Political Hijinks

“It’s that time at the Capitol when bills are flying so fast that
sometimes lawmakers don’t even know what’s in them.”

— Axios Atlanta

End of Session Escapades

Last year just before midnight on Sine Die, Republicans waived their own rules, forcing Senators to vote on a bill no one had laid eyes on — a situation deserving nothing but a “no” vote. The GOP majority voted “yes.”

 

Before Crossover Day, each chamber has 28 days to pass their own bills. Following Crossover Day, we only have 12 days to take up the other chamber’s bills, agree and disagree on changes made, form Conference Committees to work out the differences, and finally, vote on the final compromises.

 

I am grateful to my Senate Democratic Caucus teammates, who are smart, hardworking, and willing to speak out.

Avoiding Session Antics

I’ve been very cautious about filing bills this year because of the new Republican leadership. Every bill can potentially be used as a “vehicle,” carrying other bills as amendments — potentially turning the bill into something the author does not support — yikes!

 

That said, this week I decided it was worth filing two bills I’ve been working on. Note: bills filed this year carry over to next year.

 

Voter Eligibility Challenges: SB 321 increases the burden of proof for challenging the eligibility of voters. SB 202 (the big 2020 election bill) removed the cap on the number of challenges an individual can file. Since then, shenanigans have ensued, and the DeKalb County Elections office has been overwhelmed with unsubstantiated challenges. Dekalb officials estimate they’ve received more than 1,700 alone. SB 321 requires challengers to submit adequate evidence.

 

Non-Discrimination Protections: Senator Kim Jackson and I filed SB 319, adding sexual orientation and gender identity to Georgia’s list of protected classes. It also expands protections to housing, employment, and “public accommodations” which includes any service available to the public (think restaurants, retailers, hotels, public transportation, etc.). Georgia is one of only three states that do not have comprehensive non-discrimination laws. After fighting against bills targeting transgender youth, Sen. Jackson and I wanted to put our energy into something positive.  

Transactional Tomfoolery

Early in the session, I was told that the new Republican leadership would be more “transactional.” While I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant at the time, it became painfully obvious this week. My attempt to pass a Task Force on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) as a rider to HB 520, a major mental health bill, got caught up in a battle with the Lt. Governor’s pet bill, SB 99.

 

SB 99 weakens the “Certificate of Need” (CON) process that requires hospitals to justify “need” before expanding services. CON stops for-profit companies from cherry-picking more profitable services, while leaving others to meet the need for less profitable services. Lt. Governor Jones claims SB 99 will help rural Georgia, but the truth is it will help fast-track a hospital project in his native Butts County, on land owned by a company his father owns. 

 

Because House leaders and major health systems oppose SB 99, it’s being stopped by the House Health and Human Services (HHS) Committee. In retaliation, Jones is stopping HB 520, a much-needed next step in mental healthcare reform, in the Senate HHS Committee. My sources tell me this standoff won’t end before Sine Die, so Georgians likely won’t get mental healthcare reform or an IDD Task Force this year.

Funding Follies

The plot thickens (you really can’t make this stuff up). SB 99 and the Butts County hospital project have put the Lt. Governor at odds with Wellstar Health Systems. Wellstar opposes the proposed Butts County hospital because it threatens two of their hospitals in the area. Wellstar also happens to be involved in a partnership with the Augusta University Health System to upgrade electronic health records at the Medical College of Georgia. House leaders worry that SB 99 could jeopardize the Augusta project. 

 

But in their quest to pass SB 99, Senate leadership slashed $105 million in University System funding in next year’s budget — the same amount that we approved in the mid-year budget for the Medical College of Georgia project. And they’ve stripped another bill of tax credits that would have benefitted Wellstar. 

 

It’s been sad to watch this all play out. I miss the steady leadership of Speaker Ralston and former Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan. Duncan took a more hands-off approach, letting Senators lead instead of forcing his own personal agenda. There are good reasons I decided to be cautious with my bill filing this year!

It’s all Fun and Games until a Bill Gets Hijacked

Soap Box Derby becomes Sports Betting: Crunch time is when we see lots of bill hijacking. One freshman Republican House member learned this the hard way as her simple two-page bill to recognize her hometown Soap Box Derby was changed to a 45-page sports betting bill. 

 

Anti-Semitism: After being tabled by the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senate leadership brought the anti-Semitism bill (previously HB 30) back to life by completely stripping the contents of HB 144 (a bill about guardianship) and substituting the language from HB 30. At issue is putting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism into Georgia code. The definition includes specific examples of anti-Semitism which proponents say will help law enforcement and other authorities better identify and hold people accountable for anti-Semitic acts. Opponents worry that the definition will squash anti-Israel speech, especially on college campuses. However, the IHRA definition explicitly says “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

 My Budget Priorities Get a Boost

We ended the week by passing the Senate’s version of the “Big Budget” for FY 2024. It includes good things such as pay raises for teachers and law enforcement, cost of living adjustments for state retirees, and funds to help end the “hoteling” of foster kids.

