Back to School Edition

Getting enough sleep during the legislative session can be tough. Even when I’m sleeping, I dream about what happened the day before. This week I had the classic “I forgot to go to class” dream, which made me realize that lately, the legislature has been feeling more like school than a policy making session.

Instead of passing lots of bills (the Senate finally voted our first bill out of the chamber this week), I’ve spent hours in Committee meetings listening to lectures.

Lecture Hall on Literacy

This week and next, two Senate Committees (1) Education & Youth and (2) Higher Education, are meeting together to learn about issues that impact kids across the continuum. This week focused on literacy.

3rd Grade Reading Proficiency: We learned that only 25-30% of Georgia students can read proficiently by the end of third grade and children that can’t are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Of course, this was not news to me. More than twenty years ago, I remember being told the same thing when Governor Roy Barnes mandated smaller class sizes. Those didn’t last long, due to a decade of Republican budget cuts.

Evidence-Based Curriculum: University System of Georgia (USG) Chancellor Sonny Perdue told us that our universities are not adequately preparing future teachers to teach reading. A USG survey found that across the university system, at least 44 different programs are used to prepare teachers to teach reading. Once teachers enter the workforce, they are expected to teach “boxed curricula” programs purchased by their local school districts. The same study found that at least 65 different reading programs are used to teach reading at elementary schools across the state. These programs are not only inconsistent — most are not evidence-based.

Doing My Homework on School Facilities

Behind the scenes, I’ve been digging into the issue of aging school facilities. How do we ensure school building safety, and does the state have a role in holding school systems accountable?

Putting out the Fire: What I’ve learned is that the Georgia Insurance Commissioner’s office inspects schools for fire safety in small, rural school districts, but large metro area school districts use their own Fire Marshal.

Cleaning Up the Lunchroom: County Boards of Health inspect school cafeterias, but not other areas like bathrooms.

Department of Education: I learned that the DOE’s role is to require local districts to submit a five-year facilities plan. But beyond that, nothing gets inspected unless someone complains loud enough.

Bottom line, no one is in charge of inspecting school buildings and there is no real accountability for school districts that fail to maintain their facilities.

Simply put, I don’t think this is adequate, and the government is not doing its job. I will keep pushing.

Touting Technical School Education

You might remember that the Georgia Senate appropriated $4 million in the budget last year to help build an extension of Georgia Piedmont Technical College in north DeKalb, but the Governor vetoed the funds. I’m still working to get this done.

This week I spent two mornings in Doraville addressing technical school education. It’s too early to say, but when conversations among a city, a transit agency, a private developer, and a technical school system start happening, it begins to look like progress! Friday morning, I was able to greet Senator Jon Ossoff, pitching the plan to him and asking for his support. Stay tuned!

Alphabet Soup: Putting the DD back in DBHDD

I know. That’s a lot of letters!

The first “D” stands for Department. The “BH” is Behavioral Health. And finally, the “DD” is for Developmental Disabilities.

Due to the efforts of the late Speaker David Ralston, the legislature has taken huge steps forward ensuring Georgians have access to mental health services. But not as much attention has been paid to the 7,000 individuals living with developmental disabilities who have been on a waiting list for services for years. Last year I sponsored SR 770 which created a Study Committee on these issues. We traveled all over the state, hearing horrific stories of overwhelmed families unable to access services.

This week I met with Georgia DBHDD Commissioner Kevin Tanner. My assignment is to map out the structure for a Developmental Disabilities Commission, much like the Behavioral Health Commission that has generated much needed improvements to Georgia’s mental health system. I give Commissioner Tanner an “A” for effort. He came to our meeting loaded with wise advice.

Confronting Old School Sexism on The ERA

When I first joined the Senate in 2019, I co-sponsored a bill to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). At the time, after Democrats gained control of Congress, there was a renewed push across the county for states that hadn’t yet ratified the ERA to do so. I was hopeful that Georgia could do it and we even had some bipartisan support. But the anti-abortion advocates got wind of the effort and convinced Republicans to vote no because the ERA could give women legal standing to challenge anti-abortion laws. The resolution failed once it got to the Senate floor.

With abortion essentially banned in Georgia, I had renewed hope that we could be successful this year. I filed the resolution this week, but once I started talking to my Republican colleagues who seemed open to it back in 2019, I got lots of excuses. “It’s not needed, everything’s fine,” was a common refrain. Of course women know otherwise. The wage gap, sexual harassment, and violence against women persists in Georgia.

