Ga. adoption reform in limbo

UPDATE: Despite Senate leadership’s tight-lipped response to a House compromise on adoption reform, the upper chamber voted nearly unanimously on Monday to advance the bill to Governor Nathan Deal’s desk for consideration. The vote ends a two-year effort under the Gold Dome to overhaul the state’s outmoded systems for placing children with new families. Get all the details here.

The Georgia House of Representatives approved last week a compromise version of an adoption reform package that would make simpler the cumbersome, costly process of placing children with new families.

After a similar bill failed last year when a controversial religious liberty amendment was attached, Governor Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston insisted that the General Assembly take up consideration of a new, clean adoption reform bill. The legislature made good on the governor’s no-religious-liberty-language demand, but the Senate pointedly added a provision to a House-passed bill that would empower parents to give temporary, revocable guardianship to relatives or other qualified adults in an effort to keep children out of the foster care system.

The inclusion of the powers of attorney plank, which was vetoed by the governor in a separate bill last year, complicated the bill’s passage. With it included, the adjusted proposal was kicked back to the House for approval, additional adjustment, or negotiations in conference committee.

After a week of wrangling, the House has offered the Senate a potential compromise, which it passed on a 168-0 vote, but it’s unclear when or if the upper chamber will take action on the reforms. Reportedly, Senate lawmakers are chafed by a new provision in the compromise bill that would make it legal to reimburse birth mothers’ basic living expenses in private adoptions.

Elsewhere in the capitol…

The House Appropriations Committee green lighted the governor’s 2018 supplemental budget, known under the Gold Dome as the “little budget,” which advances next to the Rules Committee. The spending blueprint contains a handful of tweaks from the governor’s proposal, including more funding for the purchase of new school buses and educational-focused mobile welding labs.

Representatives Scott Hilton and Jan Jones have introduced a bill to amend Title 20, proposing basing charter supplement funding on the statewide average of local revenue. Currently, the state charter supplement is based on the average of the lowest five school systems as ranked by the assessed valuation per weighted FTE. The capital revenue calculation would also be applied to certain virtual schools.

The House may take up consideration this week of a proposal that would add opioids to the drug screen for those seeking employment with the state, while the Senate may vote on a bill to allow lottery winners to keep their identity secret if they pay up to 4 percent of their winnings.

Senator Michael Williams, one of several GOP gubernatorial hopefuls, has introduced legislation to protect high school coaches who participate in pre-sporting event prayers with student athletes and boosters.

Representative Jay Powell’s proposal to require sales taxes be paid on all internet purchases won approval last week from the Senate Finance Committee. The bill, which would impact online retailers whose sales exceed $250,000 or those with more than 200 Georgia-based sales per year, easily cleared the House last year.

Ga. House, Senate leadership agree to crossover, sine die dates

The General Assembly’s pace quickened last week after a sluggish start to session, stalled in part by unusual winter weather and a shortage of essential legislative priorities.

After earlier sparring over an adjournment resolution that could have split the two chamber’s work calendars, leadership from the House and Senate agreed to a time table for the remainder of the 2018 session.

The consensus calendar encircled Feb. 28 as crossover day—the point by which any bill must have been green lighted by at least once chamber to remain viable—and March 29 as the final day of session. Leadership has pledged it will adjourn no later than midnight on sine die (from the Latin “without day”), as has occurred in recent years.

Elsewhere under the Gold Dome …

Senator David Shafer, a Republican vying for the open Lt. Governor’s post, has proposed an amendment to the Georgia constitution that would declare English as the official language of the state.

An omnibus health care bill based in part on the policy recommendations of the House Rural Development Council is expected to be dropped this week. The measure is said to include a provision tinkering with the state’s certificate-of-need framework, but won’t repeal the hospital rule in urban areas as was proposed last year by the Council.

Legislation to propose a new structure for the governance and funding of transit in the metro Atlanta area are being finalized and will likely be introduced this week or next.

A bipartisan group of senators are backing legislation to reduce Georgia Power’s profits on the multi-billion dollar Plant Vogtle nuclear facility by restricting the so-called nuclear tariff the utility has been charging customers’ since 2011 to finance the project. Under the bill, Georgia Power would no longer be allowed to charge the financing fee on parts of the notoriously laggard project that had fallen behind the original schedule.

