Is There a Storm Brewing?

That eerie feeling just before a spring storm, when the air is warm and still.

Sine Die, the last day of the session, always makes me nervous. It’s a very long day and bills that have been dormant since the year before can reappear without notice. This year, big ticket items like the 2023 budget, an income tax overhaul, and yet another elections bill were still hanging in the balance. Like when the weather forecast says “Tornado Watch”, you have to be on high alert on Sine Die.

The Morning Brings Some Welcome Sunshine

The Lt. Governor opened the Sine Die Senate session with his ceremonial “first pitch,” a tradition he initiated in his first year presiding over the Senate. 

By morning roll call, the Senate was buzzing — the final budget was on our desks. So much of my work this session focused on the appropriations process. I was relieved to see that everything I worked on — a 40% reduction in University Fees,  $230 million for increased higher education funding, and over 500 Community Support Medicaid waivers for disabled people — were still in the budget! 

I got a text from the President Holston of Piedmont Technical College. Did the money to begin building a new satellite campus in north DeKalb county make it in? Dang. I couldn’t find it, so I ventured over to Melody DeBussey, Director of the Senate Budget Office, to tell me what happened. We got $4 million, half of what’s needed. It will be up to President Holston to raise the rest from private funds. Know anyone with a few extra million who wants their name on the  new building?

My last piece of outstanding business was to get SB 610, my bill addressing the low wages of workers who take care of disabled Georgians, over the finish line. The Senate merely needed to agree to the changes made by the House. Also attached to SB 610 was the original bill of a Republican House member, requiring Georgia to submit a Medicaid Waiver to allow private psychiatric hospitals to treat Medicaid recipients. Not only was I responsible for my own bill, but I was now also carrying a good bill authored by a Republican. It’s usually the other-way-around!

I knew that, like every other step in the process, I had to be proactive about getting SB 610 to a final vote. When I asked the Secretary of the Senate when to make my “Motion to Agree”, he pointed me to the woman-behind-the-curtain, who turned out to be the Lt. Governor’s Chief Counsel, Regina Quick. Regina had set up shop in a small cubby behind the Senate rostrum. It was clear she was in charge of advising Lt. Governor Duncan on the run-of-the-show. She assured me she would put SB 610 at the top of the next Agree/Disagree list, but couldn’t say when it would be called up for a vote.

Just before lunch, the Senate unanimously passed the final budget to a standing ovation. It was a brief ray of sunshine as we could all feel good about the state employee pay raises, one year of Medicaid coverage for new mothers, and all of the other positive measures funded in this year’s budget. After the vote, the Senate Appropriations Chair jokingly suggested that we adjourn Sine Die since we had completed our official duty. I kind of wish we had.

The Afternoon Calm Before the Storm

Between lunch and dinner, things slowed to a snail’s pace as if we had no work to do. We took up a few bills and then took a break. Between votes, we heard a number of farewell speeches by Senators who were retiring or running for higher office. 

Mid-afternoon, about 400 people joined Governor Kemp and Speaker Ralston at the North steps for a ceremonial bill signing of HB 1013, the Mental Health Parity Bill. While it felt good to celebrate a bill that will help many people, I was aware that there’s still so much yet to do. Our mental health infrastructure is still chronically underfunded and HB 1013 does little to help those who are uninsured or on Medicaid. 

In the early evening, we had a scare when an amendment to HB 1215, a Charter School bill, appeared on our desk. It was the “Fairness in Sports” bill banning transgender kids from participating in school sports. Sen. Kim Jackson and I devised a tag-team strategy. While she publicly challenged the germaine-ness of the amendment (being non-germaine means the amendment does not match the subject matter of the original bill and thus can be ruled out of order), I privately expressed my concern to the author of the amendment that it could inadvertently harm vulnerable children. The author withdrew the amendment, and we thought we killed the bill for good, but on Sine Die, anything can happen.

The Winds Begin to Stir

Not too long after dinner, Governor Kemp came to address the Senate. It’s not traditional for the Governor to speak with the legislature on Sine Die. His speech was familiar, reiterating all of his priorities for the session, including “fairness in girls sports.” My seatmate asked me if I thought there was a specific reason for his visit. But I brushed it off, thinking the speech was simply an election year publicity ploy. I was wrong. 

SB 610 was finally called up mid evening for the Motion to Agree, which passed unanimously. I notified the author of HB 1404, the bill’s amendment, and was relieved that my mission was finally accomplished. But we still had more than 30 bills left on the Rules calendar.

The last farewell speech of the night was by Lt. Governor Duncan. He talked about his philosophy of intellectual honesty and putting policy over politics, which I recognized from his book, GOP 2.0. It was inspiring. For most of his term, he lived that ethos as he stood up to President Trump, took committee chairmanships away from those who promoted The Big Lie, and stopped several bad bills from coming to the floor. 

After his speech, the Lt. Governor and his staff exited the chamber. People started tearing confetti and staffers began to fill the chamber like they do at the end of Sine Die. We thought we might be done and we were ready to celebrate.

A Late Night Downpour 

At 11:40 pm, the Lt. Governor came back in and started calling up a flurry of bills, racing to get bills passed by midnight. Before each vote, bill sponsors rushed to the well and blurted out what the bill was without explaining what changed since the last vote. The first bill on that agenda was a sweeping change to Georgia’s income tax code. The House and Senate had very different ideas about what that would look like. Yet we were forced to vote on a conference committee compromise that we had little time to review and got no explanation of before voting. 

Close to midnight, I got wind fom an education lobbyist that the “Fairness in Sports” transgender bill was attached to the “Divisive Concepts” anti-CRT bill in the House. When the Lt. Governor called it up, it still wasn’t on our desks. Democrats pushed their buttons to speak, but only the Minority Leader was recognized. She made a motion to have the bill printed so we could read it, but the Republicans voted the motion down. As the final vote took place, I was recognized for a parliamentary inquiry. I tried to alert my colleagues of what was in the bill by asking, “Isn’t it true that the anti-trans bill is attached to this bill and that we have not had the favor of being able to even view?” But the Lt. Governor cut me off and spoke over my final words.

In my ten years of serving in the House and Senate, I have never been asked to vote on a bill I haven’t seen. This was an orchestrated effort and the very opposite of policy over politics. I was so disappointed in the Lt. Governor — he really let us down and failed to live up to the lofty speech he had just given. Immediately after the vote, the Majority Leader moved to adjourn Sine Die. As celebratory confetti was thrown around us, all I could do was stand there in shock. This is not how democracy is supposed to work. Afterwards I faced a slew of reporters who wanted to know how I felt about the vote and what it would be like to tell my family about how it all went down.

Surveying the Damage

When I finally read the transgender sports bill at 9 am the next morning, I was relieved to discover that it wasn’t the outright sports ban we fought against all session. I don’t think even most Republicans knew this, which might be the reason it was not printed and put on our desks. Instead, it directs the Georgia High School Association to convene an oversight commission to study the issue, collect data, and eventually make recommendations. This is the solution for which I advocated on my public Facebook page weeks ago.

I learned later that it was a Republican compromise devised by Speaker Ralston who quietly held it in his back pocket in case he was pressed to pass something. That’s what happened when the Governor visited the House and reminded members that there was still work to be done to fulfill his “fairness in sports” campaign promise. For the next several days, I stayed busy doing interviews as the media tried to dissect the unprecedented breach of the Senate traditions and democratic norms. 

The overall results of Sine Die were mixed. You can read a more complete run-down of what passed and what didn’t here in the AJC. 

The Silver Lining

With the session behind us, I’m glad to refocus my energy on my family and the election season. Sometimes the legislative session feels like being on a ship out at sea, disconnected from the real world. We often think the world is watching us — and some are — but most are just busy living their lives. 

I ran for office so I could try to make life a little easier for people. In some pretty big ways I have, but there’s so much more to do. I plan to return to the Senate to continue to fight for you, and for those that have no voice. Yes, now that the session is finished, it’s campaign season already – see that “Donate” button below? But to make a real difference on healthcare, public safety and education, we have to change the players in charge. A Democratic Governor and Lt. Governor will be a huge moderating effect on a GOP-controlled legislature that has underfunded our state government for so long, and continues to push ideologies that are quickly becoming more and more extreme. So get ready to work hard this fall to get out the vote for our candidates up and down the ballot!

It all starts with you — a democratic government works best when citizens get involved. Support strong, bold candidates and decide what you can do in the upcoming election. Together, we can make a difference.

Sine Die!

https://youtu.be/a02pqAeZaNU

 

What’s Behind the Green Door?

Back when I served in the House (1999 – 2005), I’d hear a lot of talk about the “Green Door Committee.” Somehow I pictured that these old-time, cigar smoking legislators made their final deals in a secret upstairs room located in the recesses of the Gold Dome behind an old wooden door peeling with green paint. But no. This week the historians of the hallways told me the Green Door Committee was named after a song entitled “The Green Door” from the 1950s — a song about prohibition-era restaurants using green doors to signal their conversion to a speakeasy after hours.

Green door, what’s that secret you’re keepin’?
Wish they’d let me in so I can find out what’s behind the green door.

— “The Green Door,” song by Jim Lowe, 1956

My former colleague and member of the Green Door Committee, Rep. Tom Buck, explained it in a 2010 interview

There were probably about 10 to 12 of us on that. And we would meet behind a green door, as the media called it — the Green Door. But it was really behind Tom Murphy’s office in a conference room where we’d sit around a table, and I think he liked to call it the Policy Committee. It really wasn’t a committee. But your leaders like your chairman of the Ways and Means, Appropriations, University System, and whatnot, would get together at the beck and call of the boss, who was Tom Murphy. And we’d sit there and go over certain things that we liked about what was going on here or what we’d better not do over there. And you could get a lot done with a smaller group. Even though it probably was not wide-open. You know, nobody could just walk in the green door room without permission.

It may not be called “the Green Door Committee” anymore, but this weekend at the Capitol I guarantee you that small groups of House and Senate leaders are privately deciding the fate of both the budget and several high profile bills. 

Coming Down to a Nail-Biter

In our last full week of session, bills were popping out of committees like fireworks on the 4th of July. And we’ve had long floor sessions to get as many as we could over the finish line. But in order for that to happen, the Senate and the House must ultimately give the green light to the same bill version, so bills can take lots of twists and turns before becoming final. Decisions made by those “Green Door Committees” keep us on the edge of our seats. 

Mental Health Bill Causes a Bit of Anxiety

On Monday, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee finally passed HB 1013, Speaker Ralston’s mental health bill. But at the last minute I heard distressing news that the Senate version weakened the bill by creating an insurance company loophole you could drive a Mack Truck through. 

