News Room 2015

The 2015 Georgia General Assembly convened on Monday, January 12th for the 153rd Legislative Session. The week was full of inaugural activities and swearing-in ceremonies with State Supreme Court Justice Hugh Thompson presiding. The Senate then unanimously approved the nomination of Senator David Shafer as President Pro Tempore.

As the Caucus Chairman for the Senate Majority, I worked alongside the Senate leadership team to  complete the committee assignments for senators. In my new role as Caucus Chairman, this prevents me from serving as a chairman of any committee, but I will serve as Vice-Chairman of the Judiciary (Non-Civil) Committee and as a member on the Appropriations, Ethics, Health and Human Services, and Judiciary (Civil) committees and Ex-Officio on the Rules Committee.

On day three of the session, Governor Nathan Deal gave the "State of the State" address. The entire speech can be accessed at the following link:

Budget Week at the Capitol has come and gone with joint appropriations meetings with the Senate and House ending on Friday.  Legislators spent the week working with agencies to determine allocation of funds for the rest of Fiscal Year 2015 and preparing for Fiscal Year 2016. The Governor and state agencies delivered presentations and projections of how they suggest that budget funds be distributed.

There are 39 states, including Georgia, which require balanced budgets to be passed by their legislatures. Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch have all assigned their AAA ratings with a stable outlook for the state. The AAA rating is the highest rating an institution can earn. Only eight other states received this rating.

During budget hearings, we went line by line through Fiscal Year 2015’s amended budget and the 2016 General Budget to guarantee funds are being allocated appropriately. The 2015 amended budget ensures that expenses are prioritized and unnecessary expenses are eliminated. Once the amended budget has passed, work will begin on the larger 2016 Fiscal Year budget, which will appropriate tax funds through June 2016.

Last year, we planned for a revenue growth of 3.4 percent and ended with a growth of 4.8 percent. This surplus of revenue has helped increase Georgia’s budget from $21.1 billion to $21.8 billion. Governor Deal projects the state will collect more than $21.1 billion even before Fiscal Year 2015 closes at the end of June. Although we have a positive economic climate, I want to be sure that we allocate funds conservatively and effectively.

In order to ensure Georgia’s future as the best state to do business, we must invest in the future leaders of Georgia, our students. It is vital that we see to it that every child in Georgia receives a quality K-12 education that will properly and adequately prepare them for their future endeavors. In order to do so, we must provide our teachers and schools with the equipment and resources they need. The Fiscal Year 2016 budget includes more than half a billion dollars in additional funding for the Department of Education.

The Senate Republican Caucus met Monday, November 21, to elect officers for the upcoming 2015-2016 legislative term. Sen. David Shafer was reelected as President Pro-Tempore. Sen. Bill Cowsert will serve as Majority Leader. Sen. William Ligon was elected as the Caucus Chairman, and his Vice-Chairman is Sen. Hunter Hill. Sen. Steve Gooch will serve as Majority Whip, and Sen. John Wilkinson will be the Caucus Secretary.

This is still America, and freedom of speech and religion are First Amendment rights for all of us, all the time. Indeed, they are even more than that; they are universal human rights. People do not check their religious beliefs at the door of public service or at the door of their employers. This issue is uniting people across racial divides, political parties, and religious denominations. The speakers shared a sense of urgency that our fundamental liberties are under attack and in need of immediate defense. If this freedom is not protected, then all our freedoms are at risk.

The line-up of speakers and organizations represented was impressive. They included not only Kelvin Cochran, but his pastor, Dr. Craig Oliver of Elizabeth Baptist Church; Dr. J. Robert White, Executive Director of the Georgia Baptist Convention; Ken Barun, Chief of Staff for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; Dr. Richard Lee, President of There's Hope America and former pastor of First Redeemer Baptist Church; Bishop Wellington Boone, President of Fellowship of International Churches; Dr. Alveda King, niece of the late Dr. Martin Luther King and representing Priests for Life; Rev. Jasper Williams of Jasper Williams Ministries and Salem Baptist Church; Pastor E. Dewey Smith of The House of Hope Atlanta; Bishop Paul Morton of Changing a Generation Full Gospel Church; and Dr. Gerald Durley, a well-known figure in the Civil Rights movement and former pastor of Providence Missionary Baptist Church. The rally was organized by Bishop Garland Hunt, Esq., co-counsel for Kelvin Cochran and former president of Prison Fellowship, and Rev. Mike Griffin, Public Affairs Representative for the Georgia Baptist Convention. The rally was also supported by many other organizations such as Concerned Women for America, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, American Family Association, and Georgia Right to Life.

After the rally, the group marched over to City Hall, singing as they went. They delivered approximately 35,000 to 40,000 signatures to Mayor Kasim Reed expressing their support for Cochran and for the urgent need to uphold our First Amendment freedoms.

This session could be one of the most dynamic and significant of the last decade. It certainly is shaping up to be one of great interest to citizens around Georgia, and when citizens are engaged, that can make all the difference for making good things happen in the legislature.

People in my district should know that my office has moved. My new office is located on the fourth floor of the Capitol, room 421, C. The new phone number is 404-656-0064. The email is the same, The website is, and we will post updates there at least once a week and sometimes daily, depending on the news of the day.
The funds will cover enrollment growth, an increase in the number of school days, reductions in teacher furloughs, improvement of bandwidth for schools’ internet services, and reliable education assessment programs. The Governor plans to add another $230 million toward education facilities and equipment. In addition, the 2016 budget includes a 3 percent increase in funds for HOPE scholarships. I was especially encouraged to see that the Governor's budget allocates funding for our local school districts to teach and test mathematics in the traditional way. Our math teachers, 85 percent of them, made it clear that Common Core integrated math was not working. Now our local school systems will have a choice between integrated math and discrete math.

Governor Deal also announced that he would like to create two charter high schools within the prison system of Georgia. The Governor wants to add additional diesel mechanics and welding courses to those already found in Georgia correctional facilities, as well as a GED Fast Track program. These programs would allow those who are in correctional facilities to prepare for transition and re-entry into the work force.

