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, Senate Bill 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.
Week Five Under the Gold Dome: Amended Budget, Religious Liberty, and Scholarship Announcement
ATLANTA - February 11, 2017
Friday marked the end of another successful week of this legislative session. Capitol business is quickly starting to pick-up as lawmakers continue to file legislation and committees review bills as well as suggested amendments.
I am glad to report that on Day 15 of this legislative session, the Senate has already passed the Fiscal Year 2017 Amended Budget which means we are halfway to fulfilling our annual constitutional requirement to pass a balanced budget. After careful consideration and deliberation from Governor Deal, the Senate and the House, we determined that education and public safety deserve additional funding to adequately provide for the people of Georgia.
The Department of Education will receive an additional $91.8 million for midterm enrollment growth and $9.1 million will go to charter schools. The additional funding will allow incoming students to be provided with the supplies and support they need when entering a new school. In addition, the amended budget provides an increase in funds by $5.5 million for career, technical and agricultural education equipment grants to local school systems. These grants will provide teachers and students with the tools necessary to learn about our state’s biggest industries. We also agreed to add $16.8 million to the Move on When Ready dual enrollment program to meet the projected growth.
Public safety is a top priority for the Senate, and I am pleased that we are providing additional funding for quite a few departments in this category. Both the Senate and the House agreed to the governor’s proposal of adding $27.2 million to begin funding the significant salary increase for law enforcement officers, public safety trainers and criminal investigators. These salary increases will enable our state to recruit and retain top-tier talent to keep our citizens safe.
As we went through the budget line-by-line during appropriations subcommittee meetings, we were able to identify the areas we were over funding and those that we were under funding. This allowed us to reallocate funds to ensure taxpayer dollars are being utilized in the most efficient and fiscally conservative manner possible. Many departments and agencies had adjustments to their funding. You can find the full FY 2017 Amended Budget here: http://www.senate.ga.gov/sbeo/Documents/AppropriationsDocuments/FY2017/Amended/AFY17_SAC_FINAL.pdf.
Though efforts last year on religious liberty hit a wall with the governor's veto, I was encouraged to see that the state of Georgia settled the religious liberty case filed by Dr. Eric Walsh. The state of Georgia will pay Dr. Walsh $225,000 and the legal costs of mediation.
In May of 2014, Dr. Walsh was poised to become the District Health Director for Northwest Georgia with Georgia's Department of Public Health (DPH). One week after accepting the position and preparing for his move to Georgia, Dr. Walsh received an interesting request from the DPH Chief of Staff. He wanted web links to sermons Dr. Walsh had preached as an associate pastor.
Most personnel directors know never to ask questions about an applicant's religious beliefs because it could unlawfully become a factor for discrimination, yet the department ignored standard employment practices. To further entangle itself with religious matters, the DPH Human Resources Director then enlisted several department employees to review Dr. Walsh's sermons in what clearly appeared to be a violation of Title VII of federal law.
Just one day after department employees finished their review of the sermons, DPH officials delivered the message to Dr. Walsh that his new job was over. State officials, of course, deny that the sermons influenced them to rescind the job offer and instead point out that Dr. Walsh failed to disclose outside employment to his previous public health employer as the cause, but if that truly were the case, then they had no business requesting his sermons in the first place.
Since 1777, religious liberty has been protected in our Georgia Constitution. Since 1865, the Georgia Constitution has guaranteed, "No inhabitant of this state shall be molested in person or property or be prohibited from holding any public office or trust on account of religious opinions." It is time for our state to truly honor these words. People have every right to peacefully live out the tenets of their faith in every aspect of their lives, in church, at home, at work, in the marketplace and throughout civil society. In Georgia, people should not have to worry that their religious views could cost them their jobs. Let's hope the officials and the employees of the state of Georgia have gotten the message that religious liberty matters.
Recently, Georgia legislators were asked by the University of North Georgia to nominate promising young leaders for a Georgia Military Scholarship. In order to receive a nomination, applicants must have been accepted to UNG in a “regular admit” status, have a minimum cumulative high school GPA of 3.0, be a legal resident of Georgia, meet the physical and health standards for serving in the Guard, and have a written recommendation from a Georgia Representative or Senator. You can find more information about this opportunity here: www.ung.edu/cadet/scholarships. For any student interested in taking advantage of this incredible opportunity, please let me know, and I will be happy to help to the best of my ability.