Fortunately, by the time the bill came to the floor some “Green Door Committee” somewhere took that out and the Senate unanimously passed the bill with standing ovations from both chambers. I heard that Speaker Ralston got emotional when he heard that the Senate had finally passed the bill. It was the high point of the session. Even in these divisive times, we still came together to address at least one issue that really makes a difference to the people of Georgia.

SB 610 (my bill) Teeters on the Brink

Last week, I wrote about SB 610, my bill that addresses the wages of workers who take care of people with disabilities. But I left you with a cliffhanger when the bill got referred back to the House committee late last week for HB 1404 and another amendment to be attached to SB 610. This is the kind of stuff that is left out by lessons on “how a bill becomes a law.”

It was important for me to show up early to this repeat committee meeting. There I found committee member Rep. Erick Allen, who is a Democratic candidate for Lt. Governor, arguing furiously with a very persistent lobbyist who wanted a “bad” amendment added to my bill. At issue were criminal background checks for substance abuse treatment centers. What Rep. Allen and I both know is that people who have recovered from addiction (and who could have criminal records) are often utilized as trained counselors at substance abuse treatment centers. The lobbyist had narrowed the amendment to attempt to target only the truly bad actors, but Rep. Allen was still not happy.

After an impassioned argument by Rep. Allen, the HB 1404 author rejected the bad  amendment and my bill passed with only HB 1404  attached— a measure that would allow private psychiatric hospitals to accept Medicaid.

In the end, my bill carrying HB 1404 sailed through and passed the House unanimously. Now it only needs an “agree” by the Senate and the Governor’s signature to become law. I am proud to address both the wages of workers AND access to private psychiatric hospitals by Medicaid recipients in need. 

As an end-note, the lobbyist who tried to attach the problemattic amendment to my bill did not give up. I found him at the ropes trying to target another Senator’s bill just before it came up for a vote in the Senate. That didn’t work either. 

Bad Voting Bill Gets Gutted — Or Does it?

It has always bothered me that the Senate Ethics Committee never heard feedback from election administrators last year when they passed the big voting bill, SB 202. That changed this week when election officials from at least a dozen counties from all across Georgia testified against HB 1464 — this year’s election bill. Nearly 50 people signed up to speak at a hearing that lasted more than three hours. The vast majority told us that the proposed requirements would be onerous and expensive, making it harder to hire and retain elections staff. Many though, spoke in favor of one provision that required employers to allow their employees time off to vote during the Early Vote period (current law only requires employers to give time off on Election Day). 

In preparation for the vote the next day, I asked my administrative assistant Keridan to track down and print the bill substitute I knew was coming. When she placed it in my hand, I could feel that something big had happened. The bill went from 40 pages down to only two, with the lone remaining measure being the one good provision — time off work to vote during Early Voting. At that moment, a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t have to fight yet another bad voting bill! For me, it was the single best moment of the session. 

Although the bill substitute passed the Senate Ethics Committee unanimously, several of my Republican colleagues were disappointed, to say the least, that some of the original provisions were gutted, a sure sign those provisions could reappear later. Will HB 1464 pass the Senate floor as is, or will they amend it in Senate Rules? Will the bill end up in a Conference Committee where six specially appointed legislators from the House and Senate decide its fate? Stay tuned!

By the way, I’m hearing that the gutting of the bill can be attributed to Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan. I am currently reading his book “GOP 2.0,” which I highly recommend.

Will Georgia Get a New Tax Code?

Another major bill making its way through the General Assembly overhauls Georgia’s income tax system. The original House Bill, HB 1437, proposed a regressive flat tax of 5.25%. But early in the week, the Senate Finance Committee made significant changes that includes a longer, more gradual transition to a flat tax (down to 4.99%), an Earned Income Tax Credit that would help middle and low income families, and a provision that changes only take place if state revenues increase by at least 3%. The Senate version also included substantive changes to Georgia’s film tax credits, but the film industry pushed back and that change was dropped from the bill before it came to the Senate floor.

Georgia’s system of taxation has essentially remained unchanged since 1937 — that is, until a change in 2018 reduced the 6% rate to 5.75% (approximately $500 million out of a $30 billion budget). The 2018 change was supposed to be the first step of a two-step reduction, eventually bringing the rate to 5.5%. The second reduction never happened because a projected windfall from the 2017 Federal Tax Code revisions never surfaced.

I voted against this bill. Although the Senate version made significant improvements to the House Bill, I just don’t see why Georgia’s rate of taxation needs to be changed. Georgia has always been and still is a fiscally conservative state. I believe that Georgia has reached the point of what I call “negative efficiency.” This is when so little is being spent that the money that IS being spent is no longer as effective as it could be. The tax savings for most Georgia families will be vastly oustripped by the cuts to services many of us use. And I don’t believe it’s an accident that this major reduction in revenue is being enacted just before the election of a Democrat to the Governor’s office is within reach.

The House will now have to agree to this version or insist on its original proposal. If it insists, a Conference Committee will be appointed to work out differences and with one more legislative day to get it done, Georgia’s tax system hangs in the balance. 

Cityhood Suspense

Given a few news stories last week, you might get the impression that I’ve suddenly introduced a new cityhood proposal. But the media simply picked up on some work that’s been ongoing for several years.

During the past two years, I’ve spent time researching how forming another city in north DeKalb can help protect DeKalb County Schools from costly annexations by cities that have their own school systems (Decatur and Atlanta), as well as shoring up public safety resources county-wide. This year, I spent much-needed time discussing the proposal with my colleagues in the Dekalb Senate delegation to get their input.

This is all still in the proposal stage — there is no bill yet. I plan to hold community meetings to get input from those in the map footprint. Some have asked specifically about the Evansdale area. The reason the area outside the perimeter is not currently in the map is because of the need to preserve choices among several options. These are among the discussions I look forward to having in the coming months.

Sine Die Cliffhangers

Monday is Sine Die — the last chance for legislative action on bills still at play. There are so many bills still waiting on the table, but which ones will make it across the finish line?

You can tune in to Sine Die livestream on Monday starting at 10 am in the Senate on the General Assembly website. Or stay tuned for “Sally’s Senate Snapshot Sine Die Edition”! Or, attend the TownHall described below.

Post Sine Die Town Hall

Another way to learn about the final outcome of the 2021/2022 session is to join me and fellow SD 40 House Representatives at a virtual town hall meeting on Wednesday, April 6th at 7 pm. Thank you to the City of Chamblee for hosting! Register here for the event and we will send the Zoom information to all registered attendees. 

I was pleased to see these people at the Capitol so happy about the passage of HB 1013, the Mental Health Parity bill

The “Ropes” are open again but without a Student Page Program. This is a dream come true for Corporate Lobbyists, who only need a cell phone number, not a page, to call us “out to the ropes.”

What do you ask for when you see these two men together? Senate Appropriations Chair Blake Tillery and House Appropriations Chair Terry England.

I got my Yellow Card of Values back out to guide me during the final days of the session. Things can get really confused at this point, and I need some guidance

 

It was a full house in Senate Ethics for a 3+ hour hearing on this year’s election bill. It was great to hear from over a dozen election administrators, but we had our share of election conspiracy theory folks too

The Mental Health Parity bill could not have passed without the efforts of these two lobbyists, Kim Jones of NAMI and Jeff Breedlove of the GA Council on Substance Abuse. They also helped me fight the “bad” amendment to my HB 610

Driving Toward the Finish Line

Who’s In the Driver Seat?

Sine Die is one week away and major proposals still hang in the balance. So, you might ask, “Who’s in the driver’s seat?” So far it’s been Governor Kemp who put the pedal to the metal, accelerating his campaign platform. But now it’s clear that the Speaker of the House has his hands firmly on the wheel and will be the one who determines which bills make it to the finish line. And much of that depends on what happens with his mental health bill, HB 1013.

Driving in the Slow Lane: Bills Get a Yellow Light

Starting late last week, the number of House bills passing the Senate slowed significantly. My guess is that Speaker Ralston gave a yellow light to Senate bills until his mental health bill passes the Senate, and that the Senate responded by not passing House bills. It is typical at this point in the session for the House & Senate to get rather testy with one another, but fortunately, it doesn’t usually rise to the level of road rage.

HB 1013 is moving in the Senate, just not as quickly as it did in the House. Unlike the House members who are much more reticent to question their Speaker’s bill, the Senate is giving it more careful scrutiny through an appointed subcommittee. The subcommittee is busy making clarifying changes while leaving the substance of the bill intact. Although the Speaker might like a rubber stamp on his bill, the system is designed so that bills can be improved every step of the way.

Unfortunately, this week I began to see protesters brandishing signs saying, “Stop HB 1013,” which surprised me because the Speaker’s mental health bill has been such a good example of a bi-partisan effort. Turns out they’ve decided the bill protects pedophiles, increases crime, takes people’s guns away, etc. I have to feel a bit sorry for some of my Republican colleagues for having to deal with these naysayers, except that a few of them ARE them.

A Bill on a Wild Ride: Paying Workers What they Deserve

This week, I took a very interesting journey with SB 610, my bill to ensure we don’t fall behind paying the workers who care for intellectually and developmentally disabled (IDD) adults. 

Picking Up Speed. Early in the week, I presented my bill to the House Human Relations & Aging Committee where it got a unanimous green light. It was a rare kum-ba-yah moment as several people spoke of the long-time need for this bill, and Committee Chair Jesse Petrea, who has years of professional experience with home and community-based care, enthusiastically embraced the bill. Chairman Petrea even agreed to carry the bill in the House, which means he will be the one to present it on the House floor. 

Navigating Foreign Terrain. Midweek, I ventured into the House Rules Committee for the first time, a necessary pit stop to get SB 610 to the House floor. When I stopped by to visit with the House Rules Chair the day before, he told me I had a minute-and-a-half to present my bill. So in the Rules Committee I kept my presentation brief, but the Chairman, in a teasing way, scolded me for going over my allotted 60-seconds. Evidently the 60-second rule is a big deal in House Rules. Now I know.

Making a U-Turn. The very next morning, Rep. Scott Holcomb texted me that SB 610 got sent back to Committee, so I ran over to the House to find out what was going on. Unfortunately, that morning I had forgotten my Senate name badge, so the House Doorkeeper wouldn’t let me in. I showed him my security badge with my name, photo and the word, “Senator” but that wasn’t good enough. So I had to run over to the Secretary of the Senate’s office to pick up one of my “extra” name badges they keep on hand just for these situations. I finally got in.

