GEORGIA STATE SENATOR
The News Room provides weekly columns which recap the legislative business of each week under the Gold Dome. For more in-depth coverage on the issues, please visit the Issues Tab. As the session moves forward, these pages will provide access to links on news stories, research papers, additional commentary, and even news videos when possible.
2018 Georgia General Assembly Convenes
ATLANTA - January 6, 2018
The 2018 Session kicks off at 10:00 a.m., Monday, January 8th.
Anticipating another onslaught of bad weather, the Governor's Office has announced that state agency offices will be closing at 3:00 PM on Monday. Thus, the legislative session will probably not convene again until Wednesday. Another factor that has played into this decision is the fact that the College Football Playoff National Championship between Alabama and Georgia takes place on Monday night in Atlanta, an event that President Donald Trump plans to attend.
The delay pushes back the Governor's State of the State address from Wednesday to Thursday, and there may be other last minute changes.
One thing that I hope people will take advantage of this year is the live streaming of committee meetings in the Senate. The House has had this technology available for a while, but the funding for the Senate was just passed in last year's budget process.
The first Senate committee meeting planned for streaming is currently on Monday, January 8th, starting at 1:00 PM, if the current schedule holds. The Health Care Reform Task Force meeting can be viewed at the following link: https://livestream.com/accounts/25225476/events/8002529.
While I sit in the chair for the Third Senate District, the seat belongs to you. If you have any comments, questions or concerns about legislation, whether it’s being vetted in a committee or being voted on by the Senate or House, please do not hesitate to reach out to my office. My Senate Committees remain the same. I serve as the Chairman of the Senate Banking and Financial Institutions Committee, Vice-Chairman of Ethics, Vice-Chairman of Redistricting and Reapportionment, Chairman of the Judiciary Sub-committee of Appropriations, and as a member of the Judiciary Committee and the Health and Human Services Committee. It is an honor to serve you and I look forward to keeping you updated throughout the next 40 legislative days.
The schedule for the week of January 15th will include Appropriations hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday. We will officially convene again on Thursday, January 18th at 10 a.m.
During the "State of the State" address on Thursday, Governor Deal touched on the importance of the Technical College System of Georgia and the productive and educated workforce our technical colleges produce. I know that many students choose to continue their educational track within the Coastal Pines Technical College system, which has seven locations in rural and coastal Georgia. I believe the $1 million proposed increase to further enhance the Technical College System of Georgia’s HOPE Career Grant will be put to excellent use. The funds would help provide two mobile labs to bolster the thriving welding program that is already successful in our Coastal Pines system. I appreciate the Governor including our technical college in his budget. This will open more doors of opportunity for the citizens of coastal and rural Georgia, which is important for the future growth of our local communities. Programs such as these are vital to supplying industries, like the Georgia Ports Authority, with skilled employees.
Governor Nathan Deal held his eighth and final "State of the State" address on Thursday. In his speech, he touched on several important budgetary additions and the future of our state. Governor Deal mentioned the importance of our Georgia's consistent ranking as the number one state for business and our booming film industry. While that’s extremely important, I think it’s also important to consider what rights are being burdened at the cost of doing business. In addition to this, there is a lot of talk about the potential east coast headquarters of Amazon. Hearing conversations that the location of this business might hinder the passage of a religious freedom bill is disappointing for a legislature that prides itself on protecting constitutional freedoms. However, my colleagues and I are working hard to ensure legislation is introduced that guarantees people and their organizations, whether they are faith-based adoption agencies or small businesses, their constitutional rights.
As many of you may remember from last year, I offered an amendment to HB 159 that would have ensured that all mission-based child-placing agencies would be able to continue their long-standing working relationships with the State of Georgia as they always have. The amendment treated all mission-based agencies alike, but the Senate Committee determined that it was too broad in its application. Therefore, I will offer a stand-alone bill that specifically protects the sincerely held religious beliefs and practices of faith-based child-placement agencies. Religious liberty is a high priority, and I will continue to champion all our First Amendment freedoms.
Furthermore, the underlying bill needed a number of changes. One of the primary considerations was how the original bill allowed too much money to exchange hands within the adoption process without the proper oversight. One thing we are most concerned about here is Georgia is that we do not create inducements for what would essentially become the buying and selling of babies. Although it is reasonable for birth mothers, who for various reasons must give up their children for adoption, to be reimbursed for medical expenses and have their last three months of living expenses paid for by the adoptive family, it is not appropriate to set up any type of payments or vacation perks or other incentives for birth mothers to receive during the adoption process.
The Judiciary Committee worked through the various changes and additions to the bill, one of which was the addition of language from last year's House Bill 359, which provides parents with the option to provide a power of attorney to temporary guardians to take care of their minor children for a short period of time without the need to go through the State's burdensome bureaucratic process. Already, grandparents can step in on behalf of parents to care for children, but grandparents are not always able or even available to provide such care. Parents may need to call upon family friends or extended family in crisis situations, such as military deployment, sickness, the death of a spouse, or incarceration. The bill overwhelmingly passed both the House and Senate last year, but was vetoed by the Governor due to his concern that it did not have any accountability measures involved. Thus, the committee added the requirement for background checks on temporary guardians.
Of the many legislative meetings and events this week, one of the most important was the Senate Judiciary’s first committee meeting. We picked up where we left off on Sine Die to discuss the comprehensive rewrite of Georgia's adoption code. House Bill 159 was written to update the adoption code in the O.C.G.A., a process that hasn’t been done since 1990. With over 10,000 children in the foster care system, it’s important to consider changes that make adoption a more streamlined process for Georgia families.
Setting 2018 Up to Succeed
ATLANTA - January 12, 2018
Our first week marked the beginning of the second session of the 154th Georgia General Assembly. While the hustle and bustle of Atlanta was at an all-time high due to the College Football Playoff National Championship and the attendance of president Donald Trump, the Senate focused on conducting business both in the Senate chamber and in committee meetings. However, we did our part to cheer on our terrific Georgia Bulldogs and are proud of the job they did this year.
