Ending on a Sour Note

The 2021 legislative session may have ended last week on a sour note, but at least it ended on time. I love serving in the Senate, but at midnight last Wednesday night, on Sine Die, I was ready to get out of there!

While the media have been focusing mostly on the voting bill, other bills passed as well. In fact, the same day the final voting bill passed, the House very narrowly passed SB 47, an expansion of school vouchers for kids with disabilities. 

School Vouchers (SB 47): Publically funded vouchers for use at private schools are a tricky subject, especially for special needs kids. Georgia actually already has a special needs voucher program that includes children who have one of 13 disabilities that qualify for an Individual Education Plan (IEP). What SB 47 does is expand these vouchers to include kids who have accommodations under what are called 504 plans, opening vouchers up to a much more expansive list of physical and mental disabilities.

While acknowledging that these vouchers can make a big difference for some parents for paying private school tuition, it’s difficult to make the case that these new voucher program benefits will be distributed equitably to people of all socioeconomic classes. Considerable financial resources are needed in order to take advantage of these 504 vouchers, including self-paid diagnostic testing, transportation, and the balance of private school tuition. I voted against this expansion of vouchers because I believe public school resources should be equitably distributed to all children, and the expansion to 504 vouchers opens up too many possible loopholes.

Police Budgets (HB 286): Another bill that passed the Senate on the last day was a bill prohibiting local governments with ten or more full-time police officers from decreasing their annual budget by more than 5% of the previous year’s budget. This takes away local control. As the Senate Rules Chairman flippantly declared on the last day of session, “We (Republicans) support local control, except for when we don’t…”


Sour Grapes

With all the finger pointing going on about Georgia’s new election law, my regret is that the Republican legislators who penned this controversial legislation never attempted to engage in real conversation with Democrats. They would have been better off if they had spent a year cooling off, rather than writing reactionary legislation based on false narratives. As I told the Senate Rules Chairman at the beginning of the session, their constituents’ perceived loss of confidence in the election process can’t be fixed with legislation — it requires leadership instead. But perhaps it wasn’t really about their constituents…


Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice

This year’s legislative session wasn’t all a loss. Here’s some of the better bills we passed:

Repeal of Citizens Arrest (HB 479): Georgia became the first state to repeal and overhaul this Civil War-era law after it was used as a defense for the unjustified shooting of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, GA. This new bill prohibits average citizens from taking the law into their own hands, while still allowing law enforcement officers to make arrests without warrants outside their jurisdiction. It also allows businesses, private detectives, and security officers to detain people they believe committed a crime until law enforcement arrives.

The “Big Budget” (HB 81): The $27.2 billion budget restores some, but not all, of the massive budget cuts the Governor made in recent years. Local school systems will receive $3.8 billion from the American Rescue Plan which will make up for the rest of the education budget shortfalls, but this is one-time funding. The Governor plans to appoint committees to oversee how the state spends the $4.6 billion that it will receive from The American Rescue Plan, which can be spent on infrastructure projects like rural broadband, aid to small businesses, and direct payments to Georgians. County and local governments throughout the state will also directly receive more than $3 billion in federal aid.

Violent Crime Certification and Tracking (HB 255): Sponsored by one of our Senate District 40 House Representatives, Scott Holcomb, this bill improves the way sexual assault cases are handled, building on the great work he’s already done to help clear Georgia’s backlog of rape kits. 

Coverage When an Insurer Drops a Provider (HB 454): This legislation requires insurers to cover providers listed as in-network when you sign up for insurance for 180 days after a provider goes out of network. 

Paid Parental Leave for State and Board of Education Employees (HB 146): Long overdue, this bill provides up to 120 hours per year of paid parental leave to full time state employees and teachers for the birth of a child or the placement of a child for adoption or foster care. 