Catching a Ride: It turns out my bill was sent back to Committee because they want to attach two other bills to it before final passage. It’s very common at the end of session for legislators to look for “vehicles”  or “riders” to shortcut the process. For this to work, the “vehicle” bill must be in the same code section and the attached bill has to be shorter than the original bill. This is because the attachment technically should be an amendment — not an entirely new bill.

Fork-in-the-Road Decisions: I found myself at a fork-in-the-road. They could attach bills to my bill that I don’t agree with, and my name would be forever tied to bad laws, or they could attach good bills and I’d forever get credit! 

I spent the rest of the day and the weekend trying to learn as much as I could about these two amendments. Turns out one is good and one has very bad unintended consequences. So I reached out to various mental health groups and the House Committee Chair for help. We will all meet together on Monday morning, but the House Committee Chair assured me this weekend he will oppose anything that jeopardizes my bill. 

I’ll catch you up on how the story unfolds next week. But I’ll say one thing now. This is actually what I love about politics — analyzing policy, reaching out to people and groups who care about the issues, building relationships and negotiating across party lines, and ultimately, standing up for what’s right.

Driving With Their Eyes Closed and Asleep at the Wheel: Another Bad Voting Bill

Despite the Governor’s promise of no significant voting bills this session, we now have a new 40-page voting bill. HB 1464 gives the GBI the authority to investigate voter fraud (without being requested by the Secretary of State). It makes ballots public record, making it easier for anyone to examine them for any reason. It requires that private grants made to local election offices be approved by the State Elections Board to determine partisan intent and allows the State Elections Board to reallocate the funds anywhere in the state however it sees fit. 

In Committee, the bill authors skirted the questions of committee members. I expressed concern that “When you call a surgeon, you get surgery. When you call the GBI, you get a crime.” Having law enforcement involved in what are often misunderstandings or mistakes could blow these cases out of proportion. But the bill authors were unconcerned, as this is likely their intent. 

As the Democrats questioned the bill author, I noticed that two of our Republican Committee members had fallen asleep. One was snoring. It has been a long, hard session and the Senate Ethics Committee almost always meets at the crack of dawn or at the end of a long legislative day. But it was clear that these Senators had already made up their minds about HB 1464 without having to tune into the debate. Hopefully they’ll stay awake for public testimony at 4 pm on Monday. 

Kicking into High Gear: The FY 2023 Budget

The Senate hit a major milestone this week when it passed the 2023 budget. Next year’s budget includes things everyone can feel good about like long overdue raises for teachers and state employees, expanded Medicaid coverage for new mothers, and cost of living adjustments for state retirees.

I decided early in the session to focus my work on the budget process, and the budget we passed reflects that work. It eliminates the “temporary” Special Institutional Fee that the university system has charged students since the Great Recession, a recommendation that resulted from the University Study Committee I passed last year. And it includes funding for more than 500 community support Medicaid waivers — five times more than what was originally proposed by the Governor. This increase would not have happened without the hard work of constituent Philip Woody. Whenever I needed Philip to tell his story to a legislator, he’d drop everything and come down to the Capitol.

On Friday I learned that the Senate budget included some of the money I had requested for a new satellite campus of Piedmont Technical College in North Dekalb. But since the House had not put in any money, and partial projects cannot be funded, I had to scramble over to the House to enlist Representative Scott Holcomb to help me convince House Appropriations Chair Terry England to include money in the House budget. 

The final budget, including whether or not we get the Technical School funding, will come down to the Conference Committee made up of six members of the House and Senate, who will work out budget differences. It will be a nail biter.

“Are We There Yet?” The City of North Decatur 

While many cityhood bills moved through the process this year, there were not enough votes within the local DeKalb delegation to move forward with the City of North Decatur. I will say, however, that the conversations moved forward and I believe we will be able to hit the ground running at the beginning of next session. This will give time for the community to review the City Charter, which outlines the city governance structure, and the City Map, including city boundaries and city council district lines.

Save the Date — Arrival Time

Please join me and several of my House colleagues for a virtual Town Hall meeting, tentatively scheduled for the evening of Thursday, April 6th. It has been a whirlwind of a session, but I look forward to telling you about the final outcomes and answering your questions about what it all means for you. Stay tuned for more details. 

To boldly go where no one has gone before!

Captain’s Log Stardate 22-03-18.16: Day 31 of our journey into Georgia’s 40-day legislative session. Throughout our mission, the terrain has been treacherous with daily incoming fire from the Republicans. Their goal is to maintain power by keeping their base angry and afraid. Their ultimate victims are the innocents — the teachers, the workers, the less privileged, and those who don’t look or act like them. So we continue to fight the good fight.

Together, we must blaze a path toward an alternate future — one with new leadership for Georgia. With Stacey Abrams as Governor of One Georgia — the first Black female Governor in our state’s history — and Veto Power at her discretion, Republican missiles will be completely neutralized. Public schools will be boldly supported, teachers will be elevated, health care will be readily available to all, and all those oppressed will have a strong voice and equal opportunities. Order will be restored.

 

“There’s a lot of work to do. Are you ready for that?”
–Stacey Abrams, President of United Earth

*This week’s Star Trek theme is in honor of Stacey Abrams’ cameo as “President of United Earth” on the latest episode of Star Trek Discovery.

 

“Leave bigotry in your quarters; there’s no room for it on the bridge.”
— Captain Kirk

Our primary mission this past week was Crossover Day, when bills must pass one legislative chamber to make it to the next, before arriving at the Governor’s desk. It was a long and exhausting day — we finished our work and returned to quarters under the light of the stars. Although we took heavy incoming fire, we had some victories too. 

 

“Insufficient facts always invite danger.”
— Spock

School vouchers.  A common theme throughout this session has been unvetted bills based on faulty assumptions that include little to no expert input. Such was the case with SB 601, a bill to divert more than $6,000/student of public school funds into private schools. Georgia does not have enough revenue to support both public and private schools, and the cost to public schools with this bill would be devastating. The Senate Majority Leader and bill sponsor argued that this will help students escape failing public schools. Yet he and his allies had no data about which students take advantage of these vouchers and no mechanism to ensure the vouchers will only serve those most in need. Neither the Georgia School Board Association nor the Georgia School Superintendents Association had the opportunity to testify on this bill in committee. 

A direct attack on public schools, this measure was ultimately defeated by an unlikely coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans whose districts have no private schools and where the public schools are among the largest employers.

 

“When the personality of a human is involved, exact predictions are hazardous.”
— Dr. McCoy

Horse Racing. With the horse race trumpet fanfare playing in the background and jockey helmet on his head as he strode to the well, the Senator from the Chickamauga presented SR 131, a Constitutional Amendment to allow horse racing in Georgia. As Senate Rules Chair, Chairman Mullis, known for his booming voice and big personality, wields a tremendous amount of power. But even with some heavy arm twisting and horse trading, he was no match for allied forces of very Conservative Senators and Democrats staunchly opposed to gambling in Georgia and the required two-thirds vote needed to pass a Constitutional amendment. 

Recently Chairman Mullis announced that after 22 years, he will not seek another term in the Senate, telling me he’s “tired of his crazies.” Despite being on the opposite sides of many issues, I’ll miss his magnanimous spirit, boisterous sense of humor, and big heart. 

 

“Humans do have an amazing capacity for believing what they choose — and excluding that which is painful.”
— Spock

Criminalizing Protests and Requiring Cash Bail. The Democratic Caucus was outnumbered on two “law and order” bills that take us backwards on civil rights and criminal justice. Senate Bill 171 imposes harsh sentences on offenses committed at public protests, requires protesters to get permission from cities before holding an event, and makes cities liable for crimes committed at protests if they request restraint from their police force during the protest (aimed at Atlanta).The same author of SB 171, retired police officer Senator Randy Robertson, also sponsored SB 504, a bill to require cash bail for all felonies, including non-violent offenses. 

Both bills sparked fierce opposition by Black Senators who pointed out the racism inherent in the bills. But the bill author refused to acknowledge racial discrimination in the justice system, blaming “failures of churches, schools, and homes” for the mass incarceration of Black people.

 

“Worlds may change, galaxies disintegrate, but a woman… always remains a woman.”
— Captain Kirk

Crossover Day offered a glimpse of what an alternate universe might look like if women ruled the galaxy. Rather than taking aim at vulnerable populations, these bills authored by female legislators provide care and compassion to help others. All passed unanimously or by a very wide margin.

Breast Cancer Screening. Republican Senator Sheila McNeill presented SB 487, a bill that requires insurance companies to cover supplemental breast cancer exams, like MRIs or ultrasounds for women with dense breast tissue or follow up exams required for breast cancer patients, the same way they cover mammograms. 

Death Benefits for Families of Officers that Commit Suicide. Senator Kim Jackson authored SB 468, a bill that extends public safety officer death benefits to families of officers that die by suicide within 30 days of their last day of duty.

First Aid Training in Schools. Senator Sonia Halpern sponsored SB 545, a bill to require 9th or 10th graders to receive at least one hour of mandatory CPR, defibrillator, and first aid training in high school.

Home Down Payment Savings Program. SB 491 authored by Senator Gail Davenport would help prospective homeowners meet down payment obligations. It allows banks and credit unions to create and administer down payment savings programs for people who wish to purchase a primary residence. 

 

“You can use logic to justify almost anything. That’s its power. And its flaw.”
― Captain Cathryn Janeway

This week the Senate passed two tax measures to provide families financial relief while gas and other prices remain high due to the pandemic and the Ukrainian invasion. 

Tax Refund. HB 1302 provides a one-time income tax refund to taxpayers who filed returns in 2020 and 2021. Single Georgians will receive $250 and joint filers will receive $500 when they file their tax returns this year. I agree with Governor Kemp that the state should return money to taxpayers once our obligations are met. But I could not in good conscience support a $1 billion tax cut while 7,000 Georgians with intellectual and developmental disabilities languish on a decades-long waiting list to receive Community Support Medicaid waivers.

The Senate also passed HB 304, a bill to temporarily halt Georgia gas tax. This measure will save Georgians 29 cents per gallon through May of this year. It passed unanimously and was signed by the Governor late this week. Gas Tax money funds the Georgia Dept. of Transportation.

Tax Code Revision. Under the guise of “helping hardworking Georgians,” a third tax measure is on the radar and will land in the Senate soon. HB 1437 will completely change Georgia’s tax code to eliminate the state’s six tax brackets in favor of a flat tax and also change deduction rules. Unlike the other two measures, this regressive tax plan will benefit the wealthiest Georgians the most and those that need financial support the least. 

