Fasten your Seatbelts . . .
The first action-packed week of the 2022 Georgia Legislative session felt like taking off in a supersonic jet plane. With every legislator up for re-election this year, many are eager to arrive at our final destination, Sine Die, so they can continue along their campaign paths. It promises to be a wild ride as Republican leaders facing primary opposition are seeking attention-grabbing headlines. Sadly, during a time when Georgia residents need our attention the most, election year antics will drive much of the session’s narrative, producing more rhetoric than results.
Prepare for Take Off
My work picked up speed before the session officially started as I joined Virtual Town Halls and met with numerous local constituent groups. Local governance bills will demand the attention of legislators early in the session as we complete the redistricting work we started during the November Special Session, this time redrawing county commission and school board maps. Since December, elected officials in Gwinnett County have been hard at work engaging local communities in this process. Thanks to all your phone calls, letters, and emails, I am hopeful that Gwinnett’s school board and county commission districts will reflect the voices of the majority of Gwinnett County residents.
I’m so grateful for the overwhelming support my campaign received in the last couple of weeks. It gave me the fuel I needed going into session. We’re now in a strong position to build momentum for my re-election and to support other candidates running for office. I got an extra pick-me-up on the eve of session when I answered a call from a Washington DC phone number. It turned out to be the White House inviting me to attend President Biden and Vice President Harris’ upcoming voting rights speech in Atlanta!
Attention: Air Traffic Control
With lots of legislators traveling to my hometown of Indianapolis for the UGA Championship game on Monday, we gaveled in and out quickly, passing the required resolutions to notify the Governor and House of Representatives that we are back in business. No bills were passed the rest of the week, but a number were read and assigned to committees.
We were reminded how important this first step of the legislative process is when Lt. Governor Duncan surprised everyone and assigned the controversial Buckhead Cityhood bill to the all-Democratic Urban Affairs Committee, where it is sure to die. With one simple committee assignment, the Lt. Governor, who is not running for re-election, proved he’s no lame duck by reminding us how powerful his role remains and how pivotal committees are to passing bills. While there remains a Buckhead City bill in the House, this move by the Lt. Governor indicates the House bill will have a difficult time making it through the Senate.
Omicron: Impending Flight Diversions
While the House is continuing its mask and COVID testing mandates that have been in place throughout the pandemic, amid the Omicron surge Senate Republican leaders chose to make them voluntary. So far, I’ve seen only two Republican Senators have been willing to wear masks, both of whom are healthcare workers.
I tried to stay safe by opting out of large events and watching the Governor’s annual State of the State address remotely from the Senate floor instead of the crowded House chamber. But it’s impossible to avoid my unmasked colleagues. By the end of the week, at least three of them tested positive for COVID, one of them sat next to me during an Ethics Committee meeting, and ironically also joined me in the Senate chamber for the State of the State address where he let out an enormous unmasked sneeze. He tested positive that same day.
Setting our Sights on Voting Rights
I was thankful we were in recess on Tuesday to allow legislators to travel back from Indianapolis, because it coincided with the President and Vice President’s visit to Atlanta. There were a lot of logistical challenges getting to the event, including a last-minute request to provide proof of a 24-hour negative COVID test that sent all of the invited legislators scrambling.
But it was worth it to see the President and Vice President express strong support for changing Senate filibuster rules to pass federal voting rights legislation. These bills outlaw partisan gerrymandering, make Election Day a national holiday, and expand access to the ballot. Watch their speeches on YouTube at https://youtu.be/9vhghEaehdg
After the speech, the President stayed for pictures and I unexpectedly found myself with 30 seconds to say anything I wanted directly to the President of the United States. I told him that I was on the committee that passed all the bad voting bills and that I would keep fighting, but we need his help. Except I was giddy and a bit tongue tied when I said it!
Bright and early Thursday morning, I found myself back in that same Senate Ethics Committee facing another bad voting bill. This time we considered a resolution to enshrine an already existing law that bans non-Georgia citizens from voting in our elections into our state Constitution. This is a no-win, unnecessary “gotcha” bill filed only to appease the Republican base and allow Republicans to accuse Democrats of being in favor of allowing non-citizens to vote. This resolution must get two-thirds vote in both chambers, so it has no hope of ultimately passing because Democrats have won so many seats the past five years that Republicans no longer have a supermajority in either chamber.
Fueling the State Budget
Passing the state’s budget is the most important action the legislature takes each year, and this year and unlike previous years the coffers are flush with state revenue, plus millions in federal pandemic relief dollars. Now is the time to reverse the austerity cuts and neglect of the last decade. It is clear from evaluating the Governor’s proposed budget what he does and doesn’t value.
The Governor revealed his budget priorities in his State of the State address. We heard good news about state employee and teacher pay raises, a long-overdue cost of living increase for state retirees, and investments in education.
The Governor also proposed a $1.6 billion dollar tax cut, stating, “I believe that when government takes in more money than it needs, surplus funds should be sent back.”
But the state has not taken in more money than it needs. For example, his budget proposes to fund only 100 more NOW/COMP Medicaid waivers when there are more than 7,000 individuals on a decades-long waiting list. Last year, I filed SB 208 that outlines a plan to eliminate this waiting list by fully funding the NOW/COMP waivers over 5 years. We’ve got more work to do to push SB 208 and get the full funding we need.
I was pleased to learn this week that the Governor intends to support the primary recommendations of my University Fees Study Committee, created last year when I passed SR300. In the work we did between sessions, we discovered that for more than a decade, Georgia students and families have been paying hundreds of dollars every semester for a “Special Institutional Fee” — a fee that was supposed to be a temporary charge created as a result of revenue declines following the Great Recession of 2008. Also as a result of our recommendations, the Governor announced that he will completely eliminate the fee, adding $230 million to the funding formula that subsidizes state universities, translating to a $200-$550 per semester savings for all Georgia students, the largest cost savings in decades. It’s no small feat for a legislator of the minority party to succeed in raising an issue that makes it into a majority-party Governor’s list of priorities!
Meet the Cockpit Crew
Most people don’t realize that state legislators do not get resources to hire staff like members of Congress do. We share administrative staff with other legislators and rely on the generosity of dedicated volunteers in our district to support our work.
My team continues to be small and mighty this session, but we work overtime to try to meet the needs of the district. Amy Swygert joins me again as my Communications Director and right-hand woman. You can reach her at email@example.com. Keridan Ogletree continues to serve as my administrative assistant and constituent relations manager. Her email is Keridan.Ogletree@senate.ga.gov, or you can call my office at (404) 463-2260.
Looking ahead: Next week is budget week at the State Capitol. Watching the budget hearings and presentation of State Department Heads is a great way to learn about how state government works. You can access the schedule and streaming at https://www.legis.ga.gov/.
In Memoriam: Yesterday many of us heard of the tragic death of MARTA CEO Jeff Parker. My heart goes out to Jeff’s family and friends. We often never know of each other’s inner struggle, which is why I will always advocate for increased access to mental healthcare.
- Biden and Harris speak in Atlanta https://youtu.be/9vhghEaehdg
- Kemp’s budget priorities https://www.ajc.com/politics/awash-in-revenue-kemp-gives-georgia-lawmakers-his-expensive-2022-wish-list/PCBKO3U4NZGVTA7YOTRM4ONEAM/
- NOW/Comp Medicaid Waivers https://www.gpb.org/news/2021/12/10/state-agency-drops-plan-limit-at-home-care-for-dozens-of-people-disabilities
- Stream the Georgia Legislative Session: https://www.legis.ga.gov/