On Wednesday, Gov. Nathan Deal delivered his State of the State address, where he outlined Georgia’s past and present economic and social landscapes, and announced his plans to improve both in Fiscal Year 2017. Gov. Deal spoke to the state our economy was in when he took office in 2010. Our “Rainy Day Fund” was nearly empty and our revenue was down $2.3 billion from 2007. To fix this, we worked to pass fiscally conservative budgets, remove regulatory burdens on businesses and cut taxes for all Georgians. We have successfully replenished our “Rainy Day Fund,” which now sits at more than $1.43 billion, and our state is home to some of the fastest growing industries in the nation.

Just because we are expecting to have a quicker legislative session this year, does not mean we will have a shortage of issues. I expect that we will be revisiting many topics addressed last year including education reform, religious liberty, the Transportation Funding Act of 2015, and a couple of issues I am not favorable toward expanding in Georgia: medical marijuana and the legalization of casino gambling. I expect the preservation of the HOPE Scholarship, teacher merit pay, and a plan to reduce the amount of student testing to also be high on the list of priorities for the session.

As we wrap up this biennium, your legislators will be pushing to pass legislation that improves the lives of people throughout the state. Religious liberty and education are top priorities for me, and I look forward to working on these issues throughout the next 40 days. I am honored that you have put your trust in me and I will always put your best interests at the forefront of my decision making while here at the Capitol. Please feel free to contact my office at any time to talk about pending legislation or address other concerns in our district - my door and phone lines are always open!
Georgia General Assembly Kicks off the 2016 Session
ATLANTA - January 15, 2016

The Capitol has come alive again this week as we convened for the second session of the 153rd Georgia General Assembly. This year promises to be fast-paced, but offers endless opportunities to strengthen our state’s position as a top place to live, to work and to play.

January 11 marked the first day of the 2016 Legislative Session. Since this is the second session of a biennial term, all the bills that did not pass last year are eligible for reconsideration, in addition to any new legislation put forth this year. We are preparing for a faster, more efficient 40-day session this year, so we are already in the process of vetting new and pending legislation.

The Georgia General Assembly is only constitutionally required to pass one piece of legislation each year, a balanced budget. To do this, we will go line by line through both the Fiscal Year 2016 Amended Budget, in effect until June 30, 2016, and Fiscal Year 2017 General Budget, which goes into effect on July 1, 2016. During this process, we will examine the allocation of funds for each area to determine areas in which we over allocated and under allocated last year and adjust accordingly. This process allows us to maintain a balanced budget, while providing enough funding to the areas that need it the most.

Georgia General Assembly Off and Running in Week 3
ATLANTA - January 29, 2016

We have now successfully completed day 12 of the 2016 legislative session, and we are fast approaching day 30, or Crossover Day. This means we only have 18 more days to vet and vote on legislation originating in the Senate, before we focus our attention on House Bills.

This week we have had several new pieces of legislation read for the first time and referred to a committee, including Senate Bill 281, which I sponsored.

Last year, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 89, the Digital Classroom Act, and it went into effect on July 1, 2015. The Digital Classroom Act encourages all boards of education to transition all text books to a digital format by 2020, and to provide each student with a wireless electronic device like a tablet or laptop computer. SB 89 was designed to bring Georgia into the future of learning and to ensure that every student receives the technical skills required in today’s job market.
Georgia’s law enforcement officers go through many training and recertification programs over the course of their careers. However, once they retire or leave duty due to disability, they must return their weapon and badge. Senate Bill 263, which passed by a vote of 50-1 Thursday, will permit, but not require, cities, counties and boards of education that employ P.O.S.T. certified peace officers, to adopt policies that would allow a sworn officer to retain his or her weapon and badge as a form of compensation after leaving duty due to retirement or disability.

Wednesday, the Senate and House of Representatives gathered in the House chamber for a joint session to hear the annual State of the Judiciary Address delivered by Hugh P. Thompson, the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. Chief Justice Thompson reinforced the importance of modernizing our judiciary system. Doing this will allow our courts to handle a wider variety of cases, including those with more complex litigation, and be equipped to handle an increasingly more diverse population.
Unfortunately, with this new classroom technology comes a serious potential threat for our students; identity theft through data mining. I introduced Senate Bill 281 on Thursday, which aims to protect students’ identifying information by allowing parents, guardians or eligible students, who are 18 years or older, to opt out of using this new technology. The schools must also be transparent with parents and students about the role this technology will play in the classroom and the information that the software is designed to collect. SB 281 requires that parents have total access to all information available to students within the platform and that all information collected on students be destroyed at the end of the course. I feel that this legislation is extremely important to protect our children and their information.  

Currently under Georgia law, property insurance providers are required to cover the full value of a one or two family residence that it is entirely destroyed in a fire, when insured by a legal sole owner. Senate Bill 137, passed unanimously on Wednesday, amends and expands previous law to allow for corporations to collect property insurance payouts in full if a residential unit is destroyed completely by fire. The bill was the first to hit the floor and the first to pass into law.
I sponsored a resolution Thursday that aims to improve transparency and public confidence through reviewing the procedures on how legislation is passed. Senate Resolution 842 will create the Senate Study Committee on the Legislative Process. The Committee will be charged with reviewing the process to determine if there are areas that could be improved to enhance efficiency, increase transparency and openness, and ensure a proper deliberative approach to the making of laws.

Many of us in the Third District  spend a lot of time outdoors exploring the beautiful Georgia coast and everything it has to offer. We have been working on the local and state levels to try to create funding to build the Coastal Georgia Greenway, which will connect 16 coastal Georgia towns and counties with a hiking and biking trail, and will be an imperative piece of the proposed 2,900 mile East Coast Greenway, connecting Maine to Florida. Last year, I was appointed to serve as Co-Chair of the Coastal Greenway Study Committee, which found that the Greenway is an absolute win-win situation for the counties along the coast. A lot of you are looking for the trail to be built, and it is my hope that the committee report will be a catalyst to bring the state agencies and local governments together to support this project.