I am humbled to have the chance to represent you in Atlanta. I take your best interests to heart when considering my support of legislation. I look forward to keeping you updated as we move along this session.
Week 6 - Space Port Legislation Moves Forward
February 17, 2017
On Wednesday, February 15th,the Senate passed Senate Bill 46, a piece of legislation that I have been working on for many months that will improve our state’s economic outlook by proving we are open and ready for business. Camden County has an opportunity to welcome a new industry to our state. We are set up perfectly for the creation of a space port here that will allow for commercial and leisure flights. Senate Bill 46 limits the liability for operators of space flight activities from lawsuits in cases where an individual was injured during flight and a written waiver was signed in advance. This bill does not protect against a lawsuit in cases where gross negligence or an act to intentionally cause harm triggered the injury. This is a great first step in welcoming a new industry to our state, and I look forward to working with all interested parties over the next few years to welcome this growing industry to Georgia.
One bill that caused some tension in the Senate this week is Senate Bill 16, which adds autism spectrum disorders to the list of conditions eligible for use of cannabis oil and reduces the concentration of THC in the oil from five percent to three percent. Even though we were successful with reducing the amount of THC in the oil, I still believe there is work to be done. During debate on the Senate floor, I offered an amendment that would reduce the THC even further to one percent. Ultimately, this measure was defeated and the bill remained at three percent, but I will continue to work to address this with my colleagues
The disposal of coal ash in our state’s landfills is a growing concern for many Georgians. Coal ash contains several carcinogens such as arsenic, mercury and lead. If these toxins leak into the ground, the health of thousands of Georgians will be severely affected. Just north of the Third District, Wayne County is already dealing with problems related to coal ash. Those of us who live in Glynn County must keep in mind that we are downstream from Wayne County via the Altamaha River and its watershed. Glynn County, too, has its own concerns regarding coal ash disposal on the private property of Georgia Power.
In order to deal with this issue, I sponsored Senate Bill 165 to strengthen responsible stewardship regarding coal ash disposal. Currently, we have two situations. Some companies that have coal ash residue are disposing it on their own property. They are already motivated to be sure that the contaminates from the ash do not leach onto the property of others as this would expose the producers of the ash to civil suits for damages.
Other producers of coal ash, however, are transporting the ash to properties owned by third parties in our state. If the contaminates in coal ash find their way onto neighboring properties, these producers of coal ash which use a third party as their disposal site are not currently subject to civil lawsuits for damages to the neighboring properties. Under this bill, they will be. Property owners who suffer damages will be able to file suit to recover for the damage caused to their property. It is my hope that by creating a more level playing field regarding coal ash disposal that entities using a third party not only will be held accountable, but some will think twice before transporting their coal ash across state lines into Georgia.
In addition, this bill requires entities disposing of coal ash inside the state to either own $100 million in assets in Georgia or post a surety bond in an amount large enough to cover any liability in the instance that a spill occurs. This bill was referred to the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee.
I appreciated the visits this past week from many realtors in Camden and Glynn and from several senior citizens with the CRC Area Agency for the Aging.
Week 7 - Under the Gold Dome
February 24, 2017
The General Assembly’s time under the Gold Dome in 2017 is flying by. It’s hard to believe that we’re already over halfway through this session, but we’ve already reached the point where we’re voting on more and more bills every day. There have been a couple of bills that attracted more debate than others, due to the sensitive nature of their subjects, but we have yet to vote down any bills on the Senate floor.
There are three bills that I am particularly pleased about that we passed this week, the first of which was Senate Bill 50, which we passed Tuesday. SB 50 would allow physicians and their practices to utilize “direct primary care agreements.” These agreements would be set between a physician and an individual patient or the latter’s lawyer, and they would bind the physician to provide healthcare for an agreed-upon fee for a certain amount of time. Note, however, that these agreements do not count as insurance. There are several instances in which a physician may discontinue the agreement: if the patient doesn’t pay the agreed-upon fee; if the patient commits fraud; if the patient doesn’t adhere to the recommended treatment plan; if the patient is a danger to the staff or other patients; or if the physician discontinues practice.