 

I was relieved to see all of my budget priorities — $4 million for a technical school in Doraville (hopefully the Governor won’t veto this again), Medicaid coverage for Occupational Therapy Assistants,  and 500 additional Medicaid Community Based Support waivers for people living with disabilities — included in the budget. I was especially proud when Appropriations Chairman Tillery gave me a special shout out as he presented the budget:

 

“And the line item that we were requested to add by the most Senate members in this budget was (funding for) 500 NOW/COMP waivers. And the credit for this again goes to the Senator from the 40th and the Senator from the 56th who have championed this cause in a bipartisan fashion and had numerous, numerous, members of this body sign on in support of their letters and I appreciate their approach and their support.”

Expect More Monkey Business

There are only two days left before Sine Die on Wednesday, which is still plenty of time for anything to happen. The budget is now in a Conference Committee where the House and Senate will work out their differences. Things can and do happen at the last minute, so keep your eyes peeled. 

 

https://youtu.be/ZRd-rUQ3NQQ 

When bills are hard to pass due to excessive political hijinks, you can work the  budget process to do good things. This year we continued the tradition we started last year of giving 500 more Georgia families access to Home & Community Based Services for their adult children living with intellectual & developmental disabilities.

Chamber Theatrics

Late this week, the curtain came down on Legislative Day 35, which means there are only five more Legislative Days until Day 40 — Sine Die.

At this point, the Senate and House have begun their traditional backstage brawl — fighting over how many Senate bills the House has passed, and how many House bills the Senate has passed. Right now, the House is way behind. 

Here are the details: At curtain call this week, the Lt. Governor announced that the Senate has passed 62 House bills, but the House has only passed 15 Senate bills. Not to be upstaged by the House, the Senate Rules Chair announced, “Our Rules Committee meeting today will be very short.” The Rules Committee chooses which bills get a vote on the Senate floor.

Until the House gets its show on the road and passes more Senate bills, House bills must wait in the wings

A Backstage Tour

So much of our legislative work takes place behind the scenes in hallway conversations, office visits, and floor huddles. Such is the case with my attempts to create an Innovation Commission for Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD), an official recommendation made by my bi-partisan Study Committee last year.

Act I: SB 198 Gets Left on the Cutting Room Floor

This session I filed SB 198 to create a 22-member, 5-subcommittee Innovation Commission made up of experts to address the complex issues impacting adults living with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I succeeded in getting colleagues from both sides of the aisle to sign the bill. In other words, I did everything right.

Prior to Crossover Day, I officially requested the Chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee to allow a vote on the bill in his Committee. Several days passed without the bill being put on the agenda. So I met with the Chairman in his office. I spoke with him on the Senate floor. I texted him a final plea. He wouldn’t budge. It only takes one powerful person to cancel a show at the Georgia General Assembly.

Ironically, this week I noticed that HB 545, an Agricultural Commission for Citrus Fruit, was moving right along through the Committee process. It’s looking like citrus fruit will get a Commission, but not Georgians with IDD. Citrus Farms in Georgia: 70. Georgians with IDD: 226,000.

Act II: Find a “Vehicle” Bill that is Moving

Not to be deterred, the Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities Commissioner and I came up with an alternative plan to include my language in HB 520, a major mental health bill moving through the process. As a compromise move, my amendment would create a smaller 8-member IDD Task Force under the already active Behavioral Health Commission. 

I got support for this compromise language from both the Senate & House sponsors of HB 520, as well as lead advocates working on the bill.  I worked with the Commissioner on the amendment language.

Midweek, we began hearing that the Health & Human Services Committee was trying to shorten HB 520, not lengthen it. The Senate sponsor of HB 520 agreed to help me push the amendment and at the end of the week, I caught sight of him huddling with the Senate Subcommittee Chair, and the Lt. Governor’s Policy Director. The next day I was asked by the Lt. Governor’s office to consider accepting a “compromise of a compromise”, giving one IDD caretaker a position on the original Behavioral Health Commission. In other words, no working IDD Taskforce of experts. I emphatically said, “no.”

I have a Plan “B” for my amendment, or maybe it’s plan “C.” I’ve lost count. Stay tuned for Act III.

A Senate Prop: Appropriation Letters

It’s a tradition of the Senate that there can be no Senate adds to the budget unless a Senator submits a letter with a specific ask to the Appropriations Chair. This week I easily collected 26 signatures for Medicaid Home & Community Based Support waivers for people living with Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities, with at least half of the signatures from Republican colleagues. Two years ago, I was only able to collect about eight signatures — a real sign of the progress we’ve made. 

I also turned in a letter requesting $4 million to purchase land for a new Piedmont Technical College campus in Doraville. This letter had to be signed by all the members of the Dekalb Senate Delegation plus a couple of Senators from the surrounding region. This same monetary request was vetoed by Governor Kemp last year. But this year, we have a specific piece of land being held for us right next to the Doraville MARTA station, so the Governor has no excuse for a veto.

The Plot Thickens on The Transgender Treatment Ban

Early in the week during an impromptu hallway plea, House Chairwoman Sharon Cooper told me she had orders to let SB 140, the transgender treatment ban, out of her Committee. The next day it passed out along party lines. Throughout the week, I visited Speaker Burnes’ office to see if I could get an appointment to make my case against SB 140 directly to him. I finally got word that he would meet with me this coming Monday but the very next morning, I was disheartened to learn that SB 140 was fast-tracked through the House Rules Committee for a floor vote last Thursday.

