A Chilly Political Forecast

I can’t believe it’s already October! For me, the chill in the air reminds me that Georgia’s politics are going to get a bit chilly during the next few months. I expect the November Special Redistricting Session to feature a storm of political gerrymandering, followed by a 2022 Legislative Session sure to showcase severe infighting and political extremism. Brrrr!

 

Neither Snow nor Rain . . . Your Senator Delivers!

No matter the political climate, nothing stops me from serving the people of Georgia! This coming Wednesday at 7pm, I am hosting a Virtual Town Hall on Public Safety that will feature a panel discussion with city leaders from all over Senate 40. In addition, even though it is the “off” season for the Georgia General Assembly, Legislative Study Committees have been meeting to make recommendations for action during the 2022 session. Finally, I continue to monitor public health issues related to COVID and conditions at the Georgia Department of Labor.

Special Note about my Next Campaign: Once the Special Session starts in November I will be unable to raise money for my next campaign (Georgia law prohibits accepting campaign donations during session). Qualification for the 2022 election is coming up in a few months! So, if you would like to send a contribution for my re-election, now is the time to do it. Off-year contributions are an important part of ensuring I am prepared for my next race, which comes every other year.

Public Safety Virtual Town Hall: During the past two decades, police services in the northern Atlanta suburbs have changed in structure due to the chartering of new cities. Some areas that were once served by DeKalb County now have their own city police departments. According to this report published by the Carl Vinson Institute, “Review of the Impact of Potential Municipal Expansion on County and Municipal Service Provision,” further loss of tax revenue due to the creation and expansion of new city police departments will have adverse impacts on DeKalb County as a whole. We don’t live in isolation and cities don’t have fences, so the health of the county at-large should be the concern of everyone who lives in DeKalb county. As part of a panel discussion featuring police chiefs and leaders from Doraville, Dunwoody, Peachtree Corners, Brookhaven and unincorporated DeKalb County, we will look at how our police departments are structured, challenges they face, reforms they are making, and the benefits of sharing resources. Register at https://bit.ly/Publicsafety 

Legislative Study Committees: Georgia’s fast moving 40-day legislative session typically does not allow for enough time to really delve into issues thoroughly, therefore much of that work is done between sessions. Legislative Study Committees are created through official resolutions that must go through the process just like bills, except that they can be passed by a single chamber. During the summer, the Lt. Governor appoints Senators to the various Study Committees, and the Committees typically complete their work during the fall. 

University Fees Study Committee: Education was one of the top areas that motivated me to run for the State Senate, so I feel fortunate to have been appointed to two Study Committees that focus on education. Last session, I passed Senate Resolution 300, which created the University Fees Study Committee. “Fees” now make up an average of 25% of the cost of tuition at state colleges and universities, but they are not covered by the HOPE scholarship. In addition, part-time students are usually charged 100% of the fees each semester, making the total cost of their degrees thousands of dollars more than full-time students. I created the Study Committee to look at more equitable solutions, and to bring some accountability to the Board of Regents (the governing board for Higher Education in Georgia).

Outdoor Education Study Committee: I was also appointed by the Lt. Governor to the Outdoor Education Study Committee, chaired by Gwinnett State Senator Sheikh Rahman. I’ve been a long-time advocate for ensuring all children get daily recess, because I want children to enjoy learning. Currently, our children spend way too much time sitting at their desks. This Committee is looking to support ways the Georgia Teaching Standards can be taken outside — for example instead of watching a video about watersheds, children can go outside to create their own watershed in the dirt! 

Unemployment Offices are Still Closed to the Public: I continue to get emails and calls from constituents who are owed back-pay for unemployment benefits who cannot get the department to answer their calls or emails. I reach out on their behalf and often never hear anything back either. Although Gov. Kemp has declared the state is open for business, the Department of Labor still refuses to open up to the public. In the Senate, this is angering both Democrats and Republicans, so I drafted a letter to Commissioner Mark Butler asking him what his plans are for opening, and almost every Senator signed the letter with me! Several recent newspaper articles have exposed mismanagement at the Dept. of Labor, including this article about our Senate letter! 

