Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
We’re almost to the halfway point of this year’s legislative session, and there’s a bunch of stuff happening. Some of it’s upsetting, while some of it is just plain silly. One of my tasks as a legislator is to sort the big stuff from the small stuff, so I can choose to focus my attention on things that really matter.
The Rough Stuff: Redistricting and Cityhood
Redistricting: Monday morning began with more redistricting drama — this time the Public Service Commission (PSC). The new map that passed the House drew out one of my constituents who had just announced her campaign to run against the district’s incumbent. She’s now in a different district that doesn’t have an election until 2024. As the week went on, additional drama unfolded in Cobb, Fulton, Bibb-Macon and Gwinnett.
I’m concerned for my Black colleagues. They have fought the good fight this session, but they are tired. I can see it in their eyes, in their faces, and even how they walk and move about the Capitol. They have worked so hard to overcome centuries of silencing, and have fought to gain their voice through the democratic process — only to get slapped back down. The sting hurts.
Cityhood: This week the Senate voted on two controversial bills to incorporate the cities of East Cobb and Lost Mountain in Cobb County. Too often, the timing of these initiatives is questionable. These Cobb cities gained momentum after the 2020 election when the Cobb County Commission became a majority Black body controlled by Democrats. These initiatives have the same feel as the Republican push to make the Gwinnett School Board non-partisan, only after it gained a Democratic majority which is also all Black.
As I evaluate cityhood proposals, I must not cast judgment with one broad stroke. These initiatives are nuanced. For instance, the city of Mableton, which is majority Black, is passing through the legislature without much political rancor. It has been in the works for some time and seems ready to move forward. Closer to home, after years of talk and planning, I believe that the unincorporated area where I live is also ready to move forward. I have found that cities in Senate 40 tend to enhance local civic engagement and promote a sense of community.
Some Good Stuff: Mental Health Parity
The House held a three hour hearing this week for HB 1013, the highly publicized bipartisan mental health bill sponsored by Speaker Ralston. During the hearing Representative Todd Jones and his wife Tracey shared their deeply personal struggle to navigate the mental health care system for their son who suffers from severe mental illness. The subject is timely, as yesterday, I got the news that a friend’s 17-year old son committed suicide. So many of us have personal experiences with mental health, yet Georgia ranks at the very bottom of states for mental health access.
Much of HB 1013, also called the “Mental Health Parity Act,” focuses on making sure that public and private insurance plans cover mental health the same way they cover medical care. It clarifies standards for mental health care coverage and includes ways for consumers to report insurance issues, including a new consumer complaint hotline. The bill offers loan forgiveness for mental health professionals to address our severe shortage and eliminates the need for law enforcement to wait for a person in a mental health crisis to commit a felony before they can be taken into custody and to a mental health care facility.
It’s good we have moved this discussion forward, but we have much more work to do. I have a Master of Social Work, yet I chose not to practice direct mental health work because the supervision for licensure was inaccessible and too expensive. I’m sure it was for others too, which is part of the reason we have a shortage of mental health workers. And while it’s good to address parity, I’m still painfully aware that our Governor told the Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), which provides our mental health safety net, to keep their budget flat this year, following years of severe cuts.
On another note, it’s really easy for me to remember this bill number. That’s because it’s HB 1013, the same number used on the form for involuntary commitments, known to mental health professionals as Form 1013. A crazy coincidence — you can’t make this stuff up!
The Stuff Life is Made Of: Constituent Services
A few weeks ago at a hair appointment, several salon workers unloaded some of their frustrations. I didn’t mind. Constituent services are a big part of any legislator’s job. It helps keep us connected to the real concerns of our voters and sometimes we’re the only ones that our constituents have to help navigate the system. So with the help of my legislative aide, Keridan, I dove into these issues once I was back in the office.
