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!

Despite having spent countless hours in Committee meetings this session discussing election bills, the bill that was signed into law last Thursday was never vetted by the Senate. It completely skipped the committee process, and only had a minimal amount of debate on the floor. That’s because when the Senate originally passed SB 202, it was a two-page bill about absentee ballot applications. The House completely stripped that language and replaced it with 98 pages of various other election changes. Thursday’s Senate vote on SB 202 was a motion to “agree” to the changes made to the bill by the House. The bill, as passed by the House, was placed on our desks only one hour prior to the vote on the motion. Neither the public, nor even the Senators considering it, had the opportunity to really read the bill before it was signed into law. I voted to “disagree” with the changes made by the House. By all accounts, this was a bad bill, but Georgia’s legislative process needs to reform more than its election laws.

The best part of SB 202 is what’s NOT in it. Your phone calls, emails, postcards, and protests forced Republicans to back off of some of their most damaging proposals like banning absentee voting for most Georgians, restricting weekend early voting, and eliminating automatic voter registration. Your advocacy made a big difference. Don’t forget that.

How Voting Will Change

Absentee Voting

Anyone can still vote absentee — you don’t need an “excuse”.

Timing for Requesting your Ballot — Instead of being able to request your ballot 180 days prior to election day, you must now wait until less than 78 days before the election. Also, you must now request your ballot before 11 days prior to election day. The Elections office must mail your ballot between 25 and 29 days before the election (this used to be 45 – 49 days).

How to Request your Ballot — Your ballot request will be authenticated by elections staff by matching your driver’s license number (if you have one), rather than your signature. It is unclear as to whether the Secretary of State will continue to offer the on-line portal for requesting a ballot. If you do not have a driver’s license or State ID number, various other forms of ID can be substituted, but they will need to be copied and mailed or uploaded electronically. This will create a hardship for possibly thousands of voters who need to vote absentee and don’t drive, such as the elderly, disabled, and young people. 

Voting your Ballot — Ballot drop boxes have now been codified in Georgia law and every county is required to have at least one dropbox. But their availability will be greatly reduced from what we saw last year. First, they will only be located inside advanced voting locations, and only available during voting hours. They will not be available at all starting the Friday before election day (end of advanced voting). The number of dropboxes will be limited to 1 per 100,000 active registered voters. In 2020, Fulton County had 38 drop boxes. Now they can only use 8. Dekalb had 32 drop boxes and now they can only use 5. 

The error-prone “signature match” previously used has been eliminated. Your actual ballot will be authenticated using your driver’s license number, or, if you don’t have one, the last four digits of your social security number. 

On the outside envelope and hidden under the flap, you will provide your printed name, signature, date of birth, driver’s license number (or last four digits of your social security number if no driver’s license). It is now a felony for any unqualified person to unseal the ballot envelope.

The signed oath, under penalty of false swearing, will include the statement, “I have marked and sealed this ballot in private and have not allowed any unauthorized person to observe the voting of this ballot or how this ballot was voted . . . and that I will not give or transfer this ballot to any person not authorized by law to deliver or return absentee ballots.” Authorized persons are the same as in-person voting and include a person lawfully assisting the elector, and/or the elector’s child under 18 years of age. All this will be spelled out in the instructions.

Watch the law — Penalties for illegally handling an absentee ballot request or illegally returning someone else’s ballot are a misdemeanor and a felony, respectively. This list of qualified people includes: mother, father, grandparent, aunt, uncle, sister, brother, spouse, son, daughter, niece, nephew, grandchild, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, father-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law and sister-in-law of the age of 18 or over.

 

Early/Advanced Voting

Weekend Voting — Until now, Georgia law required a minimum of one Saturday of early voting, but counties could choose to offer more. The new law requires two Saturday early voting days. This will expand early voting in counties that previously only offered one Saturday. Originally the bill restricted early weekend voting to one Saturday and one optional Saturday or Sunday. But thanks to public pressure, this was changed to allow for two optional Sunday early voting days in addition to the two mandatory Saturdays. Hours can be set as 9am – 5pm or 7am – 7pm.

There appears to be a requirement that early/advanced voting locations be limited to “government buildings,” but this needs to be clarified.

 

Election Day Voting

Punishing Out-of-Precinct Voters — Previously, if a voter ended up at the wrong precinct on Election Day, they were either directed to their correct location or allowed to vote using a provisional ballot. This was important because many voters don’t have enough time during the workday to make it to the second precinct. More than 10,000 provisional ballots were cast in the last general election and 8,000 were cast in the Senate run-off, many of whom were voters of color. The new law automatically invalidates out-of-precinct provisional ballots if they are cast before 5pm. To counter this, I have filed SB 314 that gives counties the authority to allow voters to vote at any polling location on Election Day.

Refreshments while in Line — You might want to pack your own water and snacks when you head out to vote. Volunteers can no longer hand out water and snacks to voters who are standing in line — unless they are 150 feet away from the polling place. However, according to the new law, poll officers can “make available self-service water from an unattended receptacle to an elector waiting in line to vote.” 

 

Run-off Elections

Reduced Run-Off Elections Time  The new law requires run-off elections to be held 28 days after the general election, instead of nine weeks. Ballots for military and overseas voters will include “instant run-off” selections (rank choice voting) where the voter chooses a second choice candidate upfront. The shortened run-off period will likely restrict early voting to one week and it may be difficult for election offices to process large volumes of absentee ballots.

 

How Election Administration will change

Election offices have a challenging task ahead of them to properly implement the hodgepodge of new voting administration laws. A large portion of SB 202 is dedicated to covering these changes. Not properly implementing the new laws can result in a state takeover of a local elections office. Here are some highlights:

Absentee Ballot Processing — Thanks to Senator Jen Jordan, county elections staff can now begin processing absentee ballots — opening envelopes, checking ID, etc. — early to allow for a quicker vote count on Election Day.

Improved Notification of Precinct Changes — Thanks to Senator Nikki Merritt, county elections officials must place visible 4 foot by 4 foot signage at polling locations that have changed. This was an issue for both Gwinnett and Dekalb voters in 2020.

Reduced Certification Time and Continuous Counting — County elections staff will now have less time to certify results and will be required to count votes around the clock to speed up results times. This gives voters and elections officials less time to cure provisional ballots. 

Mobile Voting Ban — Mobile voting units are now only allowed to be used in an emergency. 

Private Funding Ban and Unfunded Mandates — The bill bans counties from accepting private funding and other support, all while creating expensive unfunded mandates like using special security paper, new ballot design specifications for absentee ballots and having to count ballots without breaks. In 2020, 43 Georgia counties, including many rural counties, received over 32 million dollars in grant funding. State and local governments will need to provide adequate funding to fill these gaps. Despite these unfunded mandates, the author of SB 202 never requested a fiscal note that documents costs to local governments, as is required by law if expenses to local governments exceed $5 million. This was challenged in the Senate, but the Lt. Governor overruled the objection and allowed the bill to proceed without a fiscal note .

Poll officer flexibility — Poll officers can now serve in counties that adjoin their county of residence. However, they must demonstrate that there is unmet need in the adjoining county and that county of residency can be adequately staffed.

Election Superintendent Discretion — Gives the election superintendent discretion of the ratio of 250 votes to one machine during non-general elections.

Reporting of numbers and chain of custody — Reporting requirements to the Secretary of State office are greatly increased as well as penalties. For instance,  “If a superintendent fails to report the returns of verified and accepted absentee ballots by the day following the election at 5pm, the State Election Board may convene an independent performance review board.”

 

Secretary of State and Legislative Power over Local Election Boards

SB 202 greatly increases the power of the legislature over Local Election Boards.

State Elections Board and Secretary of State’s Office Takeover — The new law demotes the Secretary of State as the State Election Board chair to a non-voting ex-officio member, and replaces the Chair with a legislative appointment. The Chair is supposed to be non-partisan, defined as not having been active with a political party nor having donated to or campaigned for a candidate during the two years prior to becoming the Chair, and while serving as Chair. 

State Takeover of County Elections — The State Elections Board, county governing authority (county commission), or members of the county’s legislative delegation, can petition for a temporary takeover of a county elections board, replacing the entire board with an individual appointed by the State Elections Board, who then has the authority to hire and fire any and all elections staff. 

 

Change in Composition of Local Election Boards — Though not part of SB 202, about a dozen legislators have passed local legislation changing the way election board members are appointed, for instance by all Republican county commissioners, resulting in more partisan boards. This, combined with a more political State Elections Board, is concerning.

 

Upcoming Events

Three more days until Sine Die, the end of the 2021 legislative session! Monday is the 39th day and we have about 60 bills scheduled for Senate floor votes. Tuesday is reserved for committee work, and Wednesday, March 31, is the final day.