 

“There is a way out of every box, a solution to every puzzle; it’s just a matter of finding it.”
― Jean-Luc Picard

Home & Community Support Waivers. When I first began my quest in the Senate to eliminate the decades-long Disabilities Medicaid waiver waiting list, I was frustrated by the lack of political will to tackle this problem. I’ve now realized that the key is patience and using multiple tools in the arsenal to accomplish my mission. This year I embarked on a diplomatic mission through the appropriations process, meeting with key House subcommittee chairs and members. That paid off as the House added 225 waivers to the Governor’s 100 waivers in the FY 2023 budget. This week I worked the Senate floor to get co-signers on a letter requesting 225 additional waivers from the Senate. I was pleased to get 10 signatures from an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. 

While my ultimate goal is to eliminate the waiting list completely, we’ve had to take a more careful approach while we address Georgia’s direct service provider shortage. On Crossover Day, the Senate unanimously passed SB 610, a bill I authored to require the Department of Community Health to review Medicaid reimbursement rates for home and community based care for several Medicaid waiver programs — every three years — so that we don’t fall behind in raising rates again. Next Tuesday, I’ll present the bill to the House Human Relations & Aging Committee, where I’m told the Chairman has a strong affinity to this issue. 

 

“The prejudices people feel about each other disappear when they get to know each other.”
— Captain Kirk

With COVID numbers down and restrictions relaxed, I’ve been attending more in-person events. Each time I do, I’m reminded how important personal connections are and how much we missed them during the pandemic. 

Community Policing: Late this week, I attended a ceremony at Piedmont Technical College at their Clarkston campus honoring three Dekalb police officers for their work running the DeKalb police department’s Police Athletic League (PAL) which offers sports, mentoring programs, and more to local youth. Only 18 rank-and-file officers across the country receive the prestigious Attorney General’s Award for Distinguished Service in Community Policing and this was the only ceremony Attorney General Merrick Garland attended in person to present the award. 

It was an honor to meet Attorney General Garland, but the police officers were the real heroes. Through PAL, what is too often an adversarial relationship between local police and idle youth is transformed into a positive, nurturing mentorship relationship. The officers coach sports teams, lead cheerleading and dance programs, organize fun activities like “Gaming with a Cop,” and offer career development. Eight of the nine kids in the first PAL class got jobs and the ninth is in dual enrollment at Piedmont Technical College. It would be wonderful to replicate this program throughout the state.

 

“Change is the essential process of all existence.”
— Spock

While your elected officials are fighting the dark forces in the legislature, we desperately need reinforcements. With qualifying over, we know who we’ll be facing in the midterm elections. A new Governor and slate of Constitutional officers will be the difference between better funded schools, more accessible healthcare, and a more peaceful existence for Georgians. Find out who is running in your districts, contribute to their campaigns, and get ready to get out the vote!

 

“Peace and Long Life.”
― Vulcan Blessing

 

The Georgia Midterms Take Shape 

There was a celebratory atmosphere at the Capitol this week as candidates came to qualify to be on the ballot for this year’s midterm election. Tuesday was an especially exciting day as I qualified the same day that Stacey Abrams qualified for her bid to become the first black female Governor in Georgia’s history. 

It appears I have a Republican opponent as do most metro area legislators. We will have to fight hard to protect our hard-earned wins from 2018 as Republicans are clearly fired up just like Democrats were after Donald Trump was elected. 

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

While a few good bills moved Georgia forward this week, I noticed a disturbing trend of bills that move us backwards, unraveling progress we’ve recently made on several issues. 

Bills that Move Us Forward

Medicaid Disability Waivers. The House added funding for 225 more Medicaid waivers on top of the Governor’s proposed 100 in the FY 2023 budget. Last year I set a bold vision with SB 208 to fully fund the 7,000 member Medicaid waiting list in five years. Obviously, this number will not get us there, but I’ve learned we also need to address workforce issues to help make it possible.

Service providers on average are making $10 an hour, so many are leaving the field. In order to get provider pay increased, the state must submit to the feds a comprehensive rate study and it’s been 7 years since the state’s last rate study. To address this deficiency, I introduced SB 610, a bipartisan bill requiring the Georgia Department of Community Health to conduct a rate study every three years so that we never get behind again. The bill unanimously cleared the Health and Human Services Committee this week and will be in the Senate Rules Committee next week.

K-12 Public School Accreditation. Hold on to your hat, I’m doing a deep dive here. But it’s really important, if you care about democracy and our public schools, so take a few minutes to dive down with me!

A few weeks ago, Sen. Lindsey Tippins asked me if I would sign his bill, SB 498, that proposes major changes to how accreditation works for Georgia’s K-12 public schools. I was the first Democrat to sign his bill.

Back when Clayton county lost its accreditation, and DeKalb was put on “probation,” 

I started keeping an eye on K-12 accreditation. What bothered me at the time was how the loss of accreditation seemed based on governance issues rather than what happens in the classroom. High school students in the upper grades became innocent victims when they had to list an unaccredited high school on college applications. This just didn’t seem right.

Through the years, I’ve had a hunch that the constant threat of losing accreditation has had a chilling effect on the action of school board members. Recently I learned that this actually might have resulted from statutory changes regarding the role of school board members (OCGA 20-2-61) made by the legislature in 2010. In this statute, it states (paraphrased) that the local school board shall not micromanage the superintendent, but also shall hold the superintendent accountable. An amendment to this language last year had to clarify that requesting financial data does not constitute micromanaging. Clearly there’s difficulty in determining what is “micromanaging” versus “holding accountable.”

More recently, I’ve watched parents file complaints directly to the accrediting agency, triggering investigations, media attention, and once again fear among families of high school seniors. This leaves me wondering why these complaints are being filed with private accrediting agencies rather than elected school boards.

At the heart of Sen. Tippin’s bill is the private non-profit accrediting agency called Cognia. In 2006, three regional accrediting agencies, including the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) which accredited Georgia schools, merged together, calling the new agency AdvancedEd. Then in 2018, Advanced Ed merged with a testing and assessment company called Measured Progress. Through all these mergers, Cognia has become a 120 million dollar, 500 employee agency that has dominated the market.

Cognia is not only in the business of accreditation. They also offer school improvement services, assessment and professional development — a behemoth of a company, in which deficiencies documented as part of accreditation can bring in additional revenue through “improvement solutions.”

The same week Sen. Tippin’s bill was heard in the Senate Education Committee, Cognia changed its mind about deficiencies they had documented as part of a “Special Review” conducted last August in Sen. Tippin’s home of Cobb county as a result of complaints filed by board members, residents and teachers. In a letter written by longtime President & CEO Mark Elgart, he explained that the “special review teams,” made up of volunteers, were never fact-checked by the company’s professional staff since no adverse action had been recommended. Cognia, however, stood by their assessment of the school board’s dysfunction, pointing out that the board usually votes along partisan lines, and that members should put their personal agendas aside.

Should a private accrediting company be telling elected board members they need to get along better, or else they might lose their accreditation? Sen. Tippin’s bill says no. Accreditation, says SB 498, should be based 80% on academic evaluation and 20% on financial evaluation. In addition, the bill states that accrediting companies should never offer contracts for remediation services for the schools it accredits, and that complaints be subject to open records (Cognia has refused to release complaints to the Cobb school system). Finally, SB 498 proposed that only high schools be accredited by a third party, while elementary and middle schools should be accredited by the state using data that is already available.

Based on years of observation, I have come to the conclusion that a single, unaccountable private company should not hold this much power over a school system. According to Pew, many states do their own accreditation. I commend Sen. Tippins for bringing this bill forward. After I signed the bill, three more Democrats signed on, and the bill passed out of the Senate Education Committee unanimously.

Bills that Move Us Backwards:

“We’re heading to some places that we don’t want to go.”
— Senator Harold Jones

Divisive Concepts in Schools (aka anti-CRT). Perhaps the most divisive bill to move through the legislature is ironically named the “Divisive Concepts” bill. SB 377 takes a restrictive approach to how race is discussed in K-12 classrooms. While Republicans claim this bill will not prohibit schools from teaching history, I find the bill confusing and contradictory, and I believe teachers will too. This bill couldn’t come at a worse time when our already overburdened teachers and administrators are under fire and exhausted from their heroic efforts to keep kids learning through the pandemic. 

Regressive Tax Cut. In 2018, just before the last midterm election, Republicans passed a tax cut in anticipation of a windfall from the federal government that never came. That led to major revenue shortfalls and massive state budget cuts that have yet to be restored. Despite having record revenues and lots of federal pandemic relief funding this year, the Governor asked all state departments to keep their budgets flat.

But with the Governor facing a tough primary challenge and all legislators up for reelection again this year, House Republicans passed a major overhaul of Georgia’s tax system that will cost the state $1 billion/year in revenue. It eliminates our progressive tax system in favor of a flat tax and makes several changes to allowable deductions. Much like 2018, it feels like a major gamble with markets still recovering from the pandemic and the uncertain situation in Ukraine. 

This tax plan heavily favors the top 20% of Georgia earners, while offering minimal benefit to Georgians in greatest need. Nearly 100% of Georgia’s top one percent of earners will receive tax savings from this plan, while less than half, about 44%, of Georgia’s lowest earners will receive a tax cut. There are other ways to provide tax relief to low and middle income that don’t risk Georgia revenues. For many years, Georgia Democrats have proposed an Earned Income Tax Credit, tax credits for low and middle income families based on earnings and number of children. But with Republicans in charge, that proposal has gone nowhere. 

Criminal Justice Reform. During his time in office, despite push back from his own party, Governor Nathan Deal drove a number of criminal justice reforms to reduce Georgia’s costly prison population, including reduced sentences for non-violent offenders and expanded accountability courts to reduce recidivism. Republicans are starting to unravel those reforms by increasing prison sentences for certain categories of offenders. This week, the Senate passed SB 381, a bill to increase penalties on pimps and human traffickers and SB 359, a bill that covers a variety of offenses including instituting mandatory minimums for violent felony offenders and senior abusers. While most Senators voted for these bills, some worry that reverting back to mandatory minimums is moving in the wrong direction. 