I know that many of you are interested in what is happening at the Capitol on a daily basis. Thankfully, this year, the Senate implemented a Transparency Project to help those who live in the far corners of Georgia to feel more connected and be more informed on what is happening under the Gold Dome. For the first time in Senate history, you can livestream standing committee meetings. This will help maintain more transparency in the Senate committee process and allow constituents to provide immediate feedback on changes to legislation. This is exciting news for everyone, but especially for those who otherwise would have to drive five hours to reach Atlanta in order to hear committee testimony or hear committee members make changes to legislation. I look forward to streaming our first Banking and Financial Institutions meeting, which will probably take place next week, and hope to have some folks from home joining in on the livestream. You can watch all the meetings, and access any archived meetings at this link: http://www.senate.ga.gov/spo/en-US/videobroadcasts.aspx
On Thursday, the General Assembly convened for the fifth legislative day and took up our first House bill of the 2018 session, HB 159. The bill passed and now will return to the House for approval, a process that could take a while depending on how many changes the House would like to make to the already amended and substituted bill. We will be following along closely, and I am hopeful that we will see this bill and a bill protecting constitutional rights for faith-based adoption agencies reach the Governor’s desk this session.
This year’s FY 2019 General Budget is the largest in the State’s history at over $26 billion. The Senate will work hard to ensure that these funds are used in a fiscally conservative and effective manner. This is just the beginning of the appropriations process, and I know that while the Governor’s recommendations will be taken into great consideration, the numbers could change. I look forward to updating you on the process throughout the next few weeks as we dive into the budget recommendations and appropriations more specifically.
Governor Nathan Deal gave his budget recommendations to the House and Senate appropriations chairmen last Tuesday in an address that emphasized the importance of education and healthcare. In fact, those are two areas of the budget that have percentage increases this year. The budget is generally organized into seven key policy areas: Educated Georgia, Healthy Georgia, Safe Georgia, Mobile Georgia, Debt Management, Responsible and Efficient Government and Growing Georgia. The policy areas that don’t see an increase are still allotted a significant portion of the budget, but I think it’s important to note that almost 54% of our State’s budget is spent on education. For example, over $127 million will be spent on enrollment growth and training and $259 million in bonds has been recommended to build more schools and renovate old ones.
Week 2 Under the Gold Dome
ATLANTA - January 19, 2018
This past week in the Senate, we were in budget hearings, although some were cancelled due to the icy weather. We will start the appropriations process shortly. The budget process is one of our most important tasks as it is the only constitutional duty of the General Assembly, and it requires us to pass a balanced budget.
Week 3 Under the Gold Dome
ATLANTA - January 26, 2018
During our third week in the Senate, we continued to make progress and passed two new pieces of legislation. In addition to our work on the Chamber floor, several committees met this week, where bills were analyzed and vetted by members of the Senate.
We have also set the legislative calendar for the remainder of the session. Crossover Day will be February 28. Sine Die, the last day of the legislative session, will take place on March 29, 2018. Until then, we remain committed to working on behalf of Georgians everywhere.
In January of last year, I introduced several bills, and one, Senate Bill 101, will be on the Senate Floor on Monday. This bill would allow people who are participating in the Georgia Defined Contribution Plan to buy into the Employee’s Retirement System of Georgia. Anyone who meets specific criteria and wants to buy into the plan would have to pay the actuarial costs, so this bill will not cost the State money. This bill effectively gives some employees the choice and freedom to buy into another plan.
Another bill that I am proud to sponsor is Senate Bill 339, the Campus Free Speech Act, which protects freedom of speech on college campuses. Higher Education in America has the duty to ensure that students understand the foundations of this nation's free, self-governing society. A fundamental cornerstone of liberty is the freedom of speech, without which no nation can be free. Inculcating the value of respectful civil discourse, which means allowing the peaceful give and take of opposing viewpoints, must take place in higher education if the next generation is going to be prepared to maintain America as a free nation.
Unfortunately, we are seeing a growing trend on college campuses that is just the opposite of what ought to be occurring. In October of 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned that on college campuses "protesters are now routinely shutting down speeches and debates across the country in an effort to silence voices that insufficiently conform with their views." He has called for a "national recommitment to free speech on campus." I hope SB 339 will help us accomplish this goal in our state.
Here in Georgia we have had a variety of incidents and lawsuits occur over the years due to campus speech codes that violate the fundamental First Amendment rights of our students. Not only do these codes severely restrict the places on campus where students can exercise their free speech rights, they also unconstitutionally restrict the type of speech students can express. During the Fall semester of 2017, Georgia had two state universities which earned the rebuke of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for such unconstitutional policy violations. The Georgia Legislature needs to ensure that our public colleges and universities protect the rights of all students and speakers to peacefully express their viewpoints without fear of being shouted down by protestors or reprimanded for what the administration deems as politically incorrect speech.
On Tuesday, we passed Senate Bill 194, which would increase the amount of disposable earnings that can be subjected to garnishment. Additionally, SB 194 clarifies the role of third-party claimants and defendants when introducing evidence and establishes defined proceedings regarding the service of legal documents. While this may come across as a lot of legal language, it is necessary to clarify Georgia Law which pertains to proceedings regarding the collection of debt.
The Senate also passed Senate Bill 327 this week, which is an update to the Georgia Death Investigation Act (GDIA). This bill changes the law so that when someone dies without a physician present it is not automatically considered a suspicious or unusual death that requires an official inquiry to be conducted. It shall be the responsibility of law enforcement or any other person who has knowledge of the death to report it to the coroner or medical examiner and explain the events that led to death. This bill removes unnecessary bureaucracy from the process, saves taxpayers money and gives the county medical examiner more time to investigate crimes and deaths that are more suspect.
William Ligon's Georgia Campus Free Speech Act
by Stanley Kurtz January 23, 2018 9:53 AM
Georgia State Senator William Ligon has filed SB 339, a campus free-speech bill based on the template published by Arizona’s Goldwater Institute. (I co-authored that model along with Jim Manley and Jonathan Butcher.) The Goldwater proposal, already the most comprehensive legislative prototype, was recently updated to include provisions on speaker security fees and free-association rights for student organizations. So the Georgia bill is on track to become one of the most far-reaching campus free-speech laws in the nation.