End of Session Legislative Town Hall — Our Senate District 40 House Representatives and I were so sorry to have to postpone our town hall event at the last minute. As is often the case at the Capitol, our schedules can change without much notice. Both the House and Senate floor sessions went into the evening. We will reschedule as soon as we can coordinate calendars. 

Fully Fund NOW/COMP in Five Press Conference — On Tuesday, March 30, I will be holding a press conference with members of the disability community, community leaders, and allies to demand that Governor Kemp fully fund the NOW/COMP Medicaid waivers waiting list over the next 5 years. This event is open to all that wish to attend and we hope you’ll join us at 10 am by the South stairs inside the Capitol. 

 

Looking Ahead

When asked about the new law, Black Voters Matter founder Cliff Albright told the AJC, “It’s always going to have an impact. The question is whether we’re going to be able to overcome that impact. We won recent elections not because there wasn’t voter suppression, but because we were able to out-organize it.”

Our future focus needs to be preparing voters to work around the new voting requirements and channeling our advocacy efforts to demand transparency in advance of the upcoming special redistricting session later this year. SB 202 was only part one of Republicans rigging elections. Redistricting will be part two. 

 

Upcoming Events

Join our SD 40 Legislative Town Hall Meeting on Thursday, March 25th at 7:00 pm so we can answer your questions before Sine Die, the last day of session. Once again, we’ll be joined by several SD 40 House Representatives.

Register for the meeting here:
https://www.eventbrite.com/e/end-of-session-legislative-town-hall-tickets-147405498815

The Final Four

The Georgia General Assembly has its own version of March Madness around this time of the session. With only four more legislative days left, we’re starting to feel the heat. Everyone is tired, but we must keep our guard up, as this is when bills get hijacked and sneaky amendments get added. Last minute surprises are the norm. We have to keep our eyes peeled and be on our game if we want the best outcome for the people of Georgia.

Mourning the Asian Spa Shooting Victims

Our hearts broke midweek as we learned of the horrible spa murders in and around Atlanta. This is a tragic manifestation of the example set by too many of our leaders who have used racist rhetoric to scapegoat, attack, and antagonize Asian Americans. Words have consequences — hate crimes against Asian Americans have doubled in the last year. And it’s yet another example of the continuing epidemic of gun violence. There’s been no movement of gun safety legislation in the legislature this session, despite many bills that were filed. I’m grateful that Congresswoman Lucy McBath continues to push her bill to close background check loopholes at the federal level.

Tragedies like these reaffirm my commitment to continue to listen, learn, and use my position to dismantle the inherent racism in our policies and fight for better gun laws.

Playing Defense on Voting

The hijinks on voting bills have already begun. In the House, SB 202, originally a two-page voting bill, was stripped of its contents and replaced by 94 pages of an amended HB 531, the House omnibus bill. One new provision allows as few as four legislators to petition to wipe out an entire county elections board and replace it with a single election supervisor who would have the authority to fire and replace the county’s elections staff. This is part of a disturbing trend of about a dozen counties filing local legislation to reconstitute their county elections boards, some to gain tighter partisan control.

In the Senate, the Ethics Committee held two hearings on HB 531, the voting omnibus bill from the House that limits weekend voting and absentee ballot drop box access. Some versions of this bill invalidate provisional ballots for out-of-precinct voting. Every Election Day, thousands of voters go to the wrong precinct due to confusion with early voting sites, changes in polling locations, or poll books that have incorrect data. When this happens, voters can either go to their correct polling location or cast a provisional ballot where only their statewide or federal office votes are counted because the voter may not be in the correct district to vote in down ballot races. Chairman Barry Fleming, HB 531’s author, seems to believe that punishing voters’ innocent mistakes is the way to correct the problem rather than recognizing how hard it can be for voters to get from one location to the other during a workday.

Substitutes for both SB 202 and HB 531 continue to be offered and I was back in the Senate Ethics Committee on Monday at 9:15 am to hear the latest HB 531 substitute. Ultimately, both bills must pass the respective chambers and then they will be combined in a conference committee of just six hand-chosen legislators — three Senators and three Representatives. Both the House and Senate will have to pass the combined bill.

Blocking Shots: You’re Making a Difference

I was thrilled to reconnect with my DeKalb Democrat friends (picture below) and all of the activists and voters who came to testify at the Ethics committee hearings this week. The Capitol has been so empty this session. It really lifted my spirits to be able to share my experience at the Capitol with constituents and to see the public as an active part of the process again.

The protests, calls and emails to legislators and the business community have made a big difference. So far, there’s been no further movement on SB 241, the Senate bill to ban no-excuse absentee voting, and we are seeing some positive changes to the weekend early voting provisions. This week, the Atlanta Metro Chamber of Commerce made a strong statement opposing limitations on early voting and drop box access, and onerous voter ID laws.

But it is not over until it’s over. We’ve got to keep our eye on this ball. Please keep up the pressure so that we can keep voting as accessible as possible for everyone.

Honoring our State’s MVPs

Every year, members of the Georgia Women’s Legislative Caucus nominate women from their districts who exemplify excellence in community service, a tradition begun by my former colleague, Representative Nikki T. Randall, who was a strong advocate for women and families. This Tuesday, we held our Yellow Rose Celebration Breakfast which we worked hard to adapt to a virtual format to celebrate our honorees.

Because this was no ordinary year, we chose to honor frontline and healthcare workers who are making a difference during the pandemic. I nominated Alexandra Nicole Faerber, a young nurse from Brookhaven who had been caring for patients at Emory’s Long Term Acute Care Hospital when she contracted the virus and tragically passed away last spring. After sesion, I look forward to delivering Alexandra’s award, as well as a Privileged Resolution passed by the Senate, to Alexandra’s parents, Febby Jo and Craig Faerber.

Strategizing with Campus Workers

I’ve been periodically meeting with members of the United Campus Workers of Georgia, Local 3265. This is a group of undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants who play an integral role in our university system as teachers and researchers. They are paid stipends and receive class credit, but most are underpaid and many live in poverty. The UCWGA advocates for fair wages, benefits, and workplace safety. They’re interested in supporting my Part-time University Fees legislation and had some good ideas for how it could apply to them. This session and last, I filed a resolution urging the Senate to resume cost of living adjustments for University System workers which were abandoned in 1990.

Keeping Score: Bills on the Floor

We haven’t had many bills on the floor since Crossover Day, and most of them have been non-controversial. That will change very soon.

The Slam Dunks:

Medicaid Enrollment with SNAP Applications: HB 163 automatically enrolls eligible children in Medicaid when their family enrolls in SNAP. This speeds up the process for children to get Medicaid benefits.

Trust fund Earmarks: You may remember that last year, Georgians voted on a constitutional amendment that would allow money to be dedicated, or earmarked, to certain issues. HB 511 earmarks a variety of fees like the solid waste fee to the Solid Waste Trust Fund, the tire disposal fee to the Hazardous Waste Trust Fund, and the divorce filing fee and probate court fees to the State Children’s Trust Fund. Several other fees are included in the bill.

Expanding the Foster Child Tax Credit: HB 114 increases the child tax credit for children adopted from foster care from $2,000 to $6,000 for the first five years after adoption. This helps incentivize foster parents to give foster children forever homes.

Chamblee City Council District Bill: I filed SB 294 for the city of Chamblee to add a new City Council district to cover property that they annexed in recent years. It now goes to the House to pass before the end of the session.

The Fouls:

Increase Standard Deduction: HB 593 increases the standard deduction from $4,600 to $5,400 for single people, from $3,000 to $3,500 for married people filed separately, and from $6,000 to $7,100 for a married couple filing jointly.

The reality is that this tiny tax cut won’t make a difference to most Georgians. But the money it represents could make an enormous difference to 7,000 families with disabled children who have been on the Medicaid Waiver waiting list for decades. Without the Medicaid waiver, these families must pay to care for their disabled children which is as costly as paying for college every year for the rest of their child’s lives. Instead, I favor a more targeted tax cut for lower income Georgians through a state Earned Income Tax Credit, a bill introduced by Senator Elena Parent, which now could bring in matching dollars from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan. I spoke against this bill during the vote and urged us instead to pass SB 208, a bill I filed to eliminate the Medicaid waiver waiting list within 5 years.

Looking Ahead: Georgia Scores Big with The American Rescue Plan

This week, the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute briefed the Working Families Caucus on the benefits Georgia will receive from the American Rescue Plan from the Biden administration. Despite Governor Kemp’s complaints, the $8.2 billion that the state is set to receive could be a complete game changer for so many Georgians. The money is desperately needed. Governor’s proposed FY 2021/2022 budget maintains $1.2 billion in budget cuts from FY 2020, with the majority of cuts ($675 million) coming from public education. The aid can help fill the void, directly benefit more than 5 million Georgia families through Child Tax and Earned Income Tax Credits, and fund other important priorities like rural broadband and Medicaid expansion.