So many people are hurting over this issue and I spent several evening hours throughout the week talking with groups and constituents. The bill will likely be back on the Senate floor on Monday. Two Republican Committee Chairs in the Senate are doctors and they do not support the change that was made in the House to criminalize doctors, so it remains to be seen what will happen next.

Your Role: Be Loud

Georgia Equality, an organization that supports LGBTQ+ persons, is asking for one last push to Republican Senators, Lt. Governor Jones, and Governor Kemp against SB 140. If you would like, you can join Georgia Equality at the Capitol on Monday, March 20th. Or click on the link to see what else you can do. It’s time to be loud, because I can assure you, the other side is at the Capitol with their high-paid lobbyists making sure they get their votes.

Hurricane Crossover-Day

The speed at which bills move through the legislative process in the Georgia General Assembly has averaged around 2 – 5 bills per day (bpd) since January. However, the pace increased considerably last Thursday, when we experienced a gust of 26 bpd. Monday, with Hurricane Crossover in full force, we hit 75 bpd. Those of us monitoring the storm at the Capitol held on tight as some pretty bad bills blew through!

Surveying the Damage

Tuesday morning after Crossover I awoke thinking, “What just happened?” It was Friday before I could fully survey the damage, determining what had been destroyed, and what was still left standing.

Surge of Tort Reform Was Held Back

Hurricane Crossover started with a slew of bills aimed at chipping away people’s ability to access the courts to seek damages when harmed by big corporations. Republicans have been making this their priority since they took power in 2005. This year, with Republicans battling amongst themselves, and Democrats siding with the Republicans who DO want to preserve access to the courts, these tort bills were ultimately tabled, weakened by floor amendments, or never brought to the floor for a vote.

Bigwigs and Landlords Remain Accountable: Two bills (SB 200 and 186) were tabled early on, presumably because they didn’t have enough votes to pass. SB 200 would have shielded high-ranking government officials and corporate executives from giving depositions in civil cases. SB 186, entitled the “Georgia Landowners Protection Act,” (renamed by Democrats as “Slumlord and Absentee Landlord Protection Bill”), gave property owners immunity and made it far more difficult for people injured on a property to sue. SB 186 stood in direct contrast to HB 404, a tenants rights bill backed by House Speaker Burns that requires rental properties to be “fit for human habitation.”

Trucking Insurance Companies Still On the Hook: SB 191 and 203 sheltered trucking companies from liability and lowered safety standards, endangering Georgia motorists. SB 191 lowered qualifications for truck drivers and SB 203 increased the number of hours truckers are allowed to drive. Both included language to destroy Georgia’s “direct action” statute that allows injured parties to sue trucking companies’ insurers directly, same as with other car crashes. These bills were tabled or weakened with floor amendments.

Public Schools Took a Hit

The entire time I’ve served in the Senate, Democrats and rural legislators (who have few private schools in their districts) have been able to join forces to defeat school voucher bills. This time I was shocked at the party line vote on SB 233 which allows Georgia students to use $6,000 of public school funds to pay for private school.

A last-minute Republican floor amendment limiting vouchers to students zoned for bottom quartile schools helped the bill pass this year. Republicans never estimated the cost of the bill, but Democrats estimated that if only 2% of Georgia students apply for these vouchers, it would blow a more than $200 million dollar hole in state public school funds. Combined with existing tax credit scholarships and a decades-old funding formula, Georgia public schools will take another financial hit if this bill passes the House.

Damaging Transgender Treatment Bill Almost Escapes a Vote

All day Monday I waited with dread for SB 140, a bill that bans hormones and surgeries for transgender youth. As we inched closer to the bill being called up, the activity in the room changed. People filled the gallery, and reporters joined us in the chamber. At the last minute the leadership delayed the vote, tabling the remainder of the bills. This common practice used during Crossover Day and Sine Die allows the leadership to more tightly control which bills get a vote.

Throughout the day, we got updates on which bills would be called, five bills at a time. SB 140 kept appearing on the updates, but didn’t get called. I became hopeful it wouldn’t get called at all when I checked with the Lt. Governor who told me, “I don’t know, Sally. I’m not sure it’s going to come up. There are disagreements.” I could tell from the periodic huddles that the Republicans were arguing over amendments.

Unfortunately, SB 140 came up just after 10 pm. In my speech against the bill, I talked about the Standards of Care for transgender youth that have been recently rewritten, with a heavy emphasis on providing young people with individualized care and counseling before starting treatment.

“The problem I have with this bill is that It only addresses what we WON’T do for our children,” I said. “We need to focus on what we CAN do for these kids…Going forward, let’s all bring some humility to this issue. Let’s admit what we do and what we don’t know. And when we don’t, let’s ask someone who does –  before we take action.”

Unfortunately, the Republican block stuck together and passed the bill. Now it goes to the House for consideration by the House Committee on Public Health. It is my understanding that Chairwoman Sharon Cooper does not want this bill to pass, but she is being lobbied hard by extremist groups. Please call and politely encourage her to stand firm. If you have time, call the other committee members as well.

Additional Bills of Note that Blew through the Senate

School Accreditation: Most of the Crossover Day bills were non controversial and easily passed. SB 202 is a bill that focuses school accreditation on teaching, learning, and finance measures. In recent years, accreditation agencies have spent much of their time diving into school board dysfunction. The bill also requires that accreditation agencies focus on either school accreditation or remediation, but not both, eliminating a conflict of interest that’s existed for years.