Keeping the citizens of Georgia healthy is another top priority for our legislature to consider when allocating funds. Nearly $40 million in new funds has been allocated for Medicaid and PeachCare for Kids. In addition, $14.1 million will be used to ensure private hospitals benefit from the Federal Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) program.

For full access to Governor Deal’s Fiscal Year 2015 amended budget, please visit

For full access to the Governor's Fiscal Year 2015 budget, please visit

Throughout the remainder of the 40-day Legislative Session, bills that are sponsored, discussed and vetted by the General Assembly will complement the Governor’s proposed budget. I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure that the best interests of Georgia's citizens are at the heart of all our efforts.
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.
Later that day, I was honored to be invited to speak as a special guest at the Georgia Baptist Pastor’s Day Press Conference. The press conference was held to support the effort to pass state legislation modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed in 1993 with unanimous support in the U.S. House of Representatives and with almost unanimous support in the U.S. Senate. The legislation has worked successfully for over 20 years to protect people of faith from unnecessary burdens of federal laws and regulations that interfere with religious liberty. The most recent example that most everyone should be aware of was the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the religious rights of the Green family to run their business, Hobby Lobby, in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Many people may be unaware that laws which appear to be neutral toward religion can often create negative consequences upon religious practice, such as what happened under the Affordable Care Act, which was the law being challenged in the Hobby Lobby case. Thus, RFRA helps provide a strong defense for citizens whose religious rights have been restricted by such laws or regulations. RFRA follows the great tradition of advancing First Amendment religious liberty and the principle of limited government. This law helps prevent the power of government from burdening a person's constitutional right to free exercise of religion under the guise of so-called neutral laws or policies.
SR 80, if adopted, will cause the College Board to withdraw the current APUSH framework before the 2015-2016 academic year and replace it with the previous APUSH curriculum or face penalties from the State of Georgia. The Senate and House Education Committees will hold a joint hearing on this issue February 18. The public is always welcome at these hearings. Details will be forthcoming in a later announcement.

On Wednesday, we adopted SR 56, which declared January 28, 2015 as Autism Awareness Day at the Georgia State Capitol. It was a pleasure to see Ava Bullard, the inspiration behind SB 1, which we refer to as Ava’s law, speak to the Senate to voice her concerns about Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). She encouraged all legislators to vote ‘yes’ on SB 1.

There are more than 30,000 children in Georgia who live with ASD. These are complex developmental disorders that typically occur in the first three years of life and do not just affect the children, but the parents as well. Financially, having a child with ASD can cost families an additional $3.2 million per child. SB 1 will require insurers to provide up to $35,000 in insurance coverage for children six years and younger.

SB 1 received a unanimous ‘do pass’ recommendation from the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee on January 26 and went to the Senate floor on Thursday to be voted on. I am proud to say the Senate passed SB 1 unanimously. As an advocate for the children in our state, I am confident that my colleagues and I will continue to work together in order to provide better futures for our children. I am also proud to say that this piece of legislation has been a key priority for Lt. Governor Casey Cagle and has his full support.

Last week, senators and representatives took a break from the legislative session to work with agencies from across the state  to determine allocation of funds for the rest of Fiscal Year 2015 and prepare for Fiscal Year 2016. This week we have reconvened and are moving quickly through our legislative agenda.

Ensuring that our students receive a quality K-12 education is something I work for every year. This year is no different. On Tuesday, I sponsored SR 80. This resolution demands the redesign of the AP United States History Curriculum framework (APUSH), implemented by the College Board in fall 2014 across the nation, including in Georgia classrooms.

Traditionally, the APUSH course was designed to present a balanced view of American history. With the current rewrite of the APUSH curriculum, our best and brightest students are being immersed in the negative aspects of our nation’s history, while the positive accomplishments Americans worked hard for, are minimized or omitted altogether. We have had discussions with the College Board, but thus far we have serious concerns that a solution may not be possible without legislation.
During the address, Gov. Deal unveiled his proposed budget plans for the upcoming fiscal year, focusing on key state priorities such as education, transportation funding and healthcare. Last year, we budgeted for an increase in revenue of 3.4 percent and ended the 2014 fiscal year with an increase in revenue of 4.8 percent. Next week, members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will spend a considerable amount of time combing through every line item of the state budget. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I will attend these hearings.

As the Caucus Chairman for the Senate Majority, I worked with the Senate leadership team to  complete the committee assignments for senators. In my new role as Caucus Chairman, this prevents me from serving as a chairman of any committee, but I will serve as Vice-Chairman of the Judiciary (Non-Civil) Committee and as a member on the Appropriations, Ethics, Health and Human Services, and Judiciary (Civil) committees and Ex-Officio on Rules.

This week, I have already submitted one bill for consideration, SB 36, to prevent the injection of ground water into our pristine Floridan aquifer, an issue I have discussed in several meetings in the Third District and in the press over the course of the past year. Rep. Alex Atwood plans to present the same bill language in the House.

One of the most powerful events I have ever witnessed at the Capitol took place on Wednesday of our first week back in session. The "Standing for Our Faith Rally" brought together a wide array of pastors and speakers from the religious community. If I had to guess, there were between 400 to 500 people gathered in the Rotunda. The recent firing of Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran by the City of Atlanta just the week before galvanized the Christian community to rally to his side. Because his book, Who Told You That You Were Naked?, offended Mayor Kasim Reed, the Chief was first placed on leave without pay, then fired right after the start of the New Year.
The only weakness of the federal RFRA is that the law does not apply to the states. Currently, 19 states have passed their own state RFRAs and many other states have the same RFRA protections through court decisions. Every state contiguous to Georgia has a state RFRA. Sen. Josh McKoon and Rep. Sam Teasley, who also spoke at the event, have been leading this effort to pass a state RFRA in Georgia.

This week, the Speaker of the House, David Ralston, introduced a legislative plan to fund $1 billion to maintain our vast transportation infrastructure. The plan focuses on the reallocation of current transportation revenue and would not cause an increase in taxes on the state level, but I am concerned about potential increased taxes at the local level.