Redistricting: Speaker David Ralston said months ago we would deal with redistricting “when the frost hits the pumpkin.” He was about right, as the Governor has called a Special Session to begin the day after Election Day, November 3rd. Hopefully we will be done by Thanksgiving. Hearings have been held and the public has done a great job advocating for fair, non-politically gerrymandered districts in which voters choose their representatives, rather than the other way around. If you would like to follow redistricting issues more closely, I recommend subscribing to Fair Districts Georgia at https://www.fairdistrictsga.org.  

 

Look Ahead to Spring

So batten down the hatches for now, take shelter, and wait out the winds. When spring arrives, we’ll put our teams together again to hit the pavement for the 2022 elections. Sure, we’ll have some debris to clear, but our message to the people of Georgia is strong. We’ll rebuild using a platform of access to healthcare for all, quality public education from cradle to career wherever you live, protection of our earth’s resources, criminal justice reform, and America’s promise of equality. Hope springs eternal.

Sally’s Senate Snapshot:
“We worked so hard, and now, it is all undone?” That is the common cry of the men and women of our military who deployed to Afghanistan, missionary relief workers who built schools and infrastructure in Haiti, and healthcare workers who have labored day and night to contain a virus that is now running wild.

In the face of powerlessness, it helps to do something. So I want to call your attention to the urgent need for all of us to lobby our elected officials at the federal level. We have a narrow window of opportunity to deliver an agenda that makes meaningful change to people’s lives. Our success in 2022 depends on it, and time is short!

Be National.

Soon after the 2016 election, a group of D.C. staffers got together and wrote a manual on how to resist the Trump agenda. And that manual led to the formation of national progressive movement called “Indivisible.” Indivisible groups sprung up all over the country. The actions described: constant phone calls, requests for townhalls, in-person visits, protests and rallies, as well as letters-to-the editors and op-eds, were deployed to resist Trump and remove him from office, and they worked! But they were actually modeled after what the original authors saw the Tea Party doing to pressure the GOP into ever more radical positions. Now it’s time to turn those same actions towards the President and the majorities we’ve elected to Congress and encourage them to deliver an agenda based on Democratic values.

Their manual, now called “Indivisible on Offense”, was updated after the 2018 midterm elections to include action steps about how to hold our Democratic elected officials accountable. The same techniques we used to resist the Trump agenda are needed now more than ever to ensure that our members of Congress deliver on behalf of the people who elected them.

If you have not connected to an Indivisible group yet, you can find your local group here. If you need assistance, please respond to this email and I will help connect you to a group.

Be LOUD.

A few weeks ago I travelled to Washington D.C. as part of a group of state legislators chosen to lobby the U.S. Senate to pass the For the People Act. The purpose of my trip was to “be LOUD,” as I often say. We had a big rally in a park near the Capitol, which was quite successful and got a good deal of national press. The speakers were inspirational, including our own Sen. Warnock. There was power in coming together with legislators from twenty different states who had also been unable to stop Republicans from passing restrictive voting laws. But due to the rise of COVID cases that week, plus the work on the infrastructure bill, it was hard to get the attention of the Senators.

Sometimes being loud can feel futile — like you’re yelling through phone lines and email accounts and no one is listening. But it’s critical that we do it anyway and never give up. If you’re feeling frustrated or powerless right now, it’s time to make some phone calls! The halls of the U.S. Capitol building are too quiet right now — I know because I’ve been there!

Be Specific.

For the People Act and the Filibuster: We cannot reverse the damage done by bad voting laws at the state level without passing voting standards at the national level, and we can’t pass the For the People Act without reforming the filibuster. I recently found a chart on VoteSaveAmerica.com documenting each Senator’s commitment or lack thereof to filibuster reform, as well as public statements they have made on the subject. Sadly, at the release of this email, the link was not working, but I’ll tell you that Georgia’s two new Senators, Ossoff and Warnock, remain uncommitted to filibuster reform. Pick up the phone now and call. Phone numbers are provided at the end of this email.

Infrastructure and Budget Tensions: The bi-partisan Infrastructure bill has gone back to the House, where Democratic house leadership plans to hold the bill until the Senate keeps its promise to pass the $3.5 trillion budget proposal in mid-September. This short delay is to make room for high level negotiations on budget priorities. Priorities that define who we are as a nation and how we live in community with one another.