Read more at: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/455676/william-ligons-georgia-campus-free-speech-act-goldwater-proposal
Animated Video Provides Clarity on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act
I would like for my constituents to view this short animated video, https://vimeo.com/252602308, which explains the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and then share this video link with people you know, share it on Facebook and Twitter, share it with your pastor who in turn can share it with the congregation. Rather than letting the media distort the explanation of RFRA, we need to show what it truly does and why it is needed. RFRA helps protect people of faith in the federal courts, and Georgia's citizens deserve that same level of protection in our state courts. Senate Bill 233 would provide the same strict scrutiny standard of review that the federal courts apply to cases involving the Free Exercise of Religion and to all our fundamental rights. Georgia's courts should do no less.
Another bill I sponsored, Senate Bill 338, was assigned and discussed in the Judiciary Committee this week. SB 338 will allow greater legislative oversight of rule-making by government agencies in Georgia. This bill would extend the amount of time a committee has to take action to oppose a rule change by an agency. This bill would also change the current rule of having a two-thirds vote to a simple majority in chamber and committee meetings to oppose rule changes of executive agencies. This bill is a way for us to check and balance executive agency changes, guaranteeing we are doing our legislative duty to ensure all proposed changes reflect the best interest and will of the people.
This week also marked the first Senate Banking and Financial Institutions Committee Meeting, a committee that I chair. We met to discuss Senate Bill 358, sponsored by Sen. Michael Rhett of Marietta. This bill, though it needed some work, is a way to help our communities gain better access to banking through banking improvement zones that will encourage the opening of financial institutions in underserved areas. I look forward to working with my colleagues to continue improving the bill language so that its goal can be accomplished.
During the 14th legislative day, Senate Resolution 502 was presented to the chamber. SR 502 urges the United States Congress to develop and fund policies to work towards extending high-speed broadband coverage into rural areas across America. As some people from our corner of the state might know, broadband connectivity can be difficult if you live in a more rural area. But internet access is more important now than ever before. It not only helps connect us, it also helps expand access to things like Telehealth. It’s important to do everything we can to ensure that people across our state are just as connected as the people in metro areas.
In addition to this legislation being passed on the floor, I introduced Senate Bill 375 this week to help protect the First Amendment rights of faith-based adoption agencies. The “Keep Faith in Adoption and Foster Care Act” would protect faith-based adoption agencies from having to perform any service that would cause conflict with their sincerely held religious beliefs. This bill has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee where I’m hopeful that it will receive favorable consideration before being sent to the Rules Committee and Senate floor. I’ll continue to keep you updated on the progress of this bill, as well as HB 159, the Adoption Bill, which we will likely take up next week.
I sponsored the first bill that came to the floor, Senate Bill 101, which will allow Georgians who participate in the Georgia Defined Contribution Plan to buy into the Employee Retirement System (ERS) if they meet certain criteria. For example, the bill applies only to former temporary full-time employees, and they must pay full actuarial cost for the benefit. I mentioned this bill in my column last week and was glad to see it pass unanimously in the Senate. I look forward to favorable consideration of this bill in the House. Senate Bill 129 also deals with retirement, but allows former military servicemen to receive retirement credit through the ERS if they served on or after January 1, 1990. In order to qualify, veterans must show proof of service, have had membership in the ERS for two years and pay equal to the cost of creditable service. It passed the Senate as well.
On Tuesday, we vetted and passed Senate Bill 321, which will bring some revisions to the current Medicaid fraud reimbursement process. Currently in Georgia, only 35 percent of Medicaid fraud reimbursements stay within Georgia, meaning the other 65 percent goes back to the Federal government. By passing SB 321, 45 percent of those reimbursements will stay here in Georgia. As a result, the minimum Medicaid fraud penalty fee will increase from $5,500 to $11,181.
Week 4 Under the Gold Dome
ATLANTA - February 2, 2018
During the last week of January, we heard and passed six bills on the Senate floor. These bills covered a wide range of topics, from retirement to Medicaid fraud to animal cruelty charges. Over the next few weeks, we will hold Appropriations subcommittee meetings to ensure our budget is conservatively and responsibly allocated.
Something that you are sure to hear more about in the coming weeks is the proposal for offshore oil drilling along our coast. While I would like to expand business opportunity in our state, I think we must all think of the long-term effects on our environment and quality of life. While offshore oil drilling could potentially bring jobs to our district, the tradeoff would be the negative effect such drilling mishaps could have on our beloved coastline, tourism and economy.
I know that I, along with many of you, appreciate and enjoy the beautiful, pristine and undisturbed native landscape that the coastal marshes and barrier islands in Georgia provide. Though our state only has about 100 miles of coastline, it contains about a third of the salt marsh land on the East Coast. I believe that offshore oil drilling could have a negative impact on industries such as seafood, tourism and trade. I don’t believe that the economic stimulus offshore oil drilling could provide would make up for the negative impact it would have on our existing industries.
The final major compromise has to do with the expenses that may be paid to a birth mother in private adoptions. There was debate over whether allowing attorneys to pay the living expenses of a birth mother would increase the cost of adoption for families in Georgia. A preliminary review showed us that costs were much higher in states that allow this. Because we were not sure if this could be a problem or not, we moved forward with language allowing these payments but have also decided to consider the matter with a study committee to determine whether this section of the bill should be amended next year. The bill in its current form allows agencies and private adoptions to pay the “reasonable” living expenses (rent, utilities, food, garments and maternity accessories) of the birth mother for the duration of the pregnancy.
On Thursday of this past week, a bill I sponsored passed the Senate. Senate Bill 338 would give additional authority to the General Assembly to override agency rule changes that do not reflect the intent of the laws we pass. Checks and balances are essential in all areas of government, and state agencies should not be immune from an immediate check on their rulemaking if they abuse their authority. This legislation ensures that the agencies are held accountable. I also was happy to see Senate Bill 375, "Keep Faith in Adoption and Foster Care Act,” receive its first hearing in the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee. It was passed out of the sub-committee and will now be heard in the full Senate Judiciary Committee.
