After a short break prompted by disagreements over the midyear budget, the Georgia General Assembly is back in session. In addition to appropriating taxpayer dollars, legislators are mulling legislation on sports betting, surprise medical billing, foster care, prescription drug prices, senior care, and higher education admissions.
The House of Representatives approved the amended midyear budget last Wednesday with a host of changes from the Governor’s recommendation which was compiled after asking many agencies to cut 4 percent off of the budget passed last session. The largest chunk of savings in the Governor’s proposal came from the elimination of 1,200 vacant state government positions, many of which the legislature created in recent years to address important issues and which the legislature maintains remain valuable and necessary to citizen welfare. Under the House budget many of the positions would be retained, including food safety inspectors, crime lab scientists and public defenders. Those retentions came after testimony from agency heads who warned of the negative consequences of preemptive staffing cuts. For instance, Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black cautioned lawmakers that there would be fewer food and meat inspections if Governor Kemp’s proposal to eliminate vacant positions was approved.
House appropriators also rejected Kemp’s proposed cuts to accountability court funding after Taylor Jones, executive director of the Council of Accountability Court Judges (CACJ), told lawmakers that 336 fewer people would be able to participate in the diversion program if the agency’s budget were to be cut by 4 percent. The program, which diverts substance abusers and the mentally ill away from the criminal justice system, is a prized accomplishment of former Governor Nathan Deal.
The House also reduced cuts that Governor Kemp proposed for autism treatment, county public health departments, local libraries, the Morehouse School of Medicine and the Rural Health Systems Innovation Center at Mercer.
The amended FY 2020 budget is now in the Senate for consideration while the House will restart the process with the FY 2021 budget. The main point of contention in the FY2021 budget, at this point in the process, is the $2,000 teacher pay raise included in the Governor’s proposal, an issue he campaigned on in 2018. House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) has made it clear he is not opposed to raising teachers’ pay, but that it may have to be accomplished another year. Instead, House Republicans are focused on passing the second half of an income tax rate cut initiated in 2019. Their intention to reduce the top income tax rate to 5.5 percent from 5.75 percent, would cost the state an estimated $615 million in revenue according to the normally left leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
Governor Kemp and Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan are pitching their focus on improving the foster care system as a moral imperative for pro-life Republicans. The Governor and his floor leaders have introduced several bills that address the state’s adoption system.
House Bill 912 would allow foster parents to leave children in the care of a babysitter for up to three days without having to get approval from the state Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS). Current law limits that time to two days.
House Bill 913 would drop the age requirement for potential adoptive parents to 21 from 25.
Senate Bill 335 would require judges to prioritize court cases involving children in foster care and asks juvenile courts to better track those cases. It would also allow DFCS to vary the amount of training time foster parents are required to undergo annually based on their experience level.
Legislators are considering bills to address prescription drug prices, surprise billing and the teen vaping epidemic.
Senate Bill 313, sponsored by State Sen. Dean Burke (R-Bainbridge), aims to shed light on prices that pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) negotiate with pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies. It would make PBMs track their prices against a federally approved drug price list and report when they vary too much. The bill would also require PBMs to share more information with state regulators so they can investigate complaints.
Two surprise billing efforts, House Bill 888 and Senate Bill 359, aim to protect patients from having to pay bills after receiving care at a hospital that is in their insurance network. These bills are currently sent to patients in the event they see a contract doctor who is out of network at a hospital where they are covered. In such cases, the insurance company and the provider would enter into arbitration to sort out the payments.
To address a sharp increase in teen vaping, lawmakers are considering House Bill 864, which would require a license to sell e-cigarettes and add a 7 percent tax on their sale. Opponents argue such a change would mean that vaping would be taxed at a higher rate than traditional cigarettes, which are significantly more harmful.
The Senate Higher Education Committee last week heard Senate Bill 282, sponsored by Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta), which would require the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Augusta and Georgia State Universities to set aside 90 percent of their early-applicant slots for state residents. The committee has not yet taken a vote on the bill.
Democrats are pushing another bill aimed at higher education that would allow immigrants with temporary status to pay in-state tuition at any of the state’s public colleges and universities. House Bill 896 would make the change for students (i) who were enrolled in a Georgia high school for at least three years; (ii) are seeking full legal immigration status; and (iii) have a high school diploma or GED. The bill does not have any Republican sponsors.
Senate Bill 367, backed by Gov. Kemp and School Superintendent Richard Woods, would reduce to 19 the total number of mandatory tests in Georgia’s public schools. There are currently eight state-mandated tests: two each in math, English, science and social studies. The bill would reduce that to one test per topic.
After an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report exposed deep flaws in many senior care facilities in the state, legislators are looking to impose additional oversight. Reps. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta) and John LaHood (R-Valdosta) are working together on legislation that would require senior care homes to provide more financial information to regulators and would increase fines on facilities that run afoul of safety regulations. It would also increase the minimum number of staff required. For instance, memory care units would be required to have at least one direct care staff member for every 12 residents at all times.
Criminal justice reform
Reps. Mandi Ballinger (R-Canton) and Gregg Kennard (D-Lawrenceville) are both supporting an effort to allow those convicted of certain misdemeanors and felonies to request sealed records so a prospective employer or landlord would not be able to access them. Whether the request would be granted would depend on the severity of the offense and the offender’s age when the crime was committed.
The concern over coal ash disposal reached a fever pitch this week as residents of Juliette, GA, traveled to the state capitol to talk to legislators about contaminants in their water supply as a result of old, leaky unlined coal ash ponds at Plant Scherer, one of the nation’s largest power plants. There are several bills addressing the issue, including House Bill 93, which would require public notice when wastewater is being drained from coal ash ponds into local waterways; Senate Bill 123, which would reduce imported coal ash; and House Bill 756, which would require coal ash to be disposed in lined pits.
Rep. Welch (R-McDonough) is leading an effort to allow citizens to file lawsuits against the state to challenge unconstitutional laws. House Resolution 1023 would put a referendum on the statewide ballot asking whether to void the constitutional doctrine of sovereign immunity, which bars lawsuits against the government. To pass, the resolution will need to be approved by at least two-thirds of both the House and the Senate, and a majority of the public, determined at the ballot box.
Senate Bill 302 by Sen. Jon Albers (R-Roswell), which would permit chairmen of the House and Senate tax committees to request independent economic-impact reviews of a few tax credits a year, passed the Senate unanimously. A previous effort to set up tax break reviews was vetoed by the Governor.
Freight and Logistics Commission
House Bill 820, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Tenner (R-Dawsonville), passed the House of Representatives on Monday. The bill creates a permanent line item in the state budget for badly needed rail investments. The legislation, a recommendation of the Georgia Freight and Logistics Commission, does not come with appropriated funds but is intended to lead to future investments. The Commission would be extended to December 2020 should House Resolution 935 gain approval of the Senate after passing the House in earlier this month.
With the amended 2020 budget moving over to the Senate and House consideration of the 2021 budget in full swing, a host of policy issues are coming to the forefront. Whether it be health care, education or coal ash the General Assembly is focused on everyday issues and thus far has not waded deep into divisive social issues that could threaten incumbent Republicans in swing districts. Moving forward, watch for representatives and senators to continue to emphasize legislation that will resonate with voters come November.