The speed at which bills move through the legislative process in the Georgia General Assembly has averaged around 2 – 5 bills per day (bpd) since January. However, the pace increased considerably last Thursday, when we experienced a gust of 26 bpd. Monday, with Hurricane Crossover in full force, we hit 75 bpd. Those of us monitoring the storm at the Capitol held on tight as some pretty bad bills blew through!
Surveying the Damage
Tuesday morning after Crossover I awoke thinking, “What just happened?” It was Friday before I could fully survey the damage, determining what had been destroyed, and what was still left standing.
Surge of Tort Reform Was Held Back
Hurricane Crossover started with a slew of bills aimed at chipping away people’s ability to access the courts to seek damages when harmed by big corporations. Republicans have been making this their priority since they took power in 2005. This year, with Republicans battling amongst themselves, and Democrats siding with the Republicans who DO want to preserve access to the courts, these tort bills were ultimately tabled, weakened by floor amendments, or never brought to the floor for a vote.
Bigwigs and Landlords Remain Accountable: Two bills (SB 200 and 186) were tabled early on, presumably because they didn’t have enough votes to pass. SB 200 would have shielded high-ranking government officials and corporate executives from giving depositions in civil cases. SB 186, entitled the “Georgia Landowners Protection Act,” (renamed by Democrats as “Slumlord and Absentee Landlord Protection Bill”), gave property owners immunity and made it far more difficult for people injured on a property to sue. SB 186 stood in direct contrast to HB 404, a tenants rights bill backed by House Speaker Burns that requires rental properties to be “fit for human habitation.”
Trucking Insurance Companies Still On the Hook: SB 191 and 203 sheltered trucking companies from liability and lowered safety standards, endangering Georgia motorists. SB 191 lowered qualifications for truck drivers and SB 203 increased the number of hours truckers are allowed to drive. Both included language to destroy Georgia’s “direct action” statute that allows injured parties to sue trucking companies’ insurers directly, same as with other car crashes. These bills were tabled or weakened with floor amendments.
Public Schools Took a Hit
The entire time I’ve served in the Senate, Democrats and rural legislators (who have few private schools in their districts) have been able to join forces to defeat school voucher bills. This time I was shocked at the party line vote on SB 233 which allows Georgia students to use $6,000 of public school funds to pay for private school.
A last-minute Republican floor amendment limiting vouchers to students zoned for bottom quartile schools helped the bill pass this year. Republicans never estimated the cost of the bill, but Democrats estimated that if only 2% of Georgia students apply for these vouchers, it would blow a more than $200 million dollar hole in state public school funds. Combined with existing tax credit scholarships and a decades-old funding formula, Georgia public schools will take another financial hit if this bill passes the House.
Damaging Transgender Treatment Bill Almost Escapes a Vote
All day Monday I waited with dread for SB 140, a bill that bans hormones and surgeries for transgender youth. As we inched closer to the bill being called up, the activity in the room changed. People filled the gallery, and reporters joined us in the chamber. At the last minute the leadership delayed the vote, tabling the remainder of the bills. This common practice used during Crossover Day and Sine Die allows the leadership to more tightly control which bills get a vote.
Throughout the day, we got updates on which bills would be called, five bills at a time. SB 140 kept appearing on the updates, but didn’t get called. I became hopeful it wouldn’t get called at all when I checked with the Lt. Governor who told me, “I don’t know, Sally. I’m not sure it’s going to come up. There are disagreements.” I could tell from the periodic huddles that the Republicans were arguing over amendments.
Unfortunately, SB 140 came up just after 10 pm. In my speech against the bill, I talked about the Standards of Care for transgender youth that have been recently rewritten, with a heavy emphasis on providing young people with individualized care and counseling before starting treatment.
“The problem I have with this bill is that It only addresses what we WON’T do for our children,” I said. “We need to focus on what we CAN do for these kids…Going forward, let’s all bring some humility to this issue. Let’s admit what we do and what we don’t know. And when we don’t, let’s ask someone who does – before we take action.”
Unfortunately, the Republican block stuck together and passed the bill. Now it goes to the House for consideration by the House Committee on Public Health. It is my understanding that Chairwoman Sharon Cooper does not want this bill to pass, but she is being lobbied hard by extremist groups. Please call and politely encourage her to stand firm. If you have time, call the other committee members as well.
Additional Bills of Note that Blew through the Senate
School Accreditation: Most of the Crossover Day bills were non controversial and easily passed. SB 202 is a bill that focuses school accreditation on teaching, learning, and finance measures. In recent years, accreditation agencies have spent much of their time diving into school board dysfunction. The bill also requires that accreditation agencies focus on either school accreditation or remediation, but not both, eliminating a conflict of interest that’s existed for years.
Literacy: SB 211 establishes a Georgia Council on Literacy to ensure a statewide approach to ensuring kids can read by 3rd grade.
Fuel Tax: SB 146 allows the state to collect a fuel tax at electric vehicle charging stations like we do for gas.
Health Network Adequacy: SB 20 requires health insurance companies to ensure they have enough doctors, mental health professionals, and pharmacies in their network to ensure that people throughout their coverage area can access their benefits.
Women to the Rescue
This week Representative Shea Roberts and I co-chaired an “unofficial “ hearing on the Reproductive Freedom Act. Knowing that Republican leadership would never allow a real hearing on these bills, we wanted to give women a chance to tell their stories about how Georgia’s abortion ban has affected them.
The most heart wrenching stories were those told by clinic workers who are faced with telling women they have to travel out of state to get an abortion. Physicians testified that they can no longer practice within their Standards of Care in emergency situations like when a pregnant woman’s water breaks too early in the pregnancy. Doctors now have to wait until patients are at risk and “sick enough,” before they can offer an abortion.
Repairing the Damage: Voting 101 for High School Seniors
In 2021 I filed SB 240, requiring high schools to offer instruction on how to vote. At the time, Lt. Governor Duncan suggested I create a pilot program in my district as a starting point, but the pandemic made that impossible until now.
This year, I partnered with Representative Karen Lupton and the Dekalb Voter Registration and Elections Office to create a Voting 101 class as part of Chamblee High School’s Adulting Day. It was fun to watch the kids learn how to use the voting equipment. It gave me some ideas about how to move my vision for voting education forward in the future.
The Forecast Ahead
With only nine legislative days left in the session, the winds will remain brisk. Bills that didn’t make it on Crossover Day stay alive for next year, or could be added to bills that moved forward on Crossover Day. It’s time to keep our eyes peeled and remain vigilant for whatever storms might come our way.