The Georgia Midterms Take Shape
There was a celebratory atmosphere at the Capitol this week as candidates came to qualify to be on the ballot for this year’s midterm election. Tuesday was an especially exciting day as I qualified the same day that Stacey Abrams qualified for her bid to become the first black female Governor in Georgia’s history.
It appears I have a Republican opponent as do most metro area legislators. We will have to fight hard to protect our hard-earned wins from 2018 as Republicans are clearly fired up just like Democrats were after Donald Trump was elected.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
While a few good bills moved Georgia forward this week, I noticed a disturbing trend of bills that move us backwards, unraveling progress we’ve recently made on several issues.
Bills that Move Us Forward
Medicaid Disability Waivers. The House added funding for 225 more Medicaid waivers on top of the Governor’s proposed 100 in the FY 2023 budget. Last year I set a bold vision with SB 208 to fully fund the 7,000 member Medicaid waiting list in five years. Obviously, this number will not get us there, but I’ve learned we also need to address workforce issues to help make it possible.
Service providers on average are making $10 an hour, so many are leaving the field. In order to get provider pay increased, the state must submit to the feds a comprehensive rate study and it’s been 7 years since the state’s last rate study. To address this deficiency, I introduced SB 610, a bipartisan bill requiring the Georgia Department of Community Health to conduct a rate study every three years so that we never get behind again. The bill unanimously cleared the Health and Human Services Committee this week and will be in the Senate Rules Committee next week.
K-12 Public School Accreditation. Hold on to your hat, I’m doing a deep dive here. But it’s really important, if you care about democracy and our public schools, so take a few minutes to dive down with me!
A few weeks ago, Sen. Lindsey Tippins asked me if I would sign his bill, SB 498, that proposes major changes to how accreditation works for Georgia’s K-12 public schools. I was the first Democrat to sign his bill.
Back when Clayton county lost its accreditation, and DeKalb was put on “probation,”
I started keeping an eye on K-12 accreditation. What bothered me at the time was how the loss of accreditation seemed based on governance issues rather than what happens in the classroom. High school students in the upper grades became innocent victims when they had to list an unaccredited high school on college applications. This just didn’t seem right.
Through the years, I’ve had a hunch that the constant threat of losing accreditation has had a chilling effect on the action of school board members. Recently I learned that this actually might have resulted from statutory changes regarding the role of school board members (OCGA 20-2-61) made by the legislature in 2010. In this statute, it states (paraphrased) that the local school board shall not micromanage the superintendent, but also shall hold the superintendent accountable. An amendment to this language last year had to clarify that requesting financial data does not constitute micromanaging. Clearly there’s difficulty in determining what is “micromanaging” versus “holding accountable.”
More recently, I’ve watched parents file complaints directly to the accrediting agency, triggering investigations, media attention, and once again fear among families of high school seniors. This leaves me wondering why these complaints are being filed with private accrediting agencies rather than elected school boards.
At the heart of Sen. Tippin’s bill is the private non-profit accrediting agency called Cognia. In 2006, three regional accrediting agencies, including the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) which accredited Georgia schools, merged together, calling the new agency AdvancedEd. Then in 2018, Advanced Ed merged with a testing and assessment company called Measured Progress. Through all these mergers, Cognia has become a 120 million dollar, 500 employee agency that has dominated the market.
Cognia is not only in the business of accreditation. They also offer school improvement services, assessment and professional development — a behemoth of a company, in which deficiencies documented as part of accreditation can bring in additional revenue through “improvement solutions.”
The same week Sen. Tippin’s bill was heard in the Senate Education Committee, Cognia changed its mind about deficiencies they had documented as part of a “Special Review” conducted last August in Sen. Tippin’s home of Cobb county as a result of complaints filed by board members, residents and teachers. In a letter written by longtime President & CEO Mark Elgart, he explained that the “special review teams,” made up of volunteers, were never fact-checked by the company’s professional staff since no adverse action had been recommended. Cognia, however, stood by their assessment of the school board’s dysfunction, pointing out that the board usually votes along partisan lines, and that members should put their personal agendas aside.
Should a private accrediting company be telling elected board members they need to get along better, or else they might lose their accreditation? Sen. Tippin’s bill says no. Accreditation, says SB 498, should be based 80% on academic evaluation and 20% on financial evaluation. In addition, the bill states that accrediting companies should never offer contracts for remediation services for the schools it accredits, and that complaints be subject to open records (Cognia has refused to release complaints to the Cobb school system). Finally, SB 498 proposed that only high schools be accredited by a third party, while elementary and middle schools should be accredited by the state using data that is already available.
