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.
2017-2018 Georgia General Assembly Has Begun
ATLANTA - January 10, 2017
The 2017 Session kicked off at 10:00 a.m., Monday, January 9th.
With all the changes taking place in Washington, D.C., the lawmaking process here in Georgia will certainly be affected in what appears to be a good way.
No doubt, as the repeal of Obamacare takes place, the State of Georgia will most likely have opportunities to open up the health insurance markets across state lines. Competition among insurance companies and less federal mandates will truly mean affordable health insurance for citizens. In addition, due to Obamacare repeal plans, we already have seen Georgia lawmakers walk back any interest they may have had in expanding Medicaid.
Another federal law which I expect to be rolled back in some measure is Dodd Frank. Under this law, it has become more difficult and costly for individuals and businesses to borrow money. I hope changes in Dodd Frank will open up possibilities for Georgia to provide better banking solutions to our business community and to individuals.
Education will also hit some reset buttons under the Trump administration. His focus on charter schools will provide many opportunities for states to expand school choice. It is also my hope that he will immediately work to revamp language in ESSA to repeal some of the federal mandates on testing, among other provisions. If that happens, state law should follow suit to reflect that new found freedom from federal micro-management.
Since the federal government will now enforce its laws dealing with illegal immigration, I expect that Georgia will now be able to pass legislation to better deal with illegal immigrants in our state. Part of these efforts should certainly address so-called sanctuary cities and sanctuary campuses.
It should prove to be an interesting session this year. I hope it will result in some long needed changes in public policy that will benefit our Georgia economy and our children.
Setting Up 2017 to Succeed
ATLANTA - January 21, 2017
Although all eyes are rightly on Washington, D.C. this week as we celebrate the Inauguration of our new commander-in-chief, President Donald J. Trump, I do want to briefly call attention to the budget hearings that took place under the Georgia Gold Dome. After all, it is your tax money that will fund the 2018 Fiscal Year state budget of $25 billion dollars, and taxpayers should know how their hard earned wages are being spent by their government.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Appropriations Committees from the Georgia Senate and House chambers met in joint session for budget hearings. Department heads talked with us about what they want to accomplish this year and next. Now that hearings are over, we will spend parts of the rest of this session determining the best allocation of funds to ensure we are spending effectively and conservatively.
During the budget hearings this week, we heard from a variety of representatives from some of Georgia’s biggest agencies. In their presentations, speakers were asked to explain what funding they required to accomplish their goals in the FY18 budget. Overall, we heard from the following:
Governor Nathan Deal;
State Fiscal Economist Kenneth Heaghney;
Secretary of State Brian Kemp;
Superintendent Richard Woods, Georgia Department of Education;
Commissioner Gretchen Corbin, Technical College System of Georgia;
President Shawn Ryan, Student Finance Commission;
Commissioner Gregory Dozier, Department of Corrections;
Commissioner Russell McMurry, Department of Transportation;
Commissioner Frank Berry, Department of Community Health;
Commissioner Michael Nail, Department of Community Services;
Chancellor Steve Wrigley, Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia;
Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald, Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities;
Commissioner Robyn Crittenden and Director Bobby Cagle, Department of Human Services;
Terry MacCartney, Chief Financial Budget Officer, Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget.
Although we heard from all of these speakers, I want to focus primarily on what Georgia’s Fiscal Economist Kenneth Heaghney, Governor Nathan Deal, and State Superintendent Richard Woods had to say.
State Fiscal Economist Kenneth Heaghney kicked off the morning telling us about Georgia’s current economic status. I am pleased to report that we experienced growth in nearly every sector, including sales tax revenue, job growth, housing prices, disposable income and more. We may be experiencing a steady uptick in unemployment, but Mr. Heaghney assured us that this is simply due to the fact that our labor market is increasing faster than our job market since our labor market is strong and growing, and showing no signs of slowing down. He estimated that Georgia’s revenue will grow by three percent in FY18.
In Governor Deal’s State of the State address last Wednesday, he proposed that half of Georgia’s revenue growth should go to K-12 public school spending. This Tuesday, during budget hearings, Superintendent Woods clarified how some of that would be broken down during the Department of Education’s budget hearing. To begin, he highlighted the successes Georgia has experienced over the past five years: we have higher graduation rates, fewer high-stakes tests, increased SAT/ACT scores and the number one career, technical and agricultural education program in the country. During his presentation, Superintendent Woods reiterated the fact that while many of Georgia’s schools are failing to meet standards, 90 percent are succeeding.
As part of the budget hearings, Governor Deal shared with us an overview of his budget recommendations as part of the budget hearings. He recommended the state allocate $11.38 billion for operating the Department of Education. Of this, it was recommended that we add $29.4 million to the Move on When Ready Act, as well as $49.3 million in lottery proceeds to go towards the HOPE and Zell B. Miller Scholarships. These two initiatives, if adopted, will make college all the more accessible for our secondary students.
In addition, Governor Deal proposed we allot $1.26 billion for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities and $14.8 billion for the Department of Community Health. Both of these departments have a huge impact on citizens throughout the state, and it’s important that we ensure that they have the appropriate funding to operate effectively.
As we work through the session, keeping these and other budget recommendations in mind, we take into account how funding allocations influence program decisions and policy directions in state agencies. As legislators, we also have to weigh the numerous funding requests from our districts. As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I will do my best to ensure that the Third Senate District receives equal consideration along with other areas of the state.
It is, and always has been, an honor to serve the people of the Third District. Please feel free to reach out to my office about any concerns or questions that you may have.