The Senate voted 49-0 last week to approve a raft of technical adjustments to the state’s garnishment law, which was overhauled two years earlier amid a rebuke by federal courts. The updates would bring the state code into alignment with federal garnishment rules.

Winter storm stalls Ga. legislature’s work

The Georgia Senate voted overwhelmingly last week to adopt comprehensive reforms to the state’s outmoded adoption law, but the bill’s fate remains far from settled amid a swirl of election-year politics and personality conflicts.

A similar measure came up for consideration last year, but stalled after a religious liberty provision was attached in the final hours of the legislative session. The Senate’s newly approved version pointedly excluded last year’s poison pill, but it contains a provision—an amendment to grant temporary powers of attorneys to guardians of children—that Governor Nathan Deal vetoed last year.

The legislation will now return to the House of Representatives, which already twice passed adoption reform bills in as many years. The House has before it three options: agreement to the Senate version as-is; remove the offending powers of attorney’s plank and return it to the upper chamber; or send the bill to a conference committee of both chambers to negotiate a compromise.

The legislation has been a top priority for Governor Deal and Speaker David Ralston for two years running, and they entered the new year demanding a clean bill—that is, one not adulterated with controversial religious liberty language. Senate proponents insist the revised legislation is, in fact, a clean child welfare proposal that will also assist struggling working class families who may face short-term personal crises.

Elsewhere in the capitol…

The recent winter storm that dusted north Georgia with a mix of snow and ice suspended state and local government activity for much of the week. Both chambers’ budget hearings were cut short, but are expected to resume this week.

One-time House lawmakers Brian Strickland was sworn in last week to fill the Senate seat vacated by Sen. Rick Jeffares, who left his seat to pursue a run for Lt. Governor. The governor announced that Strickland would serve as one of his administration’s floor leaders for the remainder of the session.

Republican Geoffrey Cauble, a Henry County general contractor, was elected to House to fill the House seat vacated by Senator Strickland.

Georgia General Assembly closes out week one: Deal’s State of the State and budget proposal, and House and Senate sync calendars

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal delivered his final State of the State address Thursday, using the occasion before the General Assembly as something of a victory lap: an unemployment rate at its lowest point in a decade, industry accolades as the best state in which to do business, significant investments in education and transportation, and criminal justice reform.

Declaring Georgia “not just strong” but “exceptional,” Deal, who became visibly emotional throughout the speech as he reflected on the work of the previous seven years, was pointedly light on his administration’s priorities for the new year.

Instead, some clues can be found in the budget proposal he submitted to lawmakers shortly after his address. The proposed spending blueprint for fiscal year 2019 doesn’t contain any radical reorganization of the state’s priorities, but instead provides for a little more of the same from years before:

  • $361.7 million for the Teachers Retirement System;
  • #127.6 million for K-12 enrollment growth, training, and experience;
  • $30 million to assist low-wealth school systems;
  • $54.3 million for resident instruction at University System institutions;
  • $5.9 million for operations for the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center;
  • $34.4 million for growth in the Dual Enrollment program;
  • $255.9 million for Medicaid to fund growth and offset the loss of federal and other funds;
  • $28.8 million for child welfare services to fund out-of-home care growth and foster care per diem increases;
  • $22.9 million to implement recommendations from the Commission on Children’s Mental Health;
  • $5 million for accountability courts to implement new courts and expand existing courts;
  • $31.7 million in new motor fuel funds for transportation; and
  • $100 million in bond funds to repair and replace bridges throughout the state.

The challenges of passing a balanced budget—the General Assembly’s lone constitutional obligation—are complicated this year by federal action on the recently passed overhaul of the US tax system, which could decrease state revenues, and whether the US Congress renews the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known locally as Peachcare.

Elsewhere in the state capitol, the Senate remedied a lingering procedural issue Thursday by passing an adjournment resolution passed three days earlier by the House that would sync the two chambers’ legislative calendars. And the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a version of an adoption reform package without a controversial  religious liberty provisions that doomed the bill in the final hours of last year’s session.

The two actions represent significant concessions by Senate leadership and Lt. Governor Casey. Last year’s poison pill amendment that would have allowed adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples was removed although a provision allowing for transfer of child custody through a power of attorney to a close relative or friend was attached. Whether this satisfies House leadership or Governor Deal, who have called for a clean adoption bill is yet to be seen.

Notably, the adjournment resolution is important to Lt. Governor Cagle, who is eager to finish the legislative season as soon as possible so  fundraising can resume, which is barred during session for ethics reasons, in his campaign for governor later this year.

