bill that we were given at the start of the meeting

The scene at the Capitol was not much less chaotic. Not only did we feel the heat from the Governor, but committees and local governments raced to get bills passed before the end of our final full week. Bill substitutes and amendments were drafted at warp speed as last minute bill changes were made.

I was especially busy this week working to get local legislation for counties and cities in my district to the finish line. The week ended with marathon chamber sessions. Normally, we consider anywhere from three to 15 bills per day, but on Friday, day 39, we had 50 bills on the schedule!

Dealings with the DeKalb Delegation

DeKalb County Charter: Members of DeKalb’s Delegation joined DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond for an executive order signing ceremony to start DeKalb’s charter review process. It’s been a long time since DeKalb’s charter has been reviewed. Now a 17-member Charter Review Commission will conduct a thorough review of DeKalb’s governance model and service delivery.

Digging Deeper into Procurement: This week I filed SB 264, designed to make DeKalb’s procurement process more transparent by changing how procurement rules are set. Currently, the DeKalb CEO has the sole authority to set procurement rules; SB264 allows the Commission a voice in the process. A similar law to enhance procurement oversight passed in 2015, but a voter referendum was never held. The DeKalb Commission recently passed a resolution 6-0, with one abstention, in favor of a new effort for enhanced oversight. Once the bill is signed and approved by members of the DeKalb delegation, it will be on the Presidential primary ballot for DeKalb voters to approve.

Elena Parent and Sally Harrell

A quick pow wow with Senator Elena Parent in the Senate chamber

Dug-In About Ethics: The DeKalb House and Senate delegations worked to pass a bill to re-establish DeKalb’s Board of Ethics after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the 2016 Ethics law unconstitutional. Early this session, the Senate delegation unanimously passed SB 7, a strong bill that addressed the concerns that the Ethics board should be appointed by elected officials rather than private groups. But the bill did not fare well in the House delegation and they ultimately passed a much weaker version. Negotiations are now underway to strengthen the bill again. I will not support a weak Ethics bill.

Something Fishy in Fulton

Do Fish Vote in Roswell? I got a surprise this week when I learned  that a tiny part of the City of Roswell extends into Senate District 40. It happens to be underwater in the middle of the Chattahoochee River, but it officially means that I have a vote in the Roswell delegation, the 10th city in my district. Senator John Albers, who represents most of Roswell, asked me to sign a bill increasing Roswell’s hotel/motel tax. I decided to leverage my new fish constituency to do some horsetrading. I told Sen. Albers, who is also Chair of the Public Safety Committee where SB50, my Campus carry repeal bill, was assigned, that I would sign the bill if he agreed to hold a hearing on SB50. To my dismay, he told me that Governor Kemp wouldn’t let him hold a hearing. After some intense negotiation, he finally agreed to help me get the Lt. Governor on board with a study committee on Campus Carry. We’ll just have to hold him to his word. If only the fish in the Chattahoochee could help.

Fulton Industrial Boulevard: The Fulton County delegation spent hours intensely debating whether the unincorporated Fulton Industrial district should be annexed into the city of Atlanta or the city of South Fulton, an issue that’s been contested for years. Because of two North Fulton precincts in SD 40, I had a vote in this debate. In the end, I supported annexing the area into the city of South Fulton. It came down to the schools in the area, which are currently being served by Fulton County Schools. While the City of Atlanta promised not to grab $10M of revenue from Fulton County Schools by annexing the area into Atlanta, I felt this issue needed to be resolved.

Pages

I enjoyed having Sam Veith and William Duncan from Senate District 40 serve as Senate pages this week

What About Brookhaven & Chamblee? Both Brookhaven & Chamblee residents will have the opportunity to vote on whether they want some homestead exemption property tax relief. Also, Brookhaven’s voters will have the opportunity in 2019 to vote on whether or not they want to extend the amount of time mayors can serve from two to three terms. I felt it was important for voters to weigh in on this decision through a referendum, as the original Brookhaven city charter limited the mayor’s service to two terms.

Games in Gwinnett

Gwinnett’s Next MARTA Vote, 2026?!: It’s common knowledge that you can impact the outcome of a referendum by choosing an election date with low voter turnout. This is why Gwinnett’s MARTA vote was held in March of 2019. Now, the Republican members of the Gwinnett delegation (Kirby, Barr, Rich, Efstration, Harrell & Clark) want to ban any more MARTA referendums until 2026. And they did this by amending a simple little GDOT bill, SB200. How’s that for progress, Gwinnett? Vote them OUT in 2020!

Come Visit!

If you are able, please come visit the Capitol on Sine Die, Tuesday, April 2! We’ll start the day at 10 am and we’ll most likely still be voting late into the evening. You can watch from the 4th floor balcony. Let me know you’re there by sending a page note to me from the 3rd floor rope area. I’ll come out and say hi.

Do We Deliberate or Rubber Stamp?

I’ve always loved the idea of Georgia’s part-time citizen legislature. Our legislators serve for three months and then go home to resume their respective careers. This allows for a diverse group of people with everyday life experiences — farmers, funeral home directors, grocery store owners, car salesmen, real estate agents, doctors, etc. — to work together for the people of Georgia.

Answering constituent questions with Representative Mike Wilensky at the Dunwoody Town Hall meeting

But the limited session means we’re always racing toward a deadline, be it Crossover Day or Sine Die, the last of our 40-day session. Bills are rushed. Mistakes are made. Debate and amendments are discouraged. Our bicameral legislature, designed to provide two distinct sets of fresh eyes to improve bills, suddenly becomes a rubber stamp. Other forces like gerrymandering — drawing district lines for partisan gains — create safe seats and give rise to extreme points of view as elections are decided in primaries. It hijacks our ability to compromise and ultimately forces us to focus on the most divisive issues rather than those that make people’s everyday lives better. We saw both of these dynamics come together in HB481, the 6-week abortion ban, which was neither a welcome nor well-thought out bill.

The good news is that good government is in our hands. We can continue to perfect our imperfect system through the legislative process, like The Democracy Act that seeks to reform our redistricting process, or by changing the people that make up the legislature at the ballot box. This session and this week demonstrated more than ever that we have some serious work to do in 2020 to reclaim our government to make it work better for all of us.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

My Senate colleagues and I were proud to wear white in honor those that fought for women’s rights before us

The floor debate on HB481, the 6-week abortion ban, scheduled for Friday loomed large and we met several times throughout the week to plan the Democratic response. The ladies of the Senate decided to wear white to honor those that fought for women’s rights before us. I focused my floor speech on what I learned during my campaign — many voters, even those who are staunchly pro-life, can agree on maintaining what Senator Jen Jordan called the “uneasy truce” of our current abortion laws. And if we are to be truly pro-life, we must do much more to feed, house, educate, and provide healthcare for Georgia’s mothers and children. The four-hour emotional debate and vote was a tough way to end the week.

Nearly every meeting leading up to Friday reminded me of the rush to the finish line with only a handful of days left in this year’s session. Too many bills are being rushed through. But the citizen advocates that were at the Capitol throughout the week bringing their personal experiences and expertise to impact policy were much-needed reminders of why we do this work, despite all the challenges.

Mandatory Recess: The Senate Education and Youth Committee finally voted on HB83, a bill that seeks to require recess for grades K-5. You would think that a bill this simple would be easy to pass, but I worked hard on this issue my last year in the House only to have it fail in the very last hour of my very last day in office. Rep. Demetrius Douglas has tried to pass this bill for the last three years. This current version is not perfect — it’s not what I tried to pass and it’s not what Rep. Douglas started with. It’s gone through lots of changes and compromises along the way. While I would have loved more time and opportunity to amend the bill, a wise and experienced Republican colleague reminded me that sometimes we have to start with the imperfect as a first step in order to get to a better bill later. With the help of some citizen advocates, including two fifth graders who came to testify, the bill passed the Committee. I look forward to voting for it when it comes to the Senate floor.