The question is how Governor Kemp will choose to spend the money once he has it in hand, how transparent will he be, and if the legislature will have any input into how the money is spent. Stay tuned.

In service,
Sally
In the Senate, speaking from the “well” is an important part of getting the message out for the Minority Party. What is said in the well is frequently watched and reported by the press.
Rep. Kimberly Alexander and I have worked very closely together this session to make sure the work of the Women’s Legislative Caucus could move forward during the pandemic.
Senate members of the Women’s Legislative Caucus.
It was so good to see the DeKalb Democrats at this Capitol this week. They marched from the King MARTA Station to the Capitol, then joined the DeKalb House & Senate delegations for a press conference on the south step
It’s been a year . . .

One year ago, life as we knew it came to a screeching halt. But as the earth continued its journey around the sun, millions of Pandemic Warriors have risen up to tend to the crisis. They have cared for the sick, nurtured the bereaved, fed the hungry, kept the grocery stores open and the shelves full. And working quietly in their labs, scientists have been working molecular miracles, bringing us hope that all will soon be well again. As I said when this all started, “We have the right stuff.” Let’s hope we’re nearing the end.

In Georgia, vaccine eligibility has expanded, which is good news, but finding an appointment can be a bit of a scavenger hunt, to say the least. Particularly in the metro area, finding an appointment takes skill and time. If you’ve got some of both these, please think about who in your community might need help, and reach out. Last week a constituent helped me find appointments for a family who had a medical emergency and needed help. We all need each other right now.

Where to find vaccines:

Check these sites frequently as the information is constantly changing. When you see an appointment, grab it! Stay in touch with social media because resources for finding appointments are changing daily. Check your own healthcare provider, hospitals, and county health departments. If you can travel, vaccines are more readily available outside the Atlanta metro area. If you are fully vaccinated, considering offering to drive someone if they need help getting outside Atlanta. I’ve heard many people are getting vaccinated in Alabama, so check the Alabama public health sites too (eligibility differs).

Rental Assistance: If you or someone you know needs help paying rent due to job or income loss during the pandemic, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs recently launched a rental assistance program with the help of federal funding. Consult this website, https://georgiarentalassistance.ga.gov/,  to see if you qualify. Landlords can apply too.

Crossover Day Gets Short-Shrift

There’s an ebb and flow to the legislative session. Everything starts slow and suddenly builds to a frenzy around Crossover Day, the last day a bill can pass one chamber and still advance to the other chamber this session. After Crossover, things slow down again until it builds to the next crescendo on Sine Die, the last day of the session.

This year’s Crossover Day was short changed in many ways. We had to spend precious time fighting bills that create barriers to voting and therefore lacked time for real problems like vaccination availability, unemployment, and healthcare — a message I shared in a speech from the well that morning (https://youtu.be/VD5jPq389z8). Crossover Day was also literally cut short when the Lt. Governor unexpectedly ended the floor session early, leaving many bills both good and bad untouched.

Voting Bills Face an Uncertain Future 

The Crossover Day Rules Calendar was full of bad voting bills, but we ended up voting on just a few. SB 241, the Senate voting omnibus bill which mainly eliminates absentee voting for most Georgians, prompted a three and a half hour debate. Almost every member of the Democratic Caucus spoke against it.

But not every Republican supported SB 241. Lt. Governor Duncan refused to preside over a vote that he strongly disagreed with. Four Republican Senators “walked,” which means they left the chamber and didn’t vote, a direct result of the pressure they felt from constituents who voiced their strong opposition to the bill. Ultimately, the bill passed by only one vote. Once it passed, the chamber was very quiet. There was no celebration. Everyone knew it was close. Everyone knew it was bad.

When the Lt. Governor ended Crossover Day, he left 7 bad voting bills on the table, including the most egregious one that would end automatic voter registration at the DMV, making it harder to register to vote and significantly decreasing young voter participation. The downside was that my bill to educate high school seniors about voting also didn’t make it to the floor. When I asked the Lt. Governor’s Policy Director why it was not brought up, he said it’s because they don’t like bills that put state requirements on school systems. He said that even without a bill, the Lt. Governor would work with me during the interim to implement these classes at a some high schools. My son, who was recently a first-time voter himself, told me, “It’s a fight worth fighting.” So I’ll push on.

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

HB 531, the House omnibus bill that limits weekend voting, restricts ballot drop box hours, and criminalizes handing out food and water on hours-long lines at the polls, now crosses over to the Senate while SB 241 crosses to the House. Eventually they will be combined into one bill through a Conference Committee.

What happened on Crossover Day proves that pressure works. With a full court press, we could significantly affect what gets passed, or even stop these bills from making it to the Governor’s desk completely.

Get Loud with GA’s Business Community: Some companies and the Metro Atlanta Chamber have made statements in support of voting rights, but as Cliff Albright, head of Black Voters Matter said, we don’t need empty statements. We need action. These companies can have enormous impact by simply refusing to donate to legislators that support these bills. Contact these businesses (form) and urge them to stop HB 531 and SB 241.

Get Loud with Legislators: Contact legislators on the Senate Ethics Committee to urge them to reject HB 531 and members of the House Special Committee on Election Integrity to oppose SB 241. You can find contact information here.

Other Bills that Crossed Over

Amending Soil Amendments: When SB 260, a bill that prohibits the Agricultural Commissioner from regulating soil amendments made from forestry byproducts, came up in our Natural Resources Committee, a representative from the Sierra Club mentioned to me that black liquor, a toxic byproduct of pulp digestion, sometimes leaks into waterways. I raised the issue in Committee and then drafted and introduced a floor amendment to continue to regulate byproducts of pulp digestion. As a courtesy, I gave Chairman Harper, the bill’s sponsor and the Natural Resources Chair, a heads up and he accepted the amendment as “friendly” which allowed it to pass. This is a good example of how Republicans and Democrats can still work together to improve legislation, even during these politically polarized times.

Creating a Chief Labor Officer: This turned out to be a rare bill that had support and opposition on both sides of the aisle. SB 156 creates a new Chief Labor Officer position for the Georgia Department of Labor that would oversee and improve its operations to address the department’s inability to adequately serve Georgians during the pandemic. Some legislators worried that it created a bad precedent to allow the legislature to bypass the authority of elected statewide officers. While I understand that concern, I felt that this specific situation was so dire, we need to do whatever we can to improve it. I worked with Senator Blake Tillery to whip Democratic votes for this bill while he whipped the Republican vote. Ultimately, we got it passed.

Signage for Polling Location Changes: SB 253, freshman Senator Nikki Merritt’s bill, requires signage at former polling locations to notify voters of polling location changes. This was a major issue in Dekalb County in 2020 when several polling locations changed due to the pandemic and voters received very late notice from the county. Volunteers went and sat at polling locations to notify voters of the change.

Repealing Citizens Arrest: While the Senate was weighed down in voting bills on Crossover Day, the House had a chance to celebrate a successful bipartisan vote to repeal Georgia’s citizens arrest law prompted by the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County. This effort is supported by the Governor, many Republicans, and all Democrats. I look forward to supporting this bill when it comes to the Senate floor in the coming weeks.

Looking ahead: The “Big” Budget

Committee meetings have begun in the Senate for the 2021/2022 “big” budget, but they’ve been overshadowed by voting bills. It’s easy to forget that Georgia’s budget was slashed to the bone last year, even before the pandemic.  And in 2018 the legislature passed a tax cut, counting on revenue that never came in. Governor Kemp would like us to forget all this. And this year the House has already passed another tax cut, all while 7000 disabled Georgians remain on waiting lists for Medicaid Community Care Waivers.

Take Action — NOW!
  • If eligible, get your vaccine!
  • Help your neighbors who need help finding vaccines
  • If vaccinated, offer rides to vaccine sites (they might be long drives)
  • Contact members of the business community and ask them to take a stand against the anti-voting bills (see above “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over”)
  • Contact the Republican members of the Committees hearing SB 241 and HB 531 (see above “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over”)

The emotional impact of bad bills was mitigated a bit this week by some personal legislative successes, the hope brought on by a new COVID-19 vaccine, and some warm and sunny weather.

The Game of Chairs

What happens when two powerful Committee Chairs each support one bill, but oppose the other? A third Chair might try to broker a deal! This is what happened this week when I was called into a meeting with the Senate Rules Chair, the Lt. Governor’s Chief-of-Staff and the Senate Ethics Chair.

Part-Time University Fees: At the center of the controversy was the bill I filed regarding university fees, SB 239. 