Of the major agreements we came to, several are noteworthy because they will undoubtedly have the most profound effect on adoption proceedings. One of the compromises we were able to reach with the House was the age at which a person in Georgia can adopt. The age currently stands at 25, however the House suggested lowering the age to 21. We were able to agree that the adoption age for single adults should remain at 25, but could be lowered to age 21 if the adoptive parent was a relative. We did agree that if a couple were married, they could become adoptive parents if both of them were at least 21 years of age.
Another compromise was made in regards to the revocation time period for the surrender of parental rights. Under current law, a mother has 10 days to revoke the surrender of her child after he or she is born. The House wanted to allow this revocation 24 hours after the birth, if a waiver was signed. The Senate suggested a waiver as well, but 72-hours after the birth of a child instead of the House proposal of 24 hours. We were able to come to the consensus that the original 10-day revocation waiting period should be amended to four days, with no additional waivers allowed.
Week Five Under the Gold Dome
ATLANTA - February 9, 2018
With the completion of week five under the Gold Dome, we neared the half-way point of this legislative session. My hope is that it also signifies that our efforts will make Georgia a better place to live, work and raise a family.
Much of the hard work that goes into legislation requires a lot of give and take regarding different approaches toward the same goal. House Bill 159, the rewrite of Georgia's adoption code, has garnered a lot of attention in the press over the last few weeks because it has taken some time to work out the compromise between the House and Senate.
During the testimony from the public on SB 339, we heard from numerous students, former students and staff on the frustrations of trying to schedule and speak on public university campuses. Most of the time, it seemed that students whose political and religious views did not align with the campus administration were silenced through obscure policies or outright unconstitutional policies. There was so much testimony that Chairman Fran Millar stated that he would hold another hearing just to accommodate all those who had signed up to speak. It is evident that this legislation, though the University System of Georgia appears to disagree, is not just needed, it is a necessity. It is the duty of the legislature to uphold the rights of the people, and this bill does just that by strengthening the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms that we are promised.
This bill will be heard again in the Senate Higher Education Committee meeting on Tuesday, February 20, at 3:00 p.m. As a reminder, you can livestream the committee meeting if you are curious to hear more about how various stakeholders feel about this legislation. While I believe that this legislation is an important, necessary step that has to be taken to protect constitutional rights, it’s important to hear from all sides, which is ironically the core principal of this bill, but a principle that is not currently held in high esteem on our university campuses.
On Tuesday of this past week, the Senate Higher Education Committee held its first hearing on Senate Bill 339. I sponsored this legislation to promote, protect and preserve the First Amendment rights of students, faculty, staff and guests on public college campuses across the state of Georgia.
SB 339 requires university policies that strongly affirm the importance of free expression, nullifying any existing restrictive speech codes in the process. It will prevent administrators from disinviting speakers whom members of the campus community wish to hear from. It establishes a system of disciplinary sanctions for students and anyone else who interfere with the free-speech rights of others. It reaffirms the principle that universities, at the official institutional level, ought to remain neutral on issues of public controversy to encourage the widest possible range of opinion and dialogue within the university itself. It ensures that students will be informed of the official policy on free expression. The bill language provides that security fees for invited speakers will be reasonable and not based on the content of speech. The bill protects student organizations from discrimination based on the content of the organization's expression or membership requirements.
These bills are a start at better compensating our law enforcement officers who willingly put their lives on the line to maintain our peace and safety. Though we can never do enough to thank them, we must ensure that they are well compensated and that they have every confidence that their families can be provided for if an officer is disabled or killed in the line of duty.
In K-12 education, Senate Bill 362 sets up a pilot program to allow a few school systems across the state to implement their own testing methods in order to arrive at better student measures than current statewide testing is yielding. Standardized testing today has a reputation for being stressful on students while providing inaccurate results on the performance of both students and teachers. It is our hope that these pilot programs will identify the best combination of measures that can provide timely guidance during the school year so that students and teachers can continue to improve their performance as well as have an accurate assessment at the end of the year. I am glad to see some control return to the people closest to the issue and look forward to the positive results this bill will create.
Week 6 Wrap Up from the Georgia Senate
ATLANTA - February 17, 2018
As we passed the halfway mark of the 2018 Legislative Session, the pace picked up considerably as 20 pieces of legislation moved through the Senate this past week. Four bills were part of a package addressing issues faced by our local law enforcement agencies, particularly the problems of retaining experienced officers and the pay differential between police and sheriff departments.
Senate Bills 366, 367, 368 and 369 include such measures as creating a wage compensation study to better understand where the gaps in compensation occur, allowing an indemnification payment to be made to an estate when an officer dies in the line of duty, providing technical support to in-need law enforcement agencies and requiring $5 of every pre-trial fee to be paid to the Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit fund.
Week 7 Report from the Georgia Senate
ATLANTA - February 24, 2018
This past week in the Senate, First Amendment freedoms advanced, in committee and on the Senate floor. Georgians will also benefit from a number of other bills that passed, including one supporting agriculture education in our schools and another which revises the burden of proof needed in cases involving underage abortion waivers.
During the course of the week, two of my bills made great strides towards becoming law. The first, Senate Bill 375, Keep Faith in Adoption and Foster Care Act, was passed out of the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday and was then heard for a vote on the Senate floor on Friday. It passed the Senate 35 to 19. First and foremost, I would like to thank my colleagues for their support. I am thankful to be surrounded by members who believe in upholding the First Amendment as I do.
Protecting the free exercise rights of faith-based agencies is a constitutional duty of this State. This legislation provides statutory clarity for faith-based adoption agencies so that more will be encouraged to contract with the State to find adoptive homes for children. There are faith-based agencies ready to step in to help if they have the legal assurances this bill will provide, and Georgia needs their help. The State had over 13,000 children in foster care at the end of 2016, but only 4298 foster homes available. At least 2,538 of these children were ready for adoption, but only 1061 were placed with adoptive parents.