See the full committee report here: http://www.senate.ga.gov/sro/Documents/StudyCommRpts/2015JointCoastalGreenway.pdf.

If you have any questions or concerns about pending legislation, please feel free to reach out to me. I am honored to represent District 3 at the Capitol and look forward to continuing putting you at the forefront of my decision making.
Georgia General Assembly Moving Forward in Week 2
ATLANTA - January 22, 2016

Legislators are getting back into the swing of things this week as we complete legislative day eight. With only a few days of the 2016 legislative session under our belt, business is quickly starting to pick up as lawmakers continue to file legislation and we begin the committee process.

The Senate was in recess Tuesday so we could spend the day reviewing Governor Deal’s recommendations for the remainder of the Fiscal Year 2016 Amended Budget and the Fiscal Year 2017 General Budget. Throughout the week, state departments and groups presented their funding needs to appropriations subcommittees to help us determine the appropriate allocation of funding.
Over the past few years, some St. Simons Island residents have been calling for a vote on incorporation for the specific purpose of gaining control of the future development of the island.  However, many other residents have been concerned that incorporation would drive up their taxes on the island. In an effort to provide for incorporation without increasing taxes, the Glynn County delegation explored the feasibility of a township, a structure of governance not yet available in Georgia.

Along the same timeframe, last year's Senate Annexation, Deannexation, and the Incorporation Study Committee was studying various problems surrounding incorporation of new cities in Georgia and recommended the township model for consideration in the state. Along with other legislative recommendations, the committee's report urges that all municipal incorporation legislation be introduced in the first year of a biennium, that feasibility studies should not only include the impact within the jurisdictional boundaries of any proposed city, but also on the local county, neighboring cities, and other local governmental entities, and that the “City Lite” concept no longer be part of any future municipal incorporation proposals due to concerns regarding the constitutionality of such proposals. One proposal made by those advocating for a City of St. Simons had suggested the City-Lite model.
To address these concerns regarding incorporation in my district, I introduced Senate Bill 272 and its supporting constitutional amendment, Senate Resolution 724, which if passed through the General Assembly and approved by the voters, will allow unincorporated areas of Georgia to create a township. A township will continue to utilize and pay for county services such as water and emergency services, but will allow local citizens to control land use and local zoning rather than the county government. This will accomplish the  goal of incorporation without burdensome taxes, and governance would take place through a five-member township council elected by St. Simons Island voters.

There are several opportunities available throughout the next few months for you to help make a difference in our state and our nation. The freedom to practice religion is a natural right recognized by our Founders and one they protected for all of us  under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. In Georgia, we are working diligently to pass legislation that will help ensure these religious freedoms are not undermined by recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings and related adverse actions that could occur at the local or state levels.ouble click to edit
You can help get this legislation passed by coming to the Capitol on Wednesday, February 10, 2016 and attending Georgia Religious Freedom Day. Activities begin at 8 a.m. with the Benham Brothers at the Depot.  Dr. Franklin Graham will host a prayer gathering at noon at Liberty Plaza. A variety of faith based organizations and churches are expected to be here standing up for religious freedom, and you will have the opportunity to talk with state legislators about your right to freedom of religion.

Another opportunity you have to make a difference in the lives of Georgia’s students is by providing your feedback on the revised Georgia Standards of Excellence for science and social studies. The State Board of Education Superintendent, Richard Woods, welcomes your comments on these standards and encourages your feedback so we can ensure our students are receiving the best education available. This opportunity will end on March 14, 2016 at 5 p.m. See links below.

The drafts of the revised Georgia Standards of Excellence can be found here, https://www.georgiastandards.org/Pages/Proposed-Revisions-to-Science-and-Social-Studies-Standards.aspx.
Feedback on the revised science Standards can be given here, http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/2527712/48b394068fb5.
Feedback on the revised social studies Standards can be given here, http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/2527565/Survey-of-Revised-Social-Studies-Standards.

This year we have the opportunity to elect a new president to office. Georgia’s Presidential Primary Election will take place on March 1, 2016. If you are not a registered voter or you have recently moved, you have until February 1, 2016 to fill out the voter registration form. Every voice counts so make sure you cast your ballot.

As we work through these next 32 days of session, I will continue to keep you updated on policies that affect you and our state. I look forward to representing your best interests throughout the remainder of this legislative session. I thank all of you for your support and feedback, so do not hesitate to contact me with suggestions or concerns. My doors and phone lines are open every day.
Georgia General Assembly Making Progress Week 4
ATLANTA - February 5, 2016

The Georgia General Assembly has now completed day 16 of the 2016 legislative session. With our deadline fast approaching, the Senate has kicked it into high gear as we work to vet and vote on the many bills being brought to the Senate floor. 

Wednesday, the Senate adopted Senate Resolution 691 recognizing February 3, 2016 as 4-H Day at the Capitol. I had the  honor to welcome 4-H members from McIntosh County to my office. The individuals are the future of Georgia’s agribusiness, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to talk with them and learn about their goals.
I presented Senate Bill 310, the Transparency in Education Act, to the Senate Education and Youth Committee Wednesday. This bill deals with competitive grants over $20 million and their requirements for implementation in K-12 education. SB 310 prohibits any grant from being implemented without an analysis of grant terms by the legislature. Any analysis must include long-term projections of unfunded costs, anticipated transfer of control, purpose of the grant, rules of compliance and an explanation of how it will affect existing law. We must let our parents, teachers and those interested in education who  could be affected by these grants know what these competitive grants mean for our schools so we can better determine if it is something we wish to pursue. This open and transparent process will promote more stability and continuity in our education policies and keep us from switching programs every few years.    
Family violence is a rising issue in our state. It comes in all shapes and sizes, affects men, women and children, and is often a result of repeat offenders. Currently under Georgia law, a person receives a misdemeanor for a first conviction of family violence. It isn’t until a second conviction that an offender is charged with a felony and punished by imprisonment of one to five years. On Tuesday, the Senate passed Senate Bill 193, which amends Georgia’s law and tightens penalties for repeat family violence offenders. SB 193 retains the misdemeanor conviction for a first time offender, but for those who have been convicted of family violence in another state, and are now facing a first time conviction in the state of Georgia, they will be charged with a felony.