But over the weekend, nine Democrats in the House, including Georgia’s Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, wrote a letter to the leadership calling for an immediate vote on the Infrastructure bill and have threatened to vote against the budget bill if they don’t get their way. If these nine vote against the budget, they will derail the Democratic agenda by just three votes. This gives away the strategic opportunity to negotiate the two bills together, fighting for critical dollars for universal pre-K, free community college, expanded ACA healthcare, climate change initiatives, and affordable housing, to name a few. (Click here  for details) This is exactly the kind of situation in which the public (you!) needs to weigh in and “be LOUD”! Now is the time to call these nine, particularly Rep. Bourdeaux, and make sure that your voice is heard. Let them know that their planned vote against pre-K, community college, the ACA, clean energy, and affordable housing is not acceptable.

Make Some D.C. Magic, Again.

When I studied Washington D.C in the third grade I fell in love, so I was thrilled to travel there that summer to visit family. The problem was, my parents didn’t know I wanted to actually see D.C. Fortunately, my Uncle Jim figured it out, and drove me downtown the night before we left to travel back to Indiana. It was a whirlwind tour, past all the sites and into the parking lot of the U.S. Capitol.  “Should we go in?” my Uncle Jim asked. “Yes!” I said. My Uncle Jim later told my mom that when I stood in the rotunda and looked up, I said, “My dream has come true.” True story.

Four decades later, and in D.C. to lobby for the passage of the For the People Act, I faced a similar disappointment. The U.S. Capitol was closed to the public. Through the help of a friend, I was able to make my way inside, but it was eerie to stand in empty hallways while Congress worked behind closed doors.

Without being LOUD, Congress cannot hear us.

There’s a lot going on with the Delta COVID surging, Afghanistan falling to the Taliban, and the earthquake in Haiti. But now is the time to multi-task. Keep your newly elected members of Congress accountable to the people who sent them to Washington in the first place. Make sure the new members we elected in CD-6, CD-7, CD-5, and the Senate hear the voices of the people who worked so hard to send them there.

As my former Georgia Senate seatmate, Chair of the Georgia Democrat Party and new member of Congress says — we can do two things at once!

Contact Information

Call these people and ask them to vote “yes” on the budget resolution before the small infrastructure bill. (Call both Washington and District offices. On the phone. ResistBot and Email are just not the same.)

  • Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux:
    Washington (202) 225-4272;
    District 770-232-3005
  • Rep. Lucy McBath:
    Washington (202) 225-4501;
    District 470-773-6330
  • Rep. Hank Johnson:
    Washington (202) 225-1605 ;
    District (770) 987-2291
  • Rep. Nikema Williams:
    Washington (202) 225-3801;
    District (404) 659-0116
  • Rep. Sanford Bishop:
    Washington (202) 225-3631;
    Albany (229) 439-8067;
    Columbus (706) 320-9477;
    Macon (478) 803-2631
  • Rep. David Scott:
    Washington (202) 225-2939;
    Jonesboro (770) 210-5073;
    Smyrna (770) 432-5405
  • Rep. Nancy Pelosi:
    Washington (202) 225-4965;
    District (415) 556-4862

Call your U.S. Senators and tell them to reform of the filibuster and pass voting rights

  • Sen. Ossoff:
    Washington (202) 224-3521;
    District (470) 786-7800
  • Sen. Warnock:
    Washington (202) 224-3643;
    District (770) 694-7828
Links

Sally’s Senate Snapshot: Interim Edition

Time to Flex those Muscles!

People often ask me what Georgia legislators do when we’re not in session. Since we’re a part-time, “citizen” legislature, at the close of session we’re supposed to go back home to do whatever it is we were doing before we got elected — theoretically anyway.

Personally, I’ve been taking some time to recharge my batteries. After journeying out on a few rock climbing trips with my family, my husband Jay and I are now going to the climbing gym several times a week to build up our strength. Facing the kinds of political challenges we are up against these days is easier when I’ve got the muscles to take it on!

Bringing the U.S. Senate to Atlanta

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from the Policy Director of the U.S. Senate Rules and Administration Committee, chaired by Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Would I be willing to testify at a Committee Field Hearing on Voting Rights, addressing Georgia’s new election law? I pretty quickly gave a resounding, “Certainly!”