The proposal would convert Georgia's combination of sales and excise taxes on fuel to a 29.2 cent-per-gallon excise tax. When implemented, the package would create a new $200 annual fee for alternative fuel vehicles, with the exception of hybrids. Mass transit systems in Georgia would have access to a combined $100 million in bonds next year. It is important to me that we explore all possible solutions to our transportation funding shortfalls before we impose a tax increase on our taxpayers.
Wednesday, we adjourned early to attend a joint session in the House Chamber where we heard the Honorable Chief Justice Hugh P. Thompson of the Supreme Court of Georgia deliver his annual State of the Judiciary Address. He spoke about the current status of our judicial system, along with challenges and opportunities the system may face. He highlighted the lack of accessibility to legal services in Georgia, especially among poor and rural populations. Chief Justice Thompson stressed the importance of preparation for Georgia’s population growth and the General Assembly’s support in providing more resources to probate court judges and staff.

I concur that our probate judges need extra support and am pleased to see that the Governor is asking for 11 more Adult Protective Service case workers. Due to the growing needs of our aging population, incapacitated adults increasingly need advocates in our probate courts. Probate judges ensure that the legal rights of these individuals are protected and properly administered whether by those designated by their living wills or by health care powers of attorney or even by court appointed advocates for those who have failed to provide such measures for family members to follow. APS workers are the key link in the system from the courts to these individuals in nursing homes and hospitals so that the courts have all the information needed for sound decision-making. As a former judge, I understand that the failure to have all the information needed prior to a ruling can have harmful effects on citizens, and APS workers help alleviate this concern for some of our most vulnerable citizens.

After another exciting week under the Gold Dome, my colleagues and I have completed week three of the 2015 Legislative Session. It is an honor to serve District 3 as well as the rest of Georgia. As the session moves forward, we will continue to address issues that directly affect you and your families.

Committee meetings are in full swing this week. I had the opportunity to present Senate Bill 36 to the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee. SB 36 will prohibit the injection of ground water into the Floridan aquifer.  As your senator and a resident of coastal Georgia, I understand the importance of this bill passing; we must protect our water and ensure that it is clean and safe to drink.

During the meeting, we heard from several witnesses including Geologist Jim Renner and Gordon Rogers, the Riverkeeper for the Flint River. All of the witnesses agreed that this legislation should pass and our district should no longer have to worry about the potential contamination of our water supply through ASR. However, the Environmental Protection Division is currently performing a site study of Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) on the Flint River to determine its feasibility and does not support a total ban on ASR anywhere in the state at this time.

Since these studies can possibly take years, the Chairman agreed to sit down with EPD to determine how long the study will take. The Chairman is now open to amending the bill to include a sunset clause that will be in effect until the study is complete or until regulations can be established to protect the aquifer. This will ensure that our water is protected for the immediate future. Once I work with the legislative council to revise SB 36, I will go back to the committee, go over my amendments, and encourage the committee members to pass SB 36.

Since 1999, the Georgia Legislature, in its collective wisdom, has repeatedly banned ASR within the Floridan Aquifer basin. Thus, for 16 years, although the goal is a permanent ban, it constantly must be revisited. It is a powerful record of a consistent position when realizing that throughout these 16 years the Senate and House leadership, as well as the make-up of the each chamber, has changed many times.
Earlier this month, the Federal Government provided Georgia with $42 million to begin the deepening of the Savannah Harbor. On Tuesday, the Senate unanimously passed SB 5, a piece of legislation necessary for the state to receive federal funds for the project. This bill is a protective clause assuring the United States Federal Government that the State of Georgia will be responsible for paying for any damage, loss or injury that occurs during the Savannah Harbor Deepening.

The Senate passed SB 53 extending the work done last year by Senator Renee Unterman, who sponsored legislation that allowed licensed professional counselors (LPC) to perform emergency examinations on individuals who are mentally ill or drug or alcohol dependent potentially in need of involuntary treatment. Previously, the only people who could authorize emergency examinations of people needing involuntary treatment were medical doctors and psychologists.  Her bill included a sunset clause that will repeal the act in its entirety on March 15, 2015. This year, Senator Greg Kirk sponsored SB 53, which will extend the sunset clause from March 15, 2015 to June 30, 2018. This extension will allow for collection of enough data to determine if it is beneficial to authorize LPCs to conduct these examinations.

The Senate passed SB 3, the “Supporting and Strengthening Families Act,” which would allow parents the opportunity to temporarily give another adult custody of their children for up to one year. We know that families go through short-term difficulties that can impair parents’ abilities to adequately provide care and support for their children, so we created a bill that would help enhance family preservation without having to involve the Department of Family and Child Services (DFCS). When a family goes through difficult times, whether financially or emotionally, it is crucial that the children are taken care of and the family unit has the opportunity to be whole again. With the “Supporting and Strengthening Families Act,” we provide families both of those opportunities.

We have now completed day 15 of the Legislative Session. Committees are meeting and passing bills daily and so far, we have heard and passed seven bills on the Senate floor. We are in full swing, and I look forward to keeping you updated as we move forward at the Gold Dome.

On Day 14 of this legislative session, the Senate passed the Fiscal Year 2015 Amended Budget. Sen. Jack Hill, from Reidsville, presented HB 75, the FY 2015 Amended Budget, to the members of the Senate. Before getting to the Senate floor, HB 75 was first reviewed by the Governor and the House of Representatives. The Governor, during his review, referred to the General Budget for FY 2015 and the estimated projected revenue the state will receive by June 30, 2015 to determine the areas that are being over funded and those that are underfunded.

After the Governor finished his review, his recommendations went to the House of Representatives. After extensive revisions made by the House Appropriations Committee, HB 75 was drafted and approved by the House. Once the FY 2015 Amended Budget passed to the Senate Appropriations Committee, we reviewed budget items line by line to either agree or disagree with the Governor’s and the House’s suggestions.
After careful consideration and deliberation, we decided that education, economic development, and public safety, among others, needed additional funding to adequately provide for the people of Georgia. The Department of Education will receive an additional $126.2 million for midterm enrollment growth and almost $10 million for charter schools. We have decided to provide an additional $20 million to OneGeorgia Authority to provide grants for economic development projects throughout rural Georgia. The Office of Highway Safety will receive an additional $2.8 million for driver education in accordance with Joshua’s Law, passed in 2013.  If you would like to review the FY 2015 Amended Budget, you can find it here:
In addition, the Chief Justice discussed the success of the Specialty Courts which provide for alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders. These deal with cases which concern drug abuse, DUI, and mental health. These courts save taxpayer money. They avoid the expense of incarceration, while also keeping the public safe and helping provide accountability so that offenders can regain normal lives. He also gave a report on our Veterans Courts, another specialty that has been needed due to post traumatic stress syndrome that can often cause our veterans to commit acts that land them in the criminal court system.