It is important for voters and election candidates to pay attention to the rules and regulations regarding elections and polling places. This week, the Senate passed Senate Bill 199 which clarifies the language regarding what constitutes campaign material at active polling locations. Currently, vote solicitation, distribution of campaign literature including but not limited to cards, booklets and signs, are prohibited in and around voting locations on election days. This bill does not change any laws relating to where campaign material can be distributed, but it does offer new guidelines for poll workers to follow in deciding what constitutes campaign material. 
Right now, we have a total of eight different religious liberty bills pending in the General Assembly. Our founders recognized the free exercise of religion as a basic human right that they enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, however, protecting our first freedom is up to us. You can help support passage of religious freedom legislation by coming to the Capitol on Wednesday, February 10, 2016 and attending Georgia Religious Freedom Day. The day will start at the Depot with breakfast with the Benham Brothers at 8 a.m. Franklin Graham will host a prayer gathering at noon at Liberty Plaza. A variety of faith based organizations and churches are expected to be here standing up for religious freedom, and you can use the opportunity to talk with state legislators about your right to freedom of religion by walking over to the Capitol. For more details, visit my website at www.senatorligon.com.
Senate Bill 272 requires a constitutional amendment to be voted on by all the voters in the state of Georgia. If voters approve, then the citizens of unincorporated areas of Georgia would be free to vote by local referendum to set up a township.

Interest in the township model is evident in other areas of Georgia. Rep. Mike Dudgeon (R - Johns Creek) has filed similar legislation in the House of Representatives.

Click here to see suggested map of St. Simons Township Voting Districts.

Click here to see the Report of the State Senate Annexation, Deannexation, and Incorporation Study Committee which recommends Georgia consider adding township governance as an option for unincorporated areas seeking to be incorporated.
Sen. William Ligon Introduces Georgia Townships Act
- January 20, 2016

Sen. William Ligon (R - Brunswick) Wednesday introduced Senate Bill 272 and its supporting constitutional amendment, Senate Resolution 724, to provide unincorporated areas of Georgia the opportunity to create a township.

“The Glynn County legislative delegation was pleased to see the Senate Annexation, Deannexation and Incorporation Study Committee recommend the township model as a way to incorporate in our state,” said Sen. Ligon. “I am pleased to introduce this legislation that will allow us the opportunity to explore the feasibility of this kind of incorporation on St. Simons Island.”

A township will continue to utilize and pay for county services such as water and emergency services, but will allow local citizens, elected to a township council, to control land use and local zoning rather than the county government.
Beyond the Halfway Point of the Session - Week 6
ATLANTA - February 19, 2016

As we close out week six of the 2016 session, the stakes are getting higher. A number of bills are moving forward that provide solutions which would counter current threats to our constitutional liberties. Other bills, which I consider harmful, look as if they may move forward as well. These include bills that would expand gambling and undermine our constitutional system of the Electoral College in our presidential elections.
For now, let’s focus on the good news. Lawmakers are starting to respond to threats against the free exercise of religion. Last year, a student athlete in Forsyth County received statewide attention after being stripped of his third place win in the state cross country championship for wearing a white headband with ‘Isaiah 40:30-31’ written on it. This uniform violation and the decision to take away this student's medal was cause for concern throughout our state because it violated the student’s constitutional right to freedom of religion. The decision also appeared to be arbitrary. The rule handbook was unclear as to whether or not personal or religious expression was allowed on personal clothing. In this instance, the decision to strip him of his medal due to religious content violated his right to free exercise of religion.
To prevent such situations in the future, we passed Senate Bill 309. This legislation will help ensure better consistency in the rules and their proper application so that religious expression is not penalized. If the rules permit participants to express personal messages, religious content should also be allowed. It also makes clear that our high schools will not take part in athletic associations which prohibit its member schools from organizing and playing scrimmage games, matches, or other athletic competitions with non-member schools.

Friday, the Senate continued the fight for religious liberty in Georgia by passing House Bill 757. This bill consists of two parts that work to protect Georgians and their religious beliefs. The first part, known as the Pastor Protection Act, came over from the House and ensures that any person ordained or authorized to perform marriage ceremonies in the state of Georgia may refuse to solemnize any marriage that violates his or her religious beliefs without fear of civil action. However, such limited protections for pastors should not be our only focus since the First Amendment protections should cover everyone.
Thus, the Senate Rules Committee added a second section to the bill, known as the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA). This additional language protects individuals and legal entities from facing any civil penalties for acting upon their sincerely-held religious beliefs concerning lawful marriage. This law would prevent frivolous lawsuits by those trying to coerce people into uniformity of belief, speech, and action concerning marriage.

For those who need to understand more of what is at stake in these efforts to protect religious liberty, Erick Erickson has just written a new book, You Will Be Made to Care. It can be pre-ordered right now on Amazon.

Thursday, I presented Senate Resolution 730 to the Senate Natural Resources and the Environment Committee. This resolution encourages the Coastal Regional Commission to support implementation of the Coastal Georgia Greenway. The Greenway is a proposed 155-mile trail linking Savannah to St. Marys as part of a comprehensive system of bicycle and pedestrian trails along the east coast of the United States. The trail system will not only encourage Georgians to spend more time outside, exploring the beautiful coast, but it will also bring more visitors to our state.
Earlier this week, visitors from Charlton County visited the Gold Dome. I had the opportunity to meet with these fine individuals and talk about issues that affect Georgia including the Camden Spaceport, Ad Valorem Taxes and the Homestead Exemption tax. I am always thrilled to see citizens from Senate District Three at the Capitol. Please reach out to me if you are interesting in visiting.

Additional bills receiving a Senate vote this week include the following:

SB 115 allows physician assistants, who are authorized by a physician, to prescribe schedule II substances, including medications such as Adderall and Vicodin, to patients.