Most part-time university students in Georgia are required to pay full-time fees when taking only two classes. It typically takes eight years for these part-time students to complete a degree, so with all these additional fees, they end up paying thousands of extra dollars by graduation day.

This bill, supported by the Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, brought opposition from both the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents and Senator Max Burns, the Ethics Committee Chair and a former college administrator. After a 45-minute discussion, Higher Ed Chair Senator Tippins remarked that this was the most discussion the legislature has had about University fees for the last ten years, during which time fees have escalated, becoming a much larger percentage of the total cost of higher education. The bill passed out of committee 5-3. 

High School Voting Education: SB 240, my bill that allows local school boards to teach high school seniors about the voting process as a condition of graduation, is co-sponsored by Senator Max Burns, the same Senator that opposed the University fees bill. It initially got a good reception in the Education and Youth Committee where members offered several suggestions including checking with the Secretary of State’s office about the feasibility of bringing voting machines to the schools. When I did, I learned about the logistical challenges they had setting up the machines for demonstrations to the legislature. So I changed the bill to a pilot program with a rural school system and an urban school system, so we could test the program before going statewide. 

But Chairman Tippins, who supported my University fees bill, opposed the voting education bill, saying that voting education should be part of broader Civics education. The bill narrowly passed 5-4 with the Education and Youth Chair casting the tie-breaking vote. The Education & Youth Chair also has a bill creating the Georgia Commission of Civics Education, which can eventually deal with this issue as a whole. 

Let’s Make a Deal: Giving the Rules Chairman a heads up before your bills come up in his Committee is an informal part of the process. When I went to meet with Rules Chairman Mullis, I found myself in a powerful pow-wow with him, Chairman Burns, and the Lt. Governor’s Chief-of-Staff. My part-time University fees bill had gotten notice and support from the Lt. Governor and the Governor. But Chairman Burns once again argued against it. As a compromise, Chairman Mullis offered to move my Voter Education bill to the Senate floor in exchange for turning the University fees bill into a Study Committee which would give us more time to take a deeper dive into the issue. I support the idea of working more closely with the Board of Regents and Chairman Burns thought this was a good way to signal to them that we were serious about fee reform. I accepted the compromise. 

I presented SB 240 to the Rules Committee and I’m excited about presenting it for a vote on the Senate floor this Monday, which is Crossover Day. 

 

Other Bills on the Move

To give us time to work on bills in Committee, we only had three Chamber sessions this week, but they were long, and covered a wide variety of bills. Here’s a sampling of bills the Senate passed this week.

Bills I Supported:

Emergency Insurance Claims: Democratic freshman Senator Michelle Au presented her first bill that would require insurance companies to cover emergency care charges regardless of the final diagnosis. This will make it harder for insurance companies to reject claims on the basis that the diagnosis was not a true emergency. 

Stalking Victim Protection: This Democratic bill from freshman Senator Kim Jackson allows victims with stalking protection orders or whose stalker has been arrested and released on bond or probation to break their rental lease without penalties. 

Increasing Penalties for Posting Revenge Porn: This bill from Minority Senate Whip Harold Jones would make it a felony to post or electronically distribute photos or videos that portray sexually explicit conduct or nudity of an adult in an attempt to harass or abuse or cause financial loss to the victim.

Establishing the Pecan as the Official State Nut: We had a lot of fun with this one, presented by freshman Senator Carden Summers of Cordele. There was serious opposition from Mr. Peanut, but the bill passed unanimously, 51 – 0. Much of the discussion focused on whether the correct pronunciation is PEE-can or Puh-KAHN. We were informed that  Puh-KAHNs are the nuts that bring in a higher price.

Bills I Opposed:

School Vouchers: This bill dramatically expands eligibility for special needs school vouchers to kids with special education IEPs (Individualized Educational Plans) and 504 plans, which are much easier to obtain than IEP plans. In general, private school vouchers drain millions of dollars from our already underfunded public schools, and they only cover a fraction of the cost of private schools so they don’t help parents that need them the most. Children in rural areas sometimes have no private school options. Last year, rural Republicans and the Democrats defeated a vouchers bill. But when several rural Republicans retired, they were replaced with freshmen Senators who are more apt to vote party line. In addition, Democrats still have two senators out with health issues, so we were unable to defeat the bill this year.

Charter Schools: SB 59 requires local school boards to provide cash payments to locally approved charter schools. While I support non-profit special mission charter schools, I thought this bill left it wide open for local school boards to have to financially support for-profit charter schools.

Sports Betting: The Senate voted on two bills to allow sports betting in Georgia. The first bill was to amend the Georgia Constitution to allow for sports betting. A Constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers. And the second bill would legalize sports betting through the Georgia Lottery Corporation. One of the bills, in an effort to obtain Democratic support, tied revenues to educational scholarships. However, I believe public education should be funded through progressive taxation, rather than depending on regressive structures such as gambling revenues.

 

A Word on Healthcare

With voting bills dominating the session, discussion about health care in Georgia is getting short changed. In the Women’s Legislative Caucus, we heard about the severe nursing shortage in Georgia. Nurses are in high demand across the country, but other states offer much higher pay and greater benefits than Georgia. This is one factor that has hampered our COVID vaccine roll out.

In the Working Families Caucus, we heard about the status of Governor Kemp’s Medicaid Waivers. In 2019, Georgia passed the Governor’s Patients First Act. One part of that plan is a 1115 Medicaid waiver that extends Medicaid to only a small portion of low income Georgians who must prove they are working. Objecting to the work requirements, the Biden administration has put that part of the plan on hold and the Governor now has several options to consider, including appealing the decision or renegotiating the waiver without the work requirement. 

The other part of the plan, the 1332 waiver, blocks access to healthcare.gov in favor of a new Georgia online portal that will open the marketplace up to healthcare plans that won’t have to meet the Affordable Care Act’s health requirements, which means there will be cheap junk plans offering fewer benefits. This waiver is now facing litigation and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services could issue new requirements to this waiver which could put it in jeopardy too.

This fact sheet offers a great summary and outlines all the potential scenarios for both Medicaid waivers. https://healthyfuturega.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Waiver_fact.sheet_WFC_2021.pdf

 

Looking Ahead

Crossover Day is on Monday, which always means a long day in the Senate chamber. After Monday, the remainder of this year’s session will focus primarily on considering bills that have passed the House and must now pass the Senate to get to the Governor’s desk for his signature. Wish me luck on SB 240, which will teach High School Seniors how to vote! Then I’ll get busy filing a Senate Resolution for my University Fee Study Committee, a bi-partisan effort with the Rules Chairman.

This week at the Gold Dome, everywhere I turned there were really bad bills. It felt like bombs dropping. And just because you know the bombs are coming doesn’t mean they don’t do major damage when they hit.

Following a particularly bad Committee meeting, a student intern came to me very upset. “Why do you continue to ask questions,” she asked, “when they clearly don’t feel they owe you an answer?” I told her it’s because people expect me to fight. She paused and said, “Yeah, it does make me feel better when you speak up, because they are the questions I want to ask. You’re being my voice, aren’t you?”

This is what keeps me going.

Anti-Voting Bombs in Committee

I’ve been spending a great deal of my time in Ethics Committee meetings where the election bills are debated. These meetings start early — like 7am. And often we don’t get done so we take them up again at 5pm.

I know these bills are very upsetting, so keep this in mind: it’s not over until it’s over. There’s disagreement within the Republican Party about how far to go with these bills, and the Speaker, Lt. Governor and Governor, who all have voices of moderation, have not really weighed in to this process yet. Don’t forget — should these bad bills pass, there will be court cases — and as the Black Caucus told us this week, lawsuits are already being prepared. Lastly, please advocate to your members of Congress, including our newly elected Democrats, to pass HR 1, the For the People Act, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. Both of these federal bills will help counteract many of the damaging state level bills that could ultimately pass this session.

Ending Automatic Voter Registration: This is one of the most egregious anti-voting bills yet, because it’s singular goal is to decrease voter turnout. It’s authored by the powerful Senate Rules Committee Chairman, who stated, “I’m bringing this bill on behalf of my constituents, who have lost confidence in the election system.” I asked him, “how does this bill address their lost confidence?” He simply replied, “It does.” Often called “motor-voter”, this automatic registration system was put in place in 2016 and since then, more than 680,000 Georgians have registered to vote this way, bringing our state total to a record 7 million voters. How is that a bad thing?

Ending “No-Excuse” Absentee Ballots: SB 71, also authored by the Senate Rules Chairman, ends absentee voting for the vast majority of Georgians. Under this bill, only adults 65 and older, the disabled, and out-of-town voters will be able to vote by mail.