The Chief Justice pointed out that there were six rural counties in Georgia with no lawyers and another 20 with fewer than five. I was proud to see that he lauded the efforts of Rep. Alex Atwood who is introducing legislation to encourage private civil attorneys to work in severely underserved rural areas of the state.

In follow-up to my column last week on efforts to pass a Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act, modeled on the federal law passed in 1993, Rep. Sam Teasley has now introduced his bill in the House. From what I understand, he has 62 co-sponsors on the bill. That is a strong way to start any piece of legislation, and I expect to see that bill assigned to the House Judiciary Committee for a hearing soon. Your calls of support for House Bill 218 will be most helpful toward passage.
The best years of a child’s life are those that are full of innocence and wonder. But unfortunately, with the underground sex trafficking market, far too many have had this innocence taken from them. My colleagues and I made a strong statement this week when we fought against sex trafficking and passed SR 7 and SB 8.

SB 8 creates the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund and Commission, which increases the legal punishments for perpetrators of childhood sexual abuse and provides the victims with the legal protections they need. These legal protections range from increases on the statute of limitations for civil claims to the forfeiting of cars used to operate these illegal businesses. Under this bill, any person found guilty of trafficking a person for profit will be required to pay an additional $2,500 and be listed on the sexual offender registry.

SR 7 is a constitutional amendment and requires approval from you, the voters of Georgia. The Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund will be funded by penalty fees and used to provide medical treatment and rehabilitation for victims. It will eventually be up to the voters to approve the creation of this fund, and I hope that they will. We must protect our children from the predators who pimp, pander and traffic young people.

On Wednesday, February 18, starting at 1:00 PM, the Senate and House Education and Youth Committees will hold a joint hearing to question representatives of the College Board about its new AP U.S. History Framework. This committee meeting is open to the public, and I encourage you to attend. It will be held in room 606 of the Coverdell Legislative Office Building in Atlanta. I hope to see you there.
In another legislative direction on education, we are working to make earning a college degree easier and more attainable for all citizens of Georgia. Senate Bill 18, which passed the Senate on Tuesday, allows the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) to accept prior work experience and skills learned through the military for academic credit. The bill passed by a vote of 53-0. SB 18 ensures that members of Georgia’s military have the opportunity to apply the knowledge gained through their service to their academic careers.

For our coastal district, efforts to protect our natural resources are ongoing. We not only have the constant battle to protect our Floridan Aquifer, we must also revisit the issue of how we protect our coastline and the banks of all state waters from pollution, soil erosion, and sedimentation.

Many citizens in the Third District are carefully watching the progress on SB 101, the Erosion and Sedimentation Act, of which I am a co-sponsor. This bill is intended to re-establish a 25-foot coastal marshland buffer along the banks of all state waters and coastal marshlands, a policy which had been in place until last year until the Environment Protection Division determined it was not enforceable. SB 101 would correct this situation and prohibit any land-disturbing activities within the buffer zone, including but not limited to clearing, grading or excavating. SB 101 has been read and referred to the Senate Natural Resources and the Environment Committee.

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Ben Watson, is continuing to meet with parties on both sides of the debate to consider additional modifications to the bill language. I have been able to facilitate some of these meetings and ensure that the concerns of Third District citizens are considered, but the bill's sponsor will ultimately determine what is included in the bill.

Another piece of legislation regarding our Georgia coast is Senate Resolution 26. As the bill sponsor, I was pleased to see it pass in the Senate Natural Resources Committee. It will create the Joint Senate and House Coastal Greenway Study Committee. The study committee will work to determine the benefits and shortfalls of creating a separate paved trail that will connect 115,860 acres of existing wildlife preserves, natural areas, parks, 12 National Historic Landmark districts in coastal Georgia. This trail would be designed to ultimately connect with the proposed East Coast Greenway, which will stretch from Calais, Maine to Key West, Florida. Many think of it as the coastal equivalent to the Appalachian Trail. Our coast draws visitors from all over the world, due to its beauty, its historic sites, popular outdoor recreation areas, wildlife areas, and beaches, and this proposed coastal trail will be studied to determine if it would have a positive effect upon Georgia's tourism industry.
February 16-20, 2015

This week, we experienced a bout of slow flurries and ice on the roads, but legislators had little difficulty getting to the Capitol to conduct the daily business. On Friday, we completed Day 19 of the Legislative Session.

Wednesday, the Joint Education and Youth Committee heard lively debate on the AP U.S. History (APUSH) Framework. My colleagues and I had the opportunity to question the College Board and two experts challenging the new APUSH Framework. Dr. Stanley Kurtz, Senior Fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a regular contributor to National Review Online made a strong case that the College Board monopoly needed competition. Larry Krieger, who has 25 years of experience teaching AP U.S. History and whose books have helped thousands of students achieve high scores on SAT and AP tests, analyzed the new 2015 Framework to point out its leftward ideological shift. Both Kurtz and Krieger frequently pointed out the Framework's inflexible thematic approach that drives instruction and testing.

Many states across the nation have debated the current APUSH framework in recent months. In previous years, teachers were provided with a five-page list of topics they were required to cover for the test. It allowed teachers to present American history from a wide range of perspectives, whether liberal or conservative. Now, under the College Board’s new Framework, classroom instruction is controlled by over 70 pages of topics and detailed guidance which must correspond to the seven dominate themes required by the College Board. The shift toward a leftward ideology is made obvious by a growing focus on group identities, such as "the formation of gender, class, racial and ethnic loyalties," at the expense of such unifying concepts as American Exceptionalism.