Ethical Hunting. All of Georgia’s creatures are considered in the Natural Resources Committee. This week, we had a vigorous discussion about possums, raccoons, wild turkeys, and ground nesting birds. Georgia has a good reputation for ethical hunting and wildlife management. Our laws protect native animals from hunters during breeding season so they can repopulate. But as raccoon and possum hunting has become less popular, these critters have become common sights on private property where they can wreak havoc on everything from nesting birds to garbage bins. On a bill to allow raccoons and possum hunting year round, I joined team raccoon/possum when the head of the Georgia Wildlife Federation testified that this bill would likely make little to no difference in solving the problem because there are no longer enough hunters interested in targeting raccoon and possums to control the population. But the bill passed 5-4 with the Chair casting the deciding vote. 

Some Bad Bills Got Stopped

Cell phones in Cars. It’s very unusual for a bill to be killed on the Senate floor. But this week, the Senate voted down SB 206, a bill that would allow drivers to touch cell phones in mounted devices while stopped at traffic lights and stop signs. This bill would have weakened Georgia’s “Hands-Free law” passed in 2018 that prohibits drivers from using their cell phones while driving. The Republican bill author argued that this was not a partisan bill. He was right — both Republicans and Democratic Senators voted against it!

Crossing Over!

Next week, Monday is a committee day and Tuesday is Crossover Day, the last day for bills to pass at least one chamber in order to continue on the journey to becoming law this year. If a bill does not pass in either the House or Senate, it is considered dead until it is re-filed next year. 

Crossover Day is always one of the longest of the session, often lasting well into the evening hours. It is anyone’s guess how long we’ll be on the Senate floor that day! You can always tune in to the House or Senate floor sessions via the Georgia General Assembly website here: https://www.legis.ga.gov/.

Links

  • https://projects.propublica.org/nonprofits/organizations/208613765
  • https://www.edsurge.com/news/2018-06-26-advanced-to-merge-with-assessment-maker-measured-progress-to-form-120m-nonprofit
  • https://www.ajc.com/education/accreditation-agency-reverses-most-criticism-of-cobb-county-schools/PB2TZSQ4DRACHBC5YAGSCNMIAY/

Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” — Admiral David Farragut

There are moments in war when you are so outnumbered, the only thing you can do is fight like hell. This must be how the Ukrainian people feel, and this week their dogged perseverance has inspired me to keep the fight going at the Gold Dome.

Typically we have one or two major battles each session, giving us time to set a strategy for how to fight back. But in this election year, we’re fighting an onslaught of bad bills nearly every day. We may not be facing live ammo like the Ukrainians, but we’re fighting hypocrisy, lies, and threats. 

“The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than is needed to produce it.”  — Brandolini’s Law

Lies. One strategy for fighting back in the chamber is through the use of “parliamentary inquiry,” a form of debate questioning. In response to the Senate Floor Leader’s presentation of the Governor’s School Mask Mandate Ban, Sen. Elena Parent rose to ask whether the state’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, was in support of the bill. The answer was a solid, “yes.”  Suspicious, Sen. Parent texted Dr. Toomey directly, getting a resounding “no.” Upon sharing this information with the Majority leader, a correction was made from the well by the Floor Leader. Boom. One lie averted.

Threats. The ability to speak freely while respecting the decorum of the chamber is critical to maintaining an effective deliberative body. But this week Chairman Bruce Thompson outwardly challenged this long held practice when he refused to call up Sen. Nikki Merritt’s bi-partisan bill proposing to keep call center jobs here in Georgia. Sen. Thompson, who is running for Commissioner of Labor, stated he didn’t like Sen. Merritt’s comments from earlier in the session about a bill to honor Justice Clarence Thomas. 

It’s one thing to disagree. It’s another to publicly chastise a Senator because you don’t like what she said.

Hypocrisy. A couple of weeks ago, I introduced a floor amendment to a “housekeeping” bill that brought state boating regulations in line with federal law. My amendment added an exemption for small, motorless sailboats from state registration requirements. Republicans voted my amendment down, so this week, in a Point of Personal Privilege, I pointed out the hypocrisy of requiring government permitting of motorless sailboats, but not guns. Unfortunately, SB 319, Permit-less Carry, passed the Senate and is on its way to the House, despite 70% of Georgians believing that those who choose to carry a gun should be required to obtain a permit.

Personal Stories Shine a Light

Thankfully, there are bright spots in each day that help keep me going. On Monday, I held a press conference with advocates and allies for adults living with developmental disabilities, to call attention to the need for increased funding for Community Support  Medicaid waivers.

We had a terrific turnout of advocates who shared their personal stories. My message to the Governor and fellow legislators is, “We are here and we are here to be heard. And even when we go home, we are here. . . . A humane and civilized society cares for its most vulnerable citizens, and as long as Georgia has a waiting list for Community Support Medicaid waivers, Georgia has failed to live up to this basic standard.” Georgia currently has 7,000 people waiting for this help.

Later in the week, I met with the Governor’s staff about two issues —  funding for a new North Dekalb campus for Piedmont Technical College, and the need for more Community Support Medicaid waivers. After we finished discussing the technical school, one of the Governor’s technical school staffers hung back to listen to the Community Support waiver conversation. After the meeting, he told us that he cared for a nephew that had received a Community Support Medicaid waiver. His story was powerful testimony from an “insider” perspective, illustrating the point I had just made — the lives of people living with disabilities impacts many other lives — parents, aunt, uncles, friends, neighbors and communities. 

Honoring A Hometown Hero

Ambassador Andrew Young: Tuesday’s bright spot was the special honor of presenting a Privileged Resolution honoring Ambassador Andrew Young for the 25th anniversary of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University (GSU). Ambassador Young came to receive the honor in person and his presence created a welcome air of excitement. COVID protocols prevented him from coming to the Senate floor, but several of my colleagues acknowledged him and his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement during their Points of Personal Privilege as he sat and listened in the balcony. 

After session, he came down to the South Stairs to accept his resolution. I was amazed at his stamina. At almost 90 years of age, he insisted on standing up out of his wheelchair as he took photos with everyone who wanted one. 

A Midweek Reprieve

Lots of Email! Wednesday was a committee day which means there was no floor session, but committees continued their work. These are great catch up days for me, and I often spend hours just responding to my email. When I served in the House, email was not widely used. In those days, my legislative assistant would hand me a half dozen phone messages that I was able to return before I went home each day. Now, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the hundreds of emails I receive each week. So, if you ever email me and don’t hear back, please email again or call Keridan at (404) 463-2260. And if you stop getting your “Senate Snapshot,” check your “spam” and other folders. Technology is great when it works, and not so great when it doesn’t.

To Hunt or Not to Hunt: The Natural Resources Committee is another source of solace as we often discuss non-controversial bills. I learn a lot too. This week, we passed a bill that increases penalties for hunting on private property without permission, which is a big problem for rural landowners. And we passed a bill to protect Georgia’s deer population from Chronic Wasting Disease which is a growing threat in the United States. The bill regulates how deer carcasses can be brought across state lines to prevent the spread of the disease. 

A Ceasefire Allows Georgia’s Government to Function

The Budget: Our biggest accomplishment of the week came on Thursday as we unanimously passed the amended 2022 budget, also known as the “little” budget. It was a rare moment of unity as we felt good about approving money for teacher and state employee pay raises, and restoring education funds.

Mental Health: We also unanimously approved SB 402, the “Georgia Behavioral and Peace Officer Responder Act” that builds on successful local models that pair behavioral health specialists with police officers to assist in responding to mental health crises. With guidance from a licensed counselor, the bill gives officers the authority to refer a person in crisis to a mental health facility rather than make an arrest, hopefully reducing the number of people with mental illness in our prison system. 

Send in the Reinforcements

Qualifying Week: Next week is known as “qualifying week” where candidates running for office in this year’s election will officially pay a qualifying fee and throw their hat in the ring. All state legislators are up for re-election this year and we will have a chance to elect a new Governor and slate of Constitutional officers. By the end of the week, we will know who will be on the ballot for both May and November.

In the meantime, you have some homework to do. Because of redistricting, all of us will have some type of district change to either your House, Senate and/or Congressional district. You may be in a new district, or your district may simply have a new number. Several current legislators have decided to run for higher office, so you may have a chance to elect a new representative. 

Thankfully, Senate District 40 remains mostly intact. But in order to right-size the district, my current Fulton County constituents, and a few precincts in Peachtree Corners, will be in a new Senate district. Check Georgia My Voter Page to see which districts you are in and after next week, get to know the candidates that have qualified to run in those districts, then help them out — write postcards, go door-to-door, give donations, and share social media posts. Time to get to work!

“All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.”

— John Steinbeck, “Once There Was War”

It’s been hard to watch the images coming from Ukraine — families fleeing their homes and bravely risking their lives for their country — and it’s only the beginning. This invasion is an unjust aggression at the hands of an overly ambitious man bitter about losing power. His justifications for the invasion are imagined and distorted to gain support in his country.

It’s also been inspiring to people standing firm against the Russian invasion: President Zelensky refusing to leave despite severe risk, thousands of Russian citizens protesting despite the consequences for speaking out, and the outpouring of love and support from the global community.

War Abroad and Battles at Home

We’re fighting a different kind of battle here at home, yet there are echoes. As Republicans lose numbers and strength in Georgia, they are using any means possible to maintain power. The problems they claim to be solving are exaggerated to whip up their base in hopes of winning elections.

We’re fighting on many fronts — battling misinformation, lack of logic, and unreasonableness. There’s a real human toll at stake. It’s been exhausting, but we’re using our best weapon — our voices.

The Battle over Guns

When Rose Scott asked me what people get wrong about the second amendment on her WABE radio show “Closer Look” earlier this week, I replied, “The second amendment does give us the right to bear arms. But it doesn’t say that we do that without regulation.” We talked about the various ways we can change the laws to better prevent accidents, suicides, and other gun-related tragedies.

Then later in the week, in a point of personal privilege asserting his support of the second amendment, the powerful Republican Senate Rules Chair, Senator Jeff Mullis, declared, “In fact, if the NRA wanted to pass a bill that a baby had to put a gun in his diaper, I would be voting for it.

This is the mindset we’re fighting in today’s Republican Party. There is no room for reasoned discussion about responsibility or safety. Just a decade ago, some of these same Republicans voted for a bill to require permits to open-carry guns. Now on Monday, they will be voting to remove those permitting safeguards when the Governor’s “permitless carry” bill comes to the Senate floor along with other gun bills.

The Battle Against Voter Suppression

I’ve developed a familiar routine on Tuesday mornings. After getting my Covid test, I go stand on the South-wing steps because there is typically a press conference I want to join. This Tuesday, I stood with House and Senate colleagues from Cobb, Gwinnett, Fulton,Richmond, Bibb, and Chatham counties to protest the unprecedented GOP takeovers of the local redistricting process.