The Senate Omnibus Voting Bill: Much like HB 531 in the House, the Senate Republicans introduced SB 241, their own omnibus anti-voting bill. We received it at the last minute, just before the Committee meeting, and it was full of confusing changes and duplicative measures from other voting bills, including limiting absentee voting. One Republican Senator came prepared with an amendment to remove this repeal section, but it wasn’t taken up because the meeting was a hearing.

Anti-Voting Bombs on the Floor

The voting bills that passed the Ethics Committee last week showed up on the Senate floor this week. This included the Absentee Voter ID bill and the State Takeover of Local Elections bill.

Senate Democrats fought hard. From the Senate well (https://youtu.be/4MOWbCMEvTI), I encouraged my colleagues to focus on the real problems voters face instead of the “voter fraud” problems that our state elections officials said don’t exist. My suite-mate, Senator David Lucas, wept at the well as he recalled his fight against voter suppression during his 45 years in office. And our Senate Black Caucus held a press conference. But in the end, we simply don’t have enough votes to stop these bills.

The Big Money Grenade

At the very end of the week, Senate Republicans passed Senate Bill 221 which allows the Governor, Lt. Governor, and certain members of the General Assembly to create “Leadership Committees,” that could raise unlimited funds from special interest groups, foreign actors, or big money donors at any time, including during session. As an example, if the legislature was considering a bill to increase tobacco taxes during session, Phillip Morris could write a huge check to one of these “Leadership Committees” to put a stop to it. Current Georgia law prohibits legislators from raising money during session to prevent this very thing.

In her well speech against the bill, Senator Jen Jordan suggested that this bill be called “The Rules Don’t Apply to Us Act,” “The Incumbency Protection Act,” or the “We Should Be Ashamed Act.”

Higher Education Committee: A Bi-Partisan Moment of Cease-Fire

This week’s Senate Higher Education Committee meeting was a welcome reprieve from all of the contentious issues. We approved several good bills from Republicans and Democrats with unanimous support:

Breaking down Higher Ed Silos: SB 204 is a pilot program that would allow kids to earn their high school degree while also attending technical school. This is a terrific solution for kids who may have had to drop out of high school, or those who may be ready to move on to technical school before they graduate high school. It allows a continuity of education and helps to eliminate the “high school dropout” stigma.

Free Post-Secondary Education for Foster and Adopted Kids: SB 107 waives tuition and fees at Georgia’s technical schools for kids that have been in our foster care system. This will give thousands of kids, most of whom have had a rough start in life, a post-secondary education that they may not otherwise be able to afford.

Attracting HBCU Students: SB 97 allows Georgia’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities to attract talented out of state students by increasing the number of waivers for in-state tuition. Current law allows Georgia’s universities to offer in-state tuition waivers to 2% of their out of state applicants. This bill would raise that to 4% for HBCUs.

Combating Our Corrections Crisis

The State Institutions and Property Committee held my requested public hearing about the crisis conditions in our state Corrections facilities. We heard heartbreaking testimony from inmate families about overcrowding, lack of basic mental and healthcare, lack of staff and security cameras to prevent murders and suicides, lack of stimulation and idleness which only exacerbates mental health conditions.

Prison Education: We also heard from a former House colleague, Dr. Roger Byrd, now an Associate Professor of Social Sciences and the Director of Prison Programs at Brewton-Parker College in Mount Vernon, Georgia. Dr. Byrd spoke of the importance of prison education programs which give inmates a stronger sense of self-worth, self-reliance, and critical skills they can use to support themselves when they are released. I wholeheartedly believe that prison education is the key to stopping the revolving doors in our prison system and combating the dangerous idleness that breeds drugs and violent gang activity.

Tactical Moves and Countermoves: My Legislative Agenda

I filed several bills this week, some of which are a direct response to our current environment:

Banning Plastic Carry Out Containers in State Facilities: SB 224 requires the cafeterias in Georgia Building Authority facilities to switch to paper-based carry out containers and cups. It’s a more targeted approach to the single-use plastic and styrofoam container ban I filed last session and a way to continue pursuing the issue without placing any extra burdens on struggling restaurants and grocery stores. I heard a colleague refer to this as “unrelenting incrementalism.” We’re making progress where we can.

High School Voter Education: SB 240 creates an instructional program for 11th and 12th graders in Georgia on the importance of elections in our democratic system. It would teach them all of the basics about registering to vote, the voting process, and even allow them to practice voting on our voting machines. This idea has been met with enthusiastic support from colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

State Education Board Reform: Some Republican voting bills grant Georgia’s State Election Board more power to intervene in local voting matters, claiming that it is a “bipartisan” body. In truth, the selection process currently outlined in state law highly favors the majority party, 4-1. So I filed a bill that would allow each caucus in the House and Senate one appointee. The Secretary of State would continue to serve as the fifth member. This would provide a much better balanced State Elections Board.

Campus Carry Repeal: I re-filed my Campus Carry repeal bill, now SB 229, but I’m also continuing to look at new ways to tackle the gun safety issue. I’ve already started to work with one of my Republican colleagues on another bill that would require gun safety training before you can receive a carry permit.

Looking Ahead

Monday marked the official halfway point of the session which means there is a lot more to do and much less time to do it. Crossover Day, the day where bills must pass one chamber in order to be passed by the full legislature this year, is usually on Day 27. But to give us a little more time, the Senate passed a resolution to push Crossover Day back one day to Day 28 on Monday, March 8th.

Events

Dekalb House & Senate Voting Rights Forum: Join members of the Dekalb House and Senate Delegations on Tuesday, February 23 at 6:30 pm to learn more about the voting legislation that’s pending in the Georgia General Assembly. Register for the Zoom meeting here https://bit.ly/3auUSj4 or watch the livestream from the Dekalb House/Senate Delegation Facebook page here.

Legislative Town Hall: Thank you to everyone who joined our Senate District 40 Legislative Town Hall event. I’m especially grateful to my House colleagues, Representatives Mike Wilensky, Matt Wilson, Scott Holcomb, Josh McLaurin, and Beth Moore, for serving as panelists.

If you missed it, you can watch the livestream replay here https://fb.watch/3Lz2VLCZET/. We plan to do another one later in the session.

Pandemic Progress

Mass Vaccination Sites: Governor Kemp announced this week that Georgia will soon start receiving 200,000 vaccine doses per week (a 25% increase) and open four new mass vaccination sites on Monday, Feb 22, in Albany, Macon, Clarkesville, and Atlanta/Hapeville. This expansion means we’ll be able get to the next phase more quickly, maybe even within a couple of weeks.

Centralized Appointment System: The centralized vaccination scheduling system is now available, but it’s limited to the four new vaccination sites for now. If you are Phase1A+ eligible, you can sign up at https://myvaccinegeorgia.com or by calling 844-275-5425. If you’re not in Phase 1A, you can also sign up to be notified as Georgia moves into different phases.

Under Cover of Darkness: Voting Bills

Wednesday morning, well before the sun came up, I made my way downtown through heavy rain, flood warnings, and temperatures barely north of freezing. Two Senate Ethics Sub-committee meetings had been scheduled simultaneously at the unusually early hour of 7am — both dealing with very controversial voting bills.

No Live-streaming: When I entered the committee room, I realized there would be no live-streaming of the meeting, and social distancing requirements meant there were very few people in the room, so there would be very limited public comment. In normal times, controversial hearings like these would be overflowing with advocacy organizations and concerned citizens. But Republicans shut Georgians out of the process.

Without the live-streams, committee members  were also in the dark about what happened in the other  subcommittee meeting we couldn’t attend, which put us at a disadvantage when we came back together the next day (again at 7am) as a full committee to vote on the bills.

Curtailing Absentee VotingThe first bill my sub-committee took up was Senate Bill 71, authored by the most powerful man in the Senate — the Chairman of the Rules Committee. SB 71 repeals Georgia’s no-excuse voting law — the very law this Chairman supported in 2005 when Republicans decided it was in their favor to allow as many people to vote-by-mail as possible.

Now the Chairman was standing before us proposing that only the disabled, people 75 and older, and those needing to be out of town, should be able to vote by mail or dropbox. Why? The Chairman’s explanation was because his constituents had lost faith in the election process due to excessive fraud. He went on to cite data and stories that have already been discredited by the Secretary of State’s Office. I had to speak up.

So I raised my hand to be acknowledged and proceeded to state that his constituents lost faith in the election process because they were lied to by the President, and that this situation cannot be fixed by legislation, but rather requires leadership.

That night when I got home, exhausted, my husband handed me a postcard that came in the mail that day from the Harry Truman Presidential Museum. It said:

“I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.” 
— President Harry Truman

It’s painful to have to spend so much time on something that isn’t broken when we could be focusing on what the people of Georgia need right now —  healthcare, unemployment insurance, and education.