Tuition Waiver for Foster and Adopted Children (SB 107): I voted for this bill when it came through the Higher Ed Committee and again on the Senate floor. It waives technical school tuition and fees for eligible foster and adopted children. To be eligible, the student must be enrolled full-time or part-time within three years of receiving their high school diploma or GED, remain in good academic standing, and be under 28 years old. A measure to classify homeless students as in-state for tuition purposes was added by the House. 

Tobacco and Vape Products Inclusion in Education (HB 287): I have to admit to having mixed feelings about this bill and another one to create a financial literacy program in high schools (see below). When attempting to pass my own bills mandating school recess and classes on elections & voting, I’ve been told repeatedly by both the Lt. Governor and the Governor that they prefer to leave education decisions to local school boards.  But ultimately I voted yes to include tobacco and vapor products in alcohol and drugs instruction courses for K-12 students. 

High School Financial Literacy Program (HB 681) — This bill adds a financial literacy course to high schools that includes information about banking, financial planning, insurance, taxes, contracts, bills, loans, and cryptocurrency. 

Hotel/Motel Tax on AirBnB (HB 317) – This legislation requires marketplace facilitators for short term rentals like AirBnB to collect and remit the $5 transportation hotel/motel tax. This puts short term rentals on par with hotels and will help increase our state revenue.

Teaching Tax Credit (HB 32) — This bill establishes a $3,000 annual tax credit for up to 1,000 teachers who take a job in a low-performing or rural school. 


The Sweet Spot

When I started the legislative session out by criticizing the powerful Senate Rules Chairman’s election bills, I figured I was throwing away any chance of passing legislation this year. But eventually he and I developed a kind of “teasing” relationship. At one point I jokingly said to him, “We’re seeing an awful lot of each other this year, aren’t we?” And he said, “Yes, and it hasn’t been very pleasant, has it?” In the end, I negotiated a deal with him, and he co-sponsored the following piece of legislation, proving that even in the worst of times, Republicans and Democrats can work together for the good of Georgians.

College Fees Study Committee (SR 300): The study committee passed on Sine Die, so I look forward to working with Senator Tippins, Chair of the Senate Higher Ed Committee who will also Chair this study committee, and others in the interim on how best to reduce university fees, especially for part-time students. 


Sweet Success: Bills that Did Not Pass

Reminder: Since each legislative term is two years, these bills remain “alive” and can therefore progress further next year.

Criminalizing Protests (HB 289) – A reaction to protests this year, this bill would have significantly increased penalties for certain crimes committed at protest events and would bar anyone convicted of unlawful assembly from state or local employment. It was overly punitive to the state and local governments if damage occurred during a protest, and it violated local control by requiring local governments to mandate permits and collect personal information about organizers for all protests. This bill passed the House, but never came up for a vote in the Senate. 

Driver’s Education About How to Interact with Police (SB 115) — This bill directed the Departments of Drivers Services and Public Safety to create a curriculum for driving schools instructing drivers on how to interact with police during a traffic stop and actions police can undertake such as using force. It passed both the Senate and the House, with Democrats opposing it. Parents, particularly those of color, already educate their kids about how to interact with law enforcement. But the bill narrowly failed in the Senate in the late hours of Sine Die when several Republicans joined the Democrats after the House attached a measure to allow speed cameras in school zones. 

Emergency Powers on Firearms (SB 214) — This bill would have loosened gun restrictions by allowing out of state travelers to bring their guns to Georgia and prohibiting the government from regulating firearms, firearms licenses, or closing or limiting operating hours of firearm dealers and gun ranges during an emergency. This bill passed the Senate just days after the Asian spa mass shootings over the strong objections of Senate Democrats. But Speaker Ralston prevented the bill from coming to the House floor for a vote, recognizing that the timing was not right for this bill.

Looking Ahead

I will announce shortly the date of my post-session Town Hall. Right now I am taking a bit of a break to have a long awaited reunion in Indiana with my mother and three sisters. Get your shots and hug your people!