As our Minority Leader, Sen. Gloria Butler, said to Republicans from the Senate well later that morning, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

That same morning, Senate Republicans voted to approve a new map for Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) districts, which oversees the cost of electricity and utilities. As this bill moves through the process, a federal court case is concurrently determining if the very structure of how PCS members are elected in Georgia dilutes Black vote, violating the 1965 Voting Right Act. Currently, candidates must run state-wide but also live in the district they represent. The PSC consists of five elected members and they earn over $121,000 per year.

The Battle Against Racism

Underlying so many of these “red meat” issues is the subject of racism. The GOP local redistricting takeovers have primarily targeted majority Black county commissions and school boards. Education bills like the “Parents Bill of Rights” that allow parents to override teachers and micromanage what is being taught in Georgia’s classrooms, and the anti-Critical Race Theory bill seek to suppress discussions about race.

Standing with my Black colleagues at the press conference on Tuesday inspired me to speak directly to this issue in a Point of Personal Privilege later in the week. In my speech, I shared a conversation I had with my grown kids about their experiences learning about Black history in school. They thoughtfully explained that when they were little they viewed stories in terms of “good and evil” — children’s stories are full of villians and heros. And as they learned about the ugly parts of our history, they acknowledged that it was hard to be seen as the “bad guy” side. As parents, we have the responsibility to teach our kids that while what people did in the past is not their fault, they must work to make things better in the future. And as legislators, we have a responsibility to unravel laws that disadvantage Black people.

This is hard,” I told my colleagues, “because it’s hard for white people to see where laws favor them, because we haven’t lived these laws like our Black friends have.” So when a Black person points out that a law is racist, we white people need to listen.

It’s hard to be called racist, especially when we don’t mean to be. But it’s a whole lot easier if we acknowledge that we can act in racist ways, even when we don’t intend to. That just means that we don’t fully know, really know, what it’s like to live a Black person’s life.

So to my white friends, if you find yourself saying defensively, “I’m not racist,” STOP, and say to yourself, maybe there’s something I’m not seeing. And try to listen a little harder. That’s what will allow you to see how a law might be favoring white people over Black people. And the amazing thing is — YOU have the power, and responsibility, to change it.

The Battle For Trans Rights

The most emotional battle for me this week was over SB 435, the “anti-trans sports bill.” While acknowledging that this is an issue in need of a solution, the bill put before us was sloppy and premature. In the Senate Education Committee, the authors realized the bill might be in violation of federal law, so they rewrote it on the fly. It should have gone back to legislative counsel to be redrafted, but the legislators carrying it are in a hurry to please the Governor, who wants this issue in his campaign toolbox. And all this was happening while our kids were watching.

I couldn’t just sit in my seat and watch that happen, so I rose to share my story. I spoke because I have hope — hope that I could stir the hearts of my colleagues and make them realize voting “yes” on sloppy legislation is not without consequence. I didn’t change their votes, but I fully believe, in the silence of the chamber as I spoke, that I was stirring a few hearts.

Standing before the Senate, I said, “Colleagues, I’m the mother of a trans child. And it’s hard to stand up here and say that, because it hurts, it really, really hurts.” I went on to talk about the complexity of this issue, and how so many kids get left out of sports, because they’re too short, or too small, or they didn’t get started early enough. I pleaded with my colleagues to slow this process down. You can watch my remarks here.

It’s Only Day 20

This year’s legislative session has been hard, to say the least. But I assure you, I will keep going. I will keep speaking the truth. I will keep calling out evil. And at the same time, I’ll do my very best to get a few good things done. I still choose hope.

P.S: It’s Your Turn to Be Loud

I would love for you to join me and advocates and allies for adults with disabilities to “be loud” on Monday at 2 pm on the South stairs inside the Capitol. We’ll be asking for increased funding to reduce the state’s waiting list for NOW/COMP Medicaid waivers that help cover the astronomical cost of care these Georgians need to live full and productive lives in their communities. The Capitol is crowded these days, usually with unmasked visitors, so please plan accordingly.

We hope to see you there!

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

We’re almost to the halfway point of this year’s legislative session, and there’s a bunch of stuff happening. Some of it’s upsetting, while some of it is just plain silly. One of my tasks as a legislator is to sort the big stuff from the small stuff, so I can choose to focus my attention on things that really matter.

The Rough Stuff: Redistricting and Cityhood

Redistricting: Monday morning began with more redistricting drama — this time the Public Service Commission (PSC). The new map that passed the House drew out one of my constituents who had just announced her campaign to run against the district’s incumbent. She’s now in a different district that doesn’t have an election until 2024. As the week went on, additional drama unfolded in Cobb, Fulton, Bibb-Macon and Gwinnett. 

I’m concerned for my Black colleagues. They have fought the good fight this session, but they are tired. I can see it in their eyes, in their faces, and even how they walk and move about the Capitol. They have worked so hard to overcome centuries of silencing, and have fought to gain their voice through the democratic process — only to get slapped back down. The sting hurts.

Cityhood: This week the Senate voted on two controversial bills to incorporate the cities of East Cobb and Lost Mountain in Cobb County. Too often, the timing of these initiatives is questionable. These Cobb cities gained momentum after the 2020 election when the Cobb County Commission became a majority Black body controlled by Democrats. These initiatives have the same feel as the Republican push to make the Gwinnett School Board non-partisan, only after it gained a Democratic majority which is also all Black.

As I evaluate cityhood proposals, I must not cast judgment with one broad stroke. These initiatives are nuanced. For instance, the city of Mableton, which is majority Black, is passing through the legislature without much political rancor. It has been in the works for some time and seems ready to move forward. Closer to home, after years of talk and planning, I believe that the unincorporated area where I live is also ready to move forward. I have found that cities in Senate 40 tend to enhance local civic engagement and promote a sense of community.

Some Good Stuff: Mental Health Parity

The House held a three hour hearing this week for HB 1013, the highly publicized bipartisan mental health bill sponsored by Speaker Ralston. During the hearing Representative Todd Jones and his wife Tracey shared their deeply personal struggle to navigate the mental health care system for their son who suffers from severe mental illness. The subject is timely, as yesterday, I got the news that a friend’s 17-year old son committed suicide. So many of us have personal experiences with mental health, yet Georgia ranks at the very bottom of states for mental health access.

Much of HB 1013, also called the “Mental Health Parity Act,” focuses on making sure that public and private insurance plans cover mental health the same way they cover medical care. It clarifies standards for mental health care coverage and includes ways for consumers to report insurance issues, including a new consumer complaint hotline. The bill offers loan forgiveness for mental health professionals to address our severe shortage and eliminates the need for law enforcement to wait for a person in a mental health crisis to commit a felony before they can be taken into custody and to a mental health care facility. 

It’s good we have moved this discussion forward, but we have much more work to do. I have a Master of Social Work, yet I chose not to practice direct mental health work because the supervision for licensure was inaccessible and too expensive. I’m sure it was for others too, which is part of the reason we have a shortage of mental health workers. And while it’s good to address parity, I’m still painfully aware that our Governor told the Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), which provides our mental health safety net, to keep their budget flat this year, following years of severe cuts.

On another note, it’s really easy for me to remember this bill number. That’s because it’s HB 1013, the same number used on the form for involuntary commitments, known to mental health professionals as Form 1013. A crazy coincidence — you can’t make this stuff up!

The Stuff Life is Made Of: Constituent Services

A few weeks ago at a hair appointment, several salon workers unloaded some of their frustrations. I didn’t mind. Constituent services are a big part of any legislator’s job. It helps keep us connected to the real concerns of our voters and sometimes we’re the only ones that our constituents have to help navigate the system. So with the help of my legislative aide, Keridan, I dove into these issues once I was back in the office. 

COVID Tests: One worker who had gone for a “free” COVID test at an Emory clinic ended up with a bill for $200. We learned that federal rules allow doctors to charge for office visits associated with COVID tests and some are pushing this rule to the limit. While the insurance company negotiates the rates down, this worker still had to pay for the remaining charges to satisfy her deductible. We are in the process of working with Emory to see if we can resolve the issue.

Workers Comp: Another worker whose husband owns a small trucking company tried to purchase Workers Compensation insurance, which is mandatory. But the companies that sell Workers Compensation insurance refused to sell him a policy because his company was less than two years old. I reported this to someone who’s in the Workers Compensation business and he seemed really frustrated by this cherry-picking, and said he’d help find someone who would cover the new company.

These consumer advocacy issues can be time consuming, but rewarding. The system too often takes advantage of people who have little to no resources to stand up for themselves. 

My Schedule is Stuffed to the Gills!

Sometimes there’s so much stuff going on that my Communications Director, Amy, and I have to divide and conquer. While I was at Dekalb delegation meetings with CEO Michael Thurmond and the Dekalb School Board, Amy attended the Women’s Legislative Caucus on Tuesday and the Working Families Caucus meeting on Thursday.

Workplace Sexual Harrassment: At the Women’s Caucus meeting, Amy learned that Georgia is one of only three states that does not have a sexual harassment law. As a result 94% of sexual harrassment legal claims brought by women are dismissed, and 98% of cases brought by Black women are dismissed. This week, Representative Teri Annuelwicz introduced HB 1389 that will define workplace sexual harrassment and protect whistleblowers from retaliation.

Housing Wars: The Working Families Caucus, sponsored this week by the Georgia Municipal Association, covered a growing practice of corporate investors buying up houses to rent, which they say drives up housing prices and leaves renters vulnerable to bad landlord practices. I heard the flip side of this issue from the Georgia Realtors Association who feel that this practice offers affordable housing options for people who can’t afford to own homes in these neighborhoods. They also say cities are passing “no rent overlay zones,” causing segregation of home owners and renters. It’s not unusual for the Georgia Municipal Association and the Georgia Realtors to be at odds on an issue. I’ve seen it plenty of times before.

The Right Stuff: Being Loud 

GPB Lawmakers: Getting stuff done at the Capitol often requires being loud in public, while also working quietly behind the scenes to make things happen. On Valentines Day, I appeared on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Lawmakers” to talk about my work to reduce university fees and SB 208, my bill to eliminate the NOW/COMP Medicaid waiver waiting list to help more adults with developmental disabilities gain access to critical services that allow them to lead full and productive lives in their communities. 

Last week I also had meetings with staff from both the University System of Georgia (USG) and the Dept. of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD). Sometimes writing good legislation is a collaborative effort between elected officials and executive branch employees who have day-to-day technical expertise.