Literacy: SB 211 establishes a Georgia Council on Literacy to ensure a statewide approach to ensuring kids can read by 3rd grade.

Fuel Tax: SB 146 allows the state to collect a fuel tax at electric vehicle charging stations like we do for gas.

Health Network Adequacy: SB 20 requires health insurance companies to ensure they have enough doctors, mental health professionals, and pharmacies in their network to ensure that people throughout their coverage area can access their benefits.

Women to the Rescue

This week Representative Shea Roberts and I co-chaired an “unofficial “ hearing on the Reproductive Freedom Act. Knowing that Republican leadership would never allow a real hearing on these bills, we wanted to give women a chance to tell their stories about how Georgia’s abortion ban has affected them.

The most heart wrenching stories were those told by clinic workers who are faced with telling women they have to travel out of state to get an abortion. Physicians testified that they can no longer practice within their Standards of Care in emergency situations like when a pregnant woman’s water breaks too early in the pregnancy. Doctors now have to wait until patients are at risk and “sick enough,” before they can offer an abortion.

Repairing the Damage: Voting 101 for High School Seniors

In 2021 I filed SB 240, requiring high schools to offer instruction on how to vote. At the time, Lt. Governor Duncan suggested I create a pilot program in my district as a starting point, but the pandemic made that impossible until now.

This year, I partnered with Representative Karen Lupton and the Dekalb Voter Registration and Elections Office to create a Voting 101 class as part of Chamblee High School’s Adulting Day. It was fun to watch the kids learn how to use the voting equipment. It gave me some ideas about how to move my vision for voting education forward in the future.

The Forecast Ahead

With only nine legislative days left in the session, the winds will remain brisk. Bills that didn’t make it on Crossover Day stay alive for next year, or could be added to bills that moved forward on Crossover Day. It’s time to keep our eyes peeled and remain vigilant for whatever storms might come our way.


Late last week I got to visit Chamblee High School. As part of their “Adulting Day,” Rep. Karen Lupton and I partnered with the DeKalb Board of Elections to teach HS seniors how to vote — we even had real machines for them to use!


On International Women’s Day we all wore yellow roses and honored 35 women who serve as extraordinary servant leaders in their communities

It’s a Numbers Game

Sometimes numbers stick in my brain and sometimes they don’t.

This year alone, legislators have filed 955 Bills and 662 Resolutions. So if you bring a bill to my attention just by its number, I’m going to say, “Tell me what the bill does.”

After Crossover Day this Monday, some bills that don’t make it will actually change numbers as they get attached to other bills to help them cross the finish line. The numbers are a moving target.

Here are some other numbers that did stick in my brain this week.

33 R, 23 D: The Senate Partisan Divide
29: “Yes” Votes Needed to Pass a Bill in the Senate
37: “Yes” Votes needed to pass a Constitutional Amendment in the Senate

Calculated Moves

It takes a two-thirds vote in each chamber to pass a Constitutional amendment, which means the Republicans cannot pass certain ballot initiatives without some help from across the aisle. This is an important negotiation power for the Minority Party.

This came into play this week when the “Local Consent Calendar” came up for its daily vote. Local bills impacting cities and counties are placed on the Calendar by local delegations. They are usually non-controversial and therefore voted on all together.

But this week the “Calendar” contained a bill to allow Ware County to change its Elections Board from a bipartisan board chosen by the political parties to one appointed by the all Republican County Commission — a partisan power grab enacted through local bills about a dozen times last term. Democrats wanted to go on record opposing this, but by voting against the entire Calendar, we would also inadvertently kill a Constitutional Amendment Resolution authored by the powerful Rules Chair (requiring a 2/3rd vote).

Since the Rules Chair has the power to block bills from coming to the Senate floor, it’s never a good idea to make him mad, especially right before Crossover Day. But only a local legislator has the ability to pull out a bill from the Local Consent Calendar to be voted on separately. So we explained the dilemma to the Rules Chair, who convinced a Senator from Ware County to pull out the Elections Board bill to be voted on separately. Problem solved. Democrats got their opposition vote recorded and the Rules Chairman got his Constitutional Amendment.

Republican Votes Don’t Add Up

In the Senate, it takes 29 votes to pass a bill, which keeps the 33 Senate Republicans close to their seats. If just five of their members aren’t there to vote, or they join Democrats in dissent, the bill fails. Democrats also now have an unlikely ally in a Republican freshman Senator who came from the House and is proudly against anything that restricts freedom from government interference and infamous for voting “no” on almost everything. That sometimes gives Democrats an additional opposition vote.

During an 11 hour marathon on the Senate floor Thursday, Republicans failed three times to get to that magic 29 votes. It’s unusual for bills to fail on the floor. The following bills failed:

SB 114: City of Buckhead referendum
SB 196: Making seat belt evidence admissible in car wreck cases
SB 57: Sports and horse betting without a statewide referendum

Three Cheers for Unanimous Votes

This year it’s been unusual to see a vote count of 56-0 on the Senate floor. But this week it happened three times in one day. Each time, everyone broke out in applause. In a parliamentary inquiry, the Senate Majority Leader joked, “Should we have the Secretary of the Senate check the machines?” The Lt. Governor retorted, “Who says we can’t work together?”