I have introduced Senate Resolution 80 to urge the State of Georgia to develop alternatives to the College Board's monopoly over the coursework for our advanced students. Unless we have competition, Georgia will continue to be at the mercy of one organization with the means to control coursework and testing for all college-bound students. Since Georgia taxpayers pay for these courses and tests, Georgia taxpayers need accountability and alternatives. One organization, which is now approaching the point of being a billion-dollar monopoly, must not preempt the constitutional rights of the people to direct the educational agenda of this state.
As a member of that committee and a believer in religious freedom, I am not in favor of any amendments to the bill. Currently, SB 129, as drafted by the author of the bill, reflects the language of the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which has a time-tested record of success in protecting religious liberty, such as was evident in last year's Hobby Lobby case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

I want to encourage all those who understand how important it is to protect religious liberty to take advantage of this rare opportunity to gather with others at the Capitol on March 3rd for the Religious Freedom Rally in support of SB 129 and HB 218. The rally will begin at 2:30 p.m. on the 2nd floor of the Capitol, but certainly plan to arrive early enough to speak with legislators about the current need for strengthening protections for religious liberty in Georgia. For those who would like to watch a video interview with the bill's sponsor, Sen. Josh McKoon, visit the following web address: You can also visit this link on my website to learn more:

In other news for next week, my legislation, SR 80, which urges the State of Georgia to develop alternatives to the College Board's monopoly over the coursework and testing for our college-bound students, will be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday afternoon. Another education bill I've authored to protect student data and student privacy, SB 157, was read by the Senate this week and referred to the Senate Education Committee.
February 23 -27, 2015

After a week of unpredictable weather and Gov. Deal declaring a state of emergency for all of North Georgia, the Senate has successfully completed day 23 of the Legislative Session.

On Tuesday, I attended the Senate Natural Resources and the Environment Committee for the hearing of SB 101, the legislation that will re-establish a 25-foot marsh buffer along all state waters and coastal marshlands.

During the hearing, Senator Ben Watson, the sponsor of SB 101, presented the committee with facts and figures explaining why these buffers are crucial to the protection of our state's coastal marshes and ecosystem. The Senate Natural Resources Committee gave a ‘do pass’ recommendation to SB 101, and the bill will be heard in the Senate on Monday.

This week, we passed SB 34, the Good Samaritan law sponsored by Sen. Greg Kirk. SB 34 states that in the event of an emergency, a person may enter a locked vehicle to rescue an endangered or incapacitated individual without being held liable for property damage. Recently, we have seen an increase of young children dying as a result of being left in locked vehicles on a hot day. SB 34 passed the Senate and has now moved over to the House.

There are only a few occasions where people of faith gather together at the Capitol to express their beliefs and concerns regarding religious issues. That opportunity is going to occur on Tuesday, March 3rd. Many people around the state have gotten the word that the Senate Judiciary Committee tabled SB 129, the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act, due to an effort to add an unfriendly amendment to the legislation. The rally is providing an opportunity for people to travel to the Capitol to make their voices heard about the importance of protecting religious liberty.
March 2 - 6, 2015

The pace has picked up considerably under the Gold Dome. Now that committees have passed a number of bills through the vetting process, we spend more time on the floor of the Senate passing legislation. We are fast approaching "cross-over" day, which is the last day a bill can make it to the other chamber for consideration if it is to pass this year.

This urgency of getting legislation passed before the 30th day also leads many people to gather at the Gold Dome to meet with legislators or to rally together to make their voices heard. On Tuesday, for example, people of faith from all over the state gathered in the Capitol to rally for the passage of SB 129, the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Their efforts paid off on Thursday when the Senate passed SB 129 by a vote of 37 to 15. SB 129 provides a claim or defense for those whose religious exercise has been substantially burdened by government.

On Wednesday, the Senate Education and Youth Committee gave a ‘do pass’ recommendation to SR 80, my resolution urging the state of Georgia to develop alternatives to the College Board's coursework and testing for our advanced students. The resolution also instructs the College Board to return to its more traditional framework for teaching U.S. history. SR 80 will be heard on the Senate floor Wednesday, March 11, 2015.

Tuesday, the Senate passed SB 89, a bill that encourages all instructional material provided to schools by the local boards of education to be in electronic or digital format by July 1, 2020. This legislation also provides that each student will receive a free laptop, tablet, or other wireless electronic device. However, not all school districts have the same level of funding and therefore may not be able to adequately fund the purchase of electronic devices. For this reason, funding assistance will be provided through state appropriations to assist certain local boards.
Senate Resolution 287 and SB 133 also passed the Senate. This is an effort to address chronically failing schools in the state. This legislative package allows the state the authority to become directly involved within a local school to work with parents and stakeholders to address problems and develop solutions so that students receive the best possible education. In order to qualify for the program, a school must persistently receive a failing grade for three consecutive years. Other factors including geographic clusters of qualifying schools will also be taken into consideration. A school can be in this program for no longer than 10 years. The voters will have the opportunity of approving this measure in 2016 at the ballot box since this new educational program would require a constitutional amendment.

This week, the House of Representatives passed the transportation bill, HB 170. This bill will receive very close scrutiny in the Senate. I expect there to be significant revisions to the bill.

As a member of the Appropriations Committee, we are working on the FY 2015-2016 budget that has been sent over from the House. I work on the Higher Education Subcommittee and the Natural Resources Subcommittee, both of which are holding budget committee meetings regularly.

As we continue hearing about legislation that affects District 3, I am having conversations with many of you about your thoughts and concerns. I depend on your feedback to ensure I am adequately serving you at the Capitol. I encourage you to call or email me if you have any questions or concerns about pending legislation - my door and phone lines are always open!
That same day, I also presented SR 26, a resolution that creates a joint House and Senate Coastal Greenway Study Committee to consider the proposed Coastal Georgia Greenway trail that would eventually connect with the states along the East Coast to create a trail leading from Maine to Florida. The Senate has approved the measure so that we can determine whether such an effort would create a positive impact on Georgia’s tourism industry and our economy.