Panel discussion at the Indivisible Sixth District Town Hall meeting Sunday evening

Protecting Georgia’s Shoreline: Serving on the Natural Resources & Environment Committee has allowed me to delve into studying many of Georgia’s environmentally diverse challenges. Thanks to HB445, I found out that a groin means something very different to shoreline protection than it does in other contexts, and beach nourishment isn’t about protecting native habitat! HB445 amends Georgia’s Shoreline Protection Act to give private homeowners along Georgia’s coast more control over land along the shore. And it provides a special exception to an area of Sea Island where a project is already underway to build high-end homes. Environmentalists strongly objected to these changes, arguing that current regulations are necessary to protect our eroding shoreline and that the Sea Island provision would set a dangerous precedent for other areas along the coast. The Democrats agreed with the Environmental community, voting against the bill and filing a minority report, which puts the minority dissenting opinion on the official record. The bill passed the Committee and will be on the Senate floor soon.

Ambulance Services: The Ethics Committee discussed HB264, a bill to improve oversight of the state’s ambulance services. I became aware of this issue during my campaign, as slow ambulance response has been a major issue for Dunwoody. Ambulance services are managed by the Division of Public Health and regional Boards throughout the state. When I originally researched this issue, I was troubled to see that the regional Boards were heavy on people in the private ambulance industry, which could lead to major conflicts of interest. HB264 inserts more transparency into the process by requiring anyone who lobbies the regional boards to register as a lobbyist. I would have loved more time to study the bill and think about other ways to improve the system. But like with all of the other Committees, we were pressed to take action on the bill as is and it passed the Committee.

After the meeting, I met Ellen Sims from Madison, Georgia who testified in the House hearing on HB264. Her mother tragically died from an allergic reaction to a wasp sting because the ambulance took 28 minutes to respond. She was with her 12 year old granddaughter at the time who called the police, but then had to watch her grandmother slip away because of the poor response time. It’s always an honor to meet people like Ellen who work to turn their personal tragedy into better policy for others.

The Capitol police beefed up security in anticipation of the emotional debate on HB481

Gun Safety: I had two great meetings this week with citizen advocates working to prevent gun violence. Jeff Binkley, of Dunwoody, started Maura’s Voice, a new organization that will conduct and compile research and offer assistance to lawmakers to create effective policies on gun violence and violence against women in honor of his Jeff’s daughter, Maura, who was shot and killed in the hot yoga studio shooting in Tallahassee. Jeff educated us on red flag laws and the need for better profile standards and training for law enforcement and mental health workers to identify potentially violent men. Men who commit gun violence against women are not necessarily mentally ill as defined by the mental health community. They are more likely to have social disorders and find belonging in like-minded hate groups that radicalize them further. We need the right diagnostic tools to effectively identify dangerous individuals or we will inevitably miss some and unintentionally flag innocent people with mental illness. Researchers at Florida State University are developing an online certification program to train social workers on how to identify potentially violent offenders. Given my Masters in Social Work, Jeff encouraged me to take the course when it’s ready and I very much look forward to that and using that experience to create effective red flag laws for Georgia.

I also met with Kathryn Grant from the Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus. Kathryn will be a terrific resource and partner for the fight to repeal Campus Carry in Georgia. She has been compiling data on gun incidents on college campuses since our Campus Carry law has gone into effect.

Elder Abuse/Domestic Abuse: As we race to the finish line, meetings pop up out of the blue and sometimes it’s hard to find a quorum with competing priorities. Such was the case with our Special Judiciary Committee where the Chairwoman, Senator Jen Jordan, scraped together a quorum to vote for HB247, a bill to enhance penalties for elder abuse, sponsored by Republican Representative Deborah Silcox. But this meeting was worth the last-minute scramble as, much to Rep. Silcox’s surprise, Chairwoman Jordan introduced a significant amendment taken from her domestic violence bill that requires those convicted of domestic abuse to forfeit their guns. Jordan’s bill, which passed unanimously in the Senate Judiciary Committee, stalled in the Rules Committee thanks to pressure from the gun lobby. The all-Democratic Special Judiciary Committee voted unanimously for Chairwoman Jordan’s amendment and for its new vehicle, HB247. It will now head to the Senate Rules Committee.

School Vouchers: The school voucher bill, formerly known as SB173, that would have diverted anywhere from $50 to $450 million per year of public school funding to private schools, was defeated in the Senate just a few weeks ago. But it made a comeback in the Senate Education and Youth Committee as an amendment to HB68, a bill to prohibit certain entities from becoming a school scholarship organization. The amendment scales the program back from the original proposal to make it potentially more palatable to some Republicans that originally voted no on SB173, but we won’t know if it will be palatable enough to pass the full Senate. I know we must do more to help families with children whose needs are not currently being met in our public schools, but we must find solutions that don’t drain our public schools of desperately needed funds. I plan to vote no on HB68 when it comes to the Senate floor.

Extending Hope: The Higher Education Committee considered HB218 a bill to extend the time you can use Hope scholarship funding after graduation from 7 to 10 years. This allows for any delays in education due to life circumstances. The bill also excludes military service in the time counted toward Hope scholarship funding. The Committee will vote on this bill along with the dual enrollment bill next week.

Today was an emotionally draining and challenging day for me and for so many women watching in the Senate gallery and online.

We listened to hours of speeches from both sides of the aisle about HB 481, the so-called “Heartbeat Abortion Ban.” You can learn more about the bill here.

If you are pro-choice and pro-women’s right to access reproductive healthcare, this legislation should deeply concern you. When Gov. Kemp signs it, this draconian law will make Georgia one of the most restrictive states for women’s reproductive rights.

Many of us are angry. Let’s use our outrage to a positive end.

Today is a turning point.

Today we commit to voting out every single politician who supported this bill.

And today, I warned Republican Senators what to expect.

The text of my speech in the Senate this afternoon is below. Keep it and remember.

The campaign to get these Senators and Representatives out of office begins… today.

–Sally

 

Sen. Sally Harrell’s (D-40) Remarks Before Georgia Senate

March 22, 2019

Click to view the video

There’s no better way to learn about the electorate than to go door-to-door canvassing. And I did a lot of that during my campaign.

Mostly, I just had friendly, neighborly conversations. But there’s one visit that really stands out in my memory.

The woman who answered the door was about my age: a mom, a teacher, a Catholic. She disclosed to me that she had historically supported Republicans.

I told her about my stance on healthcare, on public education, and on traffic congestion. She had me shake hands with her disabled son, and I shared with her my history of advocating for people with disabilities.

I could tell she wanted to support me, but something was holding her back.

She finally said that she had never supported a Democrat because of the abortion issue.  But recently, she didn’t feel like she could support Republicans.

And there I stood — a Democrat knocking on her door.

So, we talked about abortion. I explained to her how if Republicans were in charge, she could likely see major changes.

She shared that what she really wanted was for abortion laws to stay the same. She didn’t want to increase access, but she also didn’t want decrease access. Then, she paused. Could politicians focus on other issues instead of abortion, she asked?

Yes, I said. I could support that.

You see, what I learned in canvassing was that in my district, it’s not enough anymore to be pro-guns or pro-life, to get traditionally Republican votes. The old rules don’t apply anymore. People’s views have changed.

That mother I spoke with could see how deeply we are failing mothers and children in Georgia. How our infrastructure and limited resources are resulting in the preventable deaths of women who WANT to be mothers.

But, I don’t see Republicans fully addressing this issue. Most new mothers lose their Medicaid coverage 6 months post-partum. Maternal deaths continue to spike in the second six months following childbirth, after they’ve lost their Medicaid.

You see, people know the difference between being pro-life and just anti-abortion; between supporting mothers and babies by providing access to healthcare; and punishing women for the decisions they make.