Washington Post: Later in the week, I was asked to comment for a Washington Post article about former Governor and Trump administration Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue becoming the next Chancellor of Georgia’s University system. I expressed concerns about Perdue’s lack of experience in higher education, especially during a time of great change and upheaval in our society. The Board of Regents was established as an independent board to keep legislative branch politics out of our Universities. Members are appointed by the Governor, so choosing a former Governor as a chancellor just seems like too much politics.

Hot Stuff: Save the Date

Calling all adults with developmental disabilities, their family members, and allies. We are planning to hold a press conference, tentatively scheduled for Monday, February 28th at 2pm, to call on the Governor and General Assembly to take significant steps toward eliminating the NOW/COMP Medicaid waiver waiting list through this year’s appropriations process while the state has significant resources to do so. 

If you would like to join us for this press conference, please email Keridan at Keridan.Ogletree@senate.ga.gov

Stuff Happening Next Week

We have another short, but very busy week next week. We’ll only be on the Senate floor Tuesday and Thursday, with a Committee Workday on Wednesday.  Catch me at 1pm on WABE 90.1’s “Closer Look with Rose Scott” where I will be discussing my SB 344, which requires gun owners to complete firearm training. Other than that, my schedule is stuffed full, but I can assure you —  I will not be sweating the small stuff!

Links

  • https://www.ajc.com/news/atlanta-news/in-mableton-a-cobb-cityhood-movement-with-none-of-the-partisan-rancor/CFVQ4PLKDBB2BDN6SVEQ5CG3NY
  • https://www.ajc.com/politics/wide-ranging-mental-health-bill-aims-to-increase-access-to-services-in-georgia/S3N2A2PVAVHNBKVJLXRZAVYKLY/
  • https://www.ajc.com/news/bill-aims-to-shield-workplace-harassment-whistleblowers-from-retaliation/ZYY3RMW4GJBIJCDUWXZ5ZNN6QA/
  • https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2022/02/15/sonny-perdue-georgia-universities/

 

 

Time Keeps on Slipping, Slipping, Slipping
Into the Future

Monday will be Day 16 of Georgia’s 40-day legislative session. This past week, the Capitol hallways started to get a pre-pandemic feel as hundreds of 4H students and Girl Scouts poured in. Honestly, I would like the air to be a bit fresher before the crowds arrive, but the world is ready for normal, so here it comes! It did make me feel happy seeing those kids.

Georgia Tech’s COVID testing program at the Capitol is diagnosing fewer positives, but the virus is still circulating. These days if you see a Republican in a KN95 mask, it probably means they have COVID. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be wearing a mask at all!

Stop the Clock — Ethics Has Been Canceled!

Monday morning was supposed to start bright and early at 8am with an Ethics Committee meeting, but at the last minute it was canceled. Since the Ethics Committee considers all the bad voting bills, my administrative assistant Keridan always knows she’ll get a big smile from me when she tells me “Ethics” has been canceled.

I was forewarned about this meeting’s agenda due to a flood of emails I received from local Republican Parties all over the state. Up for consideration was a bill to allow county commissions to become non-partisan through local legislation. It seems this bill was going to hit the pocketbook of local Republican Parties!

When candidates “qualify” to have their name on the ballot, they pay a qualifying fee. This money goes to the local political party. Hence, if these races are all non-partisan — no qualifying fees to fund the local party!

These emails also argued that the state should stay out of county government affairs and that local control was “a strong Republican value.” How ironic to receive these emails while my Republican colleagues are actively usurping local control through the redistricting process in several metro-area counties. Ethics has been canceled in more ways than one in the Georgia legislature.

Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

After getting 30 minutes of extra sleep, my week launched with an 8:30am Zoom meeting to evaluate six different county commission maps for Fulton County. These represented the local desires of individual Republicans and Democrats, and sometimes compromises between a Democrat and a Republican!

Local redistricting work is still dominating much of our time. A decade ago, Senate district 40 was purposely drawn to give my Republican predecessor a vote in three county delegations. That means I’m juggling Gwinnett, Fulton, and Dekalb county commission and school board redistricting efforts and all three have had their challenges. Yet some of my rural colleagues can have up to ten counties to support as the lone legislator. It’s a lot of work for a part time citizen legislature to pass county commission and school board redistricting maps for Georgia’s 159 counties.

Toward the end of the week, our local consent calendar — the list of local bills making their way through the process — was ten pages long, which translates to very long floor sessions. It leaves little time for regular work like constituent services, working on legislation, and working the budget process. It’s times like these that I could really use a staff of 20 like our members of Congress have.

Timing is Key – DeKalb Commission Maps

Speaking of maps, your over-achieving DeKalb delegation is making more work for itself, and could end up passing two different County Commission maps. One would be a map that simply rebalances the populations of each district. The other would be a map that sets up a referendum to switch to seven equal sized commission districts (rather than five districts plus two super-districts we have now).

Last week I told you the latter map was off the table due to the referendum requirement that I didn’t think we had time for. Turns out, we could do both.

If this bill passes, the referendum would be this coming November, and if the referendum (vote by the people) passes, the map wouldn’t go into effect until 2023 or possibly 2024. That means we must also pass the first map that rebalances populations in the current structure.

A referendum on the structure of DeKalb’s districts will require educating all DeKalb voters on the pros and cons of super-districts. Do super-districts work as intended, balancing the interests of the “whole” with the interests of each district? Or will seven smaller districts bring the government back closer to the people?

Georgia’s Black History Time Warp

Throughout Black History Month, Georgia Senators often use their points of personal privilege to highlight black historical events and figures. On Thursday, Senator Nan Orrock told the story of Henry McNeal Turner, who became the first black pastor and a leader in the US Colored Troops during the Civil War. After the war, Turner settled in Macon, Georgia and in 1868 was among 33 new black legislators elected to the Georgia General Assembly for the first time following 250 years of slavery.

These black legislators helped write Georgia’s new Constitution guaranteeing voting rights for former slaves. But just two months after the 14th Amendment that granted African Americans US citizenship and civil rights was adopted, Georgia Democrats, then the party of white supremacy, decided that while black people had the right to vote, they did not have the right to hold office. They introduced a bill to expel all the black legislators.

Turner’s speech in the House of Representatives in opposition became famous and was used as a rallying cry for the Civil Rights Movement. Turner argued, “The great question, sir, is this: Am I a man? If I am such, I claim the rights of a man. Am I not a man because I happen to be of a darker hue than honorable gentlemen around me? I want to convince the House today that I am entitled to my seat here.” Despite Turner’s speech, the white legislators chose to ignore the voices of 800,000 black citizens who had registered to vote during Reconstruction and voted to expel all 33 black lawmakers.

Almost 154 years later, it is heartbreaking to witness a similar silencing of black leaders and voters, this time by white Republicans. This week, Senate Republicans threw out a Gwinnett county commission map drawn and approved by the Gwinnett delegation and county commission, a majority of whom are black, with significant community input from Gwinnett’s diverse electorate. Instead, they approved a map drawn by just two white Gwinnett House Representatives with no input or approval of the Gwinnett delegation, local elected leaders, or the community.

The same dynamic played out with the Augusta/Richmond County local redistricting process. A set of maps, drawn and approved by a majority black county commission and school board with input from the community, were disregarded in favor of a map that dilutes the voices of black voters drawn by a few white Republicans. Senator Harold Jones’ fiery speech in opposition to these unvetted maps, his anger and frustration palpable, was reminiscent of Turner’s famous speech.

Whether the map is perfect or not, it went through the process. It’s a democratic process. At some point in time, we have to start respecting African American elected officials. And when they do the process and say that we’re going to respect it, that’s what we’re going to do. This was a total disrespect of it,” said Senator Jones.

Putting in the Time & Effort

Being a member of the minority party means having to work twice as hard to pass a bill. My bill to prorate University fees for part-time students ultimately led to the lowering of all fees by up to 40%, but it didn’t solve the original inequity for part-time students. So this session, I spoke with the Chair of the Higher Ed Committee about what I needed to do to pass this bill. He said I should speak to legislative counsel about the balance of constitutional powers between the legislature and the Board of Regents. Then he said I should speak with the Lt. Governor. Then the Lt. Governor said I should speak with his policy guy. Then the policy guy said I should speak with one particular Republican who supported my bill originally. Then that Republican said I should get some data from the Board of Regents. Tick Tock — do you hear the clock? Forty days is a short time.

In contrast, Republican bills seem to make it to committee without much due diligence. SB 435, a bill to prohibit transgender students born one gender to participate in sports teams “of the opposite gender,” was originally written to only exclude transgender girls (born male) from playing on girls teams. But in the Education Committee, discussion arose about this being unconstitutional under Title IX. So the author changed the bill on the fly to prohibit ANY student born one gender from participating on teams of the opposite gender. The unintended consequence is that this bill will now prohibit all girls from playing on boys teams, like those who serve as kickers on boys football teams.

Another bill to ban “divisive topics” about race demonstrated how damaging vague and subjective bill language can be. Democrats asked questions that highlighted the confusing and contradictory bill’s language. What is the standard for deciding what is a “divisive topic?” Who decides? How would a teacher discuss systemic racism like redlining and how it affects people of color today? Ultimately, without clear understanding of what constitutes a “divisive topic,” it will create a flood of complaints from parents who can object to any topic on race and will leave teachers and administrators reluctant to discuss race for fear of retaliation — which is probably the intent.

Having been on the “bad voting bills” committee in years past for bad voting bills, I now feel for my colleagues on the Education and Youth Committee.

 

“I suppose it’s like the ticking crocodile, isn’t it?”

Georgia Republicans are the Captain Hooks of our time. They see that change is on the horizon and they fear their vanishing order. They are lashing out and the crocodile persistently reminds them they are running out of time.

If you feel angry about their sloppy bills targeting trans kids and how history is taught, below are some legislators you can call or email. In the meantime, remember that it’s time to get moving on election season. A new Democratic Governor would be able to stop these bills in their tracks. Sign up to volunteer with your county Democratic Party and support your local candidates!

 

Republican Senate Education & Youth Committee Members:

Sen. Chuck Payne
404-463-5402
chuck.payne@senate.ga.gov

Sen. Jason Anavitarte
404-656-0085
jason.anavitarte@senate.ga.gov

Sen. John Albers
404-463-8055
john.albers@senate.ga.gov

Sen. Matt Brass
404-463-1376
matt.brass@senate.ga.gov

Sen. Greg Dolezal
404-656-7127
greg.dolezal@senate.ga.gov

Sen. Steve Gooch
404-656-9221
steve.gooch@senate.ga.gov

Sen. Sheila McNeill
404-656-9644
sheila.mcneill@senate.ga.gov

Sen. Lindsey Tippins
404-657-0406
lindsey.tippins@senate.ga.gov


I wanna fly like an eagle, to the sea
Fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me
I want to fly like an eagle, ‘Til I’m free
Oh Lord, through the revolution
Feed the babies, who don’t have enough to eat
Shoe the children, with no shoes on their feet
House the people, livin’ in the street
Oh, oh, there’s a solution.