Penmanship & Postcard Advocacy

I know it can be frustrating to continuously hear excuses from lawmakers on issues of equality. This week I met with a group of women from my church who wanted feedback about the most effective way of voicing their concerns to legislators. We decided on old-fashioned postcards and they are now planning to host some postcard writing gatherings. Be sure to read future “Snapshots” to get ideas about what to write legislators about at your own postcard parties! This week you can start with why we still need an Equal Rights Amendment.

Future Assignments & Projects: Thursday night, February 9th, I’ll be on GPB’s Lawmaker Program (that’s on TV, 7pm). Please tune in, or watch online at https://www.gpb.org/television/show/lawmakers!

Next week begins with Legislative Day 13, which means we’re already halfway to Cross-Over Day — the day a bill must pass the Senate to be considered by the House. Bills that don’t make it out by Cross-Over Day can still be considered next year. Sine Die is scheduled for March 29th. Spring Break is on its way!

Mental Health Day 2023

It was a privilege to speak at Mental Health Awareness Day at the Capitol. Over 1,000 people from across Georgia in support of “The Year of the Peer” as we address Behavioral Health policy.

 

The Senate is Starting to Roll . . .

For three weeks, office-less freshman legislators have roamed the halls looking for a place to land. I’m happy to report that finally, everyone has an office! While the Senate hasn’t had a single floor vote yet on an actual bill, Committees, County Delegations, and various Caucuses are finally up and running. This week, I was elected Vice Chair of both the DeKalb Senate Delegation and the Working Families Legislative Caucus.

On a Roll for Reproductive Freedom

While the courts hash out the constitutionality of Georgia’s abortion ban, Rep. Shea Roberts and I partnered with a coalition of reproductive justice organizations to introduce the Reproductive Freedom Act (RFA). The RFA not only reverses Georgia’s abortion ban, it also eliminates many of the barriers to access such as restrictions on insurance coverage and unnecessary waiting periods.

You can sign Amplify Georgia’s petition to send a message of support and get updates on ways you can advocate for the bills. Let my Republican colleagues know that we are not going away on this issue.

Rolling out the Red Carpet for Gov. Kemp

“Mr. President, his Excellency the Honorable Brian P. Kemp, Governor of the State of Georgia, and his committee of escorts await entrance into the Chamber.” — Georgia House of Representatives Doorkeeper

Pomp and circumstance returned this Wednesday in a special Joint Session of the Georgia House and Senate for the Governor’s State of the State Address. I always enjoy seeing my colleagues, old and new, in the House chamber, where I served from 1999 – 2005.

There were no surprises in the Governor’s State of the State Address. Three weeks into the session, most of the Governor’s priorities have already been revealed, especially during the budget hearings. The Governor failed to mention some impactful budget omissions.

Huge Costs Are Rolling Downstream

Every morning at 9 am, the Senate Democratic Caucus meets to discuss what’s coming our way. With no bills on the floor this week, we dove deeper into the Governor’s proposed budget to talk about issues hiding below the surface, such as enormous costs rolling down to our local school districts.

Insurance Costs: We learned that the cost of the State Health Benefit Plan (SHBP), the insurance plan that covers state and public school employees, is set to increase by 67%! Governor Kemp’s budget includes funds to offset this increase for state-funded teachers, but not for other school employees like bus drivers, administrative staff and cafeteria workers. Local school systems will have to foot this very expensive bill, to the tune of $745 million.

Pay Raises: These same school employees were overlooked again when the Governor extended pay raises to teachers, but not to “classified employees” (non teachers). Local school districts that want to give equitable pay raises to all of its employees will have to fund those salary increases themselves. This is a continuation of a larger years-long trend of the state underfunding education by shifting more and more costs to local districts.

While our local officials have to figure out how to make ends meet, the Governor’s proposed budget maintains record state reserves and gives politically-motivated tax refunds. I often wonder how many people would choose to forgo these modest tax refunds in order to keep their local school system and government whole.

Foster Kids Get Steamrolled by the System

In my last Snapshot, I mentioned the heartbreaking practice of “Hoteling,” where Georgia’s most vulnerable foster kids get placed in seedy hotels when there is no other place for them to go. Thankfully this got the attention of Sen. Ben Watson, Chair of Senate Health and Human Services. On Wednesday, he and Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, Chair of the new Children and Families Committee, co-Chaired a special Joint Committee hearing to get to the bottom of why this is happening.