Another health-related bill we passed this week was Senate Bill 71, a brief bill that exempts assets within a health savings account and medical savings account from bankruptcy. Here in the Senate, we believe that Georgia's citizens who have put aside money in healthcare saving accounts should not have to worry about those funds being garnished. The health of our citizens should not be at risk due to bankruptcy. With this bill, we’re hoping that those who experience such financial hardships can continue to get the medical care they need. This legislation should encourage people to take more personal responsibility for their health by utilizing health savings accounts.
The abuse of narcotics is an issue that is plaguing the state of Georgia. We are seeing too many lives lost as a result of opioid addiction. As a result, the Senate passed Senate Bill 88, the “Narcotic Treatment Programs Enforcement Act,” this week. Currently, opioid treatment centers in Georgia have little to no guidelines when it comes to treating their patients. This can often be detrimental to the addicts because they end up receiving inadequate or unnecessary care, which in turn makes the addiction worse, not better. SB 88 would set up guidelines and expectations for narcotic treatment centers so that the patients can be properly treated. The bill would add more ammunition to Georgia’s anti-opioid abuse arsenal and would work to reduce the number of addicts in our state.
One of the more controversial bills that was introduced was Senate Bill 233, our latest religious freedom legislation. We took in Governor Deal’s critiques when he vetoed last year’s bill and simplified it to an 18-line bill, which mirrors the language in the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which Governor Deal voted for as a U.S. Representative at the time. The preservation of this basic freedom is long overdue in Georgia, and I’m confident that we can make a difference in our state with this legislation. However, metro Atlanta news outlets have reported that the Governor has already indicated he would veto the bill if it arrives on his desk. Thus, for the next two years, it appears that efforts to protect religious liberty will find little support from the Governor's Office. Due to this development, I do not expect SB 233 to move out of the Senate.
The drive to bring casino gambling to our state appears to have stalled for this session. However, people need to keep the calls coming to members of the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee to stop another effort to bring Fantasy Sports gaming into Georgia. That main number for the committee is 404-463-1376.
Week 8 - Georgia General Assembly Completes Crossover Day
ATLANTA - March 4, 2017
Friday, we successfully completed day 28, Crossover Day, and what I believe to have been the busiest week yet. I am extremely proud of what the Georgia State Senate has accomplished thus far and with less than a month left to vet and vote on legislation, we will push even harder to make a positive difference in Georgia.
As a parent, when a child, spouse or legal dependent becomes sick and needs you to stay home, it can be difficult to get time off from your employer. Last week, we passed Senate Bill 201, which will allow employees, who work more than 30 hours a week in companies that employ 25 or more people, to use up to five days of sick leave to care for an immediate family member or dependent. Under this bill, employees who use sick leave must adhere to the terms of their employer’s sick leave policy. This will allow you to take care of your loved one by using your sick leave instead of a PTO day.
For the past two years, we have seen at least one oil pipeline company trying to strong-arm its way into coastal Georgia and our district by using eminent domain to build a pipeline. Friday, we approved Senate Bill 191, a measure that establishes a two-step application process for oil companies to follow before they are able to begin construction on a pipeline. This will slow down the process and require oil companies to first obtain a permit from the Environmental Protection Division of the Department of Natural Resources and then get a certificate of need from the Georgia Environmental Finance Authority. In an effort to protect the Georgia coast, we specified that no permits for a new pipeline or pipeline expansion shall be constructed in the Georgia coastal zone management program.
Ensuring more ways to enhance local control in education is something I am passionate about. Two bills passed last week that I believe move us in the right direction.
Senate Bill 139 will allow local school systems and charter schools as well as college and career academies to create additional career pathways for the State Board of Education to consider. The Department of Education will have 90 days to review each submission.
Senate Bill 211, which we also passed, works to improve the testing methods in our local school systems by focusing on as much flexibility as federal law will allow. There are valid reasons for the State of Georgia to consider norm-referenced testing results in place of the current uniform statewide testing requirements of the Georgia Milestones. The bill also provides for research-based student assessments in the first and second grades in math and English. Specifically, SB 211 would require input from local school systems on how a research assessment is prepared and would require access to real-time data to help measure a student's progress throughout the year.