So on July 19th I testified before the U.S. Senate Rules Committee at a field hearing, appropriately held at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. I really appreciated how Sen. Amy Klobuchar brought the Committee to Atlanta to hear directly from the people. As she said, “If you just stay in Washington and get doused down and gridlocked out by our archaic procedures in the Senate, you lose sight of what you are looking for.”

Our team of witnesses certainly gave Sen. Klobuchar what she was looking for! Helen Butler, Executive Director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, told her story about how she was removed as a member of her local election board because her local legislators changed the appointment process — instead of being appointed by both political parties, appointments are now made by an all white and Republican county commission. Jose Segerra described how he and his elderly neighbors stood in line for hours to vote, only to have to come back the next day. And I told the story of how Georgia’s new voting law was rammed through the process without public input and through the use of legislative procedural tricks. If you’d like to watch the testimony click here. My opening statement is about 30 minutes in, but Sen. Warnock made his opening statement first, and he’s very much worth listening to if you have time! By the way, Sen. Warnock has been working very hard this week to bring the For the People Act to the Senate floor for a vote.

Sending the Georgia Legislature to Washington

After being introduced by Sen. Klobuchar, I looked the Senators in the eye and said, “We desperately need your help. Where you live shouldn’t determine how hard it is to vote. I implore you to pass national voting standards.” Next week I will take this message to the U.S. Capitol, where I, along with legislators from Georgia and other states that have passed restrictive voting laws, will lobby the U.S. Senators to pass the For the People Act.

Polling shows that this bill is supported by the majority of Americans. Even though Republicans are in the minority in the Senate, they are able to block popular bills using the filibuster. Long gone are the days when Senators would have to give voluminous speeches at the Senate well to filibuster a controversial bill. All it takes now is one Senator calling for a filibuster and the legislation automatically requires a Supermajority of 60 votes to pass. It has been overused and abused for too long and it means that any progress in the US Senate is now held hostage by minority rule.

What’s in the For the People Act and How will it Help Georgia?

Distribution of food/water to voters: There has been much talk about how the Georgia legislature made it illegal to give food or water to voters while waiting in line. The For the People Act prohibits states from restricting food and beverages at polling places, if done in a non-partisan manner.

Dropboxes: SB 202 limits dropboxes to one per 100,000 active registered voters, which drastically limits the number of dropboxes in the metro Atlanta area from what was available in 2020. The For the People Act requires one dropbox per every 45,000 registered voters during the 2022 and 2024 elections. Subsequently, the Act requires either one per 45,000 registered voters OR one for every 15,000 voters who cast a mail-ballot in the previous federal election (whichever is greater). Under the Act, dropboxes must also be available the first day mail ballots are sent to voters. Twenty-five percent of drop boxes in each jurisdiction must be accessible 24 hours per day. Finally, the Act requires that dropboxes be available to all voters in a non-discriminatory way, accessible to voters with disabilities and by public transportation as well as geographically distributed.

Mail Ballot Request Forms: SB 202 requires a Drivers’ License number, State ID number or a photocopy of an alternative ID for mail-in ballots. The For the People Act only requires a signature and/or identifying information such as date of birth. The Act requires on-line applications accessible for voters with disabilities. The Act also ensures states cannot prohibit the mailing of absentee ballot request forms to eligible voters by any person, including election officials.

The Actual Mail Ballot: SB 202 prohibits jurisdictions from sending out mail ballots until 29 days before Election Day. It also requires a Drivers’ License or State ID number, the last four digits of a Social Security number, or photocopy of an alternative ID. In addition, the date of birth must be written on the envelope under the flap. The voter must sign an affidavit stating no one observed them mark their ballot, and it criminalizes observing a voter mark a ballot. The For the People Act requires election officials to promptly send out mail ballots that have been requested at least 16 days before Election Day. The Act does not prevent states from requiring identification to return a ballot or prohibit states from criminalizing observing a voter marking a mail-in ballot.