SB 319 expands the scope of practice by giving Licensed Professional Counselors (LPCs) the ability to not only evaluate and recommend a course of treatment for emotional and mental disorders, but to also diagnose them. This grants LPCs the same authority currently granted to licensed social workers and marriage and family therapists.
SB 282 makes it unlawful for those providing credit or financial services to discriminate against a person, business, public entity or trade association because they lawfully participate in the commerce of firearms and ammunition.

SB 270 provides that any person who is a citizen of Georgia and a “qualified retired law enforcement officer” under the federal Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act of 2004 is not subject to licensing requirements and restrictions on where weapons can be carried in the state of Georgia.

SB 329 allows students enrolled in a dual enrollment program who have completed post-secondary course work and earned a certification to work in an “in need” industry as described by the Technical College System of Georgia to be awarded a high school diploma. This bill also expands the availability of the HOPE Scholarship to these students.
Georgia General Assembly Reaches Halfway Point - Week 5
ATLANTA - February 12, 2016

The Georgia General Assembly has now reached the halfway point of the 2016 legislative session. We only have ten more days to vote on legislation originating in the Senate before we focus our attention on House bills.

The Senate’s committee calendar is quickly filling up for the weeks ahead, and we’re looking forward to considering many bills and resolutions that have been introduced. Although these committee meetings will cover a wide range of issues, the Georgia Senate will continue to focus its efforts on policy that will maintain Georgia’s status as a best place to live, work and play.
Over the years, standardized testing in K-12 classrooms has gotten out of hand. In fact, according to a teacher study, done by the Georgia Department of Education, 44 percent of teachers leave their jobs in the first five years and blame over testing and the use of testing results in evaluations as the reason.  This week, I introduced Senate Bill 355, the Student/Teacher Protection Act, which addresses this problem among many others that have resulted from the Race to the Top grant.

Senate Bill 355 limits the time that can be dedicated to standardized testing to two percent of total instructional time, including the test preparation that occurs prior to these tests. My bill also drastically reduces the weight of test scores used in teacher evaluations from 50 percent to not more than 10 percent. For several years, I have maintained that the scientific evidence did not support this evaluation methodology. Finally, a federal study has also admitted this fact, and if Georgia does not drastically scale back this policy, we will see a slew of lawsuits against the State.  
Parents, too, will find that SB 355 protects their children. Standardized testing will not carry undue weight for students moving to the next grade, and test results will only count for 10 percent of a final course grade. Furthermore, SB 355 provides an opt-out policy that respects parental rights. In addition, the bill provides considerable flexibility for special education students, especially the cognitively disabled.

SB 355 was written to take advantage of the new flexibility of the federal ESSA. Although I realize that the new federal education bill, over 1,000 pages, actually expands the federal footprint in state educational policy, the state of Georgia should take advantage of the flexibility it offers.
The Senate Appropriations Subcommittees have been meeting over the past few weeks to review the Governor’s and House of Representatives’ recommendations for the Amended Fiscal Year 2016 Budget. On Wednesday, we passed the amended budget unanimously. The Senate agreed to add an additional $2 billion in funding to be allocated across the state to areas including technology initiatives in local school systems, public safety enhancements and transportation infrastructure improvements.
The fight against sex trafficking has been an ongoing battle in Georgia. We have been working to create safe harbors for victims of sex trafficking crimes and passed legislation last year that extends the statute of limitations and creates a fund and commission with the purpose of providing rehabilitative services. This year, we are fighting against another sector of the sex trade pimping and pandering. Monday, we passed Senate Bill 278 unanimously. SB 278 imposes stricter penalties on those convicted of pimping, pandering or housing a place of prostitution. This bill will also require those who have been convicted of these crimes a second time to be added to the National Sex Offender Registry.
Everybody deserves the right to life, but sometimes young women are faced with an unexpected pregnancy that they are not prepared to handle. These women may think that terminating the pregnancy is the only option because they cannot afford prenatal care and they cannot commit to being a parent at this time in their life. The Senate passed Senate Bill 308 Thursday, which creates the Positive Alternatives for Pregnancy Grant Program. This program will fund services for women such as pregnancy tests, health screenings, prenatal care, birth classes and planning. By providing these pregnancy support services, young women will have the opportunity to safely carry a child to term. At which point, they may decide whether to keep the child or provide the gift of a child to a loving family.
It was a wonderful experience to see so many people at the Capitol on Wednesday in support of religious freedom. Thousands of supporters, estimated to be 5,000 to 7,000, were here exercising their First Amendment rights. Franklin Graham, who is traveling to each of the nation's state capitols, urged citizens to stand up for righteousness in the public square and to repent of their own sins and apathy. He is urging Christians to pray for spiritual revival and to personally engage in civic duty, not only to vote and support Christian men and women running for office, but to run for office themselves and make their voices heard on the issues. I was glad to see that a number of people attended the event from the Third Senate District.
Heading into Crossover - Week 7
ATLANTA - February 26, 2016

During week seven of the 2016 legislative session, we wrapped up legislative day 29 and are well on our way to Crossover Day. With Crossover Day set for Monday, February 29, we must pass all bills to the House of Representatives before the midnight deadline.  If any bill does not receive a passing vote in its original chamber, then it cannot move on in the legislative process and must start anew by being refiled during the next legislative session. 

I have always been an advocate for quality education in Georgia which respects parental rights, local control, and teacher-led instruction that is not micro-managed by distant bureaucracies. Teachers work hard to provide our students with the best educations possible. I ought to know. My wife started her career as a teacher. However, with the increase in the amount of standardized testing, teachers are hard pressed to balance genuine instructional time with what has become derisively know as "test-prep."
Glynn County citizens should take note that Senate Bill 375, which deals with procedures for all future incorporation efforts, passed the Senate 55-1. The legislation provides a uniform and carefully constructed process by which studies and appropriate information is obtained prior to incorporation referendums.