Bills that passed the Full Ethics Committee:

The Chairman’s SB 71, repeal of no-excuse absentee voting, did not move on for a vote in the full Ethics Committee the next day. I do believe that with enough advocacy, we can kill this bill and others that propose to limit absentee voting. But other bills did pass and next will move to the Senate floor for a full vote.

Photo ID for Absentee Voting: SB 67 requires a driver’s license or government-issued ID to request an absentee ballot. There are some good things in this bill like codifying the online absentee ballot application portal that was developed under emergency rule last year. And it could be worse. Other bills have required multiple photocopies of photo ID, which would be a huge impediment to many voters, while this bill only requires ID numbers. But it doesn’t provide enough options for first time voters and those who may not have a photo ID. This bill passed along party lines.

State Takeover of Local Elections: SB 89 allows the State Elections Board to remove and replace “low performing” county elections superintendents. I’m very concerned about this becoming a partisan power grab. The State Elections board is currently comprised of the Secretary of State, an appointee from the House, one from the Senate, and one by each party, which means our State Elections Board currently has four Republicans and only one Democrat. This unfortunately passed along party lines.

Faster Reporting: SB 184 and SB 188 require faster reporting for county elections officials. SB 184 reduces the time counties have to report that a voter has voted from 60 to 30 days and imposes a $100 per day fine for counties that are late. SB 188 would create a statewide election reporting system to track the number of votes cast and how many are in-person, absentee, and provisional. Counties would enter this information as soon as possible after the polls close. I voted against these bills because I didn’t have a chance to check with my local elections offices, and the author indicated he had not reached out to any election offices to ensure this timeline is reasonable.

Tabulating Ballots Before Election Day: SB 40 was the only Democratic bill we heard, even though there are many that have been filed. It again codifies an Emergency Rule, allowing county election clerks to begin tabulating absentee ballots the second Monday prior to an election to speed up election results. This bill was the only one that passed unanimously.

“Be Loud” in the House

Late last week, the Chair of the House Special Committee on Election Integrity rolled out HB 531, a 48-page omnibus bill that contains a number of restrictive voting measures like banning Sunday voting, which is a direct attack on black “Souls to the Polls” events, restricting early voting to only one Saturday, limiting ballot drop box access to business hours only, and shortening the absentee ballot request period among other things.

This bill will negatively impact low-wage voters and voters of color the most. It’s time to be loud in the House. Call or email the members of the House Special Committee on Election Integrity and tell them to vote No on this bill

We’ve heard rumors for weeks that Senate Republicans plan to roll out a similar omnibus bill, but so far, nothing has been filed.

Shining a Light on Developmental Disabilities

When I was elected to the Senate, I was heartbroken to hear that there are more than 7,000 families on a waiting list to receive NOW/COMP Medicaid waivers, which help offset the cost of care for adults with developmental disabilities. This was an issue I first learned about when I served in the House and I was so disappointed to hear that the problem persists today. Many of these families have been on this waiting list for a decade or more and many don’t know the waiting list exists until it’s too late. Most adults with developmental disabilities require full-time care which makes it impossible for their caretakers to work without help. And the cost of care is so high, it’s like having to pay for college for an adult’s entire life.

So this week, I filed SB 208 to gradually increase funding for the NOW/COMP waivers so that we can eliminate the waiting list over the course of 5 years. Political will is the only thing stopping us from fully funding this program. We could have funded this program with the tax cuts Republicans gave away in 2018.

A Bright Spot for Criminal Justice: Repealing Citizen’s Arrest 

This week, Governor Kemp announced a measure to reform the state’s Citizen’s Arrest Law, a law that’s been in effect in Georgia since the Civil War that allows average citizens to arrest someone they suspect of committing a crime. The Citizens Arrest Law was initially used to defend those that killed Ahmaud Arbery last summer as they claimed they believed he committed robbery before video evidence showed otherwise. House Bill 479 still allows security officers and retail workers to detain those that are suspected of shoplifting or other crimes and allows off-duty police officers to arrest crime suspects, but provides more specific guidelines under the law for those circumstances.

This bill has bipartisan support. I plan to work with my colleagues and stay in close touch with advocacy organizations to determine how this bill needs to be strengthened.

Looking Ahead

This Monday is the halfway point of the 2021 legislative session. We will be in session every day this week as activity ramps up in advance of Cross-Over Day. The week will be long and full of controversy.

Upcoming Events

Click 'Show Images'Sally’s Legislative Town Hall: Save the date! Please join me and Georgia House Representatives whose districts overlap Senate 40 for a virtual legislative town hall on Thursday, February 18th at 7:00 pm.

Register here: http://bit.ly/legtownhall
Submit questions in advance here: http://bit.ly/Sd40questions

The Zoom link will be emailed to all registered participants prior to the event. We will also livestream the event on my public Facebook page Sally Harrell Senate District 40.

Vaccines UP — Cases DOWN

Cases on the Decline: COVID positive cases are currently decreasing throughout most of Georgia. The same is true in the Senate — we had zero positive test results this week! This news seems to have settled the question about whether or not the session should continue. We now have a schedule that takes us through the end of this month, to legislative day 25 (out of 40).

Vaccinating Teachers: I want to thank those who responded to my last Snapshot and offered thoughtful suggestions for ways we could start to vaccinate teachers while we wait for more vaccines to cover our 65+ population. Several supporters proposed systems for alerting nearby school Principals when there are no-shows so that we can start to vaccinate our most at-risk teachers and school personnel. I plan to summarize and share your ideas in a letter to the Department of Public Health.

When will “1-B” Begin? Many of you have asked when Georgia will move on to phase “1-B” (critical infrastructure and essential workers). Most of us realize why we must wait our turn, but waiting is very hard when you have no idea how long the wait will be. Our Department of Public Health needs to be more forthcoming about the current status and future plans. This week, according to the best data available to the public, the number of vaccines administered increased 21% over last week (now approx. 283,000/week), and the number of vaccine doses shipped by the Federal government increased 22% (to approx. 282,000/week).

‘Morning, Mr. Oglethorpe!

The most germ-free route from my office to the Senate Chamber is up the north stairs, where every morning I pause to say a silent “good morning” to General James Oglethorpe, whose statue rests on the landing between the second and third floors. As a young man in England, James Oglethorpe was a prison reformer, exposing overcrowded and abusive prison conditions where many were jailed for being unable to pay their debts. To give these debtors a second chance, Oglethorpe proposed to King George that he send these prisoners to America, giving them a second chance through a business venture to produce silk — farming mulberry trees, the sole food of silk worms. This month marks the 288th year since the establishment of the Colony of Georgia.

Oglethorpe was a progressive social reformer and activist. His vision for Georgia was to create an egalitarian economy completely free of slave labor. He allowed Jewish refugees to settle in Georgia after they had been rejected elsewhere and he worked respectfully with Native Americans to purchase land and negotiate treaties.

Sadly, Gen. Oglethorpe’s progressive policies did not endure. The colonists eventually argued their way into repealing the ban on slavery, saying they could not compete with the economy of neighboring Chartleston, South Carolina. But I believe that Georgians, as part of our unfolding story, are continually called back to our founding. Perhaps it’s not coincidence that Georgia became the center of the Civil Rights Movement, that we’ve recently led our country on some issues of Criminal Justice Reform, and that we just sent a Black man and a Jewish man to represent us in the US Senate.

Correcting Our Corrections Crisis

Georgia needs to call on Gen. Oglethorpe for inspiration today, as our state corrections facilities are at a crisis point with massive staffing shortages and increased murders and suicides among inmates. I’ve heard from several constituents that this issue is affecting loved ones that work in the system or are incarcerated. The mid-year budget includes a pay raise for our state corrections officers, but we have to do much more.

To address this issue, I sent a letter to the Chair of the State Institutions and Property Committee, Senator Ed Harbison, requesting that we hold a public hearing on the current conditions of our prisons to see what we might do to help. Senator Harbison agreed and we’re now in the process of scheduling the hearing. Stay tuned for more on this issue.

Education: The Antidote to Incarceration

The best way to prevent incarceration is to ensure a free, quality education for every child. One of the main reasons I ran for office was to advance “whole child” education. Our education system is so focused on academics that we’ve forgotten about kids’ psychosocial and developmental needs. Research is clear that when we address the whole child, kids learn better.

This week, I filed three bills to improve the physical, developmental, mental health, and safety of Georgia’s students:

School RecessSenate Bill 122 requires local school boards to schedule at least 30 minutes of unstructured recess time daily for first through eighth grade students. I’ve worked for decades now on making sure every child gets a daily recess. You may recall that Governor Kemp vetoed a recess bill last term, but I’m not giving up. The pandemic has robbed our kids of critical free play time with their peers. Requiring recess is as basic and fundamental as requiring lunch. I plan to reach out to discuss this with the Governor directly as the bill moves forward.