Gambling Issue Returns, An Update on the State of the Judiciary, and Other Legislative News
ATLANTA - January 28, 2017
The Georgia General Assembly is hard at work and has already completed eight legislative days in the 2017 legislative session. This week we had an influx of bills introduced in the Senate, around 80 or so at last count.
This week I introduced my first bill of the session, Senate Bill 46. This legislation would allow Camden County to move forward on its effort to build a spaceport by providing spaceflight operators immunity from any lawsuits if a spaceflight participant becomes injured during flight provided that a wavier and agreement has been signed. Georgia has the potential for both horizontal launches, which launch satellites, and vertical launches. The spaceport industry is growing, and legislation like this lets the industry know that Georgia is open for business. Rep. Jason Spencer has authored the House version of the bill.
One bill introduced this week that has raised quite a few questions is Senate Bill 79, the Destination Resort Act. This bill, if passed, would permit up to two resort-style casinos to operate in Georgia under the governance of the Georgia Gaming Commission. I am concerned about the ramifications that this legislation would have on citizens of Georgia and I know many of you are as well. As in years past, I will continue to oppose efforts to usher gambling into our state. The battle this year promises to be extremely fierce since recent news reports indicate that Governor Deal is now willing to approve this newly introduced casino bill. There is no time like the present to let your elected leaders know your thoughts on this issue.
On Wednesday, the Senate and House convened for a joint session to hear from the Supreme Court of Georgia's Chief Justice, P. Harris Hines, as he delivered the State of the Judiciary address. This informative address provided insight into what the judicial branch has accomplished in the past year, the problems it still faces and the steps needed to solve them.
Overall Chief Justice Hines' message was one of hope. He reflected on the success our judiciary has had since the beginning of Georgia’s criminal justice reform measures six years ago. Now other states are looking to emulate us as a result of our smart criminal justice policy. However, we learned that Georgia has the highest probation rate in the nation. In fact, we have four times as many adults on probation per capita than the national average. Half of these individuals are on probation for simple infractions like not being able to pay the fine for a broken taillight. This is something I expect to see addressed as soon as possible.
Chief Justice Hines also brought attention to the need for affordability and the availability of legal help for those who earn a modest income. Many of Georgia's citizens fall into a gap where they make too much to qualify for legal aid, but too little to actually afford adequate representation in legal proceedings. Unfortunately, they end up representing themselves in a court of law. In the last year, Georgia courts heard more than 800,000 cases involving self-representing litigation. The problem is that these individuals generally lack legal knowledge and, as a result, slow proceedings and often lose their cases. We need to find solutions for this issue, whether through legislation, court rules or innovative technology.
Since the introduction of the criminal justice reforms in Georgia, the number one priority has been to ensure our courts have the resources they need and that they are being utilized in the most efficient manner. The key to the future success of Georgia courts is technology which will allow us operate our courts as efficiently as possible. For example, creating a single web portal for individuals would allow them to e-file paperwork, eliminate unnecessary processes and look up documents all in one location. The future of our judiciary is bright. It’s imperative that we do everything we can to keep the momentum going so we can provide the best resources for our judges, the correct sentences for offenders and the proper safety measures to protect the public from the most dangerous criminals.
On Wednesday, I had the privilege of welcoming the Camden County delegation to the Capitol. I always look forward to having visitors in Atlanta. If you, or someone you know, is ever interested in visiting while we are in session, please contact my office to schedule a visit.
Week Four Under the Gold Dome
ATLANTA - February 4, 2017
We have successfully completed day 12 of the legislative session. The final calendar has now been determined for the remainder of our 40-day session. Crossover Day will be March 3rd, and the final day of the session is scheduled for March 30th. Of course, if we have bad weather, such as snow days, we may have to adjust the schedule, but this is what is planned for now.
Last week, I talked about Senate Bill 46, a bill I sponsored in the Senate that would limit the liability for operators of spaceflight activities if a passenger is injured during such flight when a waiver has be signed. I am happy to report that the Senate Science and Technology Committee gave SB 46 a ‘do pass’ recommendation Thursday. Now, SB 46 will go to the Rules Committee to be selected for a Senate floor vote. This legislation is vital to the future of Georgia’s space industry, and I hope my colleagues in the legislature will be supportive of bringing this business opportunity to coastal Georgia.
One of the first bills that came to the full Senate for a floor vote was Senate Bill 70, which will extend the sunset provision for hospital provider payment fees from June 30, 2017 to June 30, 2020. These fees are necessary for obtaining federal funding for Medicaid financing used by our local hospitals for their Indigent Care Trust Fund. With its passage, SB 70 allowed the state to keep more than $880 million in federal Medicaid dollars.
I was very encouraged this week that President Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch for the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Gorsuch, graduating with distinction from Columbia, Harvard Law and Oxford, has an impeccable educational background. He is an originalist in his understanding of the U.S. Constitution, much like the late Justice Antonin Scalia, and thus is not prone to reading into the Constitution meanings that it just does not have nor is he one to loosely interpret the meaning of the law. Judge Gorsuch's temperament is much quieter than Justice Scalia's was, but he is just as intellectually brilliant in his writing style. His reputation for fair-mindedness and support of the underdog has earned the approval of liberals.
In fact, when he was previously confirmed for the federal bench, he was unanimously approved by Republicans and Democrats alike. I believe Gorsuch is a perfect pick for Supreme Court Justice.
The Georgia Senate is working to ensure the best interests of all Georgians are being taken into consideration when voting on legislation. As we move through the remainder of the 2017 session, I will continue to keep you updated on the work we’re doing. If you have any questions or concerns regarding pending legislation, please feel free to reach out.