The ability to hear has an impact on a lot of different aspects of our life including speech and learning. We passed Senate Bill 153 to make over-the-counter hearing aids more accessible to the public by permitting more dispensers to sell them. This bill will allow for the exemption of state licensing requirements in order to dispense and sell over-the-counter hearing aids to individuals 18 and older. These hearing aids must use the same technology as an air-conduction hearing aid, allow for the end user to control volume and meet standards set by the Food and Drug Administration. This change should increase competition and allow consumers to have lower prices on hearing aids.
Foster families in Georgia provide a much needed service in our state, but we need many more foster families stepping up to fill the need. To help with this task, we passed legislation this past week that will help retain our current foster parents and will help recruit future foster parents by allowing us to recruit and deploy an army of volunteers to support the efforts and needs of our foster families.
Senate Bill 170 requires the Department of Human Services to develop a uniform statewide foster care volunteer certification system. Under the bill, two levels of volunteers would be established: Level I volunteers would be able to provide household support, babysitting and mentoring for foster children. Level II volunteers would be able to provide full time respite care in the volunteer’s home for up to 72 hours, allowing foster parents a much needed weekend to rest and re-energize. My hope is that this bill will build up our foster system, help recruit more foster parents and ultimately allow us to streamline the process of volunteering in order to help the young people in our foster system to succeed.
This coming week, we will be in session on Monday, March 6, Thursday, March 9 and Friday, March 10. Now that we are beyond Crossover Day, our focus will shift to reviewing the bills that the House of Representatives has passed. Therefore, if you have been following House bills that you want me to support or oppose, now is the time to contact me about those bills. I look forward to hearing your views.
Finally, for all those who have been closely following the gambling bills in both the House and the Senate, the casino bills appear to be dead for the remainder of the session. Thanks to all of you who have studied this issue and made your voices heard at the Capitol.
Week 9 - Controversial Bills: Some Defeated and Others Moving Through Process
ATLANTA - March 11, 2017
Friday, we finished Day 31 of the 2017 legislative session. We had a short, but busy week. We have begun working our way through bills passed out of the House, a task that will keep us occupied for the rest of the session.
We were successful at defeating the Destination Resort Act, a piece of legislation that would have legalized casinos and brought a powerful gambling lobby into Georgia. Now, it is time for us to redirect our attention to House Bill 118 which would, if passed, implement regulations for fantasy sports in Georgia.
This may not seem like a big deal since many people already play fantasy sports. However, it is currently illegal in Georgia for people to play these types of games for money. In fact, it appears that a federal law, passed in 1992, makes such wagering schemes in any professional or amateur sports illegal. HB 118, however, is an attempt to allow people to play these games for money, despite the prohibitive language in our Georgia Constitution, and requires those wishing to operate fantasy contests in Georgia to register with the state Revenue Commissioner. In addition, this bill also outlines the processes for regulation of the operation and taxation on the winnings of such games.
From the name itself, daily fantasy sports may not appear to be gambling. However, it requires players to each contribute a specified dollar amount, often referred to as a “buy in,” before they can play with a league. Once you buy in, you have to pick and choose which players from what teams you want to place your bets on. You are taking a gamble on how well the players are going to play in one game, not just throughout the season. If you pick right, you have the opportunity to win big money. HB 118 is just another attempt to bring gambling to Georgia, and it needs to be stopped. HB 118 is in the Senate Regulated Industries Committee for consideration. I highly recommend that people become more informed, and one way to do that is by watching a documentary produced by Frontline. For the YouTube video, click here.
Protecting the Georgia coast is as important to me as I know it is for many of you. House Bill 271 is a piece of legislation that works to do that. This bill updates the current Georgia Code relating to shoreline protection by addressing what a dynamic dune field is on both private and public land from the definition provided in 1979, as well as striking obsolete language and correcting cross-references. HB 271 also provides a process for permitting “minor activities” on sand dunes, such as constructing boardwalks or small patios. These permit requests will be subject to review by the Shore Protection Committee. It’s my hope that this legislation enables us to protect our beautiful coastline from unnecessary construction and disruption. HB 271 has been referred to the Senate Natural Resources and the Environment Committee where it will undergo a full vetting. Some of the issues I see with the bill is that we need to have the correct definitions and we need to properly balance private property rights so that no one is unfairly carrying the burden of protecting our shoreline by essentially losing the ability to utilize their own property.