Young Children & Graded HomeworkSenate Bill 110 gives Georgia’s kindergarten through second graders and their families more freedom during family time by prohibiting graded homework. It also levels the field for kids who don’t have parents who can help them get the homework done.

Permanent Classroom Act: Overcrowding has plagued the schools in our district and around metro Atlanta for decades, which has made it so hard to safely send kids and teachers back into schools during the pandemic. I’ve spoken to many parents about this well before the pandemic, and this bill includes their suggestions.

Senate Bill 123 directs the State School Board to establish better safety standards for mobile classroom units, including maximum useful life, minimum fire exits and windows, proximity to water sources to extinguish fire, and safe pathways to and from school buildings. The bill requires school districts to develop a plan to retire mobile units and move students into permanent classrooms within five years. It requires school districts to collect and report data on square footage of each school per student to better understand school overcrowding, improve facility planning, prevent disease spread, and improve the general school climate for our students.

Bills on the Senate Floor

The Amended Budget and Bonuses for State Workers: The Senate finalized the “small” mid-year adjusted 2020/21 budget by passing an amended version with a last minute addition of $1,000 bonuses for more than 57,000 state employees who make less than $80,000 a year, thanks to federal funds that have offset state funding. These bonuses acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of our public health workers, Department of Labor employees, law enforcement officers, and many others during the pandemic. Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler reminded us that so many Georgians are still struggling. “We could and should have done more,” she said.

Protecting our Very Vulnerable: The Senate passed several bills this week to protect some of our most vulnerable citizens, including a bill to prevent patient brokering — a kickback scheme whereby drug abuse treatment centers pay third parties to procure patients for them. Sadly, this practice preys on people in desperate need of help and sometimes deliberately sets them up to relapse so they can return to treatment centers to increase profits. We also passed two bills to protect human trafficking victims stemming from First Lady Marty Kemp’s GRACE Commission — one that allows human trafficking victims to change their names without having to publish it in the newspaper as the state currently requires, and the other to allow victims to sue their perpetrators.

Time to “Be LOUD” on Voting

State Voting Bills (the bad ones): The GOP’s voter suppression bills are starting to make their way through the legislature. There are 20 voting bills currently assigned to the Senate Ethics Committee so we’ve been divided into subcommittees. I will serve on Subcommittee A, and next week, we’ll consider SB 67, a bill that requires photocopies of ID along with absentee ballots, and SB 71, that will eliminate absentee voting for the vast majority of voters. The sub-committee has been set for Tuesday, Feb. 16th, 7am (room 307 “CLOB” Coverdell Legislative Office Building)

Federal Voting Bills (the good ones): While we deliberate these state measures, there are federal measures awaiting action in Congress that could mitigate their effects. For example, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would restore the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that prohibited states from enacting discriminatory voting measures. The We the People Act, or HR 1, expands voting rights by requiring same-day voter registration for federal elections, permitting voters to make changes to their registration at the polls, requiring 15-day early voting periods, and establishing automatic voter registration.

So like James Oglethorpe and John Lewis, we need to make some good trouble and “Be LOUD” at both the state and federal levels. Call, email, and send postcards to your state representatives, members of the Senate Ethics Committee, and your Members of Congress. Tell our state legislators that you oppose any bill that limits voters’ ability to vote, and urge your members of Congress to advance HR 1, The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and all other legislation that expands and protects voting rights as soon as they can.

Upcoming Events

Click 'Show Images'Sally’s Legislative Town Hall: Save the date! Please join me and Georgia House Representatives whose districts overlap Senate 40 for a virtual legislative town hall on Thursday, February 18th at 7:00 pm. Details will be forthcoming.

Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux Virtual Open House: Join US House Representative Carolyn Bourdeaux and her staff for a Virtual Open House event showcasing their new district office.

  • February 9, 2021 at 6:00 pm
  • February 11, 2021 at 9:30 am
  • February 15, 2021 at 12:30 pm

To R.S.V.P. please email Rob.Tester@mail.house.gov 

Workers at the Capitol

The grounds around the Capitol are completely torn up in preparation for Governor Kemp’s new fence around the building. Workers are digging trenches as State Troopers in military garb patrol the perimeter of the building carrying M4 rifles. Does this sound like a war zone? The price tag for all this is five million dollars. While the security is unfortunately necessary, the fence is abominable.

Inside, the empty Capitol hallways echo. The people aren’t there. Many lobbyists are even staying away.

The Capitol doesn’t feel like the People’s House right now. The legislature is trying to carry on business as usual, but since the people aren’t there, it is not business as usual.

Protecting our Essential Workers 

Senate COVID Spread: While the spread of COVID in Georgia is showing signs of weakening, we continue to have positive cases in the Senate. Once again this week, I sat next to a Senator in a committee meeting who had tested positive but hadn’t gotten his test results back yet. This meant I had to cancel plans to see family and I’m wearing a mask around my house. This must be how many essential workers feel. Since I learned the Senate isn’t doing formal contact tracing, I went to the Senate well (https://youtu.be/sIr4NqXKpTM) to thank my colleagues for voluntarily disclosing their positive results, hoping to encourage other Senators to do the same.

Teachers & School Personnel:  As vaccine supplies still lag, do we only focus on vaccinating people over 65, or bump teachers and school personnel ahead in line? Public health makes these decisions by evaluating data regarding serious illness and death, in order to protect our healthcare infrastructure. Eighty-five percent of COVID deaths are people ages 60 and older. But schools are an important part of our economic structure. Many parents can’t work when their kids are at home, plus we must recognize the social and emotional needs of our children.

There are 450,000 public school teachers and personnel across the state who need two doses of vaccine and we are currently receiving just 156,000 vaccine doses per week.

Leftover Doses: One Senate 40 constituent who is volunteering to administer vaccines shared with me the other day that there were 590 people registered at a vaccination site. At the end of the day, there were 200 no-shows. If only we could organize those unused vaccines for teachers! If you have ideas or thoughts about how we can get our teachers vaccinated, please let me know. There are also many people under 65 who have serious risk factors and disabilities who need a place in line.

Serving our Displaced Workers

Possible Department of Labor Changes: The Senate Appropriations Committee added funds for a “Chief Labor Officer,” a position that would be appointed by the Governor to oversee operations at the Department of Labor. This is in part due to our months-long efforts to “be loud” on behalf of our constituents who have had such a hard time getting their unemployment benefits. But Republicans quickly got on board when it was revealed this week that the Labor Commissioner was late getting financial information to the State Auditor, threatening our state’s AAA bond rating, the highest grade financial firms give state governments, which in turn allows us to borrow money at lower interest rates.

The full Senate is expected to vote on the amended budget early next week.

Working For the People

It was a quiet week as many committee meetings were cancelled so we could focus on the mid-year budget. But several important issues were addressed:

Tax Incentives: Among the few bills we voted on this week, the Senate unanimously passed SB 6 to allow the Senate to evaluate tax incentives given to businesses to determine if the state is getting an appropriate return on our investment. This is long-overdue and sorely needed to make sure we’re not giving away money without getting something of value in return. Nine billion dollars worth of tax incentives are given out each year by the state.

Medicaid Public Option: I filed my very first bill of the session, which creates a public health insurance option for Georgia. Senate Bill 83 directs Georgia’s Department of Community Health to design a “Peachcare Public Option” that allows all Georgians, regardless of age, income level, or insurance status to voluntarily purchase a Medicaid Managed Care plan, the same system used for Georgia’s popular Peachcare for Kids program. The Peachcare Public Option would cost consumers no more or less than what it will cost the government to provide the service, and it would cover all ten Affordable Care Act essential benefits, including maternity, mental health, preventative care and prescription drugs. The plan could cost substantially less than an equivalent private plan. This approach contrasts with the Governor’s partial Medicaid Waiver Plan, which steers people to insurance brokers who then sell plans that cover less and have high deductibles.

Over the summer, I wrote an op-ed about the dangers of Governor Kemp’s partial Medicaid Waiver. (link)

Working for Families

Caucus Work: One way legislators advance our policy work is through official Caucuses, which are bipartisan policy groups that regularly meet to learn about issues. This session, I’m a Vice Chair for the Working Families Caucus, which focuses on economic issues facing families.

This week, the Working Families Caucus (link) presented an in-depth analysis of the Governor’s FY 2021/22 budget, otherwise known as the “big” budget that we’ll pass later this session. The Governor’s proposed budget is $1.2 billion below pre-pandemic spending levels, maintaining deep cuts to education, criminal justice, transportation, and human services while our savings account is at a record high. I have always been proud Georgia’s fiscally responsible budgeting, but Governor Kemp has padded our savings account more than any other Governor in the past decade, while our citizens struggle in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. I find that unacceptable.