People recognize when laws are being pushed that play only to the most extreme views.

Perhaps the woman I spoke with might agree with Benedictine nun Sister Joan Chittister, who said;

I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born, but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed.”

She continues, “And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth.

My voters have asked me: Why are Republicans not expanding Medicaid when our hospitals need the revenue to keep their doors open?

Why are we keeping Medicaid reimbursement rates so low doctors don’t want to participate?

Why are we not adequately funding our public schools?

Why do we spend less money on people with disabilities than almost any other state in the nation?

Why are Republicans so unconcerned that HB 481 could result in even FEWER doctors in our state available to deliver babies and care for pregnant women?

Well, I think increasing numbers of Georgia’s voters, especially female voters, are beginning to wonder the same thing. And thank God, women are voting and running for office more than they ever have before.

I am here because I answered a call. So is Senator Karinshak. So is Senator Jordan. So is Senator Williams.

And come 2020, there will be more. And this bill — this hurtful, insensitive, not well thought-out bill, is going to help elect more women who will enact policies that prevent women from dying in childbirth, and who will ensure that Georgia’s children are fed, housed and educated.

Vote yes for this bill, and we’ll come for your seat. Because that’s how democracy works!

It’s time for another Town Hall! Please join Representative Mike Wilensky and me at Dunwoody City Hall on Tuesday, March 19 at 6:00 pm.

Sharing an update on the legislative session with Representative Matthew Wilson at our Brookhaven town hall meeting

Thank you to everyone who came out to the Town Hall in Brookhaven with Representative Matthew Wilson. It’s great to see so much interest in what’s happening at the Gold Dome.

Courage, Conflict & Conscience

We are three-quarters the way through the 2019 legislative session, and we have 75% of the work left to finish. This is the time when arm-twisting runs rampant. It is during times like this that I pull out my copy of John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage” and re-read Section One, in which Kennedy outlines the various Senatorial pressures.

Kennedy explains how post-election, the legislator’s constituency expands to include all voters (including those outside the circle of support), legislative colleagues, Party leadership, state-wide special interest groups, corporate interests, and local governments. Needless to say, these constituencies don’t always agree, and as legislators we must figure out how to negotiate these conflicting interests. Kennedy describes how the pressure to “go along to get along,” can cause the legislator to subdue the conscience, and unfortunately, many do. Others choose paths of compromise, and a few march out alone and face not getting re-elected. Courage and arm twisting are the oil and water of politics. Ultimately, I believe that in the end, a legislator must vote his or her own conscience, but remaining true to this under pressure is challenging. That’s why I have my yellow values card!

On another lighter note, and speaking of legislative colleagues, did you know the Georgia Senate has its own John F. Kennedy? He’s a Republican, and he’s from Macon, Georgia.

Case Study of Conflicting Constituencies

Voting machines still dominated my work this week. But other tough issues came up too.

 

Speaking at the Senate well against HB316

Voting Machines: The debate over voting machines has been a clear example of the conflict between constituencies and conscience. Since HB316 came to the Senate, I personally shared my concerns in meaningful conversations with some of my Republican colleagues and found they had some concerns too. Some worried about the costs and a few didn’t like the systems that scanned a barcode instead of the text on the paper ballot printouts. The Lt. Governor told us he supported an open floor debate when we met with him early in the week. I wrote my floor speech with my Republican colleagues in mind. I wanted to share my own initial reservations about handmarked paper ballots but how in the end, my extensive research showed that the electronic ballot marking devices were too new, largely untested, and not ready for such a large contract. I wanted to appeal to their conscience instead of putting their faith in a system being pushed by the Governor, the Secretary of State, and their preferred vendor.

But going into the floor debate, we knew which constituency had won out. Any doubts my Republican colleagues had suddenly disappeared. The bill was “engrossed” which meant we wouldn’t be allowed to offer any amendments from the floor. At my urging, the Democratic caucus took a strong collective stand against HB361. Minority Leader Steve Henson invoked the Senate rule that requires a fiscal note, a detailed analysis of costs, that is required for any bill with a major impact on our state budget. But the Lt. Governor ruled it not necessary because some money was already allocated in the Governor’s amended budget. Sen. Henson also moved to table the bill to give us more time to get a fiscal note and understand the full cost ramifications, but the motion failed with a party line vote. We made our floor speeches and answered some tough questions. But in the end, it was clear that the Republicans were going to vote with their party and preferred vendor and the bill passed along party lines. The House passed and amended the bill after a very similar debate and party line vote. And now the Secretary of State has already issued an RFP, even though the Governor has not yet signed the bill into law.

Honoring Community Servants: It was nice to get a mid-week reprieve from contentious bills and partisan politics at the Women’s Legislative Caucus Nikki T. Randall Servant Leadership Awards breakfast. Later in the Day, Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) held a reception for the Women’s Caucus that included a program about human trafficking. Representative Shelly Hutchinson, a social worker, and Senator Renee Unterman, a social worker and nurse, spoke about their experiences with victims of human trafficking in Georgia. It was eye opening and upsetting, but the Women’s Caucus resolved to take this on together as a bipartisan issue in the future. GPB committed to support the effort with a televised event on the issue.

The Shellfish Bill Got Contentious!: Believe it or not, shellfish came up again in the Natural Resources & Environment Committee and it was not peaceful! While the bill to allow for mariculture, aka shellfish farming, along the Georgia coast passed the Senate with very little debate, a similar bill, HB501 passed the House, but not without significant conflict. That conflict spilled into the Senate Natural Resources and the Environment Committee this week as we considered the House bill. We watched quite a debate between the bill author and a Representative from coastal Georgia who opposed the bill. At issue was the amount of time mariculturalists can farm along the coast in a year. It was a conflict between food safety and economic interests. I ultimately voted against the bill so the conflict could be resolved, but it passed the Committee. It will now go to the Senate Rules Committee and then the Senate floor.

 

Asking questions about HB444, the Dual Enrollment bill, in the Higher Education Committee meeting

Dual Enrollment: Participation in Georgia’s dual enrollment program, a state-funded opportunity for high school students to earn high school and college credit at the same time from a Georgia college, has grown approximately 500% in the last few years. Both of my kids benefitted from dual enrollment so I was very glad to be able to work on HB444. The bill would limit program funding to 30 credit hours per student and anything beyond that could be covered by tapping into the 127 credit hours allocated to eligible students for Hope scholarship funding. The bill also makes ninth and tenth graders ineligible for the academic program and ninth graders ineligible for the technical school program. In the meeting, I learned that the grade limitations are not for financial reasons but because of maturity concerns.

While we need to address the budget, I’m not in favor of grade level limitations. Dual enrollment has been a great solution for gifted kids who need more challenging curricula than what their high schools offer. Maturity should be based on individual students and a decision that parents, not the government, should make. But the popularity of dual enrollment is a symptom of the larger college affordability issue. Dual enrollment allows kids to get a head start on their college degree without having to dig deep in their pockets. We must take on the high cost of education and low wages that makes college out of reach for far too many.

I will be offering amendments to HB444 when the Higher Education Committee meets to vote on the bill next week. And I’ll be pushing for solutions for the larger problem of college affordability.

Handmaids at the Capitol protesting HB481, the bill to ban abortion after 6-weeks of pregnancy

“Heartbeat” Abortion Ban: There were handmaids in the halls of the Capitol this week, as doctors, pro-choice and pro-life citizen advocates came to lobby for and against the most contentious bill of the session — HB481, a bill to ban abortion after 6 weeks of pregnancy. On Thursday, the Science and Technology Committee heard 45 minutes of testimony for the bill and nearly 90 minutes of testimony against it. Those testifying against the bill were largely doctors, nurses, and public health officials that said that the bill’s definition of “life” conflicted with that of all major medical association and medical training. They said it would not allow them to provide the standard of care that they are trained to offer. They were highly concerned that the bill would dissuade medical professionals from practicing in Georgia when Georgia already has the highest maternal mortality rate in the country and 80 Georgia counties have no practicing ob-gyns. The bill will get a vote in Committee next week and will go on to the Senate Rules Committee. Here’s your opportunity to BE LOUD. Call the Senate Rules Committee and tell them whether you think this bill deserves a floor vote.