COVID Tests: One worker who had gone for a “free” COVID test at an Emory clinic ended up with a bill for $200. We learned that federal rules allow doctors to charge for office visits associated with COVID tests and some are pushing this rule to the limit. While the insurance company negotiates the rates down, this worker still had to pay for the remaining charges to satisfy her deductible. We are in the process of working with Emory to see if we can resolve the issue.
Workers Comp: Another worker whose husband owns a small trucking company tried to purchase Workers Compensation insurance, which is mandatory. But the companies that sell Workers Compensation insurance refused to sell him a policy because his company was less than two years old. I reported this to someone who’s in the Workers Compensation business and he seemed really frustrated by this cherry-picking, and said he’d help find someone who would cover the new company.
These consumer advocacy issues can be time consuming, but rewarding. The system too often takes advantage of people who have little to no resources to stand up for themselves.
My Schedule is Stuffed to the Gills!
Sometimes there’s so much stuff going on that my Communications Director, Amy, and I have to divide and conquer. While I was at Dekalb delegation meetings with CEO Michael Thurmond and the Dekalb School Board, Amy attended the Women’s Legislative Caucus on Tuesday and the Working Families Caucus meeting on Thursday.
Workplace Sexual Harrassment: At the Women’s Caucus meeting, Amy learned that Georgia is one of only three states that does not have a sexual harassment law. As a result 94% of sexual harrassment legal claims brought by women are dismissed, and 98% of cases brought by Black women are dismissed. This week, Representative Teri Annuelwicz introduced HB 1389 that will define workplace sexual harrassment and protect whistleblowers from retaliation.
Housing Wars: The Working Families Caucus, sponsored this week by the Georgia Municipal Association, covered a growing practice of corporate investors buying up houses to rent, which they say drives up housing prices and leaves renters vulnerable to bad landlord practices. I heard the flip side of this issue from the Georgia Realtors Association who feel that this practice offers affordable housing options for people who can’t afford to own homes in these neighborhoods. They also say cities are passing “no rent overlay zones,” causing segregation of home owners and renters. It’s not unusual for the Georgia Municipal Association and the Georgia Realtors to be at odds on an issue. I’ve seen it plenty of times before.
The Right Stuff: Being Loud
GPB Lawmakers: Getting stuff done at the Capitol often requires being loud in public, while also working quietly behind the scenes to make things happen. On Valentines Day, I appeared on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Lawmakers” to talk about my work to reduce university fees and SB 208, my bill to eliminate the NOW/COMP Medicaid waiver waiting list to help more adults with developmental disabilities gain access to critical services that allow them to lead full and productive lives in their communities.
Last week I also had meetings with staff from both the University System of Georgia (USG) and the Dept. of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD). Sometimes writing good legislation is a collaborative effort between elected officials and executive branch employees who have day-to-day technical expertise.
Washington Post: Later in the week, I was asked to comment for a Washington Post article about former Governor and Trump administration Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue becoming the next Chancellor of Georgia’s University system. I expressed concerns about Perdue’s lack of experience in higher education, especially during a time of great change and upheaval in our society. The Board of Regents was established as an independent board to keep legislative branch politics out of our Universities. Members are appointed by the Governor, so choosing a former Governor as a chancellor just seems like too much politics.
Hot Stuff: Save the Date
Calling all adults with developmental disabilities, their family members, and allies. We are planning to hold a press conference, tentatively scheduled for Monday, February 28th at 2pm, to call on the Governor and General Assembly to take significant steps toward eliminating the NOW/COMP Medicaid waiver waiting list through this year’s appropriations process while the state has significant resources to do so.
If you would like to join us for this press conference, please email Keridan at Keridan.Ogletree@senate.ga.gov
Stuff Happening Next Week
We have another short, but very busy week next week. We’ll only be on the Senate floor Tuesday and Thursday, with a Committee Workday on Wednesday. Catch me at 1pm on WABE 90.1’s “Closer Look with Rose Scott” where I will be discussing my SB 344, which requires gun owners to complete firearm training. Other than that, my schedule is stuffed full, but I can assure you — I will not be sweating the small stuff!