Foreign direct investment as a Democratic election strategy

Only moments after the Associated Press declared Karen Handel had defeated Jon Ossoff in the 6th District of Georgia, the Democratic soul-searching commenced. The Ossoff campaign spent a staggering amount of money in an attempt to pry the suburban district from gerrymandered GOP hands—nearly $24 million. So why couldn’t the Democratic Party pull off a win in a highly educated suburb that is increasingly diverse? Well, there were lots of reasons.

In the immediate aftermath, some on the left blamed the Democratic Party for silencing the progressive wing of the party, which, since the Sanders campaign, has been particularly vocal. Others lay the loss at the feet of Nancy Pelosi. I live in that district, and friends and neighbors cited Ossoff’s alleged ties to Pelosi, the fact that he had little experience, and he didn’t even live in the district as their primary concerns—basically, that the 6th District was “not for sale.” While it is true Ossoff was unwillingly tied to Pelosi, an unpopular figure outside of California, Handel was equally tied to Trump and his sub-forty percent approval rating in spite of her best efforts to distance herself during the campaign.

In the end it came down to messaging. Ossoff is a prime example of why the Democrats will continue to lose in the South and Midwest unless and until they craft a new and fresh economic platform. The social issues that drive progressive democrats to the polls on the West Coast and in the Northeast don’t have the same pull in the rest of the country. Democrats need to refocus the party on jobs and economic growth.

Meanwhile, the GOP is teetering between old-school conservatism that embraces free market principals, and the new Trump-era economics that advocates for higher trade barriers and a slow-down of foreign influence in American economics. This uncertainty on the right leaves a glimmer of hope for the Democratic party to regain the narrative of working on behalf of the middle class. To flip Congress and regain the White House, they need a stronger economic vision. Some Democrats in Congress are echoing the need for a bolder platform of change and run-of-the-mill economic development rhetoric. A friend and former colleague of mine, Congressman Ro Khanna of California, expressed his concern: “We need a bolder economic platform, our party needs to be for good jobs and better wages, [and] we have to have some bold economic ideas that are going to convince people that we get it.” Furthermore, Congressman Tim Ryan, in the wake of the GA-6 special election, has urged Democrats to make forging a clear economic agenda an urgent priority.

It is well known that progressives love the idea of a global community. They embrace international agreements like the recently abandoned Paris agreement and stand by the benefits of the EU and UN, yet rarely openly support free trade and FDI. The Democratic Party needs to frame the “global community” narrative in economic terms. An easy way to accomplish the pivot? Embrace foreign direct investment. Explain to voters the benefits of free trade, capital investments, and export-based industry. According to the Brookings Institute, foreign-owned US affiliates directly employ some 5.6 million workers in the US economy. Furthermore, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the average worker employed by a foreign-owned firm earned more than $77,000 per year in compensation compared to just $60,000 for the average US worker. And if that isn’t enough, foreign firms spend well over double the private-sector average on benefits per worker.  Even better, a significant portion of FDI investment goes into manufacturing, often in the Midwest and South, areas of Democratic weakness. In 2012, 48 percent of all FDI dollars destined for the US flowed into manufacturing.

Knowledge of FDI and its benefits is severely lacking, as is the economic platform of the Democratic Party. To make the acceptance of a global economic market platform even more intriguing, often foreign firms looking to set up manufacturing facilities in the United States are in need of skilled labor. The type of worker they desire does not need a four-year degree but does need some level of formal training. The manufacturing industry, ready and willing to employ middle-class workers, is actually facing a labor shortage. The number of open manufacturing jobs has been rising since 2009 and peaked in 2016, hitting a 15-year high. Access to higher education has been a Democratic mainstay for nearly a generation. An adjustment to supporting vocational and technical education to fill manufacturing jobs brought to the states through FDI would make their platform more relatable and tangible to the average American. Not every citizen of the United States wants or needs to attend a four-year university to be economically stable.

The acceptance of foreign direct investment into the Democratic platform has the ability to ground their economic agenda in real-life working-class concerns. In one fell swoop, the Democratic Party can reimagine their economic, international, and education policy platforms in a way that promotes their dedication to the global family, ensures increased spending on higher education, creates jobs, raises wages, and actually gives them something to run on that isn’t Trump’s failures. Without a clear and directed economic platform, the Democratic Party will continue to fail. To that end, embracing foreign direct investment should be a primary Democratic strategy for domestic victories in key districts.