State Takeover of Local Election Boards: SB 202 allows the State Elections Board to take over a local election board with a single administrator of their choice, following an investigation and hearing. The For the People Act includes protections for election officials and election workers from harassment, intimidation, and doxing, but not protections for removal by the state. There is another bill, the Preventing Election Subversion Act of 2021 introduced by Senators Warnock, Klobuchar, Merkley, Warner, and Ossoff that ensures that a statewide election official may only suspend, remove, or relieve a local election official for inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.

Mass Voter Challenges: Under existing Georgia law, any single person can challenge the voter registration of an unlimited number of voters at once. A Texas-based group, True the Vote, challenged the eligibility of 360,000 Georgia voters for the 2021 Senate run-off, but the challenges resulted in only a few dozen ballots being disqualified. The For the People Act would prevent mass challenges by requiring challenges to be made based on “personal knowledge with respect to each individual challenged.” It also prohibits challenges made on the basis of age, race, ethnicity or national origin. It offers further protections by requiring a written statement under penalty of perjury that the challenge is made in good faith and by factual basis.

Provisional Ballots: SB 202 only allows out-of-precinct provisional ballots to be counted if they are cast between 5 – 7pm. The For the People Act ensures that all provisional ballots can be counted at the county-wide level at any time and would ensure all voters have access to same-day registration, which would allow people to update their registration if they have moved counties.

Early Voting: The For the People Act sets national standards for early voting, requiring at least 15 consecutive days (including at least two consecutive Saturdays and Sundays). It would ensure early voting is open for at least 10 hours a day, including on weekends. SB 202 sets a similar early voting schedule, but also caps the hours and days early voting can be offered, whereas the For the People Act only sets a minimum standard and allows localities to offer more than the minimum.

Shortened Runoff Period: SB 202 reduces the runoff period from nine weeks to 28 days. Since Georgia law requires voters to be registered at least 29 days before Election Day, this means there will be no opportunity to register to vote before the runoff. It also reduces the minimum early vote period for federal runoffs from three weeks to one week, which includes no weekend voting. The For the People Act requires an early voting period of at least 15 consecutive days, including two Saturdays and two Sundays, for ALL federal elections.

Ballot Collection: SB 202 makes it a felony to return a non-family member’s mail ballot. The For the People Act permits voters to designate any person to return a completed and sealed ballot. It prohibits states from limiting how many ballots one individual can return.

Now It’s Time to Flex YOUR Vocal Muscles — Be LOUD!

Next week I will be in Washington D.C. visiting with Senators and asking them to pass the For the People Act. I need your help?

Call our US Senators to urge them to push for filibuster reform and pass the For the People Act!

Senator Jon Ossoff: (470) 786-7800 or (202) 224-3521, Email https://www.ossoff.senate.gov/contact/contact-form/

Senator Raphael Warnock: (202) 224-3643, Email https://www.warnock.senate.gov/contact/

 

Links

Inside story of SB202:
https://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/georgia-democrat-voting-laws-republicans

Full video of the US Senate Hearing in Atlanta:
https://www.rules.senate.gov/hearings/protecting-the-freedom-to-vote-recent-changes-to-georgia-voting-laws-and-the-need-for-basic-federal-standards-to-make-sure-all-americans-can-vote-in-the-way-that-works-best-for-them

Warnock works for a federal election bill:
https://www.ajc.com/politics/politics-blog/the-jolt-federal-election-bill-still-alive-with-warnock-at-center-of-talks/BS4KWPWZRBFNRFISA5OBY443LU/

Sally’s Senate Snapshot explaining SB202 in detail:
https://sallyharrell.org/2021/03/28/snapshot-11/

Donate Today!
https://actblue.com/donate/sallyharrell-email

Senator Sally’s Town Hall Wrap-Up

Monday, April 19th, 7 – 8:30pm

Join Georgia State Senator Sally Harrell and State House Representatives in Senate District 40 for an update on the 2021 legislative session and the upcoming special redistricting session later this year.

Confirmed House Representatives:

  • Representative Josh McLaurin, HD 51
  • Representative Mike Wilensky, HD 79
  • Representative Matthew Wilson, HD 80
  • Representative Scott Holcomb, HD 81
  • Representative Viola Davis, HD 87
  • Representative Billy Mitchell, HD 88
  • Representative Beth Moore, HD 95

Join by Zoom or via Facebook livestream. We’ll be collecting questions in advance, and fielding questions via both platforms as time permits. 