Announcements:

I am sad to report that my secretary, Anna Boggs, has been out for the past two weeks to care for her elderly mother who has had some health concerns. We’ve missed her during her absence and we are not sure when she will be back.

In the meantime, we welcome Senate Aide Peter Tilly. Peter is young (19!) and very talented. He has been helping us catch up with items we may have missed while we were understaffed.

You can reach Peter at my Senate office number (404) 463-2260 or by email peter.tilly@senate.ga.gov for page requests and other needs. We appreciate your patience with us during this transition.

Coming Up: Town Halls!

Thursday, March 14, please join Representative Matthew Wilson, House District 80, and me for a community town hall meeting in Brookhaven at 6:00 pm at Brookhaven City Hall.

On Tuesday, March 19, please join Representative Mike Wilensky, House District 79, and me for a community town hall meeting in Dunwoody at 6:00 pm at Dunwoody City Hall.

What Came Up and What Went Down This Week

Talking about our gun violence epidemic with Maura Binkley’s friends at the Atlanta launch of Maura’s Voice

Turning Pain into Power: Monday morning I attended the launch of Maura’s Voice, a research & public policy initiative founded by Dunwoody constituents Jeff and Margaret Binkley, to honor their daughter Maura who was killed last fall in a Tallahassee yoga studio shooting. In the words of Jeff Binkley, Maura’s Voice was founded “ . . . to foster positive cultural change so that we can effectively address the entirely unacceptable epidemic levels of violence in our society.”

The Atlanta event was one of several around the country. A small and intimate group of Dunwoody neighbors, elected officials, and Maura’s friends gathered in the park across from the Capitol to commemorate this new organization and to celebrate Maura, who would have turned 22 years old that day. I got a little choked up as I acknowledged to Maura’s friends that they are part of a generation of kids who have grown up traumatized by gun violence, and that it is not their responsibility to fix it – it is ours.

The rest of the week reflected this event — a mix of ups and downs. Crossover Day — the deadline by which bills must pass in one chamber of the legislature to move to the other in order to be passed this year — brought an array of bills in both the House and Senate. We were able to pass some good bills and defeat some bad ones. But we also saw some bad bills pass while many good ones will have to wait until next year for another fighting chance.

The ups lifted our spirits while the downs strengthened our resolve to keep fighting.

Legislative Tricks as the Clock Ticks: Following Crossover Day, you might think bills that don’t make it out of their chamber are dead for the session. But it’s possible to get creative about turning ideas into laws without an original bill number. Commonly referred to as “vehicles,” legislators look for another bill that is in the same code section (so that it is “germane”), and they “link” their bill to another as an amendment. In fact, this can happen so often that they say a bill can become a “Christmas Tree,” carrying lots of ornaments it didn’t have when it started. I’ve even seen bills get “hijacked” — totally stripped of the original content and transformed into another bill previously thought “dead.” If you are tracking bills by number, keep an eye out – they may turn up under a completely different number before the session is over.

Gerrymandering & Pre-Existing Conditions:  Senator Elena Parent demonstrated this technique to us on Crossover Day when she introduced part of SR52 (The Democracy Act), as an amendment to a bill that shared a code section. While her amendment didn’t pass, she very much got the attention of our colleagues as she introduced the amendment at the well. And the Republicans who voted against it each cast a vote in support of gerrymandering (think 2020). Senator Jen Jordan did the same when she added an amendment to an insurance bill that dealt with short-term policies and pre-existing conditions. Her amendment, which she had tried for two years to pass as a bill, did pass, because Republicans figured out they should not cast a vote to legalize the denial of treatment for pre-existing conditions. It was fascinating to watch these legislators scurry around trying to figure out how to vote!

Asking tough questions at the Senate Ethics Committee meeting on new voting machines in Georgia

Voting Machines: The beginning of my week centered on HB316, a bill that seeks to address some of our election issues, including voter roll purges and Georgia’s exact match policy. I spent the prior weekend educating myself on the most controversial part of the bill — which kind of voting system Georgia will use for the next decade. On Monday and Tuesday I listened to public comments during the Senate Ethics Subcommittee on Elections meetings and on Tuesday evening, I attended Fair Fight Georgia’s hearing on voting machines. Those meetings reinforced that we have a lot of trust to regain with Georgia voters.

On Wednesday, the Chairwoman of the Senate Ethics Committee substituted a new bill for the bill the House passed and presented this bill to the committee. We were expected to vote on this bill at the end of the meeting, although we had not seen the changes to the bill before. Since HB316 already passed the House, it was not under the Crossover Day deadline so there was no reason to rush this very important discussion. Even so, I offered several amendments to try to improve HB316, including one that would ensure we buy a system that has a 100 percent human-readable ballot. Some companies provide a paper ballot that prints a list of who you voted for, but also embeds your votes in a barcode that is then read by the machine. That same amendment unanimously passed last year when the Senate considered new voting machines, but this year it failed along party lines. Overall, I fought hard, asked hard questions, and pointed out falsehoods during that meeting, but the bill passed along party lines. It will go on to the Senate Rules Committee next.

Being interviewed by WSB TV’s Richard Elliot just after the Senate Ethics Committee

School Vouchers: While I was extremely frustrated with the process to consider HB316, I was relieved by the defeat of SB173, a bill that would have redirected anywhere from $48 to $540 million per year of public school funds into private school vouchers. This bill would have been so damaging to our public school system, especially after 16 years of severe underfunding, that a number Republican Senators abstained from voting and some even joined the Democrats to vote no. And while I was glad to see this bill voted down, I feel deeply for families whose children’s needs are not being met in our public school and are unable to afford the high price of specialized private schools. When we consider education policy, it is critical to recognize what isn’t working about our schools and remain open-minded to creative solutions instead of always sticking with the public school status quo.

Campus Carry Repeal: My goal for SB50, the Campus Carry Repeal, is to make enough noise that we get a public hearing by the end of this year’s session. Now that Crossover Day is over, we’ll continue our push. This week I met with March for Our Lives Georgia’s Co-Legislative Directors to discuss how they can help advance the bill. March for Our Lives is the student-led movement created in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. I so enjoyed meeting with these leaders who brought their ideas about how to get students engaged. SB50 has been referred to the Public Safety First Responders Subcommittee so I encouraged them, as I do all of you, to contact the subcommittee Chair Senator Tyler Harper, (404) 463-5263, and Public Safety Committee Chair Senator John Albers, (404) 463-8055, to ask for a public hearing for SB50.

The highlight of my week — being silly with one of my youngest campaign supporters during his visit to the Senate Chamber

Crossover Day “Ups”:

  • HB426, a bill that would increase penalties for hate crimes in Georgia, passed the House. Interestingly, we passed a Hate Crimes bill in 2000  when I served in the House, but it was rejected by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2004 for being “unconstitutionally vague. Since then, a large coalition of social justice organizations have fought for new legislation but their efforts have stalled for various reasons. I would be proud to vote for a “real” Hate Crimes bill on the floor of the Senate!
  • HB83, the House version of the mandatory recess bill similar to the one I sponsored during my time in the House, passed. As is often the case when a bill begins in one chamber, this bill needs some improvements which we will work on in the Senate Education and Youth Committee. I’m very hopeful we’ll be able to pass an amended version of the bill in the Senate.
  • HB198, a bill that would eliminate Georgia’s certificate of need process to regulate health services and costs, stalled in the House and did not cross over. This bill would have opened up the market to specialized health centers which would attract profitable customers but leave the uninsured to our hospitals which would have a devastating financial impact on our already struggling hospitals. Even though this bill did not pass, parts of it could come back using another bill as a “vehicle”, or as a “hijacked” bill, so we must continue to watch this closely.

