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 Education: SB 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!