This week, we also passed a number of constitutional amendments that will ensure Georgians have the opportunity to prosper in our state. Every constitutional amendment must receive voter approval, so all of these issues will appear on an upcoming ballot if they are also approved by the House of Representatives.
Wrap-up on Crossover - Week 8
ATLANTA - March 5, 2016

At the beginning of the 2016 legislative session, the Senate Republican Caucus released our list of priorities for this year. That list focused on protecting our citizens: their safety, their First Amendment rights, their businesses, and their health, among other concerns. Throughout this session, the Senate has passed many bills that support the efforts we outlined, which, if passed by the House and signed into law, will help Georgians be physically safer, be more secure in their private businesses, and be shielded from an over-reaching government which now threatens the most basic of human rights, the free exercise of religion.

Last week, I talked in-depth about three bills (Senate Bills 310, 355, and 357) that will help our students, parents, and teachers. All of the bills have now advanced past the Senate chamber and will be heard in the House. Here is a brief summary.
Senate Bill 310, the Transparency in Education Act, requires schools, agencies or local boards of education to provide a written analysis to the General Assembly when applying for grants over $20 million that affect education policy in Georgia. This bill was passed by the Senate with a vote of 36-18. Senate Bill 355, known as the Student Protection Act, passed 39-9, and permits students with certain conditions to be excused from taking state mandated standardized tests by a parent or medical professional, allows students to take these tests in paper and pencil versions, and provides an appeals process for students who are not promoted to the next grade. Senate Bill 357 passed unanimously out of the Senate and revises the state-defined objectives of local school boards to ensure our students receive an education that enables them to fulfill their God-given potential. It also ensures that no school board policy can punish board members for exercising their freedom of speech.
With regard to public safety this week, the Senate has considered how our state can deal with illegal immigration issues. When President Obama was re-elected in 2012, he created - by Executive Order, a deferred action amnesty plan for deportation of illegal aliens who came to the United States as children. This plan is often referred to as DACA and provides these individuals with work permits and “genuine” social security numbers. Currently, in order to obtain a Georgia driver’s license (and the rights and liberties that come with it including the right to vote) you must have a social security number and be of legal status. To protect our citizens and our jobs, the Senate passed Senate Bill 6 on Monday.  SB 6 creates a special driver’s privilege card for immigrants granted lawful alien status under the deferred action plan. A driver’s privilege card is subject to the same laws and penalties as a driver’s license and can only be used to legally operate a vehicle in Georgia. The driver’s privilege card cannot be used for identification purposes and certainly not for voting rights.
Another bill we passed this week that protects the citizens of Georgia is Senate Bill 416. It promotes public safety through a reorganization of the Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center (GISAC). SB 416 will make the GISAC a “fusion” center in which local, state and federal agencies work together on specific issues to detect, prevent and respond to criminal or terrorist activities. This type of coordination will allow law enforcement to share information and pool resources for enhanced strategic planning and response to terror threats.

Business men and women will be pleased to see that Senate Bill 206 passed. Businesses have been unfairly absorbing the debts of people who skip out on their water bills. Although current Georgia law ensures that water suppliers cannot refuse service to any residential property based on debts incurred by the previous owner, occupant, or lessee, that same right has been denied to businesses. I sponsored SB 206 which works to protect Georgia’s small businesses the way we protect our citizens. SB 206 expands this code section of Georgia law to include all types of property, not just residential, and provides new instructions for water suppliers in providing debtors with information regarding past due and late charges.
It was a pleasure to meet with the Camden County Chamber during their visit to the Capitol Wednesday. I had the opportunity to talk with all 22 members who made the drive to Atlanta.
Additional bills that received a Senate vote this week include the following:

SB 271 allows mental health facilities to involuntarily commit a patient whose release date was planned, if the patient is still considered unsafe.

SB 275 prohibits counties, municipalities or any other government body from establishing any policy that restricts free speech within the government body.

SB 312 establishes the minimum payment amount for HOPE scholarship awards to be $134.00 per credit hour or $2000.00 per semester. This allows HOPE scholarship recipients to be awarded one-hundred percent of the cost of tuition, up to 15 credit hours.

SB 258 prevents the county board of tax assessors from being able to raise the value of a property during an active appeals process.
I was also glad to see Senate Bill 357 pass the Senate Education Committee. I co-sponsored this bill because in places around our state our school board officials have been unnecessarily singled out and reprimanded simply for exercising their freedom of speech on Board of Education policies with which they disagree. This has been a result of a State Board of Education policy based on a 2010 state law, one which conveniently appeared at the same time that the Race to the Top grant came to Georgia.  This has caused a genuine abridgement of First Amendment constitutional rights directed specifically at school board members and unless we rescind this law, the State and local districts will be facing court challenges all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Each year, as the Georgia General Assembly convenes, we follow the same process to introduce and pass legislation, a process that sometimes appears to lack enough time for citizen review and input. Thursday, we passed Senate Resolution 842, which creates the Senate Study Committee on the Legislative Process. This study committee will evaluate and determine an efficient, transparent method of reviewing bills, amendments, substitute bills, and conference committee reports to promote the confidence of the citizens of the state of Georgia in the legislative process. I am honored to have carried this bill through the Senate.
SB 355 received a “do pass” recommendation from the Senate Education and Youth Committee Wednesday and should go to the floor Monday.

Senate Bill 310, the Transparency in Education Act, passed favorably out of the Senate Education and Youth Committee on Wednesday. This bill requires any department, agency or state official applying for a grant over $20 million for Pre-k through grade 12 education to provide a written analysis to the Senate and House Education Committees explaining the effects the grant will have on policy, state laws, budget decisions due to unfunded mandates, and governance 30 days before that application is filed. It is imperative that we know what these grants mean for our schools so we can better determine if it is something we wish to pursue. This open and transparent process will promote more stability and continuity in our education policies and keep us from switching programs every few years. SB 310 will now go to the Senate floor for a vote.
(2) Parents may obtain a licensed therapist's order or a physician's order to excuse a child from any or all parts of state mandated assessments, and a parent or legal guardian's request shall be granted anytime a child has been diagnosed with a life-threatening or serious health condition.