It was a tough hearing to watch. A range of professionals who see these cases everyday all shared gut wrenching stories of kids with severe behavioral issues. The parents can’t handle them and the family becomes endangered by their untreated behavioral issues. Many of the kids have severe autism. Once they enter the foster care system, they get bounced around from foster families, to short-term Crisis Stabilization Units, to psychiatric hospitals, to hotels, and then back again. They are often left in limbo waiting for a managed care insurance company to pre-approve medical needs that get denied so often that DFCS has hired a team of lawyers to fight through the red tape. Service providers for these kids are scarce because our provider reimbursement rates are so low.

So much of this — unattainable services, lack of providers due to low reimbursement — echoes my disabilities work. The system is terribly broken, and government leaders are finally taking note. The Department of Human Services Commissioner brought this issue to members of the powerful Appropriations Committee — many of whom are influential Committee Chairs. Now two of them are committed to rolling up their sleeves and working together to help these children get the support they need.

Getting the Ball Rolling on Part-Time University Fees

On Thursday, I welcomed University Chancellor and former Governor Sonny Perdue to my office to open a conversation about my work to push for prorated university fees for part-time college students. Part-time students often pay 100% of fees, resulting in degrees that cost thousands of dollars more than degrees cost for full-time students.

Chancellor Perdue is in a tough spot. University enrollment is down at many schools, and the state still funds the University system well below the rate it did back before the 2008 Recession. I’m determined to continue to advocate for part-time students. My intern Anna, a recent UGA graduate, joined us for the meeting and offered the Chancellor first-hand experiences of part-time students struggling to pay for school. This was the first of many conversations to come.

Rolling into Next Week

Monday is the ninth day of the legislative session. By the Georgia constitution, our session is limited to 40 days — so we are almost one-quarter of the way there. And freshman legislators just got their offices! Hopefully next week we will see some bills start rolling through the process.

On Tuesday, Rep. Shea Roberts and I filed identical Reproductive Freedom Act bills in both the House & Senate. A large crowd gathered in the Capitol for speeches and to take questions from the press. As long as there is a ban on obtaining abortions in Georgia, we will not be silent!

 

In the Weeds with Georgia’s Budget

“There is nothing that we will do in this building that directly touches your constituents more than this document.”

— Senate Appropriations Chair Blake Tillery

Week Two: Word spread through the halls — “The budget’s out!” Legislators queued up to get their inch-thick, spiral bound copy of the Governor’s proposed budget — a document the Governor’s Office of Planning & Budget has been working on since last summer.

Budget Basics: According to Georgia’s constitution, the budget bill must originate in the House. This year the Governor’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2024 (July 1, 2023 – June 30, 2024) is HB 19. There’s one other budget bill, HB 18, commonly called the “little budget” or “amended budget” that allows for adjustments to the 2023 budget (July 1, 2022 – June 30, 2023). The Appropriations Committees will take up the “little” budget first.

What’s a Budget? I like to think of the budget as containing thousands of little bills, since each line-item has the potential to impact the lives of many Georgians. I also see the budget as a statement of values — what we decide to fund and what we decide to leave out is a direct reflection of what we value as a state.

Lots of Fertilizer Produces Revenue Growth

Everyone’s abuzz about Georgia’s $6.6 billion “surplus.” I don’t actually think of this money as a surplus. The size of Georgia’s budget is determined by the Governor when he sets the next year’s revenue estimate. Purposefully setting that estimate low can almost guarantee that revenues will be higher. A “surplus” makes it sound like we collected more money than we should have, which can give the wrong picture when you look at the State’s unmet needs (not an accident). If the revenue estimate was set higher and these needs, such as the 7,000 people waiting for disabilities services, were actually budgeted for, there wouldn’t be so much leftover money. The Governor has plenty of room for playing around with these numbers, depending on the impression and message he wants to create.

So what about that unspent money? First, the Governor proposes that $1.1 billion go to the Georgia Dept. of Transportation (GDOT) to make up for the six months of not collecting motor fuel taxes. Second, the Governor intends to give $2.1 billion back in income and property tax cuts. That leaves about $3 billion for legislators to squabble over during the next few weeks. Because it is projected that next year’s revenue will not be quite as flush as last year’s, the focus will be on one-time spending projects. The 2024 budget revenue estimate is set at $32.5 billion.

Weeding the Medicaid Rolls

Medicaid Expansion (miniature style): The new House Speaker has already stated that he does not see a full Medicaid expansion happening this year because he wants to give the Governor’s plan a chance. This plan, named “Georgia Pathways,” does several things. First, it allows significant subsidies to Affordable Care Act (ACA) Marketplace insurance companies for high-cost claims, resulting in a projected 12% reduction in premiums. Second, it replaces the healthcare.gov ACA website with a Georgia version that merely links consumers with brokers. Third, it expands Medicaid to about 50,000 low-income people who must meet a work requirement, leaving 350,000 uninsured. This miniature Medicaid expansion will earn a much lower federal match than full Medicaid expansion, resulting in a higher cost for fewer covered people.