The bills we agreed on all had to do with child welfare — respite care for foster parents, access to mental health services prior to parental termination, and allowing children to testify in parental termination cases without being under oath.

“Don’t Say Gay” Bill Gets Deep-Sixed

Sometimes certain bill numbers do become memorable. This year, SB 88 became known as Georgia’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which banned discussion of LGBTQ issues in school without parental consent.

This week, the Education and Youth Committee heard a very different Committee substitute that required local school boards to create policies to address gender identity and private schools and camps to notify parents when gender identity issues were to be discussed. Senators and constituents who were initially in favor of SB 88 suddenly changed their minds once they heard the bill attempted to regulate private schools and camps. The bill was ultimately tabled.

Republicans Zero In on Elections. Again.

SB 222, a bill to prohibit county and municipal governments from taking third-party donations to help fund elections, also came up during the marathon Thursday session. In my opposition speech, I reminded my colleagues that in the four years I sat on the Ethics Committee where we required County Elections departments to purchase expensive new voting equipment with HB 316, and created onerous requirements for Elections staff with SB 202, there were exactly zero fiscal notes attached to those bills and zero dollars appropriated to help cover these unfunded mandates. Sadly, the bill passed with a party line vote of 33-23.

We’ve been keeping track of SB 221, another bad Elections bill that would completely eliminate ballot drop boxes, make it easier for voter registrations to be challenged, and add more unnecessary steps for elections staff to “protect against fraud.” The Secretary of State’s office warned that as written, SB 221 could violate the National Voter Registration Act, but the bill was voted out of Committee. Thankfully, it looks like SB 221 never made it out of the Senate Rules Committee, which means there’s zero chance we’ll be voting on it on Crossover Day.

Crossover Day Math

Monday is Legislative Day 28, also known as Crossover Day. It’s the deadline for bills to pass at least one chamber in order to cross over to the other chamber for passage this year.

I counted how many bills and resolutions we have voted on in the Senate during the first 27 Legislative days: 11 Resolutions and 67 Bills. The calendar for Crossover day includes 74 bills. That means that on Monday, the Senate will consider just about as many bills as we have considered so far during the entire session. The Senate should take a time-management course.

We celebrate our wins when bad bills get tabled, or don’t make it to the floor in time for a vote. But the game is not over until we adjourn Sine Die. And then there’s next year. I’m still in the game.

 

This is what the Senate voting board looks like when votes fall along partisan lines, like it did with SB 222, an elections bill that bans local governments from accepting outside grant money to help run elections. Democrats argued that the state needs to appropriate money for elections when they pass mandates that otherwise push costs down to local governments.

SB114 vote totals
On the other hand, this is what it looks like when Republicans join Democrats to take down a bad bill. This is how the City of Buckhead went down.

 

Legislators don’t have to write their own bills. There’s a staff of about a dozen or so lawyers who work for the General Assembly’s “Legislative Counsel” who turn legislators’ ideas into bills. But it’s the legislator’s job to turn the bill into law! Legislative Counsel updates a whiteboard daily in their office with the number of bills and resolutions drafted so far this session. They’ve been busy!

 

 

Flash Flood Warning

I wasn’t in the mood this week to listen to Majorie Taylor Greene address the Senate about transgender youth, so I sought solace outside the chamber. Caught up in the moment, I completely forgot the Senate Page Program has been reactivated, so instead of quiet, I was swamped by a flood of people waiting behind the ropes for legislators to come speak with them. They were very glad to see me!

And since the House has not reinstated their Page Program, every single person in the Capitol that day who wanted to speak to a legislator was standing right there outside the Senate chamber. There’s no escaping to higher ground when your job is to be the voice of the people, so I embraced the moment. It was time well spent.

A sign outside the Capitol reads that indoor capacity is limited to 800 people. I stopped to ask the State Troopers at the security desk if they actually count the people. They laughed because they had just been discussing the “800 people” sign, and said they were certain there had already been more like 8,000 people through their security gates.

The dam has broken not just with people, but also with bills. Legislative Counsel, the staff of lawyers who draft bills, has a white board in their office where they record the number of bills they have drafted. It’s now well over 2,000. This means that going forward, despite our slow start, there will be longer floor sessions, lots of committee meetings, and 12-hour days.

Republican Crime Narrative Doesn’t Hold Water

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens visited with the Senate Democratic Caucus this week and contradicted Republican claims of rising crime. Mayor Dickens reported the good news that violent crime — crimes against people, for example rape and aggravated assault — in the City of Atlanta is down 7%.

One initiative helping this positive trend is a program called “Cure Violence” that originated in Chicago and was brought to Atlanta in 2020. In neighborhoods with high gun violence, trusted members of the community disrupt the cycle of violence by helping the community heal after a shooting, or intervening to prevent retaliatory violence. Sometimes these interventions happen in hospitals where gun violence victims are brought and the conflict continues in the emergency room.

Getting Washed Away: Criminal Justice Reform

Senate Republicans passed one of the worst “tough on crime” bills yet this week. Senate Bill 63 requires cash bail for more than 60 crimes, including misdemeanors like criminal trespassing and reckless driving. The vast majority of people arrested for these crimes can’t afford cash bail, so they await trial in jail for days, weeks, or months, often causing them to lose their jobs, parental rights, or even their homes.