Some constituents have expressed an interest in SB 159 and SB 45  - both of which deal with no-knock warrants. These were heard in the Senate Judiciary Non Civil Committee. No-knock warrants occur when law enforcement officers are permitted to serve a search warrant without first knocking or announcing their presence. While the statutory law appears to require law enforcement to announce themselves before entering a home, the Court of Appeals has interpreted the statute to permit the use of no-knock warrants. Testimony in the committee indicated that these types of warrants have been in use for about 30 years in the State of Georgia. SB 159 was introduced to regulate and reduce the use of no-knock warrants. The legislation will be reviewed in committee again next year before it moves forward.

I am back in the district for a few days and will return to Atlanta on Tuesday. We do not go into session until Wednesday. That will give both chambers the opportunity to track all the bills that have crossed over so that when we do return, we will be able to quickly assign the House bills to the proper Senate committees for review.

As you contact me about the issues that concern you, remember that the Senate will now be taking up House bills for the next couple of weeks. So, the best way to pass along your concerns to me is to identify the House Bill number that addresses your concerns. If you are contacting a House member, then you will need the Senate Bill number to reference for them.
On Wednesday, SR 80 passed, directing the state of Georgia to develop alternatives to the College Board's monopoly over coursework and testing for college-bound students. In addition, the resolution urges the College Board to return to its former AP US History (APUSH) framework, which would provide a more traditional approach to the teaching of U.S. History and more classroom flexibility than the current 70 plus-pages of topics and detailed thematic guidance now required in the APUSH course. The new framework unfortunately reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes the negative aspects of our nation's history while minimizing its positive aspects. It narrows curriculum into seven dominate themes, and, throughout the document, it repeatedly focuses on gender, class, racial, and ethnic identities within the context of social conflict at the expense of presenting what makes America a successful and free society.

The Senate also passed SB 116 on Wednesday, a bill I authored to establish the week of September 17 as Celebrate Freedom Week in Georgia public schools. The bill strongly encourages Georgia public schools to implement at least three hours of instruction in each grade level’s social studies classes during the week. We want future generations to know, understand and appreciate the importance of documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, so they are better equipped to uphold the principles of liberty as they become responsible adults. We chose the week of September 17th because that day is already an official federal observance of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Federal law requires that all publicly funded educational institutions provide educational instruction on the history of the Constitution on that day, but this bill will provide more guidance and ensure that our teachers have more resources to enhance their instructional time.

On Friday, the Senate passed SB 36, which requires the Board of Natural Resources to adopt regulations on or before July 1, 2016, providing for the protection and preservation of the Floridan Aquifer. The Third District depends on the Floridan Aquifer to supply the majority of our clean drinking water, and this legislation will help protect our aquifer if it passes the House and becomes law.
March 9-13, 2015

Crossover Day was Friday, which was the last day for the Senate to pass any legislation that will be heard by the House of Representatives and become law this year. The same process occurred in the House as they raced the clock to send their final bills over to the Senate.

One bill that made it over easily at the beginning of the week was SB 132 which expands dual enrollment opportunities for all high school students. Under current Georgia law, only high school juniors and seniors are permitted to enroll in dual enrollment programs where they take post-secondary classes to receive high school and college credit. If SB 132 becomes law, students from 9th through 12th grades, whether they are enrolled in public, private or home schools, will be eligible to participate in dual enrollment programs. Post-secondary institutions that offer dual enrollment credits to high school students are required, by law, to waive the tuition and fees and provide books for eligible students. Having this opportunity available to students will allow them to begin working on their college degrees without having to worry about the cost.

Sen. William Ligon provided a response to an Atlanta Journal Constitution article which misrepresented Senate Resolution 80.

Access Sen. Ligon's article: Leftist Slant to AP U.S. History Turns America's Melting Pot into Boiling Pot

To watch first-hand interviews regarding issues at the Georgia Capitol, tune in to Capitol News, a brand new show just getting underway to keep Georgians more aware of what is happening under the Gold Dome.

The news channel link is

There are a number of shows dealing with the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

There are two shows posted that cover concerns related to the new Advanced Placement U.S. History Framework.

The 2015 legislative session has come to a close. We worked throughout the 40-day session to pass legislation that promotes education, healthcare and Georgia’s positive economic climate.

Tuesday, the Senate was in session past midnight. We vetted and passed 49 bills including the Fiscal Year 2016 Budget. Thursday, or Sine Die, we worked past midnight to vet and vote on 28 general bills and agreed to House changes on more than 30 bills.

As the session starts winding down, legislators often see that their bills will not make it through the other chamber. At that point, legislators start scrambling to find bills dealing with the same Code section that have already passed the opposing chamber and are ready to go to the floor for a vote in their chamber. Once such a bill is found, legislators can then create an amendment out of the original bill that has stalled and attach it to the bill they are using as a vehicle. The worst case scenario is when a committee in the other chamber takes over a bill completely by stripping out all of the original language and substituting their own. This is the situation that happened to one of my bills, SB 116.

SB 116, originally known as “Celebrate Freedom Week,” became an entirely new bill in the hands of the House Education Committee. The bill now deals with educational savings accounts. Due to that sudden turn of events, I worked with Rep. Mike Dudgeon, the sponsor of another education bill, HB 502, which was already in the Senate, to incorporate SB 116 into it. HB 502 passed the Senate as amended to include Celebrate Freedom Week on Day 39, and the House agreed to the change.
The Conference Committee Process

When an amended bill successfully passes on a floor vote, the other chamber must then look over the changes and decide whether to agree with them or disagree. If the author of the bill agrees, the chamber will then vote to either pass the amended bill or defeat it. However, occasionally the author of the bill disagrees, which then sets up a situation that leads to a Conference Committee comprised of three House members and three Senate members.

The Conference Committee seeks to iron out the differences between the original legislation and the amended version. If conferees fail to reach an agreement, the legislation is essentially dead. If the committee is successful and conferees vote with at least a 4-2 majority, the legislation will return for an up or down vote to both chambers.