Though the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently ruled that religious entities may not be coerced by government to modify their religious character in order to participate in public programs, faith-based organizations are still at risk of litigation without laws that eliminate those risks. SB 375 is written to ensure that the State does not promote policies or offer contracts that have the potential of interfering with the sincerely held religious beliefs of faith-based adoption and foster care agencies.
Protecting the conscience rights and religious liberty of private adoption and foster care providers takes nothing away from others. A diverse range of provider options exist in Georgia for anyone who is legally able and willing to adopt or provide foster care. This bill protects, but does not punish and helps open as many doors as possible for children in Georgia to be adopted into loving homes.
By opening the doors for more adoptions to take place through faith-based agencies, children can avoid the awful statistics associated with long-term foster care. Studies indicate that at least 50 percent and up to 81 percent of adult male alumni of the foster care system (those never adopted) will be arrested by age 26. Furthermore, a national cohort study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry indicates that youth who have been in long-term foster care are four to five times more likely than their peers to be hospitalized for suicide attempts and are up to eight times more likely to be hospitalized for serious psychiatric disorders. With regard to sex trafficking, 60 percent of victims who were recovered through FBI raids in 2013 were from foster care or group homes. Such statistics are sobering, and by simply doing our duty to guarantee the free exercise rights of faith-based adoption agencies, more children will be placed in adoptive homes.
The other First Amendment bill, Senate Bill 339, the Campus Free Speech Act, passed out of the Higher Education Committee on Tuesday. The committee did make a few changes to the bill at the request of the Board of Regents. Unfortunately, I believe these changes weakened some of the First Amendment protections for our students, but overall the bill is still a step in the right direction.
Another high profile bill, Senate Bill 74, was also heard this past week regarding underage abortion. Currently in Georgia, if a young woman is under the age of 18 and wishes to obtain an abortion without a parent’s consent, the juvenile must go through the juvenile court system to obtain a waiver to allow the abortion. The minor must prove with a preponderance of evidence that she understands the consequences and gravity of her actions or that telling her parents about her decision would not be in her best interest. The bill introduced would require a minor to prove with clear and convincing evidence, a higher standard than "preponderance of evidence," that telling her parents about her decision is not in her best interest before the judge grants a waiver. Life, even the beginning stages, is a precious gift. We want to ensure that all matters concerning the taking of a life are well vetted and fully understood and that all reasons for the decision provide a higher standard of evidence before a young woman makes such an irreversible decision.
With the passage of Senate Bill 330, the “Georgia Agriculture Education Act,” we hope to begin piloting agricultural education in several elementary schools across the state. The bill would create agriculture education standards and curriculum in grades six through 12. Agriculture, though it is the oldest industry in our state, is still the largest and contributes billions of dollars to our economy. It’s important that through all stages of education, the importance of agriculture is taught and an appreciation for our state’s farmers and other agriculture workers is fostered.
In addition to these bills, we also heard from Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, P. Harris Hines. He addressed several highlights of our criminal justice system including a new proposal for specialized business courts in Georgia that would handle cases relating to complex financial cases. Chief Justice Hines also highlighted criminal justice reform and noted that crime rates across Georgia are down six per cent. This is not only a positive statistic for public safety, but for the saving of taxpayer dollars because of the reduction in the number of people entering our prisons.
Next Wednesday, February 28, is Crossover Day which represents the deadline of the last day to vote on Senate bills that will become law this year. If you have any questions, concerns or ideas, please do not hesitate to contact my office. Thank you for the opportunity to serve you.
The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Jesse Stone, had two bills passed on the Senate floor this week. Senate Bill 452 would require arresting officers to report to the prosecuting attorney if the individual in custody is an unlawful resident. This simple measure will help us ensure that our law enforcement officers are given the power to recognize and report illegal aliens, making the process of recognizing illegal aliens more efficient. Senate Resolution 774 would create a Joint Study Committee on Adoption Expenses, something that was discussed with the passage of the adoption bill several weeks ago. This study committee will look at ways to help pay the living expenses of birth mothers without compromising the integrity of adoption in Georgia.
These are just a few of the bills that have passed the Senate this week. If you have any questions about bills that passed either chamber, please do not hesitate to let me know. I would be more than happy to answer your questions or hear your concerns.
While our polling stations in and around our district close at 7 p.m., polls in bigger cities do not. Senate Bill 309 would require all cities in Georgia to close primary and election polls at 7 p.m., would eliminate special election run-offs for state or county elections and would call for special primaries to be held before special elections. There are many days of early and absentee voting for residents of big cities, and this bill helps reduce confusion by making every poll in the state close at the same time. It also helps reduce the time between the vacation and filling of a seat by eliminating special election run-offs.
There were also bills passed to help protect consumers and help the state better manage our tax exemptions. Senate Bill 376 would prevent credit reporting agencies from having the ability to charge for credit freezes, allowing consumers to freeze their credit as they please. Senate Bill 432 would require an economic analysis to be performed by the state auditor on existing income tax exemptions on a rotating basis, ensuring our tax exemptions are providing a positive return on investment for our state.
In addition to this legislation, we also heard several bills that would help improve the quality of life for veterans and active duty military members across the state. Senate Bill 82 would expand the eligibility for the HOPE scholarship to members of the Georgia National Guard and reservists in Georgia who meet certain residency criteria. Senate Bill 395 creates the Georgia Joint Defense Commission which would seek advice and prepare for any potential base realignments, in addition to making recommendations regarding the development of military in the state. I was happy to support both of these bills. We owe so much to our military community for all they do to keep us safe both at home and abroad.
I was happy to see Senate Bill 355, which would prevent utility companies from billing citizens for the financing costs on nuclear power plant construction projects, pass in the Senate. Plant Vogtle construction costs burdening taxpayers is something that should have never happened, and I’m glad to see legislation pass that would keep this from occurring in the future.