Based on years of observation, I have come to the conclusion that a single, unaccountable private company should not hold this much power over a school system. According to Pew, many states do their own accreditation. I commend Sen. Tippins for bringing this bill forward. After I signed the bill, three more Democrats signed on, and the bill passed out of the Senate Education Committee unanimously.
Bills that Move Us Backwards:
“We’re heading to some places that we don’t want to go.”
— Senator Harold Jones
Divisive Concepts in Schools (aka anti-CRT). Perhaps the most divisive bill to move through the legislature is ironically named the “Divisive Concepts” bill. SB 377 takes a restrictive approach to how race is discussed in K-12 classrooms. While Republicans claim this bill will not prohibit schools from teaching history, I find the bill confusing and contradictory, and I believe teachers will too. This bill couldn’t come at a worse time when our already overburdened teachers and administrators are under fire and exhausted from their heroic efforts to keep kids learning through the pandemic.
Regressive Tax Cut. In 2018, just before the last midterm election, Republicans passed a tax cut in anticipation of a windfall from the federal government that never came. That led to major revenue shortfalls and massive state budget cuts that have yet to be restored. Despite having record revenues and lots of federal pandemic relief funding this year, the Governor asked all state departments to keep their budgets flat.
But with the Governor facing a tough primary challenge and all legislators up for reelection again this year, House Republicans passed a major overhaul of Georgia’s tax system that will cost the state $1 billion/year in revenue. It eliminates our progressive tax system in favor of a flat tax and makes several changes to allowable deductions. Much like 2018, it feels like a major gamble with markets still recovering from the pandemic and the uncertain situation in Ukraine.
This tax plan heavily favors the top 20% of Georgia earners, while offering minimal benefit to Georgians in greatest need. Nearly 100% of Georgia’s top one percent of earners will receive tax savings from this plan, while less than half, about 44%, of Georgia’s lowest earners will receive a tax cut. There are other ways to provide tax relief to low and middle income that don’t risk Georgia revenues. For many years, Georgia Democrats have proposed an Earned Income Tax Credit, tax credits for low and middle income families based on earnings and number of children. But with Republicans in charge, that proposal has gone nowhere.
Criminal Justice Reform. During his time in office, despite push back from his own party, Governor Nathan Deal drove a number of criminal justice reforms to reduce Georgia’s costly prison population, including reduced sentences for non-violent offenders and expanded accountability courts to reduce recidivism. Republicans are starting to unravel those reforms by increasing prison sentences for certain categories of offenders. This week, the Senate passed SB 381, a bill to increase penalties on pimps and human traffickers and SB 359, a bill that covers a variety of offenses including instituting mandatory minimums for violent felony offenders and senior abusers. While most Senators voted for these bills, some worry that reverting back to mandatory minimums is moving in the wrong direction.
Ethical Hunting. All of Georgia’s creatures are considered in the Natural Resources Committee. This week, we had a vigorous discussion about possums, raccoons, wild turkeys, and ground nesting birds. Georgia has a good reputation for ethical hunting and wildlife management. Our laws protect native animals from hunters during breeding season so they can repopulate. But as raccoon and possum hunting has become less popular, these critters have become common sights on private property where they can wreak havoc on everything from nesting birds to garbage bins. On a bill to allow raccoons and possum hunting year round, I joined team raccoon/possum when the head of the Georgia Wildlife Federation testified that this bill would likely make little to no difference in solving the problem because there are no longer enough hunters interested in targeting raccoon and possums to control the population. But the bill passed 5-4 with the Chair casting the deciding vote.
Some Bad Bills Got Stopped
Cell phones in Cars. It’s very unusual for a bill to be killed on the Senate floor. But this week, the Senate voted down SB 206, a bill that would allow drivers to touch cell phones in mounted devices while stopped at traffic lights and stop signs. This bill would have weakened Georgia’s “Hands-Free law” passed in 2018 that prohibits drivers from using their cell phones while driving. The Republican bill author argued that this was not a partisan bill. He was right — both Republicans and Democratic Senators voted against it!
Next week, Monday is a committee day and Tuesday is Crossover Day, the last day for bills to pass at least one chamber in order to continue on the journey to becoming law this year. If a bill does not pass in either the House or Senate, it is considered dead until it is re-filed next year.
Crossover Day is always one of the longest of the session, often lasting well into the evening hours. It is anyone’s guess how long we’ll be on the Senate floor that day! You can always tune in to the House or Senate floor sessions via the Georgia General Assembly website here: https://www.legis.ga.gov/.