After a COVID-19 induced hiatus the General Assembly returned to Atlanta for a two week sprint to Sine Die. While the main focus was passing a budget under significant revenue shortfalls the General Assembly was able to pass several other pieces of legislation including a historic hate crimes bill, surprise billing restrictions and two constitutional amendments among others.
Now that the 2020 session has officially ended legislators will start ramping up for what is sure to be a contentious election season.
The Georgia General Assembly temporarily adjourned in March without fulfilling its one constitutional obligation — passing a budget. They completed that task as the 2020 special session closed, a day before the start of the new fiscal year. Gov. Brian Kemp promptly signed the budget for Fiscal Year 2021 on Tuesday June 30th finalizing the state’s $26 billion spending plan which includes about $2.2 billion in cuts.
Some highlights of the updated budget include:
K-12 Public Education
- $950 million cut from the Quality Basic Education program, the formula used to calculate state spending for K-12 public education
- $142 million added for enrollment growth and teacher training
- $8.8 million added to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement
- $242 million cut to schools in the University System of Georgia and $36 million cut to schools in the Technical College System of Georgia
- 12 percent cut to Adult Education
- 11 percent cut to agricultural programs including the Cooperative Extension Service
- $11 million in cuts to Dual Enrollment expected from the 30-hour cap and limits on courses students can take created in HB 444
- $1 million added to the REACH Georgia scholarship program, a needs-based mentoring and scholarship program; all other state-funded scholarships will see a 10 percent cut
Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities
- $91 million cut to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities budget
- $22.7 million cut to child and adolescent mental health services, including prevention programs and supported education and employment services
- $7.2 million cut to adult mental health services, including cuts to core behavioral health services, reductions in peer workforce training and services and cuts to housing vouchers for people with mental illnesses
- $5.7 million cut to adult substance abuse services, mostly for funds that would expand residential treatment services
- Total state funding increased by $178 million, mostly to account for higher projected growth for Medicaid
- $19.7 million added to provide six months of Medicaid coverage for new mothers; this coverage extension must still receive federal approval
- $12 million added to increase funding available for Rural Hospital Stabilization grants
- $8.2 million in cuts to the Department of Public Health budget
- Funding restored for grants to local health departments
- $2.3 million reduction in funding for trauma center readiness and uncompensated care
- $34 million cut to the Department of Human Services (DHS) budget
- $46 million cut in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds
- $3.7 million in cuts to vacant positions in child welfare
- $3 million in cuts to vacant positions at the state office for DHS
2. Hate Crimes Bill
On Friday June 26th, Gov. Brian Kemp signed a hate-crimes measure into law. As such, Georgia is no longer on the ever-shrinking list of states without hate crime legislation. The law allows for enhanced criminal penalties to be levied against those who target their victims on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, sex, national origin, religion, or physical or mental disability.
The bill cleared the final hurdle after Senate leaders abandoned efforts to treat police officers as a protected class.
The Hate Crimes Bill passed the legislature on a wave of public support led by Georgia’s most significant businesses and political leaders. The Dentons Public Policy team played a leading role in the effort as lobbyists for the Anti-Defamation League.
3. Safe Harbor Bill
Georgia will join a short list of states that are proactively protecting businesses from civil liability related to the COVID-19 virus. Senate Bill 359 passed both houses of the state legislature and now awaits the signature of the Governor.
The liability legislation would let Georgia businesses and hospitals waive liability for coronavirus-related claims so long as they post certain warning signs except in cases where the entity is found to have committed “gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, reckless infliction of harm, or intentional infliction of harm.”
4. Fee Dedication
This November, Georgia voters will decide on a constitutional amendment that would give lawmakers the power to require fees be spent for the purpose that they were originally dedicated. This issue is often referred to in the context of tire fees.
If you buy a new tire in Georgia, there’s a $1 fee that gets tacked onto the bill, called the Scrap Tire Management Fee. It’s supposed to go toward cleaning up illegal tire dumps in the state and other recycling and trash programs. But often, lawmakers have directed more than $50 million from the scrap tire fee to Georgia’s general fund, according to the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG), which is Georgia’s county association.
The same can be said about the fee that the state collects at landfills. The money is intended for hazardous waste site cleanup, but according to the ACCG, about $100 million from that fund has ended up in the general fund in the past 10 years.
The constitutional amendment, if approved by voters, would give lawmakers the power to specifically dedicate certain tax dollars to specific uses.
5. Sovereign Immunity
In addition to the constitutional amendment on fee dedication, Georgians will also vote on whether to make it easier to sue the state and local governments under a proposed constitutional amendment given final passage Tuesday by the state House. The lawmakers were reacting, in part, to a state Supreme Court decision that state and local governments can only be sued if they have waived a legal doctrine called sovereign immunity.
The amendment would allow Georgians to sue in state court to protect their rights and ensure governments follow the law, but would not allow judges to award damages or attorney’s fees. The amendment would also prohibit people from suing individual officials within a government.
Former Gov. Nathan Deal and Gov. Brian Kemp both vetoed previous legislative attempts to broaden the grounds for suits against the government. But the Governor has no authority to veto a proposed constitutional amendment.
6. Surprise Medical Bills
Lawmakers passed legislation that now awaits the Governor’s signature to limit unexpected medical bills. Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to sign after naming surprise billing reform as one of his top priorities for the 2020 session.
The legislation is intended to protect Georgians from unexpected out of network bills from physicians performing medical procedures at “in-network” facilities. Legislators and consumer advocacy groups say if House Bill 888 becomes law, it will lower health care costs for many patients, add pricing transparency, and remove patients from billing negotiations between insurance companies and health care providers.
Notably, the bill focuses strictly on services – both emergency and non-emergency – from an out-of-network provider at in-network facilities. It prohibits insurance companies from surprise billing for emergency services even if the health care provider is outside of the company’s coverage network. Patients are supposed to also receive an estimated cost for any procedure scheduled outside of their covered hospital system.
7. Alcohol Delivery
A bill allowing home delivery of beer, wine, and liquor passed the Georgia legislature and will become law pending Governor Kemp’s signature. House Bill 879, would permit beer, wine, and liquor to be delivered directly to people’s homes from restaurants, bars, convenience stores, grocery stores and package stores.
The bills requires alcohol home deliveries to only be accepted by someone 21 years or older and with proper ID. The bill leaves the decision to allow for home delivery up to local municipalities.
Georgians are rightly examining closely the actions and inactions of its state and local governments this summer as we continue to seek ways to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, restart our ravaged economy, and address fundamental questions over race and proper law enforcement. The General Assembly attempted to address many of these concerns but more work will clearly need to be done when it returns six months from now for its 2021 session.
Between now and then, however, we have a spirited election in November. Georgia is clearly viewed by both parties as an electoral swing state. Not only is the state likely to be in contention on the presidential level but with two close US Senate races, three open Congressional seats, and Democrats looking to either narrow or erase entirely Republicans fifteen seat majority in the State House, a political battle royal lies ahead over the next few months.