A bill I sponsored, Senate Bill 339, the Campus Free Speech Act, passed the Senate this week. As discussed in previous columns, this bill directs the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents to establish policies protecting freedom of speech on Georgia’s college and university campuses.
Week 8 Report from the Georgia Senate
ATLANTA - March 2, 2018
Over the past week, we completed three legislative days, leaving us 11 days away from Sine Die. We heard a total of 72 bills and resolutions on the Senate floor this week, making it our most productive week yet. There were a number of measures that I believe will have a positive impact on our state, including one of the biggest pieces of legislation we will pass all session, updates to the state’s Internal Revenue Code (IRC).
The legislation detailing the changes to the IRC lay out an income tax percentage reduction in House Bill 918. Specifically, this legislation will reduce the current 6 percent individual and corporate income tax rate in Georgia to 5.75 percent in 2019 and 5.5 percent in 2020 - if approved by the Georgia General Assembly based on the economic outlook of our state in 2020. It will also double the standard deduction for filers of all statuses.
This is exciting news for everyone, as families of four whose household income is $50,000 per year could see a 16 percent decrease in their tax burden and families who earn a household income of $75,000 could see a 12.5 percent decrease in taxes. This is a true middle income tax reduction that will not harm our balanced budget and ensures that more of your hard earned dollars are staying in your pockets. This bill overall will foster more economic growth and business development in our state, and I look forward to it receiving the Governor’s signature in the coming weeks.
On Friday of last week, Governor Deal signed the adoption bill, House Bill 159. On Monday, he signed the income tax percentage reduction, House Bill 918. Both of these bills represent positive strides for the people of Georgia, and I look forward to seeing much more beneficial legislation being signed in the coming months.
If you are ever up at the Capitol, please drop by my office. It would be a pleasure to see people from the Third District here in Atlanta. Over the next few weeks we will hear many more House Bills on the Senate floor. If you have questions about any of these, please let me know.
I continue to track the progress of some bills I have sponsored this year, including Senate Bill 339, the Campus Free Speech Act, and Senate Bill 375, Keep Faith in Adoption and Foster Care Act. Both of these bills have been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee where they can be reviewed by members and will hopefully pass the committee in the coming weeks. I have already learned that the Campus Free Speech bill will have a subcommittee hearing on March 13th and a full committee hearing on March 15th. I look forward to testifying before the committee next week to explain why our college students need the First Amendment protections provided by SB 339.
In the proposed changes to the FY 2018 amended budget, the House and Senate agreed that $1.6 million should be allotted to the Jekyll Island Authority for improvements to the Great Dunes South Beach Park and the Ocean View Beach Park and $10 million for grants to local communities for beach nourishment projects. In the overall FY 2018 amended budget, approximately $1.798 billion dollars are derived from the Georgia Lottery and used to fund programs like the HOPE Scholarship grants and pre-kindergartens across the state.
One of the biggest pieces of legislation we took up this week was the amended Fiscal Year 2018 Budget. Sometimes referred to as the “little budget,” House Bill 683 amends various budget allocations in accordance with increases over the State's predicted revenue. With an increase of $108.9 million over what was expected, the total state budget for FY 2018 totals $25.4 billion. Thus, the budget has increased approximately 1.2 percent in state fund growth, and there was a 2.3 percent growth in revenue over the predicted revenue in 2017. This means that as a state, we are continually improving our economic outlook and overall business friendly environment. I am hopeful that with the passage of other bills, particularly those protecting faith-based organizations that wish to do more business in Georgia, we can see this growth continue as has proven to be the case in Texas.
Though I realize housekeeping bills like HB 162 do not usually get any press coverage, I mention it because much of the legislative process deals with just these types of tweaks to current law. They may be rather dull to read about, but making sure fees are capped and ensuring that the AOC has the option to waive fees can make a difference for people who are paying off their debts.
This week, the Senate passed 11 pieces of House legislation, one of which I carried for House sponsor Betty Price. House Bill 162 would make minor changes in relation to the receipt of funds collected from debts by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). This bill ensures that the AOC is no longer required to charge an administrative fee for its collection process, but still provides discretion for the AOC to charge a fee to cover administrative costs as long as that fee does not exceed $20 per debt. The bill also requires the AOC to provide quarterly payments to the specific courts which are owed that debt.
Week 9 Report from the Georgia Senate
ATLANTA - March 9, 2018
With the completion of Crossover Day, we saw a shift in focus in the Senate. From vetting and voting on almost entirely Senate bills over the past two months, we are now taking a look at the bills that have been sent to us from the House. In addition, we have held several Appropriations Subcommittee meetings that allow us to review proposed budget allocations in detail for Fiscal Year 2019 and consider any necessary changes. It’s our constitutional duty to pass a balanced budget, and we want to ensure that we are doing so in a fiscally conservative and effective manner.
Sen. William Ligon greets constituents from Third Senate District during Senior Week.
Along with these changes made on the state level, the federal government made significant changes to regulations placed on the banking industry by repealing portions of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. The act was introduced to protect consumers from being brought into another financial crisis like the one we saw in 2008. I am happy the administration took the necessary steps to remove some regulations, freeing banks and allowing them to conduct more business in communities that need their services, while leaving consumer protections in place.
As we are nearing the end of the 2018 Legislative Session, I encourage you to reach out with any questions, comments or concerns about pending legislation.
If signed by Governor Deal, HB 769 would allow an exemption to be made regarding the Certificate of Need in certain instances, would create a grant program to incentivize physicians to practice in rural areas, would allow a tax credit on donations to rural hospitals and would expand who can place a remote order pharmacy entry. Through these programs and incentives, I am sure that we can not only increase access to care in rural Georgia, but also such improvements will enhance the economic climate and overall quality of life for citizens. Rural Georgia makes up half of our state. Our close knit communities and outdoor recreational opportunities provide the type of atmosphere we want for raising our families. However, when our children need a doctor or must be rushed to the emergency room, we want the assurance that we have good care close by, especially when minutes count. I am glad to see that rural Georgia is getting the attention it deserves so that future generations can enjoy the lifestyle that we enjoy in our part of the state.