Register via eventbrite at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/sd-40-legislative-wrap-up-tickets-150121484401 

Zoom details will be emailed to registrants.

 

Long Awaited Reunions

With the 2021 legislative session barely behind me, and two shots in the arm, I wasted no time getting to my hometown to see my mother and sisters. I know many of you have experienced such reunions, or are about to once you’re two weeks past that second shot. Enjoy!

Georgia Voting Law Podcast: While in my hometown of Indianapolis, I met up with an old high school classmate who invited me to discuss Georgia’s new election law on his podcast. His leading question was, “is it racist, or not?” To which I replied, “It is, and it isn’t – both.” Here’s a link to the podcast if you’d like to take an in depth look at the actual content of Senate Bill 202.

 

Mass Shooting in Indianapolis

Sadly, after I got home I heard the news of yet another mass shooting — this time in my hometown. My heart aches for the families who have lost loved ones. Though causes of these mass shootings are complex, here are a couple of things I am doing to help.

Firearm Safety Legislation: Toward the end of the legislative session, I drafted two pieces of legislation. A “Do Not Sell” bill that allows people to voluntarily place their names in a “Do Not Sell” Georgia firearm database. This allows people who know they have cyclical mental health issues that could result in harm to self or others, to choose to register so that they cannot purchase a gun while having an episode. Second, I drafted a bill that requires training before obtaining a permit to carry a firearm. I look forward to working on these two bills next session.

 

Fully Fund in Five

One of the best things about being a State Senator is using my voice to amplify the voices of others. During the last week of session, I held a press conference for people who live with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In 1999 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case that originated in Georgia, ruled that the unjustified segregation of people with disabilities is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Institutions were closed and Medicaid Waivers were made available so people could establish homes in their communities. Sadly, Georgia currently has a waiting list of 7000 people waiting for these slots, and is funding only about 100 slots per year.

Following the lead of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), our press conference asked that this waiting list be funded and therefore eliminated during the next five years. During the interim between sessions, several of us plan to meet with the Governor to ask him to fund these slots in his proposed 2022 – 2023 budget. As the Senior Minister at North Atlanta Church of Christ, Don McLaughlin, said at the press conference, “We need to do this not because it makes economic sense, because it makes moral sense.”

 

Clearing my Head of Toxic Politics

On the way home from Indianapolis I joined my husband Jay and some fully vaccinated friends in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge for some rock climbing. While depending on a rope and your belayer to hold you up, and looking for small bumps and crevices in the rock to use as foot and hand holds so you can get to the top, it’s hard to think about anything else!

Here are the top ten things climbing teaches me about surviving in politics:

1) If what you’re doing isn’t working, look for alternatives.

2) Look up to see what is coming next and plan accordingly.

3) Rest when you have the opportunity.

4) Climb on, even when you feel stuck.

5) Keep your feet grounded firmly below you.

6) Stand up tall, even when you think you can’t.

7) Reach — you might just make it!

8) Lean in to balance yourself.

9) Have plenty of support that you can trust to hold you up.

10) Don’t forget to breathe.

 

Ending on a Sour Note

The 2021 legislative session may have ended last week on a sour note, but at least it ended on time. I love serving in the Senate, but at midnight last Wednesday night, on Sine Die, I was ready to get out of there!

While the media have been focusing mostly on the voting bill, other bills passed as well. In fact, the same day the final voting bill passed, the House very narrowly passed SB 47, an expansion of school vouchers for kids with disabilities. 

School Vouchers (SB 47): Publically funded vouchers for use at private schools are a tricky subject, especially for special needs kids. Georgia actually already has a special needs voucher program that includes children who have one of 13 disabilities that qualify for an Individual Education Plan (IEP). What SB 47 does is expand these vouchers to include kids who have accommodations under what are called 504 plans, opening vouchers up to a much more expansive list of physical and mental disabilities.