This week, the Senate passed Senate Resolution 195 urging Congress to call a convention to propose a constitutional amendment to set term limits for all members of the United States Congress. Ultimately, I voted against this resolution. When we elect qualified individuals to serve in Congress and they gain wisdom and experience while there, we do ourselves a great disservice if we automatically have term limits that would kick them out of office. That is why we have elections. As we have seen since the presidential election, career bureaucrats can use their many years of experience to stymie and undermine federal policies and laws. We need people in Congress that have the kind of institutional knowledge that can overcome such strategies.
It was a busy week in Atlanta. We’ve passed quite a few bills and are gearing up for the final three weeks of the 2017 session. There are quite a few House bills coming up that may raise a few concerns with some of you. If you have any questions, concerns or comments about any legislation being discussed under the Gold Dome, please feel free to reach out to me.
Third District Constituents Visit the Capitol
I always enjoy seeing people from the Third District coming to the Capitol. Thank you for being engaged on the issues and for making your voice heard with legislators. In the photo below are realtors from Camden and Glynn counties.
Five Days to Go in the 2017 Georgia Session
ATLANTA - March 17, 2017
Only five days remain in the 2017 legislative session. All of the Senate committees are finishing up their fact-finding work and providing recommendations for the House bills they are vetting. This doesn’t mean the last few days will be a piece of cake-these days are going to stretch into the evenings and will be far from easy. There are still many bills and resolutions waiting for Senate approval, and we are going to try and give each one a chance for final passage in 2017.
We passed a total of 17 House bills this week, including one that works to fulfill our only constitutional requirement each session, passing a balanced budget. House Bill 44, the Fiscal Year 2018 General Budget (FY18) came to the Senate with recommendations from both the Governor and the House of Representatives. We’ve spent hundreds of hours over the past few weeks combing through each line item to ensure your taxpayer dollars are being spent in a fiscally conservative manner.
We passed a total of 17 House bills this week, including one that works to fulfill our only constitutional requirement each session, passing a balanced budget. House Bill 44, the Fiscal Year 2018 General Budget (FY18) came to the Senate with recommendations from both the Governor and the House of Representatives. We’ve spent hundreds of hours over the past few weeks combing through each line item to ensure your taxpayer dollars are being spent in a fiscally conservative manner.
Our budget is the biggest it has ever been, sitting at almost $25 billion. In the budget, several allocations were made that will have a direct effect on our district, including a $2 million bond to fund the renovation of the Brunswick Central Library in Glynn County. In addition, we included $100,000 in funding for the Georgia Coastal Greenway Project.
Another major milestone we approved this year in the budget is funding for livestreaming the Senate’s committee meetings. This is something the House has been doing for years, but the Senate never implemented. I believe in a transparent government, but right now the only way for citizens of Georgia to be a part of the legislative process is to drive to the Capitol and attend the meetings in person. Now, with the allocation of $485,000 for the Senate Transparency Project, we will be able to provide greater access and transparency in our committee process by allowing you to watch our meetings in the comfort of your own home.
Recruiting and retaining top talent is crucial for the smooth operation and success of any company. It is especially important in our local school systems and law enforcement. The FY18 budget includes $160.1 million for a two percent salary base increase for our state’s educators, school nurses and school bus drivers. These men and women look after the welfare of our children, sharpen their minds and strengthen their talents. Though I know they deserve and appreciate this modest pay increase, I believe they would be even happier if we could just repeal half of the bureaucratic requirements that take up far too much of their time. We also allocated $55.4 million for a 20 percent increase for our law enforcement officers to reduce turnover and improve recruitment efforts. Georgia has not been competitive with other states and the federal government, and we must be able to retain our experienced personnel.
Earlier this session, I sponsored Senate Bill 46 which limits the liability for operators of space flight activities from lawsuits in cases where an individual was injured during flight and a written waiver was signed in advance, but not in cases of gross negligence. As mentioned after the passage of SB 46, Camden County has an immense opportunity to welcome the space industry to our state and it’s imperative that we foster this new industry’s growth in Georgia. This is why the Senate also passed House Bill 1 this week. HB 1 has identical language to SB 46. I know it may seem redundant to pass two bills that do the same thing, but it is very important for the economic development of Camden County and our state that we provide for space flight operations. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter which bill the Governor signs, as long as we let the space industry know our state is ready and willing to support their business.