(3) Local school systems are required to develop guidelines which will prohibit punitive policies against students whose parents have requested that their children not participate in standardized assessments and instead ensure that positive learning opportunities are provided.

(4) To ensure that local school systems do not feel unnecessary pressures from the federal Every Student Succeeds Act that expects a statewide 95 percent participation rate on standardized tests, this bill also makes clear that teachers, principals, assistant principals, schools, and local school systems shall not be subject to any penalties due to any student's nonparticipation.
In its original version, Senate Bill 355 addressed concerns regarding both teachers and students with regard to this testing climate. However, another bill working its way through the Senate is solely focused on addressing the concerns brought up by teachers and administrators. Therefore, since two similar bills cannot both make it across the aisle, I have streamlined SB 355 to primarily address parental and student concerns. It features the following primary rights for parents and students:

(1) Local school boards will now have the option for responding to parent requests for their children to have a paper-and-pencil format of any standardized assessment. Studies are now showing that students actually do better with paper-and-pencil formats since computer-driven tests can actually confuse the testing process. 
Senate Resolution 756 provides for a decrease in the state income tax when general fund revenues exceed $23.6 billion, and the general reserves fund holds at least 8 percent of that amount. 

Senate Resolution 604 prohibits the imposition of state ad valorem taxes on tangible property after January 1, 2017.

Senate Resolution 675 declares English as the official language of the State of Georgia.

Senate Resolution 388 prevents discrimination in the public funding of social services by allowing religious or faith based organizations to receive public funds, directly or indirectly, in order to provide social services to Georgia citizens.
Focusing on House Bills After Crossover - Week 9
ATLANTA - March 11, 2016

The Senate has now completed legislative day 35 of our 40 day session. We have shifted our focus and are now vetting and voting on only bills that originated in the House of Representatives. While we have passed several House bills already, we have a lot more to work  over the next five legislative days.

This week we passed the only bill we are required by law to pass: the general budget. After numerous weeks of budget briefings and reviewing the funding requests presented by state agencies, the Senate passed House Bill 751, also known as the Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 General Budget, on Thursday.

Past years of responsible budgeting, even during tough financial times, has allowed Georgia’s economy to rebound faster than many other states. The proposed budget increase, from $21.7 billion in FY 2016 to $23.7 billion in FY 2017, is proof that Georgia is continuing to grow and invest in the future.
Due to the improved financial conditions of the state budget, state employees will finally see their hard work and dedication to Georgia rewarded. The FY 2017 general budget provides for a merit-based salary increase to reward outstanding state employees. In addition, we want our retired workers to know they are appreciated. The last time a retired state employee received a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) was in 2010. Our state has an obligation to treat its workers fairly and that includes in retirement. This year, the General Assembly is working to fix this. For FY 2017, the Senate and House provided funds for a one-time COLA adjustment for Employees’ Retirement System of Georgia retirees. However, we all have to bear in mind that the budget is going into Conference Committee, and we are waiting for all the final recommendations to be approved by conferees.
We want Georgia to remain the best state to live, to work and to play, and we do that by passing fiscally conservative budgets that provide funding to education, public safety, healthcare and transportation. If you are interested in learning more about the budget, the full text is available on the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget website: https://opb.georgia.gov/.

We hear about school shootings on the news more often than we should, and Friday the Senate passed a measure that will work to protect our college students from tragedies like these. House Bill 859, the campus carry bill, will permit any person holding a valid carry license to carry a concealed handgun on any public college or university property in Georgia. Currently, if an active shooter were to walk onto a college campus in Georgia, students of that university would be defenseless. This legislation will allow our students to protect themselves and others if this were to happen. HB 859 does not allow concealed carry at sporting events or campus housing, including fraternity and sorority housing. Eight other states allow concealed carry on public college campuses; it is time for Georgia to do the same.
Ensuring Georgians remain healthy is very important to me. Many of you are required to take medication daily, and unfortunately, down here in rural Georgia, access to pharmacies is not always convenient. Luckily, medications are now able to be shipped directly to your door, making it easier on you. This week, the Senate passed House Bill 886. This bill requires that any pharmacy shipping medication must use a shipping method that is in accordance with recognized standards. This can include the use of temperature tags, time temperature strips, insulated packaging or a combination of these.

One of the most important rules of the road is the Spencer Pass Law or the “move over” law. Currently, if you are driving and see an emergency vehicle, highway maintenance vehicle with flashing lights or a tow truck on the side of the road, you are to move over or slow down as a safety precaution. Friday, the Senate passed House Bill 767 which will add utility service vehicles to the Spencer Pass Law.
For those following religious liberty efforts, the Senate is still waiting for the House of Representatives to respond to our amendment to HB 757. In its current form, House Bill 757 combines the Pastors Protection Act with the First Amendment Defense Act. All the House needs to do is simply agree to the Senate version, and the bill would be sent to the Governor's desk. However, global corporations and the Metro-Atlanta Chamber of Commerce have little to no regard for religious liberty and the principles of limited government.  They are urging the House and the Governor to defeat the legislation. Money talks in Atlanta, but it is my hope that the voice of the people will prevail.

I look forward to updating you on what’s happening under the Gold Dome as we wrap up the 2016 legislative session. It continues to be an honor to serve you, my constituents, from the 3rd Senate District.  If there is ever anything I can do for you please do not hesitate to contact my office. 
News Room 2016

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.
HB 219 exempts specific pools, such as those owned by a condominium complex, from being classified as public swimming pools. HB 219 allows for residents or owners of apartment complexes or country clubs to request inspections of an area pool free of charge

HB 727 establishes time constraints on when fireworks can be ignited, allows the Governor to restrict the use of fireworks during times of drought and grants authority to the State Fire Marshall and other appropriate agencies to enforce these new regulations.

HB 588 provides for electronic tracking for the sales of any products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine.