Medicaid Unwinding: Here’s something that’s not being talked about much. During the COVID public health emergency, over 500,000 Georgians became eligible for Medicaid and under emergency rules, their Medicaid could not be terminated. When the Public Health Emergency expires at the end of March, the State will hire hundreds of caseworkers to reassess eligibility, resulting in hundreds of thousands of Georgians who will lose their Medicaid, many of whom will then be uninsured. It doesn’t have to be this way. By not expanding Medicaid, as forty other states have done, Georgia’s Republican leadership continues to be complicit in the suffering of Georgia families. Which leads me to the next subject.

When Georgia Fails to Water the Garden: “Healthcare, not Fostercare”

When I was in south Georgia last fall for a Disabilities Study Committee meeting, a hospital CEO told me he is often forced to discharge high-risk foster kids to hotels in his community, where they share rooms with caseworkers. When I asked him if these hotels were of the Holiday Inn-type or the Roadway Inn-type, he said these places weren’t even really hotels, describing instead $20 places billed by the hour or the night.

These kids being “hoteled” are the most vulnerable and troubled kids — those with significant behavioral problems due to trauma, drug addiction, mental health challenges or disabilities. During the budget hearings, Commissioner Candace Broce emphasized that the biggest challenge is that these kids should never have been in foster care in the first place.

“These kids need access to healthcare, not foster care,” she said. I agree, but I’d take it one step further. These kids’ parents need healthcare too.

When the Budget Blooms Flowers: K-12 Public Education

Generally speaking, funding for K-12 education in the Governor’s budget looks better than recent years, with no austerity cuts to the funding formula. Of course, no austerity cuts is a pretty low bar during good economic times. In the meantime, Georgia Republicans can’t even decide just how much K-12 education should currently cost. A Senate Study Committee last summer took another look at the funding formula, known as the Quality Basic Education Act (QBE), which dates back to 1985. We’ll see if the Senate does anything about it this year.

Planting Seeds through Higher Education

Four-Year Colleges: Chancellor Perdue told us that enrollment has dropped at 20 of the 26 four-year institutions. Since colleges are funded based on enrolled credit hours, this loss of enrollment will result in lost revenue. The Chancellor also says Georgia is experiencing a greater migration of students attending college out-of-state, and he’s going to do a deep dive to determine why. I can tell him a few reasons, straight from the mouths of my constituents. Guns on campus and abortion bans.

Technical Schools: On the other hand, enrollment at technical schools is up 2% overall and 6% overall in high demand career paths. In 2022, our technical school system served 13% more students than the year before. I plan on continuing to work on obtaining funding to help bring a satellite campus of Georgia Piedmont Technical College (GPTC) to north DeKalb. The GPTC President tells me it would be full of students the day it opens!

Speaking of Weed . . .

With this week’s “weed” theme, I just couldn’t resist. The Georgia Access to Medical Cannibas Commission recently met to hear from the public before approving regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries. This has been long in coming, since the initial legislation allowing use of low THC oil was approved in 2015.

Stay tuned. We’ll be back in the Chamber next week and hopefully we’ll see some Committee meetings scheduled so bills can begin moving. Have a good week and stay warm and dry!

 

To be hopeless —
Dishonors those who have come before us,
And abandons those who come after us.
It is therefore our duty to
Choose hope

At the Dunwoody 4th of July parade Monday, I shared with Congressman Hank Johnson how I have struggled for over a week to write this email. He responded in his calm, thoughtful way, “Sometimes it’s best to pause.”

He is so right.

Pausing is not the same as resting. Images of the very real impacts of Georgia’s anti-abortion law keep pushing into my thoughts. The young woman whose mental illness has been successfully treated with medication, but who must stop that life-saving medication for the duration of her pregnancy. The young pregnant woman who moves to Alabama seeking support with friends and family, who now faces kidnapping charges because, according to Georgia’s law, her embryo is a person.

There is no doubt in my mind that the health and well-being of pregnant and postpartum women and infants will suffer due to the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

The Women’s Legislative Caucus Charges Forth!