Crossover Day “Downs”:

  • HB481, a bill to ban abortion after 6 weeks of pregnancy, passed the House after a very intense and emotional debate on Thursday night. House Democrats fought hard against the bill which not only denies women the right to make their own healthcare choices, but requires survivors of rape and incest to file charges before they can seek an abortion. This just isn’t possible for so many sexual crime victims as they are often related to or reliant on their abusers. Unfortunately we’ll now have to fight this bill in the Senate. For those that oppose this bill, be prepared to BE LOUD. Call Senator Renee Unterman, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee (404) 463-1368, the committee that will take up this bill.
  • SB131, a bill to create a state authority to oversee the Atlanta airport, passed the Senate. This debate on the need for greater state oversight on our largest airport has raged for many years for many reasons. The bill passed and will now be considered in the House.

Vista Grove & Persistence: I know many of my constituents are interested in the status of the Vista Grove cityhood effort with Crossover Day behind us. Organizers were at the Capitol early in the week to lobby for HB 575, a bill to incorporate their area of DeKalb. But later in the week, Gwinnett County Representative Timothy Barr decided to remove his name as the bill sponsor because Committee rules require local bills to be sponsored by legislators that represent that area. But that does not mean that the work to determine what’s best for the Vista Grove area will stop. DeKalb County is about to launch a study with the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute to examine service delivery responsibilities between cities in DeKalb and the county to make sure that all areas in DeKalb are receiving adequate service levels from the county and are paying appropriately for those services. This will help DeKalb legislators do our due diligence and residents of the Vista Grove area make better decisions around this issue.

One of the things Democrats and Republicans can all agree on is that Georgia’s voting machines need to be replaced. They were purchased in 2002 and use a Windows 2000 operating system. Windows 2000 is so old, Microsoft doesn’t support it any more! What’s more, these old clunkers don’t even provide a paper trail for recounts and audits.

But what has become a partisan issue is the tools we use to assist in casting and counting our votes. Democrats want hand-marked ballots. Republicans want machine-marked ballots.

As a new Senator, I have heard from many of my constituents in Senate 40 that voting integrity is a key issue. So, I requested and was appointed to serve on the Senate Ethics Committee, which handles voting legislation.

I now find myself in the crossfire of cyber security experts, vendor lobbyists, the Office of the Secretary of State, and voting integrity advocates. All of these groups are trying to influence a $150 million dollar decision on which tools we will use to vote for at least the next decade.

At the center of the debate is HB316, a 41 page bill that combines both Republican and Democrat initiatives. In addition to voting machines, it addresses many of the failures of the 2018 elections: voters being purged from the rolls; absentee ballots being thrown out for “mismatched” signatures; voters turned away because the spelling of names didn’t exactly match official records; polling places that were suspiciously closed with little notice; and too few machines in certain areas, leading to long lines to vote.

HB316 contains some real improvements; it also enables the Secretary of State’s office to purchase what they see as “cutting edge” voting technology. You’d think that the new technology would be the most accurate and reliable, right?

Not always.

I’ve heard from many experts on this issue who say we can’t guarantee that your vote will be accurately recorded if machines are used.

HB316 is said to be one of the most important pieces of legislation for consideration this year. So, in an effort to do my homework on the bill, I spent my weekend educating myself on voting machine systems. It wasn’t the most exciting way to spend a weekend, but I’ve learned a great deal.

The new systems have what Georgia voters want — a printed, paper ballot that contains the names of all of the people and measures that you selected. This paper ballot becomes the official ballot, securely stored and used in random audits. Sounds great, right?

Except, there’s a pretty significant loophole…a scanner reads a barcode at the top of your ballot instead of the names you just checked. In other words, your votes are embedded in a barcode that you can’t read.

Though that’s the most egregious flaw, the more I researched, the more I found aspects of electronic voting that I found concerning.

Paper ballots are only summary representations — not the complete ballot. The thermal paper ballots that the machines print fades over time. Some electronic systems are not federally certified. Some machines have complicated ballot layouts that require huge, 32-inch screens. And some counting devices (scanners) are built in to the voting machines, which cyber security experts say poses a threat to security.

My takeaway is we won’t fix our election system if we spend $150 million on what’s described as the “latest and greatest” technology. And as expense goes up, security goes down.

On the other hand, on-demand ballot printers and scanners for hand-marked ballots look pretty effective and provide a primary source paper trail for use in audits. Initial estimates for hand-marked ballots come in cheaper, around $30 – 60 million. Interestingly, the Secretary of State estimates more than $200 million for paper ballots, but their numbers include huge printing overages that can be eliminated by on-demand printing.

The reality is this: We are going to get the more expensive system because that’s what Governor Kemp wants.

I co-sponsored SB196, which calls for hand-marked ballots, but it hasn’t yet gotten a committee hearing and we are running of out of time in this legislative session.

Ironically, as a member of the Ethics Committee voting on this legislation, even I, a member of the minority party, got asked out to dinner by one of the voting machine vendors. Unlike many of my peers across the aisle, I turned the invitation down.

I have my work cut out for me during the next few weeks as this debate rages on. I will do my homework and ask the hard questions. I will agitate. I will point out falsehoods. But in the end, I will also work to make HB316 a little better, even if I don’t support it in the end.

I won’t let Georgia’s legislators forget that elections are about people. Elections are the sacred guardians of the people’s choice. And no matter how amazing technology is, machines can’t replace people in ensuring free and fair elections.

The Importance of Persistence

Last year, a campaign volunteer made me a bracelet bearing the famous phrase “Nevertheless, she persisted.” This week, I wore that bracelet to the Capitol because I knew we were in for a tough week.

Challenging Senator Tillary on the Senate floor about the false narrative that Medicaid is “broken”

Being part of the minority party is much more challenging than being in the majority like I was during my time in the House. We’re playing defense, which requires teamwork and strategic thought. This week I worked hard to draft amendments to improve some bills, and spoke with colleagues — Democrats and Republicans — to gain their support. Despite all that work, many times it comes down to pure numbers and we can’t change or stop bills we oppose, like the voting machine bill in the House and the Medicaid bill in the Senate. And now we have a discriminatory, business-killing “religious freedom” bill in the Senate and two abortion bills in the House. There are so many fires to fight.

But the week ended with a great reminder that persistence pays off. When I was in the House, I worked hard on a bill to require mandatory recess in schools. The energy release during free play time is so important for child development and learning. Unfortunately, my bill didn’t pass. But late this week, I learned that the Senate Education and Youth Committee was considering a mandatory recess bill, SB210, similar to mine. I notified Dr. Olga Jarrett, a national researcher and expert on the benefits of children’s play, and asked her to come the next morning to testify. The bill passed unanimously out of committee and I’m hopeful it will get through both chambers and become law this year.

Sometimes bills sail through the General Assembly. And sometimes they take years to pass. Sometimes we’ll have influence and sometimes we won’t. We have to remember that we’re playing a long game. And so, we must persist.

Persisting this Week

Legislators representing Gwinnett County held a press conference to urging Gwinnett residents to vote for the MARTA referendum

Some of the craziness at the Capitol right now can be explained by the “Crossover Day” deadline, March 7, which is the day a bill must pass one chamber in order to cross over to the other chamber and be passed this year. If a bill misses the deadline, it has to wait until next year for consideration. New bills are popping up everywhere, as are Committee meetings, to consider the bills. This week I spent time on a wide range of bills — everything from big picture state issues like Medicaid and voting machines, in-district issues like municipalization and annexation, and even industry and environmental issues like shellfish farming.