What’s Not Working

Voting Rights: The Senate Ethics Committee hears all of the voting bills and I specifically requested this Committee assignment when I was first elected so I can fight for voting rights. This week, my Republican colleagues rolled out a slate of voting bills, many of which will make it harder to vote by proposing to eliminate ballot drop boxes, automatic voter registration at the DMV, and absentee voting for most people.

Many Georgians have been tragically misled about the integrity of our elections. But as leaders, it is our job to correct those misperceptions instead of perpetuating them. In the middle of a pandemic and economic recession, these bills are a major distraction from much more urgent issues. I am ready to do my part to fight these voter suppression efforts. I’m hopeful that even if they pass the Senate, they’ll get a tougher reception in the House. But ultimately they will fail because Georgians now know that their votes make a difference and no matter what, we will make our voices heard!

All voters, no matter their party affiliation, will be impacted by these bills, so I encourage you to be “be loud.” Contact your representatives and members of the Senate Ethics Committee, to let them know that you oppose bills that make it harder for people to vote. Utilize your network of friends across the state who can reach out to their representatives, especially Republicans. It’s especially helpful to share stories of Republican voters who will find voting harder due to these bills.

The Senate’s Uncertain Work Schedule

We do not have a legislative schedule past Monday, as House and Senate leaders work to decide if they will suspend session once the Senate passes the mid-year budget. We hope to know more very soon!

Sally’s Senate Snapshot #3

The Sun Will Come Out

Click 'Show Images'As the week started off rainy and cold, it reminded me that this time last year, both of my kids were starting new schools on college campuses in cold, rainy January weather. I told them to hang in there because soon spring would come when they could enjoy their campuses more. The same can be said for these rainy days for our state and country. There will be better days ahead!

Brighter Days Ahead for Vaccines

Slow vaccine rollouts, difficulty obtaining appointments, and the threat of new virus variants are tempering the elation we all felt with the good news of effective vaccines last December. But it’s important to remember that it’s only been 6 weeks since the first vaccine was administered in Georgia. Already, almost all long term care residents have been vaccinated (where 40%+ of the deaths occur), most healthcare workers, plus the age 65 and up Georgians who have been lucky enough to get an appointment. If you’re a math person, you’ve already calculated how long it will take to vaccinate the rest of us and the numbers aren’t good — but I believe the pace will speed up.

Increased Supply: The Biden administration announced that states will soon receive a 16% increase in the amount of vaccines and Governor Kemp announced that CVS and Walgreens have almost finished their contracts with nursing homes which will free up an additional 40,000 vaccines per week. The maddening web of systems to find a vaccine should also improve when Georgia’s centralized vaccine system goes online in a couple of weeks.

Georgia Dept. of Public Health: If you qualify for stage 1A+, you can go to any public health site in Georgia to get a vaccine and you may have better luck if you are willing and able to drive outside of metro Atlanta. You can find a full list of sites on the Georgia Department of Public Health website at https://dph.georgia.gov/locations/covid-vaccination-site

Grocery Stores: You can also periodically check Ingles, Publix and Kroger. Walmart will participate as well, but right now most Walmart vaccination sites are outside the Atlanta area.

Private Providers: Be sure to ask your doctor to see if they have vaccines, or if they will get them soon. Some small pharmacies may be administering the vaccine and may have a waitlist. Follow your county health department on social media. Some like Dekalb may announce when they have new appointments available.

Text Notifications: The text notification system I announced last week has a new number, 844-554-4024. Text VAX to this number, or visit https://discodroid.ai/vaxapp/, and the system will alert you when appointments open up in the following counties: DeKalb, Fulton, Clayton, Gwinnett, Rockdale and Newton. Unfortunately, all of these systems require computer access and literacy, which leaves too many of our citizens behind, especially the elderly. We need to find better ways to make vaccines accessible to everyone.

Weathering the Pandemic at the Capitol

Masks and twice-weekly testing continue to be the norm at the Capitol. I was happy to see House Speaker Ralston, who expelled one of his members for failing to get tested, taking things very seriously. Since session began, six Senators have tested positive, two of whom are in the hospital. Testing has helped to limit viral spread, but I was shocked to discover that no formal contact tracing is being done, after learning through the grapevine the entire Gwinnett Senate Delegation was exposed to a colleague that tested positive last week. After speaking with Minority Leader Gloria Butler, I hope that will be remedied soon.

So much of our work relies on conversations between colleagues, which is tough when you’re wearing masks and wanting to keep interactions as brief as possible. Many meetings are done via Zoom, including the Women’s Legislative Caucus, which I co-chair again this year with Representative Kim Alexander. We held our first Zoom meeting this week and heard from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute about how the pandemic has affected working women.

The “Small” Budget Moves with Lightning Speed

The “small” budget that adjusts current fiscal year spending flew through the House and into the Senate to get it done as soon as possible in case the pandemic worsens and we have to cut session short. After back to back appropriations subcommittee meetings, the House passed the budget on Thursday and immediately transmitted it to the Senate so that the Senate could start our subcommittee process bright and early at 6:30 am the next morning.

Despite being in the midst of a global pandemic and state revenues being up 4%, Governor Kemp’s recommended budget included only a 2.5% increase, opting instead to rely primarily on federal funds and preserve the state’s $2.7 billion “rainy day” fund while it pours down rain on hard working Georgians. The House added funds to cover several new senior level public health positions, replace our state’s outdated vaccination tracking system, boost funding to nursing homes and a program that provides HIV/AIDs medication to low income Georgians, and purchase 500 new school buses to replace a third of the state’s aging fleet.

There were no new funds for the Georgia Department of Labor, even though the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute estimates that there are nearly 10 times the number of Georgians in our unemployment system than this time last year. In an unplanned coincidence, two of my colleagues and I took to the Senate well (video) on Wednesday to speak about how we are frustrated and failing hard working families that can’t get their unemployment benefits. Speaking from the well, especially en masse, helps to amplify issues, especially for those of us that don’t serve on the appropriations subcommittees. I will continue to push these issues to help as much as I can.

Bringing Sunshine to Issues

The Senate Democratic Caucus began rolling out our legislative agenda that focuses on our priorities of expanding voting access and helping our struggling working families. Here are some bills to watch:

  • SB 26: Requires dropboxes at all early voting locations
  • SB 35: Allows poll workers to be from any county to address poll worker shortages
  • SB 36: Establishes a pilot program for voting awareness grants, particularly in rural areas
  • SB 37: Joins the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement among a number of states to award all of our electoral votes to the presidential candidate that wins the national popular vote
  • SB 38: Allows people to request to permanently opt in to vote by mail
  • SB 39: Restores voting rights for people with drug offenses
  • SB 40: Allows counties to start counting absentee ballots before Election Day
  • SB 24: Raises the Georgia state minimum wage from $5.50 to $15
  • SB 25: Provides childcare tax credits to Georgia families

Democratic Caucus Whip Senator Harold Jones asked me, along with Senator Tonya Anderson, to be Assistant Whips, which means that we will help ensure our party stays unified on key votes.

In the coming week, I’ll begin rolling out my own legislative agenda that focuses on issues I know are important to you: expanding access to affordable health care, eliminating barriers to voting, saving our environment, tackling gun safety, making higher education more affordable, and improving our educational environment.

The Local Forecast

Our county delegations heard from a member of Congress and our county commissioners this week. It’s so important that all levels of government are connected so that we can serve you as effectively as possible. I was elected Vice Chair of the Dekalb Senate Delegation and I look forward to working closely with Dekalb Caucus Chair, Senator Emmanuel Jones. Cityhood is a major topic of discussion in Dekalb as we have active cityhood initiatives in both Central and South Dekalb. We now have the opportunity to look at cityhood thoughtfully and holistically, and to think through how these initiatives impact the entire county.

The Gwinnett Senate Delegation met with newly-elected Congresswoman Carolyn Bordeaux of the 7th Congressional district. Her district office is now up and running and she would very much like to hear from her constituents about what you need from our federal government. Her district director is Arthur Tripp and you can reach his office at 770-232-3005.

Storm Clouds Ahead: Redistricting

The ACLU presented to the Democratic Caucus on redistricting this week, a topic that is increasingly top of mind and anxiety-provoking for all of our elected officials. The legislature is responsible for redrawing district lines every 10 years just after the Census to make sure our districts account for population shifts. This means that all of our districts will look different the next time we run for re-election. We already know that Census data is running late this year due to the pandemic and other factors, so we believe that the Governor won’t be able to call the special redistricting session until mid to late fall.

In the meantime, I encourage you to learn about redistricting, demand an open and transparent redistricting process, and keep a close eye on the redistricting session to ensure that the General Assembly draws districts that allow voters to choose their representatives and not the other way around. As you often hear me say, redistricting will require us all to use our voices and to Be Loud!