Every time we vote on crime bills, I think of former Governor Nathan Deal, who was spotted at the Capitol this week. These bills are unraveling his legacy of criminal justice reform. It was Governor Deal’s Criminal Justice Reform Council that reported that even just spending two or more days in jail before trial increases recidivism by nearly 40%.

A Hemp Bill Almost Floats Past

This week, SB 22, a bill requiring chemical testing of post-market consumable hemp products, was a prime example of what can go wrong with hastily written floor amendments and fast moving parliamentary moves.

An amendment to SB 22 tried to ensure that Delta-8 was included in the list of substances to be tested, along with Delta-9. Delta-8 and Delta-9 are both compounds in cannabis plants that produce the “high.” Delta-8 is considered to have milder effects than Delta-9, but during debate, we learned that a few Senators had tried Delta-8 gummies and found it to be “plenty” potent.

In the middle of voting for SB 22 as amended, Sen. Josh McLaurin (D) asked, “Mr. President, isn’t it true that as amended, this bill now BANS Delta-8?” The bill narrowly passed, but we were suddenly confused about what we had just done. Sen. Kim Jackson (D) moved to reconsider the bill which put it at the bottom of the calendar for the next day. The bill author then moved to table the bill which moved it to the Rules Committee. I expect a more thoughtfully amended bill to be back on the floor soon.

Greater Truck Weights Would Erode Georgia Roads

This week we held elections for the State Transportation Board, which has 14 members — one from each Congressional District (CD). Each member serves a 5-year term and is elected by General Assembly members representing constituents in that CD. This year’s election focused on odd-numbered districts, so in District 7, we elected former state Senator Curt Thompson who will join the Board as a new member.

One issue on the Georgia Department of Transportation’s (GDOT) radar is increasing truck loads. GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurray briefed the Democratic Senate Caucus about SB 165 and HD 189, companion bills that increase truck weights allowed on Georgia roads to 90,000 lbs as a potential solution to our supply chain issues.

The problem is that Georgia’s roads and bridges aren’t built to withstand those loads. It could turn 20-year pavement into 12-year pavement and cost the state billions of dollars to strengthen our roads and bridges. Federal law limits trucks to 80,000 lbs, so heavier trucks wouldn’t be able to use the interstates which could mean more truck traffic on state and local roads. Later in the week, I heard that the House bill may ultimately be amended to limit greater truck weights to certain industries and products. Stay tuned for updates on this “weighty” issue.

Wading through Transgender Issues

This week I invited Dr. Ren Massey, former President of the Georgia Psychological Association and expert on transgender issues, to speak to the Democratic Senate Caucus. A transgender man himself, Dr. Massey helped write the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH) Standards of Adolescent Transgender Care.

WPATH recommends a family-centered approach to transgender care for minors, as well as comprehensive assessments and treatment of concurrent mental health issues before prescribing hormones and surgery. They recommend giving kids time to explore their gender issues before permanent changes are made, without going so far as banning hormones and surgery for minors outright. The challenge in Georgia is that we don’t yet have the infrastructure of trained professionals necessary to meet the growing demands.

This week, Republicans voted out of committee SB 140, a bill to ban non-reversible hormones and surgery for transgender minors.

Get Ready for the Deluge

The flood of bills will become a deluge as we get closer to Crossover Day (March 6), and at this point, it appears that it’s mostly bad bills moving downstream toward the Senate floor.

According to Representatives Karen Lupton, Long Tran, Shea Roberts and Scott Holcomb, things look a bit better in the House. At the end of a long week, your North DeKalb legislative team braved torrents of rain (Rep. Tran came in soaked), and held our first in-person Town Hall since the beginning of the pandemic. It was particularly fun to listen to the freshman legislators tell stories about what it’s like for them to learn on-the-job. Their enthusiasm is uplifting!

Thank you for being committed readers of my “Senate Snapshot.” The State Legislature impacts so many aspects of Georgian’s daily lives, like access to healthcare, the quality of public education, the conditions of our jails and prisons, the response of public health, gun laws and the safety of our communities. If you enjoy reading these updates, please share them with your friends and encourage them to sign up at sallyharrell.org.

See you next week!

 

Sign outside the main security entrance of the Georgia State Capitol reads that maximum occupancy is 800. State Troopers told me this week the reality is more like 8,000

 

Your legislative team in North DeKalb braved the rain Thursday night to bring you the first post-pandemic Town Hall in Chamblee. From left to right. Reps. Scott Holcomb, Karen Lupton, Sen. Sally Harrell, Reps. Shea Roberts and Long Tran

 

My office-mate Sen. Tonya Anderson has been busy decorating our office suite. I love seeing the neon sign every day when I enter the office. It says, “Don’t Quit.”

Mustering the Troops

North DeKalb Legislative Town Hall: Join me, Senator Sally Harrell, and Dekalb House Reps Scott Holcomb, Karen Lupton, Shea Roberts and Long Tran, Thursday, February 23rd, 7 pm in the Arrow Creek Room oat 4445 Buford HIghway in Chamblee. Register here.  