Links:

Transgender Sports Bill: https://www.ajc.com/politics/deja-vu-georgia-senate-panel-oks-bill-limiting-sports-to-gender-identified-at-birth/DTJEPFGQB5AXDDRZGC3ZGWCCEA/

Divisive Topics Bill: https://www.ajc.com/education/gop-lawmakers-explain-efforts-to-control-classroom-discussions-on-race/UD75L7DZHRDWHEQ3VXIWJPGNU4/

Sen. Harold Jones: https://www.dropbox.com/s/v6tz7x9s8iswoyj/2-10-2022%20Sen.%20Jones%20II%20on%20SB%20457.mp4?dl=0

Sen. Nan Orrock:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/86l029wxes27sfd/Sen.%20Orrock%20Popp%202-10-2022.mp4?dl=0

Get Mad and Get Moving!

I love serving in the Georgia Senate, but it’s been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster the last few weeks. I’ve been thinking about how the words “emotion” and “motivation” share the same Greek root, “moti,” which means “move.” I’m feeling moved into action, but the reality is that we don’t have enough votes yet to stop all the partisan bombs that are being hurled our way. Can you imagine if we won the Governor’s office and gained the power of the veto? We could stop these shenanigans in their tracks.

I’m seeing an increasing trend toward ignoring the voices of the majority. For example, the Permit-less Carry bill that will allow anyone to easily carry a gun in public, continued to move through the General Assembly despite a recent AJC poll showing that 70% of Georgians oppose such a law. This week it passed the House, the Senate Judiciary Committee, and will be on the Senate floor next week.

The midterm elections are now, and the Governor’s office, State Constitutional officers, and all the state legislative seats are up for grabs. We must win these critical positions so that we have more votes and more veto power.

 

All Politics Are Local

This old adage hit home this week with so much focus on local redistricting. Normally, local legislation starts with the county delegation of legislators that represent voters in those counties. In recent years, as Democrats won more seats in the metro Atlanta area, the Gwinnett, Fulton, and Cobb county delegations flipped from Republican to Democratic majorities. 

But rather than respecting the will of the majority of voters in their counties, Gwinnett, Fulton, and Cobb Republicans have operated from a power grab playbook. In both the House and Senate, they are circumventing the local delegation process and filing their own county commission and school district maps that disadvantage Democrats and people of color. These maps are submitted as general bills and assigned to state government committees where they’re approved by Republican lawmakers from all over the state rather than those that represent the majority of voters in the county. There are so many redistricting bills flying around right now with different variations of maps and elections, that at one point I almost signed the wrong bill!

A bill to make the Gwinnett school board non-partisan, authored by the county’s lone Republican senator, reached the Senate floor this week. Lots of school boards in Georgia, including DeKalb’s, are non-partisan. However, changing how country school boards are elected should be decided by the local delegation, as has been done in every other Georgia county outside Gwinnett so far this session. 

I spoke from the Senate well against this bill. Speaking from the Senate well makes my heart race. And it should — it’s one of the most public forms of speech there is, and it’s one of the most powerful. After making this speech I was interviewed by Fox 5 News. One thing about the Senate — you never know when you leave in the morning if you’re going to be on the news that night! 

 

Dueling DeKalb Proposals

This week, the DeKalb House and Senate delegations considered two different proposals for the DeKalb County Commission. The DeKalb House delegation discussed maps submitted by the DeKalb Commission that equalize the district population with minimal changes to the current districts. The DeKalb Senate delegation discussed an alternative map with seven districts of equal size in lieu of five districts and two super districts. This would make each district smaller so that Commissioners could be closer to their communities and more responsive to their constituents. It is not unusual for the House and Senate to consider different ideas. In fact, our bicameral government exists for this purpose. 

While these dual proposals caused some unease and debate, it is now a moot point. Late in the week, Legislative Counsel issued an opinion that Georgia law requires a voter referendum to change DeKalb’s form of government and it is too late for this change to be made for this year’s election. This means the Senate map shouldn’t advance for now, but we will continue to discuss DeKalb County’s governance. The county is long overdue for a Charter Review.

DeKalb residents will be able to weigh in on the maps at a Virtual Public Hearing via Zoom or Facebook livestream on Tuesday, February 8 at 6:30 pm and the next weekly DeKalb House delegation meeting on Wednesday, February 9 at noon. You can find more information here, and register to attend at https://bit.ly/3Hk95gx

 

Cities Galore! 

The idea of smaller county commission districts appeals to me because smaller districts mean elected officials are closer to the people. Perhaps if the number of commissions had gradually increased as the county grew, service delivery would be better than it is today.

When we think of cities, most of us imagine a picture book version with a downtown area, neighborhood fire department, library, schools, sidewalks and a nicely designed City Hall. But in Georgia, how services are delivered at the city and county level is much more complicated than this because of how it is spelled out in our Georgia State Constitution.

For instance, the whole of DeKalb actually began functioning as a city in 1972 with the passage of “Amendment 19” that allowed counties to deliver services such as police/fire, water/sewer, parks/recreation and garbage collection. Prior to that the DeKalb Commission was called “The Commission of Roads and Revenue,” because that’s about all the county did. Outside cities, services were provided by the state.

Further, the Georgia Constitution defines what a city is, and it says a city must deliver a minimum of three services. The Georgia constitution does not allow for a layer of government such as “townships” or “villages” that you sometimes see in other states.

Sometimes it feels like we’re trying to squeeze our new cities into the kind of box our constitution offers, but what we really need is a different sized box. This is why Sen. Elena Parent and I are considering authoring a constitutional amendment that specifically spells out which services need to stay with the county. Currently, every time a city forms the county services contract. This not only makes for difficult management, but there are some services that are just better off being managed county-wide. I’ll keep you posted on how this effort develops.

So when you think about cities in DeKalb county, and perhaps whether or not you want to live in one, I encourage you to think less about cities you might see in picture books, and more about how services are best delivered.

That being said, there are many cityhood proposals being batted around by the legislature this session. They are all far from the same, and must be discussed individually on their own merits and demerits.

The most visible is the secession of Buckhead, and it is not a pretty picture. It’s reminiscent of the 2018 Eagles Landing referendum, which was rejected by voters. Had it passed, Eagles Landing would have siphoned half the tax revenue from the city of Stockbridge while creating a new city one-third the size, made up of the neighborhoods with the highest tax bases. Not only does this Buckhead proposal put Atlanta Public Schools at risk, but the loss of bond ratings would put the entire state at risk.

Cobb county has several cityhood proposals: 1) HB 826 “Vinings”, population 7000; 2) HB 840 “Lost Mountain” in west Cobb, population 75,000 and 3) HB 841 “East Cobb,” population 60,000. These are being rushed through the legislature now.

During the last two years I have spent a significant amount of time discussing and researching the impact of forming a city in unincorporated DeKalb north of Decatur — which happens to be where I live. There are several reasons why this has become urgent. 

A new city in north DeKalb would protect DeKalb County Schools by permanently defining school district lines relative to cities that have their own school systems (Decatur and Atlanta). This keeps them from annexing commercial areas that have a strong tax base and few students, which would drain revenues from DeKalb schools.

Second, surrounding cities with their own police departments are actively annexing unincorporated neighborhoods, which enlarges their city police force. A recent study conducted by the Carl Vinson Institute on Government concluded that expansion of city police departments in north DeKalb is significantly and adversely impacting the DeKalb Department of Public Safety. There is now a consensus that any new city will contract with DeKalb for police services.

Finally, residents of this area need a stronger local voice in regional planning. For example, the mayors along the 285 corridor have been working on adding Bus Rapid Transit to the 285 express lanes plan, but the residents in the unincorporated areas are not at the table.

In the past, Republicans have used their majority power to ram through cityhood bills without getting the consent of local elected legislators. Instead, DeKalb Senators will utilize the “local bill” process, which requires the support of the majority of legislators in the entire DeKalb delegation for passage. This process ensures that residents of the whole county have a voice in what is decided.

 

Stay Focused on the Finish Line

It’s time to take action and move out of your comfort zone — donate to candidates and volunteer on their campaigns. Send an encouraging email to a candidate that says you’ve got their back. Get involved in primaries to ensure the strongest candidate wins. Click here for an up-to-date list of candidates. We’ve got a lot of work to do! 

 

Links

Georgians Oppose Permitless Carry https://www.ajc.com/politics/ajc-poll-georgians-oppose-permit-less-gun-carry-repeal-of-roe-v-wade/AWT3EBPIY5GYLINCHDRERGIKSQ/

Georgia Candidates spreadsheet https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/18AB95CtoUi0BA7z0Vmi2txYaneobu6ALnnR0zMbGYrQ/edit?usp=sharing

Georgia GOP and Local Districts https://www.ajc.com/politics/power-grab-republicans-revamp-local-districts-over-democratic-objections/E334LVYFRJE3PLFE5LQQNHEU6Y/ 

Sally speaking against the Gwinnett School Board bill https://youtu.be/yOAcbaDyzeg 

Sally on Fox 5 news about the Gwinnett School Board bill https://www.fox5atlanta.com/news/georgia-senate-approves-bill-making-gwinnett-school-board-elections-non-partisan 

DeKalb House Delegation Meeting Info https://www.facebook.com/100066453410151/posts/281157930775985/

DeKalb House Delegation Zoom Registration link https://bit.ly/3Hk95gx 

DeKalb County Service Delivery Strategy https://www.dekalbcountyga.gov/sites/default/files/2020-02/2019%20Service%20Delivery%20Strategy_VERIFIED.pdf 

Cobb County Cities http://eastcobbnews.com/cupid-speaks-out-on-cobb-cityhood-bills-local-redistricting/ 

City of Atlanta Annexation of CDC and Emory https://www.ajc.com/news/local-education/dekalb-schools-sues-city-atlanta-over-emory-cdc-annexation/Zisg5mVVfisr0KGbcCpxXK/ 

Carl Vinson Study on impact of city police forces on the county https://www.dekalbcountyga.gov/chief-executive-officer/cvi-study-local-government-dekalb