While acknowledging that these vouchers can make a big difference for some parents for paying private school tuition, it’s difficult to make the case that these new voucher program benefits will be distributed equitably to people of all socioeconomic classes. Considerable financial resources are needed in order to take advantage of these 504 vouchers, including self-paid diagnostic testing, transportation, and the balance of private school tuition. I voted against this expansion of vouchers because I believe public school resources should be equitably distributed to all children, and the expansion to 504 vouchers opens up too many possible loopholes.

Police Budgets (HB 286): Another bill that passed the Senate on the last day was a bill prohibiting local governments with ten or more full-time police officers from decreasing their annual budget by more than 5% of the previous year’s budget. This takes away local control. As the Senate Rules Chairman flippantly declared on the last day of session, “We (Republicans) support local control, except for when we don’t…”

 

Sour Grapes

With all the finger pointing going on about Georgia’s new election law, my regret is that the Republican legislators who penned this controversial legislation never attempted to engage in real conversation with Democrats. They would have been better off if they had spent a year cooling off, rather than writing reactionary legislation based on false narratives. As I told the Senate Rules Chairman at the beginning of the session, their constituents’ perceived loss of confidence in the election process can’t be fixed with legislation — it requires leadership instead. But perhaps it wasn’t really about their constituents…

 

Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice

This year’s legislative session wasn’t all a loss. Here’s some of the better bills we passed:

Repeal of Citizens Arrest (HB 479): Georgia became the first state to repeal and overhaul this Civil War-era law after it was used as a defense for the unjustified shooting of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, GA. This new bill prohibits average citizens from taking the law into their own hands, while still allowing law enforcement officers to make arrests without warrants outside their jurisdiction. It also allows businesses, private detectives, and security officers to detain people they believe committed a crime until law enforcement arrives.

The “Big Budget” (HB 81): The $27.2 billion budget restores some, but not all, of the massive budget cuts the Governor made in recent years. Local school systems will receive $3.8 billion from the American Rescue Plan which will make up for the rest of the education budget shortfalls, but this is one-time funding. The Governor plans to appoint committees to oversee how the state spends the $4.6 billion that it will receive from The American Rescue Plan, which can be spent on infrastructure projects like rural broadband, aid to small businesses, and direct payments to Georgians. County and local governments throughout the state will also directly receive more than $3 billion in federal aid.

Violent Crime Certification and Tracking (HB 255): Sponsored by one of our Senate District 40 House Representatives, Scott Holcomb, this bill improves the way sexual assault cases are handled, building on the great work he’s already done to help clear Georgia’s backlog of rape kits. 

Coverage When an Insurer Drops a Provider (HB 454): This legislation requires insurers to cover providers listed as in-network when you sign up for insurance for 180 days after a provider goes out of network. 

Paid Parental Leave for State and Board of Education Employees (HB 146): Long overdue, this bill provides up to 120 hours per year of paid parental leave to full time state employees and teachers for the birth of a child or the placement of a child for adoption or foster care. 

Tuition Waiver for Foster and Adopted Children (SB 107): I voted for this bill when it came through the Higher Ed Committee and again on the Senate floor. It waives technical school tuition and fees for eligible foster and adopted children. To be eligible, the student must be enrolled full-time or part-time within three years of receiving their high school diploma or GED, remain in good academic standing, and be under 28 years old. A measure to classify homeless students as in-state for tuition purposes was added by the House. 

Tobacco and Vape Products Inclusion in Education (HB 287): I have to admit to having mixed feelings about this bill and another one to create a financial literacy program in high schools (see below). When attempting to pass my own bills mandating school recess and classes on elections & voting, I’ve been told repeatedly by both the Lt. Governor and the Governor that they prefer to leave education decisions to local school boards.  But ultimately I voted yes to include tobacco and vapor products in alcohol and drugs instruction courses for K-12 students. 

High School Financial Literacy Program (HB 681) — This bill adds a financial literacy course to high schools that includes information about banking, financial planning, insurance, taxes, contracts, bills, loans, and cryptocurrency. 

Hotel/Motel Tax on AirBnB (HB 317) – This legislation requires marketplace facilitators for short term rentals like AirBnB to collect and remit the $5 transportation hotel/motel tax. This puts short term rentals on par with hotels and will help increase our state revenue.

Teaching Tax Credit (HB 32) — This bill establishes a $3,000 annual tax credit for up to 1,000 teachers who take a job in a low-performing or rural school. 