There’s not a lot of time left in this session to vet and vote on legislation. Monday is the last day for committees to pass out legislation for a chance at passage this session. With Sine Die approaching, I encourage you to reach out with any questions or concerns you may have. I enjoy hearing your thoughts on the activity of the General Assembly. As always, I am humbled to represent you under the Gold Dome.
Two Days Left in the 2017 Georgia Session
ATLANTA - March 24, 2017
This week marks the end of Day 38 of the 40-day legislative session. We have reached the point where committees have wrapped up their work and are no longer meeting. We are working through the House bills that have been reported favorably by their respective committees. However, in these last few days before Sine Die, legislators are also up to last ditch efforts to salvage stalled bills by attaching them to other bills that are still moving.
As far as my week, I faced the biggest controversy this year over an amendment I offered to House Bill 159. The overall legislation is an effort to update Georgia's laws regarding foster care and adoption. My added language would ensure that the many child placement agencies that operate according to their specific mission statements will not jeopardize their autonomy by continuing to act according to their policies when contracting with the state.
The amendment will help Georgia retain all the long-standing partnerships that currently exist between the State and private agencies while ensuring that any Georgian able to participate in foster care and adoption under Georgia law can be matched with an agency that can best assist them with foster care and adoption services. Everyone's rights are protected. The state's goal is to place children in loving foster and adoptive homes, and the more agencies the state can work with, the better. My amendment will ensure that we do not lose any of them because they will all be on firm legal footing to operate according to their long-standing missions.
Unfortunately, this common-sense amendment, which is neutral in its application - meaning that it treats all child placement agencies equally - has been maligned with "the sky is falling" rhetoric. This is the classic case of the metro-media taking the talking points of the radical left, using that for their headlines and stories, and creating a hostile atmosphere that specifically targets the faith-based community, as if religious adherents suddenly have no rights in the public square. If we are going to have freedom at all in this nation, then these spurious attacks on religious freedom must end.
At this juncture, HB 159 is going to undergo further review by the Senate Judiciary Committee and will be back under consideration next year. I understand that some members of the Senate leadership have expressed concerns about the lack of time to thoroughly review the underlying language of the bill. Since it is 100 pages and the first major rewrite of Georgia's adoption and foster care law in about 30 years, the Senate needs more time. The Senate has not been involved in this process, and this session is the first we've seen of the bill. The bill's sponsor has been working on it for two years, but we have learned that some of the largest child placement agencies in the state were not consulted. They need a chance to weigh-in on the original bill language. The Senate has taken the right approach to give this bill the full-two year process.
As for other matters this week, I was glad to see House Bill 425 pass the Senate. Under HB 425, the State Board of Education and local school systems are strongly encouraged to allow for the administration of paper and pencil format standardized tests at the request of a parent or guardian. In addition, this bill requires the State School Superintendent to develop guidelines for students who refuse to participate in standardized tests. The guidelines must prohibit a school system from taking punitive action against any student who refuses to take the test and students are required to have alternative instructional activities. The guidelines must be finished by September 1, 2017, and the State Board of Education has to approve them.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, then you are probably remembering my effort last year on Senate Bill 355, which also addressed these issues. It passed both chambers only to face a veto. This year, perhaps the effort, championed by an educator in the House, will prevail.
The Senate also passed House Bill 341 which changes provisions about who can be convicted of sex trafficking, and it strengthens the punishments for those individuals. Now, as a result of this legislation, someone who solicits sex on behalf of someone else can be charged with sex trafficking. HB 341 strengthens the punishments for other sexual offenses and clarifies provisions relating to probation opportunities for split sentences.
We passed another measure this week that I did not support. House Bill 338 creates a management system of supports and assistance for Georgia’s lowest performing schools, but in essence, it allows for the state to determine the fate of what it deems a failing local school system. This may also sound familiar. Last year, voters soundly rejected the Opportunity School District (OSD) measure at the ballot box. Unfortunately, this legislation still moves in that same direction, although under a different structure. Even so, I believe the voters in my district have spoken clearly about this issue, and I voted no. According to our State School Superintendent, the School Improvement Division already comes alongside failing school districts, and this legislation tends to allow a duplication of efforts and comes with additional state control.
We have two more days to vet and vote on legislation before the 2017 legislative session comes to a close. With Sine Die approaching, I encourage you to reach out with any questions or concerns you may have. Our last two days are Tuesday, March 28 and Thursday, March 30.