HB 739 revises and adds requirements for the process of adopting and examining instructional materials and content at the state and local level. It provides for the State Board of Education to select a committee of educators to examine instructional materials and provide recommendations to the Board. In the event the Board elects to provide for state approved instructional materials and content, it must  establish a review and recommendation process that includes the opportunity for public comment and parental input prior to the adoption of the materials and content with specific notice requirements.
Protecting our children is top priority for parents throughout the state. It is especially sensitive when a child has been a victim of child abuse or neglect. Monday, the Senate passed House Bill 725, titled the Child Abuse Records Protection Act, which is designed to protect the records of child abuse in these situations. HB 725 directs courts to issue a court order before child abuse records are released. According to the bill, the court must issue a protective order identifying who may view the records and where they are allowed to access them. The records must also be returned to the court.

In 2014, Congress passed the Federal Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act to ease financial burdens placed on those with disabilities. This week, the Georgia State Senate passed our own version of the ABLE Act, which was modeled after the federal version. House Bill 768 provides for tax-free savings accounts that will cover only qualified disability expenses such as housing, education, or transportation, while also not affecting a disabled person’s eligibility for social security or food assistance benefits. It is imperative that we provide all Georgians with the opportunity to live their best lives, and I believe this legislation brings us one step closer.
After the House vote, the bill was immediately transmitted back to the Senate for either an agree or disagree motion. The Senate sponsor of the bill agreed to the changes and asked for the Senate to move forward with a vote in support. The Senate then passed the revised bill 37 to 18. The bill now awaits the Governor's signature. It is my hope that the Governor will sign the bill and that Georgia will honor religious liberty in the same way that all the states adjoining Georgia and many others across the nation have done by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

When families experience hard times, it can become a challenge to provide for their children. On Wednesday, the Senate passed House Bill 887, which works to ease this burden while preserving the family unit until the parents can get back on their feet. The Supporting and Strengthening Families Act gives parents the right to grant temporary caregiving authority for a child to another person for a limited period without involving the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS). Under this bill, DFCS would only be involved if the agency has been involved with the child in the past. This bill also provides for visitation rights for grandparents in cases where parents of a child are no longer together.
Happy Easter and Sine Die - Week 11
ATLANTA - March 25, 2016

This week the Senate adjourned Sine Die as we completed the 2016 session in a similar way that it began; a ceremonial bang of the gavel. We worked until midnight both legislative days this week to ensure we were passing legislation that would have the best impact for all Georgians. In this last week alone, the Senate passed over 80 bills.

When the Senate gaveled out of session at midnight, I was pleased with the number of bills passed out of our chamber this week that promote better healthcare for Georgians, protect Second Amendment rights and uphold the standards for a quality judicial system in our state.

Everyone who has experienced a stroke, or loves someone who has, knows how difficult and time consuming recovery can be. This is especially true in rural Georgia where treatment centers are few and far between. House Bill 853, the Coverdell-Murphy Act, promotes the establishment of remote treatment stroke centers to provide for rural and underserved patients throughout the state, as well as establishing comprehensive stroke centers to treat complex stroke patients.
Another growing health concern in our state is the number of uninsured or underinsured Georgians and their access to medicine. This week, the Senate took a step towards solving this problem. House Bill 897 creates a drug repository program through the Georgia Department of Health. The repository program will be responsible for accepting and dispensing donated over-the-counter and prescription drugs to individuals who are considered to be “eligible patients,” or an individual who is indigent, uninsured, underinsured, or enrolled in a public assistance health benefits program.  It also repeals the previous “Utilization of Unused Prescription Drugs Act.” It is my hope that the bill will allow more Georgians access to life saving prescriptions and over-the-counter medicines.
Maintaining the integrity of our state's judges is crucial to ensuring we have a fair and just judicial system. House Bill 808 establishes a new Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) and provides for its membership and duties including the power to discipline, remove and cause involuntary retirement of judges. HB 808 provides that all papers and proceedings of the JQC remain confidential until an issuance of public reprimand, censure, suspension, retirement or removal by the Supreme Court. 

House Resolution 1113 proposes an amendment to the Georgia Constitution to abolish the current Judicial Qualifications Commission and grant the General Assembly the authority to create and provide for a Judicial Qualifications Commission by general law. This measure will appear on the ballot and requires approval by the citizens of Georgia.
As the terrorist attacks in Brussels have tragically reminded all of us, this world is becoming more dangerous. Citizens must be more vigilant and prepared for self-defense. Our state, too, must be more prepared, and I was glad to see that Senate Bill 416, which establishes the Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center within the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, passed the House unanimously on the last day of the session. It will serve as a fusion center for the sharing and analysis of criminal intelligence and terrorism analytical components with other law enforcement entities at the local, state, and federal levels.
On the Home Stretch - Week 10
ATLANTA - March 18, 2016

The Georgia General Assembly completed its 38th legislative day on Wednesday, leaving us with two working days left in the 2016 legislative session. The final days of the session are filled with an extra sense of urgency as we work to pass legislation that prioritizes the needs of all Georgians.

House Bill 757, which has probably been the most watched bill of the session, passed the House this week, 104 to 65, with additional changes. What once began as the Pastors Protection Act was amended in the Senate with broad-based religious liberty protections known as the First Amendment Defense Act. The House decided to strip out most of that language, but left in some protections for faith-based organizations that are primarily church-based or church-affiliated. They then added language which mirrors the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, legislation that the Senate passed over to the House last year for consideration.
Our Second Amendment rights, anchored in the Lockean political tradition that every person has the right to self-defense, were preserved for us by our founding fathers. This year, we have passed measures that not only protect these rights, but protect the citizens of Georgia. House Bill 1060 clarifies regulations relating to gun possession, licensing and immunity. The bill expands where weapons can be carried by individuals with an active weapons carry permit and provides that retired law enforcement officers in good standing are exempt from certain carry restrictions. House Bill 1060 also allows Georgia to recognize an out-of-state carry license as valid for new residents for up to 90 days and restricts financial discrimination against firearm dealers.
Though this is a somber way to end this legislative update and the end of the session, these are the realities we must deal with as legislators and as citizens. Yet, as I leave Atlanta and head for home, I am also reminded of the many blessings we have and the precious heritage of freedom we still enjoy as a self-governing people. This heritage must be defended, and there is much work that must be done by all of us if we expect to pass the blessings of liberty to the next generation, and a big part of that is just to exercise the rights that we hold dear.