An example of this situation was SB 127. In its original version that passed the Senate, it was a straightforward four-page bill seeking to correct problems with campaign reporting and errors made by the state. The House provided a substitute which was 16 pages and included new definitions regarding "communication," "election targeted issue advocacy," "expenditure," and "express election advocacy," which raised concerns that in their application in that Code section they would have stifled freedom of speech for many advocacy groups during the 180 days leading up to an election. Of course, the Senate bill sponsor disagreed with the House's language, and a Conference Committee was appointed. I was one of the three senators selected to serve on that committee. In our Senate Caucus meeting, we took the position that all of that language targeting advocacy groups in Section 19 had to be removed.

It took about three hours on the last day of the session, up to about 9:00 p.m., for the House conferees to finally recede from their position. After removing Section 19 and taking out another section of the bill, everyone signed off on the legislation. When the bill came up for a vote in the Senate, however, it was voted down. At that point, legislators were concerned that the bill could affect their own ability to run for office if they inadvertently failed to file campaign reports on time or to pay late fees in a timely manner.
HB 17, the Sexual Predator Act

Next week, I will discuss more about some of the bills that passed this session, but I do want to mention HB 17, the Sexual Predator Act.  Georgia’s child sexual abuse victims now have better access to the courts by extending the civil statute of limitations. HB 17 amends current law by specifying that the statute of limitations expires on the day following the victim’s 23rd birthday or after two years following the victim’s discovery of such abuse, known as the “discovery plus two” approach. The provisions only apply to childhood sexual abuse committed on or after July 1, 2015. The bill also seeks to provide victims access to evidence by allowing disclosure of records to be used in civil proceedings when the criminal case has been closed.

The one aspect about HB 17 that I thought should have been different was how the bill handled the responsibility of third parties. A victim not only can seek justice where the sexual predator is concerned, but can also sue that person's employer or an organization with which that person volunteered, if related to how the victim was targeted. By increasing the statute of limitations, non-profits (such as the Boy Scouts of America or churches), businesses (such as child-care facilities), and other groups (such as sports camps or schools) could be sued many years from the date of any alleged act.

With that increase in time, memories fade, records are lost, people die, people move. It becomes harder with the passage of time for innocent people to defend themselves from accusations. In fact, companies are sold and organizations change leadership frequently. The policies followed by people in the past may no longer be current policies. It concerns me that people who had no relationship to the company or organization when an alleged abuse took place could suddenly find themselves in the middle of a lawsuit for something that happened 15 years earlier.
I voted for SB 185 and voted against HB 1. After hearing considerable expert testimony in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, I thought HB 1 opened the door for the abuse of cannabidiol oil because of its increased THC content. It became clear to me in the committee that there was actually no need for any THC content in the cannabidiol oil for the medicinal effects to work for most conditions. However, for conditions that would benefit from the addition of THC, there are already FDA approved drugs which would provide this compound and which could be accurately measured and mixed with the oil.

In other updates, the Senate passed HB 106, which authorizes counties to impose a transportation local option sales and use tax, up to one percent, to use for transportation projects, however, the tax cannot be imposed without the approval of local voters. SB 101 was passed by the House Thursday and provides that a 25-foot coastal marshland buffer be created along all state water ways. SB 129, the religious liberty bill, went to the House Judiciary Committee yesterday and was tabled. This means the bill could be laid aside for this legislative session and will not go to the House floor for a vote until next year. However, there is a chance it could be heard again on Monday. Your calls could make the difference.

A few weeks ago, the Senate approved SB 133 and SR 287, the Governor’s Opportunity School District legislation, which establishes a state-wide school district that will provide oversight for public schools that are defined as persistently failing for three consecutive years. This week, the House voted and passed both bills. It is important to remember that because this legislation requires a constitutional amendment, the Opportunity School District will not go into effect unless it is approved by you, the voters during the 2016 election.

This week marks day 38 of the 40-day legislative session. Day 40, also known as Sine Die, is the last day bills can be passed by both chambers and sent to the Governor for approval. Because bills tend to pile up at the end of session, the General Assembly will be working until midnight on Sine Die to ensure that as many bills as possible are passed during this session.

Tuesday, the Senate passed HB 1, also known as Haleigh’s Hope Act. This legislation legalizes possession of up to 20 fluid ounces of THC oil for treatment of medical conditions. There were originally two versions of the medical marijuana bill, HB 1 and SB 185. The Senate version was much tighter, calling for .3 percent THC in the oil and only allowing for treatment of epileptic seizures. The House version set the THC level at five percent and expanded the list of treatments to include nine illnesses.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee worked with the Representatives who sponsored HB 1 to compromise and effectively combine the two pieces of legislation, creating a bill both chambers could agree on. The version of HB 1 that was presented to the Senate kept the five percent THC level, but reduced the number of illnesses that could be treated with THC oil to eight including cancer, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, sickle cell disease and mitochondrial disease, but omitting fibromyalgia.

This legislation will require the patient register on the Low THC Oil Patient Registry created within the Department of Public Health and will allow the use of THC oil on the premises of a healthcare institution. HB 1 will create the Georgia Commission on Medical Cannabis, which will conduct clinical research programs. This legislation will provide civil immunity to health care providers who administer THC to patients.
I opposed the bill because it still represents a tax increase on citizens. The excise tax would have to be no more than 20 cents per gallon to avoid a tax increase. I thought that we should have taken more time to explore other sources of revenue that already existed to supplement the Department of Transportation budget, and we have not dealt with the inefficiencies that exist in that department. The Reason Foundation, which ranks all the states with regard to transportation, ranked Georgia overall as 13th best in the nation. However, one reason Georgia did not make it in the top 10 was because our state ranked 39th in efficiency.

In addition, I opposed the bill because the only crisis I see in transportation is in metro Atlanta. Those counties in that region have ample opportunity to address their funding needs without burdening the rest of the state. When looking at Georgia's overall ranking in transportation, there is really not a crisis at all. The CNBC study has consistently rated Georgia's transportation infrastructure among the top states, and, in 2014, Georgia ranked number one among all the states. It was this study that played a prominent role in allowing Georgia to also be ranked by CNBC in 2014 as the number one state in which to do business.

HB 170 will now go back to the House for consideration. If they do not approve our version, we will create a conference committee in an effort to create a bill both chambers can agree on.