Medicaid Expansion: The week began with an intense debate on the Senate floor about SB106, the Governor’s bill to explore very limited Medicaid waiver options. The Senate Democrats fought hard to expand coverage to as many people as possible, but the Republican majority would not consider any amendments. During the floor debate, I took issue with the false narrative that Medicaid is “a broken system” and pointed out that the vast majority of Medicaid recipients are very satisfied with their coverage. Senator Nan Orrock reminded our colleagues that doctors are unsatisfied with Medicaid because reimbursement rates in Georgia are too low. But those reimbursements rates are set by the legislature, so if the system is “broken,” we know who to blame. Unfortunately, the bill passed the Senate.

Vista Grove: Vista Grove is a cityhood effort to incorporate the part of DeKalb where I live. I know many of us are frustrated by the lack of attention our area receives from the county, so last weekend I met with the Vista Grove organizers who have been very persistent in pursuing cityhood, after a similar city proposal was rejected by voters four years ago. Also this week, legislators who make up the DeKalb Delegation met to discuss Vista Grove and other cityhood efforts. When considering new cities, we must look at the big picture both inside and outside the Vista Grove footprint including impacts to the county and surrounding cities. DeKalb County is about to launch a study with the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute to examine service delivery responsibilities between cities in DeKalb and the county to make sure that all areas in DeKalb are receiving adequate service levels from DeKalb and are paying appropriately for those services. This will help legislators do their due diligence when creating new cities and reduce unintended consequences that lead to future disagreements.

Each day, our “Doctor of the Day,” serves as the Senate’s Doctor in residence to take care of medical needs at the Capitol. I had the pleasure of introducing Dr. Donald Siegel, a retired Air Force Colonel, long-time trauma and general surgeon and Senate District 40 constituent

Norcross Annexation: While the DeKalb Delegation discussed municipalization, the Gwinnett Delegation discussed annexation. The city of Norcross wants to annex a large area of Gwinnett that would almost almost double the city’s size. They argue that incorporating that part of Gwinnett, which includes low income communities, could help strengthen the area with more responsive city services and development that could attract business and offer jobs closer to home. It’s a compelling argument for local control, but like cityhood, we must consider the larger issues and impacts to the county. Gwinnett County officials oppose this annexation due to reduced county revenue.

Voting Machines: Again, Democrats are playing defense on this critical issue. Early in the week, House Democrats fought to improve HB316, a 41-page bill that deals with many voting issues.  The bill passed the House and was assigned to the Senate Ethics Committee. Ethics was one of my top Committee choices because I wanted to work on this issue. The bill attempts to address many of 2018 voting issues like voter roll purging, the closing of polling places, and exact name and signature matches, but the heart of the debate is the purchase of new voting machines. Everyone knows the old machines need to go, and there is $150 million in the budget for new machines. But should we stick to hand marked ballots and scanners, as the cyber security experts say we should, or buy the latest and greatness technology because it’s easier to use?

I have co-sponsored SB196, which requires ballots to be hand-marked, but HB316 is moving quickly. Everyone agrees we need an auditable paper trail, but some voting machines print a ballot for you to verify, then scan a barcode to tabulate your vote rather than the list of names you just checked. After an extensive review of all the machines available, I’m concerned that we could spend millions of dollars for the “latest and greatest”, then be very disappointed. I will work hard to try to improve this bill, but in the end I don’t know that I can support buying immature technology with so many potential problems. It’s time to BE LOUD and call the Senate Ethics Committee Chair, Senator Kay Kirkpatrick, (404) 656-3932, and your own Senators and ask them to support an amendment to require printed ballots with no barcodes.

This week I had two young Senate District 40 residents serve as Senate pages on the same day

Shellfish Farming: Yes, I spent a hour this week learning about shellfish farming in coastal waters. In the Natural Resources Committee, we considered SB182, a bill to regulate oyster farming along the Georgia coast. This industry has never been regulated in Georgia before and this new system would establish a way for aqua farmers to lease acreage in intertidal and subtidal waters along the coast and set up their oyster farms. The bill passed out of the Natural Resources Committee and the full Senate and will be heading next to the House.

Creating Citizen Advocates: This weekend, I spoke to the Marching Buddies, a progressive group in Tucker, to help train everyday citizens to advocate for important issues at the Capitol. I took them through “How a Bill Becomes a Law” in Georgia and shared some of my personal experiences at the Capitol as we went through the steps. Citizen advocates are so critical to the legislative process, now more than ever. We need you to make phone calls, write emails, and to come down to the Capitol to meet with legislators and pull them out to the rope lines. Voters have the most sway over lawmakers. So please continue to push and be loud! And by the way, Marching Buddies hosts lots of great postcard parties. To join, visit their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/MarchingBuddies/.

Citizen Power! hosted by Indivisible Marching Buddies of Atlanta

Next Saturday, March 2nd, I will be presenting, along with Stephanie Ali of the ACLU, at “Citizen Power!” hosted by Indivisible Marching Buddies of Atlanta. Join us Saturday, March 2nd, 10:30am – 12:30pm at the Tucker-Reid H. Cofer Library, 5234 LaVista Road, Tucker. We will be presenting on how a bill becomes a law, and how you can support and influence legislation. RSVP at https://www.eventbrite.com/.   

Be Proud of Being Loud

This week a supporter told me he contacted his newly elected Republican representative to discuss voting machines, gerrymandering and Medicaid. Then he resignedly said, “He’s well indoctrinated into the Republican line of thinking and I got really nowhere with him.”

I know these phone calls may seem futile, but they matter. If we don’t make these calls, Republicans stay comfortably in their bubble, and they don’t realize we exist. We must agitate. Don’t forget – many of them know they must listen if they’re going to win their re-election campaigns.

As an example, this week after hundreds of Moms Demand Action advocates showed up to the capitol in their red t-shirts, a friend of mine overheard a couple of Representatives admitting that they knew they were going to have to give a little on gun issues, or they were going to continue losing more districts.

Showing up matters. Being loud works.

Citizens Crowding the Capitol

At the Gold Dome, we often refer to “working the rope-line.” When we say this we are describing the areas outside the chambers where school-aged “pages” serve, waiting to deliver messages to legislators inside the chamber. If the legislator is able, he or she comes out to talk with constituents across the rope that divides the page area from the public area.

I love coming out to the rope line to meet people, and this week I got so many page messages that I had a hard time keeping up with the debate inside the chamber! It was a busy week for citizen groups who came out to influence legislators on their issues.

Redistricting Reform: I joined dozens of Georgians from across the state at an Advocacy Day event organized by the ACLU, Common Cause Georgia, and Fair Districts GA to advocate for SR52, The Democracy Act, sponsored by Sen. Elena Parent. The bill calls for greater transparency, stronger redistricting standards, and an independent bipartisan redistricting commission, modeled after California’s commission. Twenty one states now have some form of non-partisan or bipartisan redistricting commission. The only way our lawmakers will consider this issue is if you get loud and demand it. In addition to your representatives, call Senator Matt Brass, Chair of the Senate Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee, (404) 463-1376 to ask for a hearing on SR52 and sign up for Fair Districts GA action alerts to help continue to push for this bill. Finally, this bill needs a state-wide push, so think about who you know across the entire state who would be willing to make a call to their legislators, and reach out to them.

Improving Our Voting Process: So many voters packed the House Elections Subcommittee hearing to oppose HB316, a bill to reform Georgia’s voting processes, that the AJC took notice and reported on it. Melanie Manning and Betsy Shackelford, who both worked hard on my campaign, testified at the hearing. Melanie asked the committee to keep the current ratio of voting machines to voters at 200:1, instead of increasing it to 250:1. She saw first hand how under-resourcing at a polling location led to long lines and frustrated voters leaving without casting their vote. Betsy spoke eloquently to dispel the myths about handmarked paper ballots, what she called the “state of the art” gold standard for secure voting.