House Bill 769, which also passed, creates the Rural Health System Innovation Center to help address the problems with health care in rural Georgia. As many of us know, access to the most basic services in rural Georgia are somewhat limited. Health care, economic development opportunities and reliable internet access are just a few of the problems that face the citizens of rural Georgia. Part of the bill promotes more research into the problems associated with rural health with the goal of finding better ways to share data, to finance improvements that may be needed and to facilitate better delivery methods for health care in rural Georgia. The other sections of the bill implement several policies to provide immediate solutions.
Senate Bill 338, another bill I sponsored, also received a “do pass” recommendation from the House Judiciary Committee. This bill ensures that the legislature can exercise more oversight with regard to agency rulemaking, a process which sometimes goes beyond the intent of the laws we pass.
There were several measures that passed on the Senate floor that will be of interest to our district. For example, House Bill 831 creates the Employment First Georgia Council which would help to train and educate citizens with disabilities on employment opportunities so access to jobs can be made more readily available. This bill essentially helps to level the playing field by ensuring that those with disabilities are given the opportunity to work, just like anyone else. I believe this effort will yield positive results.
Senate Bill 339, a bill protecting free speech across college campuses that I sponsored, was given a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. We heard from many students, student groups and stakeholders on the importance of protecting free speech. We heard mostly the same sentiments: it’s okay to disagree, but not when your disagreeing actions interfere with the First Amendment rights of the speaker. And this bill does just that. It requires universities and colleges to protect speech and would restrict them from picking and choosing whose speech they agree with, as we have heard about in numerous testimonies. I am happy to report that SB 339 was given a “do pass” recommendation and look forward to it being taken up in the House Rules Committee and eventually on the House floor.
Week 10 Report from the Georgia Senate
ATLANTA - March 16, 2018
The completion of the 10th week under the Gold Dome leaves us just five legislative days away from the last day of session, which will be Thursday, March 29. This week, we completed day 35 of our 40-day session and saw 22 House bills and resolutions on the floor. I expect our final two weeks to be even busier.
As we are approaching the last two days of the 2018 legislative session, I encourage you to reach out to your House Representative or other legislators, especially the chairmen of committees, if you feel strongly that any House or Senate bills should or should not be heard on the floor. Please let me know if you have any more questions before the legislative session ends. I look forward to coming home and sharing with you what strides we have made in the right direction for all of Georgia.
Of course, the Senate Rules Committee has its own hurdles, and sometimes it may be better for a few House bills not to make it to the floor for a vote. One such bill is House Bill 118, the Fantasy Contests Act. This bill would allow fantasy sports operations to do business in Georgia. While I support the continued economic development of our state, I will not do so at the expense of my values. Gambling has not only been proven to promote dangerous behavior like sex trafficking, but this particular form of gambling is far too appealing to our college students. The National Director of Stop Predatory Sports, Les Bernal, stated, “The bill legalizes 'eSports,' allowing gambling operators to turn every kid’s video game console, like the PlayStation, Xbox and Wii in the State of Georgia into a Las Vegas casino.” Furthermore, the former Georgia Attorney General's Office warned the Georgia Lottery Commission that “fantasy sports constitutes illegal gambling and are not allowed under Georgia law.”
House Bill 419 also passed the Senate this week. It would allow local governments to regulate the use of fireworks through their local noise ordinances, with the exception of certain dates. Under HB 419, licensed firework retailers would be required to post signage with safety tips and state laws regarding firework usage within local ordinances. In addition, the bill would grant the governor authority to suspend local fireworks use whenever the Keetch-Byram Drought Index reaches a level of 700 or above at any point in an affected county. As we have many people who enjoy shooting fireworks on the beaches in our district, I am glad to see more control being given to local governments to make common sense decisions. They are the most qualified to make decisions that are best for their citizens, environments and local economies.
Two of my bills are scheduled for a House floor vote on Tuesday, Senate Bill 338, which allows for legislative overrides of agency rules, and Senate Bill 339, the Campus Free Speech bill. I am glad to see that these bills made it through the rigorous House Rules Committee process.
House Bill 314 is another bill that passed the Senate this week. This legislation was introduced to help combat surprise medical billing, something that happens to many people across the state. The legislation requires hospitals and physicians to clearly post notices and standard charges on their respective websites. It would also require insurers to provide enrollees with criteria for in-network and out-of-network coverage and would allow for the mediation of a bill greater than $1,000 for an elective medical procedure.
To share a bit of political intrigue about this bill, HB 314 was originally known as the Georgia Agribusiness and Rural Jobs Act, a bill to incentivize job creation in rural Georgia. However, as is common around this time of year, when legislators realize their bills are still tied up in committee with no chance of reaching a floor vote, a bill in the same code section can be stripped of its original language and new language added. This is what happened to HB 314 in the Senate Finance Committee. Though I am glad some consumer protection has been passed in this bill, these last minute maneuvers often do not give the public enough time to learn about the changes.
One bill that generated many comments from constituents was House Bill 410. This legislation would require property owners’ associations to provide a statement of account to any prospective purchaser, lender or attorney involved in a purchase of a property in the development. This is important because any unpaid assessments is a lien against the property. These liens must be paid before the purchase is concluded. The fee for the preparation of this statement by property owners’ associations would be limited to $100, however, additional fees may be charged for other services or requested documents. The bill also requires that the statement of account be provided in a timely manner in order to avoid delay of a closing. This is consumer protection at work.
Another bill that would help protect both consumers and producers is House Bill 876. This legislation would prohibit local governments from restricting the use of wood as a construction material as long as the minimum state and federal building codes and Georgia State Fire Code have been met. As Georgia is the number one forestry state in the nation, it is important that we do not inadvertently penalize this industry.
Week 11 Report from the Georgia Senate
ATLANTA - March 21, 2018
The 38th day of the legislative session has come and gone, and we are just two days away from adjourning Sine Die until next year. This week, we passed 54 pieces of legislation and held committee meetings that lasted late into the day.