Indivisible Marching Buddies Legislative Update: If you need a virtual option, you can register and attend a Legislative Update featuring me and Scott Holcomb’s Chief-of-Staff Ann Abromowitz, at 7pm, Wednesday, February 22nd.

Read on to find out why you need to know what’s going on and what you can do!

Putting on the Combat Boots

Legislative Day 20: It’s the halfway point in the trenches of the 40-day legislative session. The political terrain is getting rough, so it’s time to bring out the combat boots. There’s hope that the new House leadership may neutralize these threats, but that’s uncharted territory. In the meantime, we have to suit up for the battles ahead.

Doing Reconnaissance on Committees

Committee Assignments: This session, the new Senate top brass relieved me of some of my prior Committee duties, reassigning me to Committees that hear fewer bills. Sidelining certain Senators is an all too common tactic. Two members of the Senate Democratic Leadership were removed from the powerful Rules committee — the committee that decides which bills move on to the Senate floor for a vote. Now Senate Rules is only 17% Democratic, which, along with more right-wing Committee Chairs, leaves the gates unguarded and wide open for lots of bad bills. Democratic bills from both the House & Senate will hit a bottleneck in the Senate when there are more bills than motions available from Democratic Rules Committee members who make motions to move bills forward.

My team and I are using the time not spent in Committee to scout out the status of the most problematic bills so we can better plot our defensive strategy. It’s too bad I’m no longer on the Senate Ethics Committee. I would have made a strong ally on a new Republican bill to do away with barcodes on ballots, something I fought hard for when we considered a new voting system for the state four years ago.

Honoring False Heroes: Clarence Thomas and Kelly Loeffler

Tuesday was a tough day on the Senate floor as we battled highly partisan bills. Democrats were outgunned on SB 69, a bill to erect a statue of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a native of the coastal town of Pin Point, Georgia, on Capitol grounds. We fought this bill last year, so once again, my colleagues argued that the People’s House is no place for statues of polarizing figures like Justice Thomas whose rulings have undermined civil and women’s rights. Last year’s bill never came up for a vote in the House, but we don’t know if we can count on that again.

Senate Republicans also passed SR 65 honoring former US Senator Kelly Loeffler and her partisan voting group, Greater Georgia, that explicitly registers Conservative voters. It’s one thing to recognize the service of a former elected official, but another to honor partisan aims. 

Heavy Casualties in Healthcare 

The fight for greater healthcare access took another hit this week as the Senate passed SB 65, the Governor’s bill to replace the federal healthcare.gov insurance marketplace with a Georgia state insurance market, GeorgiaAccess.gov. Unlike healthcare.gov, the new Georgia Access website does not compare insurance options, making it harder to know which plan is best and forcing consumers to call multiple brokers individually. Brokers can then sell plans that give them more profit, and consumers fewer benefits.

This week, we received reports that Grady Hospital is at full capacity and Piedmont Hospital is taking its overflow, all of which is a direct result of the closure of Wellstar’s Atlanta Medical Center and the state not fully expanding Medicaid.

Navigating a Minefield: Gang Bills

The Governor’s tough on crime and gang-related bills have been a mixed bag. Democrats presented a united front against mandatory minimum sentencing bills, which we know only increases our prison population with non-violent offenders and  disproportionately affects people of color. But some of the bills have good stipulations. It’s been hard to decide how to vote.  

This week brought both kinds of bills. SB 44, a mandatory minimum bill to increase penalties for gang recruitment, passed mainly along party lines. But SB 12, an “omnibus” gang bill had several provisions that Democrats support like prohibiting those convicted of domestic violence from possessing a firearm and increasing penalties for those that abuse disabled adults. Most of the Democratic Caucus, including me, voted yes on that bill, but some opposed.

Gaining Ground for the Disabilities Community

The highlight of my week was coming together with colleagues on both sides of the aisle for a press conference on “Wages and Waivers”. It was an incredible show of support for an issue that was barely getting any attention from lawmakers and state leaders just a few years ago. 

It’s been 25 years since the US Supreme Court ruled that institutionalizing adults with intellectual & developmental disabilities (IDD) violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since then, Georgia has struggled to provide the infrastructure that allows Georgians with IDD to live, work and play in their own homes and communities. At the press conference, I announced SB 198, my bill to create an IDD Innovation Commission that will bring together stakeholders and subject matter experts to delve into these complex issues.

SB 198 has strong bipartisan support. The bill must pass the Health & Human Services Committee during the next two weeks in order to become law this year. Please email and call members of the Senate HHS Committee and urge them to support SB 198.

Scouting the Terrain

There are lots of bad bills lurking ahead — bills on religious liberty, banning homeless camps, eliminating cashless bail, tougher penalties on crime, state preemptions of local housing ordinances, transgender treatment bans, limiting class discussion on sex & gender, elimination of hospital regulations (certificate of need or CON), punishing District Attorneys using prosecutorial discretion, and limiting access to the courts (tort reform) — just to name a few (Whew)!

The Road Ahead

If these bills pass the Senate before Crossover Day, we’ll have another chance to shoot them down in the House. Please keep watch, read and share this Snapshot around, especially when we call on you to take action!

A week of Fits and Starts

This week the legislature felt like a car engine that wouldn’t quite turn over. Bills were moving at a good little clip, then sputtered to a stop. On Tuesday while debating a couple of bills, a security alarm went off. We started to evacuate, but the Sergeant-at-Arms said it was a false alarm so we got back to work.