Sine Die in Georgia: all the bills that passed (and those that didn’t)

The Georgia General Assembly adjourned for the year in the early morning hours of Friday, sending to Governor Nathan Deal a major slate of bills, including a failing schools turnaround program, a pilot program for highly autonomous vehicles, a children’s hearing aid insurance mandate, and tax credits for music production firms, musical artists, and yacht owners.

Passed

The following bills passed both chambers of the General Assembly in its final week and will be reviewed by the Governor for signature or veto. The governor has 40 days from sine die to make his decisions.

Education

The legislature green-lighted the governor’s second attempt to revive the state’s chronically failing schools (HB 338), empowering a special statewide “chief turnaround officer” to address problem districts. At the discretion of the new school CTO, the staff of failing schools could be replaced or control of the district could be ceded to “successful” districts or nonprofit charter schools.

The General Assembly passed an additional pair of bills, one adopting charter schools recommendations from the Governor’s Education Reform Commission last year (HB 430), and another creating a $5 million annual tax credit for an “innovation” grant program (HB 237) that prioritizes schools on the target list for turnaround by the governor’s CTO.

Transportation

A bill to clear regulatory hurdles for the operation of highly autonomous vehicles on certain public roads in Georgia unanimously passed the Senate. The bill (SB 219) gave the green light to driverless cars providing they register with the state and satisfy certain insurance thresholds.

Taxes

A slate of tax credit programs was adopted in the final week of session, including rebates for royalties paid to music artists (HB 196), credits for music production companies (HB 155) and breaks for yacht owners who make repairs in the state (HB 125). The General Assembly also adjusted the manner in which ad valorem tax on leased vehicles is assessed and collected (HB 340).

Immigration

The legislature moved to ban any funding for the state’s colleges and universities that pointedly flout federal immigration laws or declare themselves a sanctuary campus for undocumented students (HB 37).

Separately, lawmakers moved to create a Georgia Bureau of Investigation-maintained website publically indexing all undocumented immigrants who are released from federal prison in Georgia (HB 452/SB 1). The bill also strengthens the state’s anti-terrorism laws.

Health

Georgia’s private insurance providers will be required to cover the cost of hearing aids for the state’s children under a new Senate mandate. The devices are already covered by Medicaid and were added in 2015 to the State Health Benefit Plan, which covers some 650,000 state employees.

Lawmakers also passed a bill (HB 249) requiring medical providers to check the state drug registry before issuing a prescription for opioids in an attempt to prevent “doctor shopping” by addicts and curb the state’s opioid abuse epidemic.

Energy and environment

Lawmakers passed an update to the state’s oil and natural gas regulations to expand the permitting process of hydraulic fracturing (HB 205).

Public safety

Legislation providing for the licensed carry of firearms on certain publicly owned properties and portions of public post-secondary educational institutions passed, despite the reservations of Governor Deal (HB 280). The bill is a near-facsimile of legislation that was vetoed last year by the Governor.

Under legislation that unanimously passed both houses (SB 141), carnival operations must now submit to safety and engineering inspections.

Did not pass

The following newsworthy bills are among those that failed to receive final passage in this year’s General Assembly session but are eligible for consideration in 2018.

Education

  • HB 51 would have provided additional due process rights for students accused of sexual assault on college campuses and universities.
  • HB 217 would have increased to $100 million from $57 million the annual pool of available tax credits for private school scholarships.
    Transportation
  • HB 160/SB 6 would have created a Georgia Commission on Transit Governance.

Taxes

  • HB 61 would have required online retailers to collect sales taxes like brick-and-mortar retailers.
  • HB 329 would have reduced the state income tax to a flat 5.4%.
    Child welfare
  • HB 159, which would have been a major update to Georgia’s adoption law, was tabled by the Senate in the final minutes of the session amid efforts to add RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act)-like language.

Fun and games

  • HB 118 would have provided for the authorization and regulation of fantasy sports operations within the state.

Georgia legislature hurtles towards Crossover Day

The General Assembly will enter one of the session’s most turbulent weeks Monday as it hurtles towards Crossover Day on March 3rd. Crossover day marks the final opportunity for all legislation—except the budget—to advance from one chamber to the next, and will trigger a marathon of activity in the state capitol up to the close of Friday’s business.