HB 76, the general budget for the state’s 2016 fiscal year, passed on Friday. It is the initial guide for all state spending, and the only piece of legislation that the General Assembly is absolutely required to pass. HB 76 includes enhanced funding for education, for maintaining State Health Benefit Plan coverage for non-certified school employees and for funding Georgia's rural hospitals.

As an advocate for the improvement of education in Georgia, I am pleased to see that $152.4 million will be used for training teachers and growth in the state’s Quality Basic Education (QBE) program.
March 16-20, 2015

The 2015 Legislative Session is nearing an end, and with only seven days left, the Senate and the House are still in the midst of debating major pieces of legislation.  After much scrutiny, intense examination and a few amendments, HB 170 was passed out of the Senate Transportation Committee, and it was heard and passed by the Senate with a vote of 29-25 Friday.  Currently, the Department of Transportation receives approximately $1 billion in funding from the state of Georgia. HB 170 essentially will double the transportation budget to make it $2 billion in total state funding.

The Senate version of HB 170 varies moderately from the House version. It proposes less taxes at the pump than the House version, but implements more user fees. The Senate has reduced the excise tax to 24 cents per gallon in comparison with the 29.2 cent tax the House proposed, but created a $5 rental car user fee. The Senate version originally included a $25 tag fee on vehicles, but that was deleted from the bill.

Both versions of HB 170 implement an annual $200-$300 fee when renewing registration for low or zero emissions vehicles - primarily meaning electrical vehicles. The fee is higher for low and zero emission vehicles because they are using our transportation infrastructure, but they do not contribute to the transportation fund since these vehicles use little to no gasoline. Both plans also eliminate the $5,000 income tax credit currently available for the purchase or lease of new low or zero emission vehicles.

The House proposed that Special Option Local Sales Taxes (SPLOST) and optional education sales taxes enacted by cities and counties will remain, but the House included a restriction that any revenue raised from the sale of motor fuel must be used for transportation projects. The Senate’s version allows for cities and counties to collect motor fuel sales tax to use for SPLOST, local option sales tax or optional education sales tax initiatives. Under the Senate version, there are no restrictions for how local officials are to spend the funds collected through the sales taxes. 
With that concern in mind, I offered and supported amendments to address this situation. One amendment I supported which passed will help prevent frivolous lawsuits due to the fact that a victim would have to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the third party was guilty of gross negligence. Therefore, businesses and organizations which have good policies and follow their policies for vetting all employees and volunteers who work with children should be protected under this standard. If something does still happen on their watch, however, an amendment I sponsored will still provide a defense in a court of law if that third party can show it took remedial action, such as reporting any abuse or suspected abuse to authorities to investigate.

As this legislative session closes, I am truly honored to be able to represent the people of Georgia’s 3rd Senate District at the Capitol. In many ways, it was a very difficult session. It was certainly disappointing to see the passage of the gasoline tax hike while the religious liberty bill was placed on hold.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in King v. Burwell is disappointing for those of us who understand that big government mandates will not fix this nation's healthcare insurance system. The ACA's onerous regulations have increased the cost of healthcare insurance for millions of us across this nation and have limited access to care for many others.

The nationwide federal subsidies now upheld by the Court are fig leaves that cannot hide the rising costs of healthcare insurance. Furthermore, these subsidies are clear evidence that American taxpayers paying higher costs for health insurance are actually helping subsidize those on the receiving end of the national exchange. What we are really doing in this nation is exchanging a first-class healthcare system for what will eventually become socialized medicine. The entire planning behind ACA is one that has more to do with centralizing control of healthcare than it does with improving healthcare options or access to affordable healthcare.

In addition, this ruling further weakens the balance of powers in this nation which rests upon the principle of federalism and the separation of powers. Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed executive branch discretion to supersede the will of Congress. The ACA remains unpopular with the people of this nation and our state.  Congress should work to repeal this ill-conceived law.

ATLANTA (May 29, 2015)  |  Sen. William Ligon (R - Brunswick) requested and received state funding through the Department of Natural Resources for the Noyes Cut feasibility study.

With the support of DNR Commissioner Mark Williams, the DNR Board approved $525,000 for the Noyes Cut study which will be matched with federal funding up to $625,000. The study will determine the feasibility of closing the canal and ways to restore the estuarine conditions critical to maintaining healthy ecosystems in the Satilla River estuary. 

Noyes Cut, an auxiliary channel for the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, was completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1932. However, through the years, water currents have increased its dimensions from its original 50 feet width to 300 feet along with further deepening of the channel. The expanded cut has altered flows of the watershed, blocking access for migratory fish, crabs and shrimp. The inland reaches of Dover Creek and Umbrella Creek go dry at low tide, and siltation is also a problem for commercial fishermen.

“The Noyes Cut is no longer useful to Georgia, and is causing navigational problems for citizens,” said Sen. Ligon. “My hope for this study approved by the Department of Natural Resources is to find a way to close off this canal in a way that is healthy and beneficial for the Satilla watershed.”

Area fishermen have advocated for the closing of Noyes Cut for many years, and this is the first step toward that goal.

ATLANTA (June 1, 2015)  |  Sen. William Ligon (R - Brunswick), a member of the Senate's Higher Education Budget Committee, was able to obtain funding in the budget for a planning grant for the beginning phase of Altamaha Technical College in Camden County.

“Over the past several years, community leaders of Camden County have been working to attract state funding for a technical college that will support the local defense industry and provide a reliable source of highly skilled workers for technical fields,” said Sen. Ligon. “This new college will be an invaluable resource for Camden County and surrounding areas.”

The Trident Refit Facility relies on a highly skilled civilian workforce to maintain the naval submarines at Kings Bay. However, currently there is no program in Camden that offers the training needed for either engineers or welders, two skill sets needed at the Trident Refit Facility.

Altamaha Technical College received a five year technical college bond from the state of Georgia to fulfill needs in Camden County and the Trident Refit Facility for trained and skilled workers. The $1.1 million bond came from the FY 2016 General Budget and will cover the costs of planning and design of the school.

The community of Camden County has also contributed to the project. The Gross family donated land to be used for the technical college’s campus. After planning and design of the college have been completed, the school must make a new budget request to go toward building and architectural funds.
Third District