The General Fiscal Year 2019 Budget of $26 billion is the largest budget in state history. Though the budget allocations of the House and Senate are close, we just could not close the gap. Since we could not agree, the bill was sent to a conference committee Friday and will be back before us once the six House and Senate conferees come to an agreement.
Over the next few weeks, I will review other accomplishments of the Georgia General Assembly and also how we fell short of goals that would have benefitted the citizens of our state. If you have specific questions about bills, please email me at email@example.com. I am certain that most everyone will want to know the details of exactly how we can now use our cell phone in our vehicles since the legislature passed a hands-free requirement, so rather than emailing me about that bill, just know that I will provide a column that highlights that information for you.
Thank you for all the input that many of you have provided to me during this session. I look forward to being back with you in the Third District. It is a blessing to be able to come home and spend the Easter with my family as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Sine Die always includes last minute changes and scrambles to pass legislation before we gavel out, one of which was House Bill 887, which along with the adopted Conference Committee report for Senate Bill 402, will lay the groundwork for expanding access to rural broadband across the state. SB 402 creates a new community designation through the Department of Community Affairs called “Broadband Ready,” which will make local communities eligible for tax credits and incentives for private companies seeking to provide broadband services. HB 887 will also enable the growth and access to broadband, by permitting the deployment of new technologies such as 5G and allow companies to utilize the public rights of way.
House Bill 410, which I carried in the Senate for the House sponsor passed as well. As explained in last week's column, this bill would require property owners’ associations to provide a statement of account to any prospective purchaser, lender or attorney involved in a purchase of a property within the development. It caps the fee that they can charge for the production of these documents at $100. Documents requested that are not included in the statement of account can be handled on a separate fee basis. This legislation is a great compromise for both the home owners associations (HOAs) and realtors who were both arguing for different fees.
Two other bills of mine also passed during this last week. They were Senate Bill 338 and Senate Resolution 489. SB 338 ensures that the legislature can exercise more oversight with regard to agency rulemaking, a process which sometimes goes beyond the intent of the laws we pass. SR 489 creates a Senate Study Committee on the Prescribing Patterns for Antidepressants and Other Psychotropic Medications. Unfortunately, there appears to be a potential pattern of overuse in our population, especially our youth. The Federal Drug Administration has issued its strongest black box warning against such medications being prescribed to anyone age 24 or younger.
On the final day of session, the House agreed to Senate Bill 339, which is the Campus Free Speech bill that I sponsored earlier this year. I appreciate my colleagues in the Senate, and the House, for their support of these First Amendment protections for our college students. SB 339 directs the Board of Regents for the University System of Georgia to develop policies promoting free speech and expression on their campuses and to create a mechanism to discipline students who violate such policies.
Our coastal wetlands will also benefit from the passage of House Bill 332 and House Resolution 238, which will create and allow for the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund. The Senate agreed to the House substitute for HR 238, a constitutional amendment, which, if adopted by the voters on a statewide ballot, would allow up to half of the sales and use tax collected by outdoor recreational establishments and sporting goods stores to be allocated to the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Trust Fund, established by HB 332. These funds would be used to protect properties such as state and local parks and wildlife preserves. It would, for example, provide a source of revenue for closure of Noyes Cut, which would rejuvenate significant portions of marshland near Dover Bluff in Camden County.
Specifically, the budget allocates $17,795,000 in bonds for the construction of a new Coastal Pines Technical College campus in Kingsland, Georgia. Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base will benefit greatly from these expanded educational opportunities that will prepare a highly skilled workforce, those we depend upon to make repairs on the submarines and equip them with state-of-the-art technology.
A couple of extra local FY 2019 budget allocations I want to mention include an $187,000 increase in the Department of Natural Resources grant funding for McIntosh County and an extra $100,000 allocated to the Coastal Georgia Greenway that runs through Camden, Glynn and McIntosh counties.
The FY 2019 budget is especially significant because 2018 is the first year since the austerity cuts in 2002 that Georgia has fully funded the Quality Basic Education program. Within the budget is an increase of more than $166 million for K-12 schools. Investing in the education of future generations is one of the most important responsibilities we have as legislators, and I am thankful we are paving a way of success for future generations. The budget also allocates an additional $370 million to the Teachers Retirement System to ensure the pensions and benefits of our state’s educators.
Also boosting education, the FY 2019 General Budget includes $877,985,154 for the Technical College System of Georgia. This will have a monumental impact on Camden County, Glynn County and surrounding communities through the funds that Coastal Pines Technical College will receive. Our state’s technical colleges offer an invaluable resource to our state’s economy by providing a skilled, educated and work-ready workforce to our small businesses and large industries alike.
One of the biggest achievements of 2018 was the passage of House Bill 918, which is the largest income tax cut in the state’s history. Families and businesses will both see a reduction in their income taxes, allowing them to keep more money in their pockets to spend or save as they please. Effective January 1, 2019, the personal income tax rate will decrease from the current top rate of 6 percent to 5.75 percent. This rate will further decrease to 5.5 percent on January 1, 2020, if approved by the General Assembly. In addition, the provisions of the bill will double the standard deduction for taxpayers of all statues. This tax cut will be good for individuals, families and businesses and will keep our economy on the path to growth and hopefully help the state retain its top ranking in the nation to do business.
In our final week, both chambers agreed to the Conference Committee report for House Bill 684 or the General Budget for the 2019 Fiscal Year. This year’s budget totals more than $26 billion, which is the largest Georgia has ever seen. A growing budget does not just happen by accident. Our intentional promotion of a pro-business, anti-regulation environment has led Georgia to a path of sustained economic growth.
Week 12 Sine Die and Happy Easter
ATLANTA - March 30, 2018
n our final week under the Gold Dome, the Senate succeeded in reaching many of the goals we set out to achieve at the beginning of the session. However, there were several pieces of legislation that we were pushing that did not receive final passage. Over the next several weeks, we will discuss the implications of these bills not passing and the next steps in ensuring that they will be considered, vetted and passed next year.
Paper flies as the Georgia General Assembly ends Sine Die for 2018.