 

The Sweet Spot

When I started the legislative session out by criticizing the powerful Senate Rules Chairman’s election bills, I figured I was throwing away any chance of passing legislation this year. But eventually he and I developed a kind of “teasing” relationship. At one point I jokingly said to him, “We’re seeing an awful lot of each other this year, aren’t we?” And he said, “Yes, and it hasn’t been very pleasant, has it?” In the end, I negotiated a deal with him, and he co-sponsored the following piece of legislation, proving that even in the worst of times, Republicans and Democrats can work together for the good of Georgians.

College Fees Study Committee (SR 300): The study committee passed on Sine Die, so I look forward to working with Senator Tippins, Chair of the Senate Higher Ed Committee who will also Chair this study committee, and others in the interim on how best to reduce university fees, especially for part-time students. 

 

Sweet Success: Bills that Did Not Pass

Reminder: Since each legislative term is two years, these bills remain “alive” and can therefore progress further next year.

Criminalizing Protests (HB 289) – A reaction to protests this year, this bill would have significantly increased penalties for certain crimes committed at protest events and would bar anyone convicted of unlawful assembly from state or local employment. It was overly punitive to the state and local governments if damage occurred during a protest, and it violated local control by requiring local governments to mandate permits and collect personal information about organizers for all protests. This bill passed the House, but never came up for a vote in the Senate. 

Driver’s Education About How to Interact with Police (SB 115) — This bill directed the Departments of Drivers Services and Public Safety to create a curriculum for driving schools instructing drivers on how to interact with police during a traffic stop and actions police can undertake such as using force. It passed both the Senate and the House, with Democrats opposing it. Parents, particularly those of color, already educate their kids about how to interact with law enforcement. But the bill narrowly failed in the Senate in the late hours of Sine Die when several Republicans joined the Democrats after the House attached a measure to allow speed cameras in school zones. 

Emergency Powers on Firearms (SB 214) — This bill would have loosened gun restrictions by allowing out of state travelers to bring their guns to Georgia and prohibiting the government from regulating firearms, firearms licenses, or closing or limiting operating hours of firearm dealers and gun ranges during an emergency. This bill passed the Senate just days after the Asian spa mass shootings over the strong objections of Senate Democrats. But Speaker Ralston prevented the bill from coming to the House floor for a vote, recognizing that the timing was not right for this bill.

Looking Ahead

I will announce shortly the date of my post-session Town Hall. Right now I am taking a bit of a break to have a long awaited reunion in Indiana with my mother and three sisters. Get your shots and hug your people!

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

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

How Voting Will Change

Absentee Voting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Early/Advanced Voting

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

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

 

Election Day Voting

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

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

 

Run-off Elections

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

 

How Election Administration will change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Secretary of State and Legislative Power over Local Election Boards

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

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

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

 

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

 

Upcoming Events

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

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

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

 

Looking Ahead

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

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

 

Upcoming Events

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

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

The Final Four

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

Mourning the Asian Spa Shooting Victims

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

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

Playing Defense on Voting

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

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

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

Blocking Shots: You’re Making a Difference

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

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

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

Honoring our State’s MVPs

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

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

Strategizing with Campus Workers

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

Keeping Score: Bills on the Floor

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

The Slam Dunks:

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

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

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

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

The Fouls:

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

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

Looking Ahead: Georgia Scores Big with The American Rescue Plan

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

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

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

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

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

Where to find vaccines:

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

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

Crossover Day Gets Short-Shrift

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

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

Voting Bills Face an Uncertain Future 

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

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

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

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

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

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

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

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

Other Bills that Crossed Over

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

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

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

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

Looking ahead: The “Big” Budget

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

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

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

The Game of Chairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Other Bills on the Move

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

Bills I Supported:

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

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

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

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

Bills I Opposed:

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

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

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

 

A Word on Healthcare

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

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

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

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

 

Looking Ahead

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

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

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

This is what keeps me going.

Anti-Voting Bombs in Committee

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Voting Bombs on the Floor

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

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

The Big Money Grenade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Combating Our Corrections Crisis

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

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

Tactical Moves and Countermoves: My Legislative Agenda

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Ahead

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