House Minority Leader Bob Trammell offered an amendment in sub-committee to require that paper ballots be printed and machine read in a human readable format, rather than an unreadable barcode. The amendment was defeated but Rep. Trammell said they picked up one Republican and there was a considerable amount of interest in the amendment. The bill passed out of committee and will likely pass the House this week and make its way to the Senate, where further improvements can be made.

Giving a hug to a student at Moms Demand Action Advocacy Day who was there to honor her friend, Maura Binkley, who was tragically killed in a yoga studio shooting in Florida.

Responsible Gun Ownership: Last year I was one of the many moms, dads, and students advocating for gun reform at the Capitol for Moms Demand Action Advocacy Day. This year, I was thrilled to speak to the group as a newly-elected Senator now able to advance the fight with SB50, my Campus Carry repeal. This day will definitely go down as the highlight of my session.

The thing about Moms Demand Action is that many of their members carry the intense pain of having lost loved ones to gun violence. But they are there turning their pain into power, and I’ve honestly never felt as much collective power as I have at Moms Demand Action Day at the Capitol.

We gave each other many hugs across the Senate rope-line, and those hugs and cheers from so many friends, constituents, and supporters were incredibly uplifting. I brought all of that power and energy with me to my very first appearance later that day on GPB’s “Lawmakers” program. It reminded me that my most important role is to be your voice when you can’t be present at the Capitol.

On the set of GPB’s “Lawmakers” to talk about repealing Campus Carry

Thank you to everyone who has been getting the word out about Senate Bill 50, my bill to repeal Campus Carry. We are flooding social media, keeping phone lines busy, and having personal conversations at the “rope lines” outside the House & Senate chambers. I am hopeful that Sen. John Albers, chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, will soon schedule a public hearing for the bill.

Addressing Dyslexia: Every once in a while, there’s a bill that everyone can feel good about. SB48 requires schools to identify and support kids with dyslexia in their early school years and provide more dyslexia information and support to teachers and schools. Led by my predecessor, Senator Fran Millar, this was a well-studied effort and well-written bill with a great deal of citizen input and support. Advocates for the bill were at the Capitol last week for Dyslexia Day to push for its passage. And this week, Senator Millar joined us on the Senate floor to watch it pass unanimously.

With Margie Singleton and Lisa Walls, two friends who created Margie’s Law to inform women with dense breast tissue that they may be at higher risk for breast cancer.

Breast Cancer Education: Margie’s Law, HB62, is a bill advancing quickly through the process of becoming law. What’s significant about this bill is not only what it does, but how it came about. Margie Singleton and Lisa Walls, from the Savannah area, came by my office this week to tell me about their bill. Margie and Lisa aren’t professional lobbyists or members of a major advocacy organization. Margie is a breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed 6 months after a clean mammogram.  Lisa is a healthcare professional who didn’t know about the risk of dense breast tissue until she heard about Margie. Together, they saw a need and launched their own effort. Margie’s Law requires health facilities that perform mammograms to inform any patient who has dense breast tissue that they need to obtain further screenings.

Healthcare: The Senate Health and Human Services Committee held a restricted debate on SB106, the Governor’s Medicaid Waiver bill. Previously, I reported that the Governor proposed spending $1M for experts to study Medicaid Waivers. In the 2018 – 2019 Amended Budget, which has now passed the House and Senate, this amount was increased by $600,000, and brings in a Federal match of another $1M. That’s $2.6M in taxpayer money to study an already well-studied issue. The research shows that full-scale Medicaid expansion works to increase healthcare access, decrease insurance premiums, create jobs, and put people back to work. Call the Governor’s Office at (404) 656-1776 and the Lt. Governor’s office at (404) 656-5030, as well as your own representatives to oppose SB106 and the lucrative “Medicaid Waiver Study Contract.”

Announcements:

A crowd of 40+ joined us for our Coffee Chat with Sally in Dunwoody.

My next Coffee Chat will be in Chamblee at 10 am on Saturday, March 16th. Location TBA.

Save the date for these upcoming joint Town Hall Meetings with House Representatives in Senate District 40:

  • Representative Matthew Wilson and I will host a Town Hall Meeting on Thursday, March 14th at 6:00 pm at Brookhaven City Hall.
  • Representative Mike Wilensky and I will host a Town Hall Meeting on Tuesday, March 19th at 6:00 pm at Dunwoody City Hall.

We’ll post Facebook events and announce other Town Hall meetings soon.

Georgia’s Health is on my Mind

Come share a cup of coffee in person at my next Coffee Chat with Sally. We’ll be in Dunwoody at the Georgetown Starbucks at 10 am on Saturday, February 23. It’s just a casual conversation about whatever’s on your mind. Bring your friends and neighbors. We’ll also soon be announcing our State Senate 40 Town Hall Meetings coordinated with your State House Representative.

Yellow Card

My yellow values card will guide my decisions during my time in the Senate

With the pace of bills to vote on picking up now, I placed on my chamber desk my Yellow Values Card that I originally wrote when I served in the House of Representatives. Many of you heard me talk about these values during my campaign. And, this week I gave a Values Card to each of my fellow newly-elected Democrats in the House and Senate.

A Impending Healthcare Earthquake

Last week I said, controversy is coming . . . well, it’s here and it’s healthcare.

The healthcare debate revolves around two intertwined issues:

  • Georgia Republicans’ unwillingness to accept Federal Medicaid expansion.
  • The proposed elimination of Georgia’s Certificate of Need (CON) program,

Both can impact Georgia’s healthcare delivery system for many years to come, and the current trajectory will leave more people without healthcare.

Womens Caucus

Chairing a very crowded and lively Legislative Women’s Caucus meeting on Maternal and Infant Mortality

The Healthcare Crisis: The GOP introduced two bills — SB106 and SB74/HB198. The first, dubbed “The Patients First Act,” is the Governor’s proposal to explore very limited Medicaid expansion options. The second is a plan to eliminate Georgia’s Certificate of Need (CON) program which protects our hospitals and helps ensure access to care for all Georgians (see this article for good background on the CON debate). The first bill doesn’t go far enough to cover all Georgians that need healthcare while the second eliminates regulations that protect Georgia’s hospitals from going bankrupt and protects patients from predatory practices. Without fully expanding Medicaid, it’s irresponsible to eliminate the CON program when our hospitals are already struggling.

Moms and Babies Reveal Georgia’s Ill-Health: Georgia ranks among the states with the highest maternal and infant mortality rates. Representatives from the Georgia Department of Health spoke to about 75 people at this week’s Legislative Women’s Caucus, a group I co-chair. We learned that many moms die from complications that occur weeks after giving birth, when Medicaid benefits run out. These are not easy issues to tackle, but I am grateful that Georgia has a Maternal Mortality Review Board that looks at every single death to determine trends and recommend solutions.

Environmental, Financial and Community Health

Coal Ash Storage: The House & Senate Natural Resources & Environment Committees held a joint session this week to hear presentations on the issue of coal ash and what’s being done to prevent spills and protect against coal ash storage failures. I was very happy to see Tina Wilkerson, a constituent who has championed clean energy as a leader of Solarize Dunwoody, at the meeting. Coal Ash storage is a huge issue for Georgia. As long time lobbyist Neill Herring says of current storage inadequacies, “It’s like putting poison in a cardboard box and saying the cardboard is safe.”

GSU Students

Great to meet Georgia State students visiting the Capitol who gave my Campus Carry Repeal bill a thumbs up.

College Loan Defaults and Professional Licenses: The Higher Education Committee discussed SB92, a bill that prohibits all state boards that issue professional licenses from refusing, suspending, or revoking the license of anyone who defaults on their student loans. It simply doesn’t make sense to take away someone’s livelihood when they have loans to repay.