Banning Vaccines: SB 1 proposes to permanently ban state and local governments from requiring proof of COVID vaccines, making it so schools can’t require COVID vaccines like they do for other diseases. I tried to appeal to my Republican colleagues by arguing for local control, but the bill passed along party lines.

Mandatory Minimums: SB 36 creates mandatory minimum sentences for pimping and pandering. Mandatory minimums tend to tie judges hands from taking into account unique aspects of each case when sentencing. Also, research indicates mandatory minimums tend to politically target certain offenses and groups of people, and they do little to deter crime. Georgia already has the 4th highest incarceration rate in the country. I expect more mandatory minimum bills with the Governor’s “tough on crime” package.

Putting the Brakes on Hate

Even before the week started, I got news that constituents in my district found hateful anti-Semitic fliers in their driveways. Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler and I both received bipartisan applause Monday for our speeches denouncing this anti-Semitic act.

The same morning, we honored World War II veteran Louis Graziano on his 100th birthday. Graziano is the last remaining witness to Germany’s surrender to the Allies at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Reims, France. The presentation made me think of my Uncle Jim, who was captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge on his first day of combat. So many sacrifices were made to defeat the Nazis. It takes all of us standing together to fight off the same kind of hate today.

Ambulances Stuck in Neutral

On my way to a lunchtime Dekalb Delegation meeting, I observed several other crowded County Delegation meetings overflowing into the hallways. It struck me how insufficient everything is at the Capitol. We have such a short amount of time to do our work, and not nearly enough staff or space. We do our best to get the work done.

One of the issues we discussed at our DeKalb Delegation meeting is slow ambulance response times. I’ve heard stories of people dying while waiting for an ambulance, or being told they should drive themselves to the hospital — a result of for-profit healthcare. Citizens expect an ambulance to show up when they have an emergency. It’s a basic responsibility of government.

The Road to Passport Renewal

Do you ever wonder why you pay a $35 passport processing fee and where that money goes?

County Clerks are required to charge the fee by Federal law. Fifty years ago, before counties provided municipal services, Clerks did not draw a salary from the county, so the $35 paid them for their time and attention. But now in some counties, the Clerk is compensated with both a salary and the money collected from the fees. SB 19 proposes that the fee revenue be used to fund the county’s general fund and the Clerk’s office instead of being used to compensate the Clerk directly.

This is something that should have been ended long ago.

Steering for Clean Energy

Wednesday was the busiest day at the Capitol yet. I could barely cross the street to get to the Capitol because a Varsity food truck was feeding crowds of people. Both staircases were blocked with people posing for group photos. And the “rope line” outside the Chamber, now fully functional for the first time since the pandemic, was packed with people waiting to speak to legislators.

V.P Kamala Harris Visit: Midday I escaped to see Vice President Harris at Georgia Tech, who moderated a conversation about climate change. President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act made historic investments in clean energy (https://www.whitehouse.gov/cleanenergy), including tax credits for solar power and electric vehicles. Georgia is doing our part too, with a number of electric vehicle and solar energy companies setting up shop here.

Fueling International Friendship

Long days followed by evening events are commonplace during the legislative session. 

Last week, as Co-Chair of the Georgia-Japan Caucus, we presented the new Consul General of Japan, Mio Maeda, with a resolution recognizing the 49th anniversary of the Japanese Consulate in Atlanta. Georgia has a strong economic relationship with Japan, including $8 billion in trade and more than 660 Japan affiliated offices in the state. This week, we attended a dinner at the Japanese Consulate with Japanese dignitaries and business leaders to further strengthen that relationship. I made a short presentation about the role the Japan Caucus plays in strengthening the ties between Georgia and Japan.

Charged-Up on GPB’s Lawmakers

A second evening event this week.

Finally, at the very end of a long week, I headed to the GPB Studio to film Thursday night’s episode of “Lawmakers,” covering what happened on Legislative Day 16. Unfortunately, a couple of bills banning transgender treatment of minors were dropped that same afternoon. Many of you know that my youngest (adult) child identifies as transgender, so it’s an emotional subject for me.  Fortunately, my co-presenter, Maya Prabhu of the AJC, covered the transgender bills and I covered my work on the disabilities service crisis. Here’s the recording (my part starts at 17:40) https://www.gpb.org/television/show/lawmakers/season/53/lawmakers-day-16-020923.


Jump-Start to Next Week and Beyond

“Waivers and Wages” Press Conference & Rally: Thursday, 2/16, 1 pm on the South Stairs of the GA Capitol (indoors). Please join me and other Disabilities Advocates as we rally for Medicaid “Waivers” and increased “Wages” for caregivers. The Rally will celebrate the progress we’ve made, while urging the legislature to finish the job.

Legislative Town Hall with Dekalb Legislators:

Thursday, 2/23, Chamblee City Hall, 7:00 pm. Join me with Representatives Long Tran, Shea Roberts, and Karen Lupton for an update on the current legislative session. A virtual option may be available. Registration details coming soon.

Since the Senate has only voted on a handful of bills, we’ll pay the price during the next few weeks with very long days at Crossover (March 6th) and Sine Die (March 29th).

 

 

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!