I serve as a Co-Chair of Georgia’s Legislative Women’s Caucus. This is a bipartisan group of female legislators who come together to address issues women have in common. We have traditionally avoided the issue of abortion, but in recognition that Georgia’s pending anti-abortion law will adversely impact women and children, we wrote a letter to Governor Brian Kemp, insisting that his administration immediately address the following issues:

Georgia’s shortage of healthcare providers. We must strengthen efforts to recruit providers and improve timely access to medical care and family planning, in order to reverse our State’s worsening childbirth-related illness and death rates, especially among Black women living in rural areas. Since 1994, 36 Labor and Delivery facilities have closed and now two-thirds of rural births take place outside a mother’s home community.

Childcare & workforce training. We must further invest in programs to subsidize quality childcare in Georgia and make post-secondary education more accessible so that more parents can re-enter the workforce and increase wages. The average cost of childcare ($8,729 per child) is beyond the reach for too many young families, and fuel and food costs are pushing prices up higher.

Childhood Nutrition. Georgia’s kids need adequate nutrition, and recent infant formula shortages demonstrate the need to take action to help ensure no child goes hungry in our state. P-SNAP (Pandemic Supplemental Assistance Program) ended June 30th, returning nutrition assistance dollars to previous levels, which may not be sufficient with rising food costs.

The Women’s Legislative Caucus will gather in August for a one-day symposium so we can obtain input from experts. We will then use this information to draft a legislative agenda.

Needed: Emergency Democracy Workers

Had Stacey Abrams been elected in 2018, Georgia would not have passed the abortion ban. And don’t forget that in 2020 and 2021, Georgia won three state-wide federal elections. Stacey is on the ballot again in November and every single vote in the entire state matters.

Mid-Term elections are not an electoral college situation: If you live in a “red” county, each democratic vote you get to the polls counts exactly as much as a vote anywhere else in the state. You don’t have to “win” your county — the vote still counts.

If your precinct or county is already “blue,” getting people to turn out can be even harder. We need all the voters in the blue areas. Every single one. Because, again, each vote counts individually.

So work where you can, and do what you can. You don’t have to travel to some far part of the state. Every single vote you turn out, no matter where, counts just as much — really more — than “flipping a county.” Take this message out to your friends, and out to your community.

Why the Governor’s Office matters: People often ask me what will it matter if Stacey wins since she will still have to deal with a Republican legislature?

First, the Governor’s office has the resources — not the legislature. When Sonny Perdue was elected the first Republican Governor in 135 years, the Democrats, who had enjoyed majority status all those years, didn’t know what to do anymore. They had relied on the Governor’s office to set the agenda. Likewise, when Republicans lose the Governor’s office, they won’t know what to do.

Second, Stacey will promote moderation as Governor, even as she upholds her values. Republicans will learn they must behave differently to gain some of those resources of the Governor’s office. Explain this to some of your more independent, moderate Republican friends. Stacey won’t get everything she wants, but the far-right Republicans will get even less.

Finally, Stacey will have veto power and we now have enough Democratic votes in the legislature to block legislative veto overrides. I personally never want to experience another train wreck of bad bills like the legislature passed last session, so I’m working to ensure every Democratic House candidate in Senate 40 has what they need to successfully communicate their message.

Down Ballot Races Drive Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV): State House & Senate candidates are local messengers. People know and trust us. They listen to our message. While people often think of down-ballot races riding the coat-tails of popular top-of-the-ballot candidates, it’s the state House & Senate campaigns that drive GOTV efforts. Yet these campaigns are typically underfunded because people tend to give their money to higher-profile races. This needs to change. If there is one lesson we learned last week, it’s that state legislative races matter. By donating to my campaign, you help assure that underfunded House campaigns in Senate 40 will share in those resources.

Time for You to Charge Forth!

I understand you probably feel disappointed, demoralized and depressed with the news of the last few weeks. It’s been really hard. But we need you to turn your rage into action. We need our community to be laser focused for the next four months. Don’t wait for someone else to do it for you. There are votes that only you can get.

Get up in the morning, look into the mirror, and say, “What am I going to do today to save my country?” Write Governor Brian Kemp a letter, support a candidate financially, write postcards, find a group to go door-to-door with, even if you’ve never done that before. Convince a young person to not give up on voting. Help someone with the absentee ballot process. Have a hard conversation with a Republican leaning friend about why we need Stacey. Talk a friend out of despair and show them that they too can find the votes that make a difference. Get out of your comfort zone.

Choose hope.

Inspired in part by Holly Near’s “I Am Willing.” This song feels to me like a little prayer, or perhaps a hymn. Written following the Kent State shooting and during the Vietnam War, it speaks to issues we are facing today.

 

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/