Speaking Out on Gun Safety: On the first anniversary of the tragic shooting at Majority Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, several colleagues and I spoke from the Senate well about the importance of taking action on gun safety. The Public Safety Committee, chaired by Senator John Albers, is considering a school safety bill, but it’s disingenuous to talk about school safety without considering common sense gun laws. Until we pass gun reform, we’ll still have tragedies like Parkland. If gun safety is important to you, call both Senator Albers (404) 463-8055 and Lt. Governor Duncan (404-656-5030) and demand hearings on the gun safety bills.

Building Healthy Relationships with the Board of Regents: At a reception this week, I met the Chancellor and members of the Board of Regents that oversees the University System of Georgia. The governor appoints Board members to serve a voluntary seven year term. The Board has 19 members, five of whom are appointed from the state-at-large, and one from each of the state’s 14 congressional districts. The Board then elects its chancellor to lead the body. Building these relationships is important for my work on Higher Education.

Announcements

Page

Noah Manning was the first of three young Senate pages from my district this week.

Citizen engagement is critical for a healthy democracy. Be loud. Your involvement can influence which bills get hearings and which bills are left untouched. Spread the word. Call and email Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan, House Speaker David Ralston, and your state representatives. We all need to hear from you, so we can report which issues are important to our constituents. Share your stories. Write letters to the editor in your local papers. Also, all legislative committee meetings are open to the public and if you are able, I encourage you to attend one that may be of interest you.

This coming week will a big opportunity to engage on two other very important issues. Redistricting Reform advocates will be at the Capitol on Tuesday to lobby for a bill to create an independent bipartisan redistricting commission. And on Wednesday, hundreds of concerned parents and students with Moms Demand Action GA will be there to advocate for common sense gun safety, including the Campus Carry Repeal. I plan to be with both groups and I hope to see you there.

Let the Real Work Begin

The first ten days of the session have been packed with ritual, rule-setting, and resolutions. So far, only a handful of bills have made it through Committee and onto the House and Senate floor for votes. But that’s all about to change this coming week. The official session schedule has been set, with Crossover Day scheduled for March 7th. Crossover Day is the last day for bills to get a floor vote before “crossing over” to the other chamber. That means it’s crunch time. The last day of session, known as Sine Die, is April 2.

Expect the controversy to begin.

That’s where you can play a critical role. Please do not underestimate the power or your own voice! Now is the time to call, email, and/or send postcards. Honestly, getting as few as ten phone messages or postcards about a single issue can put an issue on a legislator’s radar. Now is the time to Be Loud!

Here’s What We’re Working On

Speaking from well about #RepealCampusCarry

#RepealCampusCarry This week, I experienced two “firsts” when I filed my first Senate bill since returning to the General Assembly, and took my first personal point of privilege to speak from the Senate well (podium) about why we shouldn’t allow guns on college campuses. The bill was assigned to the Public Safety Committee, chaired by Senator John Albers who represents Senate district 56, which primarily covers Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Alpharetta, Milton, and Roswell in north Fulton County. Senator Albers now holds the power to decide whether or not SB50 will get a public hearing and vote.

Here are three important ways you can help advance this bill:

  • Share my well speech to spread the word on social media using the hashtag #RepealCampusCarry. This will help create awareness of the bill and get the issue back into the public debate.
  • Call, email, and/or organize postcard parties to encourage Senator Albers to hold a public hearing and vote on SB50. It is especially important that he hear directly from his constituents. If you are a constituent, please include your address on all correspondence (including phone calls).
  • Attend the Moms Demand Action Advocacy Day on February 20 where the Campus Carry repeal will be one of their top priorities. This will be an opportunity to encourage lawmakers in person to support the repeal. Sen. Harrell will be speaking!

ERA Needs Your Help:  I was so proud to support the bipartisan bill to make Georgia the 38th state to ratify the ERA. But that bill is now in jeopardy as my colleagues across the aisle have been lobbied by energized and highly organized vocal opposition groups that believe the ERA will allow women to equate male birth control options like vasectomies to abortions and argue that women should have equal access. This week Senator Matt Brass removed his signature from the bill, stating that he can’t take the risk that passing ERA might result in increased abortions. Senator Renee Unterman, the Republican co-sponsor of the bill, has been working hard behind the scenes to make sure that the Republicans who signed the bill hold strong, arguing that being pro-life doesn’t mean you can’t be pro-ERA. But these lawmakers very much need to hear from constituents that support the ERA. Please reach out to thank Senators Kirkpatrick, Albers, Martin, Beach, Jones, and Hufstetler for their courage in signing the bill. You can also call the Lt. Governor’s office at (404) 656-5030 to state your support of the Senate Resolution 66.

Voting for the DeKalb Ethics Commission

DeKalb Senate Delegation: Under the leadership of chairman Senator Emanuel Jones, the DeKalb Senate Delegation passed two important local bills. The first was to re-establish the DeKalb Ethics Commission, which had been ruled unconstitutional. This new bill fixes that problem and doesn’t require another referendum since it simply revises the law already approved by the voters. Another bill, SB53, addresses an issue that was uncovered when the City of Atlanta annexed a part of DeKalb that had a high tax base, but only a few DeKalb students. DeKalb lost a significant amount of revenue while maintaining the same number of students, which adversely impacts the DeKalb school system. The Senate passed SB53 to prevent this from happening in the future.

College Affordability: In the Higher Education committee meeting, we discussed new ways to make college more affordable, including an income-sharing agreement bill brought forth by Senator Sheikh Rahman. This bill needs more work, but I was pleased Chairman Tippins gave Sen. Rahman, a freshman Democratic Senator, a chance to present his bill. I sit next to Sen. Tippins in the chamber, so I bend his ear a lot about the escalating price of college.

Working to Stay Connected

Despite being in session all five days this week, I still found time to visit with people in the district!

Boy Scout Troop 15

— Thank you to Boy Scout Troop #15 for inviting me to visit (my son earned the rank of Life Scout in this troop). The boys and I had a lively discussion about how a bill becomes a law using mandatory recess, a bill that I worked on when I served in the House, as an example. The bill got enthusiastic support from the Scouts! The next day, I was thrilled to welcome the Girl Scouts visiting the Capitol. I led my daughter’s Girl Scout troop for eight years.

 

Girl Scouts at the Capitol

— At a new legislator’s breakfast hosted by the Georgia Supreme Court, I was honored to meet Presiding Justice David Nahmias, a Dunwoody constituent who does wonderful work on the Committee on Justice for Children to assess and improve the foster care system, adoption laws, and the juvenile justice system. It was also great to reconnect with Justice Michael Boggs, with whom I served in the House of Representatives.

— I participated on a legislative panel at a breakfast hosted by Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies where I was Executive Director before my time in the GA House. We discussed maternal and infant mortality in Georgia, the most critical issue facing mothers and babies today. Medicaid expansion, which would put an insurance card in people’s pockets and save troubled rural hospitals, is one obvious solution.

— The Dekalb Democrats invited Senator Elena Parent and me to their February meeting to update them on my Campus Carry repeal bill, SB50, and her Redistricting Reform bill, SR52, that would establish an independent redistricting commission much like California has that would be responsible for drawing district lines in a highly transparent process instead of allowing lawmakers to draw them to their own advantage behind closed doors. Voting rights and gun safety are two areas where Georgia’s Democrats can lead, so I was happy to have time to focus on these issues.

Coffee Chat in Peachtree Corners

— I held my first in-district Coffee Chat to spend some casual quality time with constituents in Peachtree Corners. We had a very energetic and engaged group who was eager to hear what’s happening at the Capitol and asked lots of great questions. We’ll be hosting a series of these Chats around the district, the next one being at 10 am on February 23rd at the Georgetown Starbucks in Dunwoody. We will soon be announcing other Chats in Chamblee, Brookhaven, and Doraville.

— Sunday evening I’ll spend time with the Dunwoody Homeowners Association to hear more about a Georgia Department of Transportation project at the top end Perimeter that has caused great concern among residents in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs.

As always, my ears are open to you. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact me at my Senate office.