The emotional impact of bad bills was mitigated a bit this week by some personal legislative successes, the hope brought on by a new COVID-19 vaccine, and some warm and sunny weather.
The Game of Chairs
What happens when two powerful Committee Chairs each support one bill, but oppose the other? A third Chair might try to broker a deal! This is what happened this week when I was called into a meeting with the Senate Rules Chair, the Lt. Governor’s Chief-of-Staff and the Senate Ethics Chair.
Part-Time University Fees: At the center of the controversy was the bill I filed regarding university fees, SB 239.
Most part-time university students in Georgia are required to pay full-time fees when taking only two classes. It typically takes eight years for these part-time students to complete a degree, so with all these additional fees, they end up paying thousands of extra dollars by graduation day.
This bill, supported by the Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, brought opposition from both the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents and Senator Max Burns, the Ethics Committee Chair and a former college administrator. After a 45-minute discussion, Higher Ed Chair Senator Tippins remarked that this was the most discussion the legislature has had about University fees for the last ten years, during which time fees have escalated, becoming a much larger percentage of the total cost of higher education. The bill passed out of committee 5-3.
High School Voting Education: SB 240, my bill that allows local school boards to teach high school seniors about the voting process as a condition of graduation, is co-sponsored by Senator Max Burns, the same Senator that opposed the University fees bill. It initially got a good reception in the Education and Youth Committee where members offered several suggestions including checking with the Secretary of State’s office about the feasibility of bringing voting machines to the schools. When I did, I learned about the logistical challenges they had setting up the machines for demonstrations to the legislature. So I changed the bill to a pilot program with a rural school system and an urban school system, so we could test the program before going statewide.
But Chairman Tippins, who supported my University fees bill, opposed the voting education bill, saying that voting education should be part of broader Civics education. The bill narrowly passed 5-4 with the Education and Youth Chair casting the tie-breaking vote. The Education & Youth Chair also has a bill creating the Georgia Commission of Civics Education, which can eventually deal with this issue as a whole.
Let’s Make a Deal: Giving the Rules Chairman a heads up before your bills come up in his Committee is an informal part of the process. When I went to meet with Rules Chairman Mullis, I found myself in a powerful pow-wow with him, Chairman Burns, and the Lt. Governor’s Chief-of-Staff. My part-time University fees bill had gotten notice and support from the Lt. Governor and the Governor. But Chairman Burns once again argued against it. As a compromise, Chairman Mullis offered to move my Voter Education bill to the Senate floor in exchange for turning the University fees bill into a Study Committee which would give us more time to take a deeper dive into the issue. I support the idea of working more closely with the Board of Regents and Chairman Burns thought this was a good way to signal to them that we were serious about fee reform. I accepted the compromise.
I presented SB 240 to the Rules Committee and I’m excited about presenting it for a vote on the Senate floor this Monday, which is Crossover Day.
Other Bills on the Move
To give us time to work on bills in Committee, we only had three Chamber sessions this week, but they were long, and covered a wide variety of bills. Here’s a sampling of bills the Senate passed this week.
Bills I Supported:
Emergency Insurance Claims: Democratic freshman Senator Michelle Au presented her first bill that would require insurance companies to cover emergency care charges regardless of the final diagnosis. This will make it harder for insurance companies to reject claims on the basis that the diagnosis was not a true emergency.
Stalking Victim Protection: This Democratic bill from freshman Senator Kim Jackson allows victims with stalking protection orders or whose stalker has been arrested and released on bond or probation to break their rental lease without penalties.
Increasing Penalties for Posting Revenge Porn: This bill from Minority Senate Whip Harold Jones would make it a felony to post or electronically distribute photos or videos that portray sexually explicit conduct or nudity of an adult in an attempt to harass or abuse or cause financial loss to the victim.
Establishing the Pecan as the Official State Nut: We had a lot of fun with this one, presented by freshman Senator Carden Summers of Cordele. There was serious opposition from Mr. Peanut, but the bill passed unanimously, 51 – 0. Much of the discussion focused on whether the correct pronunciation is PEE-can or Puh-KAHN. We were informed that Puh-KAHNs are the nuts that bring in a higher price.
Bills I Opposed:
School Vouchers: This bill dramatically expands eligibility for special needs school vouchers to kids with special education IEPs (Individualized Educational Plans) and 504 plans, which are much easier to obtain than IEP plans. In general, private school vouchers drain millions of dollars from our already underfunded public schools, and they only cover a fraction of the cost of private schools so they don’t help parents that need them the most. Children in rural areas sometimes have no private school options. Last year, rural Republicans and the Democrats defeated a vouchers bill. But when several rural Republicans retired, they were replaced with freshmen Senators who are more apt to vote party line. In addition, Democrats still have two senators out with health issues, so we were unable to defeat the bill this year.
Charter Schools: SB 59 requires local school boards to provide cash payments to locally approved charter schools. While I support non-profit special mission charter schools, I thought this bill left it wide open for local school boards to have to financially support for-profit charter schools.
Sports Betting: The Senate voted on two bills to allow sports betting in Georgia. The first bill was to amend the Georgia Constitution to allow for sports betting. A Constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers. And the second bill would legalize sports betting through the Georgia Lottery Corporation. One of the bills, in an effort to obtain Democratic support, tied revenues to educational scholarships. However, I believe public education should be funded through progressive taxation, rather than depending on regressive structures such as gambling revenues.
A Word on Healthcare
With voting bills dominating the session, discussion about health care in Georgia is getting short changed. In the Women’s Legislative Caucus, we heard about the severe nursing shortage in Georgia. Nurses are in high demand across the country, but other states offer much higher pay and greater benefits than Georgia. This is one factor that has hampered our COVID vaccine roll out.
In the Working Families Caucus, we heard about the status of Governor Kemp’s Medicaid Waivers. In 2019, Georgia passed the Governor’s Patients First Act. One part of that plan is a 1115 Medicaid waiver that extends Medicaid to only a small portion of low income Georgians who must prove they are working. Objecting to the work requirements, the Biden administration has put that part of the plan on hold and the Governor now has several options to consider, including appealing the decision or renegotiating the waiver without the work requirement.
The other part of the plan, the 1332 waiver, blocks access to healthcare.gov in favor of a new Georgia online portal that will open the marketplace up to healthcare plans that won’t have to meet the Affordable Care Act’s health requirements, which means there will be cheap junk plans offering fewer benefits. This waiver is now facing litigation and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services could issue new requirements to this waiver which could put it in jeopardy too.
This fact sheet offers a great summary and outlines all the potential scenarios for both Medicaid waivers. https://healthyfuturega.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Waiver_fact.sheet_WFC_2021.pdf
Crossover Day is on Monday, which always means a long day in the Senate chamber. After Monday, the remainder of this year’s session will focus primarily on considering bills that have passed the House and must now pass the Senate to get to the Governor’s desk for his signature. Wish me luck on SB 240, which will teach High School Seniors how to vote! Then I’ll get busy filing a Senate Resolution for my University Fee Study Committee, a bi-partisan effort with the Rules Chairman.