In closing, I will simply exercise my First Amendment right to wish you a Happy Easter, which Christians celebrate as the central tenet of the faith. We believe that Jesus Christ, as God the Son, died for the sins of mankind, that He rose from the dead, and that He provides forgiveness and eternal life to all those who know and follow Him. 
With the potential construction of the Palmetto Pipeline, which could run through District 3, the use of eminent domain for a private company is a serious concern. House Bill 1036 provides for a moratorium extending through June 30, 2017 restricting oil pipeline companies from exercising eminent domain powers for private construction projects. The bill also calls for the creation of a State Commission on Petroleum Pipelines so that the state has a better legal structure to deal with these types of situations going forward.

Although many other bills were passed this week, here are just a few I would like to highlight for you:

HB 1028 requires the owner or manager of a municipal landfill to notify local governments within 14 days after the accidental release of a contaminant, like coal ash, which could pose a threat to human health. I am especially concerned about this issue due to the potential threat to our water supply from coal ash contaminants.
Wrap-Up of the 2015 Georgia General Assembly

ATLANTA - March 31, 2016

The dust has settled since Sine Die last week, and we’re beginning to finally process some of this session’s victories, as well as defeats. It was, without a doubt, a productive session with much deliberation and discussion. We tackled issues on a wide-range of topics, and I believe we ended the session with a more financially secure and safe Georgia.

Education was a success throughout the session as we passed numerous bills that would improve the quality of education in our state. Senate Bill 355, which I sponsored, passed through the House last week securing its transmission to the Governor’s desk.  Also known as the “Student Protection Act,” this bill provides that students would not be required to take state mandated standardized tests if they are suffering from a serious health condition, which is documented by a physician or licensed therapist. Additionally, the State School Superintendent shall develop alternative policies for students who don’t participate in standardized tests that local school boards can adopt. The State Board of Education and local school districts may also provide paper and pencil versions of standardized tests if the parent of a student requests them.
We also passed legislation reducing the percentage of student test scores that would be taken into consideration when performing teacher evaluations. Senate Bill 364 lowers the percentage from 50 to 30 percent. For principals and assistant principals, the legislation requires student growth to count for 40 percent of the evaluations.

Senate Bill 275, which passed, ensures that governmental entities, including boards of education, cannot adopt ethics policies that interfere with a board member's freedom of speech. Two other education measures that I worked on, Senate Bill 357 and Senate Bill 310, instead of passing as stand-alone legislation, were added, in part, to other bills which did pass through the House by our deadline. SB 357, similar to SB 275, addresses board of education policies, and SB 310 requires more transparency from the state in how education grants will affect long-term education policies and finances. All of these changes will benefit Georgia’s board of education members, principals, teachers, and students and generally improve the quality of education received in our state.
With regard to illegal immigration, I was also glad to see that Senate Bill 269 passed both chambers. It ensures that all local governmental entities that receive state funding must prohibit immigration sanctuary policies. 

Two high-profile bills that were introduced early in the session failed to receive a vote in the Senate. The widely publicized bills that would legalize casino gambling and allow the in-state cultivation of medical marijuana failed to gain enough traction this session and were therefore defeated. I am pleased that we were able to beat back both of these ill-advised efforts, but we will have to be ready again next year to again play defense in the Senate.
After three years of effort and finally making a breakthrough with the House of Representatives this year on addressing religious liberty protections, it was a sad moment to see Governor Nathan Deal decide to veto House Bill 757, the Free Exercise Protection Act. However, perhaps next year, when the General Assembly sends him another bill or two or three, he may have a change of heart.

However, in the bigger picture, it has been clearly demonstrated by the reaction of the hard Left and their allies that Georgia, as well as the rest of the nation, that we are in for a protracted battle to defend religious liberty. Those who take their faith seriously will need to become greatly engaged in civic life in order to maintain the freedoms that, up to this point, they have taken for granted. What the hard Left is attempting to do, along with the cooperation of the media and big business, is to recast any terms of religious liberty into the twisted idea that it means a "license to discriminate." That is what the Left does. They take something that is good and repackage it as something bad. Once that happens, then bad results follow.
While Georgia may not be presently experiencing the types of adverse government action cases that have happened to the bakers in Oregon and Colorado or the photographer in New Mexico or the florist in Washington, we have seen our own Georgia Department of Human Services dismiss Dr. Erick Walsh after learning he was a lay minister whose sermons did not conform to the new sexual orthodoxy of the Left. We have seen the City of Atlanta fire its former Fire Chief, Kelvin Cochran, for expressing his views on marriage and sexual purity in his book. We have seen a college student dismissed from her chosen degree program in counseling because she refused to compromise her religious convictions on biblical sexuality. The Left, with its "collectivist ethics" where everyone must walk in lock-step, cannot tolerate disagreement, and if religious liberty stands in their way for their brave new world social agenda, then religious liberty and all that flows from being able to peacefully follow one's conscience, must be eliminated.
Since our founding, religious liberty has always been honored as a preeminent human right, and Georgia citizens, along with their businesses and nonprofit organizations - I might add, have every right to peacefully speak and act upon the tenets of their faith without concern for civil lawsuits or adverse action from government. The Bill of Rights and U.S. Constitution have not changed, and the way our courts and social institutions interpret our right to the free exercise of religion should not change either. Our efforts to strengthen religious liberty protections are meant to ensure that our courts and legal system as well as government bureaucracies do not diminish our free exercise rights as has happened right here in Georgia and is happening across the nation. In the General Assembly, we will continue this fight, because our first freedom is the foundation for all our freedoms.
While we were able to make progress on many issues throughout the session, there is still much work to be done. There is opportunity over the summer and fall months to further study legislation that was not successful this year so it can be brought back next year. I, and my conservative colleagues at the Capitol, will not surrender the rights of countless Georgians and we will never stop fighting to protect you and your constitutionally protected liberties.
Third District