WEEK 6 CAPITOL UPDATE
My colleagues and I returned to the Gold Dome on Tuesday, February 16 for the sixth week of the 2021 legislative session. We spent three productive days in session this week and passed more legislation on the House floor and in our committees. By the end of the week, we finished Legislative Day 19, and the halfway point of the session and the important “Crossover Day” deadline are both right around the corner.
The House unanimously passed legislation at the beginning of the week which seeks to automatically enroll thousands of Georgia’s most vulnerable children in health insurance. House Bill 163 would require the Georgia Department of Community Health to submit an amendment to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to implement “express lane” eligibility in Medicaid and the PeachCare for Kids Program. Upon federal approval of this plan, the Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS) would automatically enroll and renew eligible children who have already qualified for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in Medicaid and PeachCare for Kids. There are approximately 120,000 children enrolled in SNAP who are also eligible for our state health insurance programs, yet some of these children miss out on this coverage because they have to complete a separate application with the DHS. By eliminating the need for families to submit the same information twice with the DHS, this legislation could close this coverage gap and help ensure that uninsured children receive the health care coverage that they deserve.
In an effort to enhance the quality of life for many Georgia families, my colleagues and I overwhelmingly passed House Bill 146 this week to extend paid parental leave to many of our valuable state employees. This legislation would provide up to 120 hours, or three weeks, of paid parental leave annually to eligible state employees and local board of education employees for qualifying life events, such as after the birth of their child and after an adoptive or foster child is first placed in their home. Under this bill, state workers who have been employed for at least six months would be able to use this parental leave regardless of whether they have paid leave benefits. This legislation was first introduced during the 2020 legislative session, but after passing in the House, the bill stalled in the Senate as the legislature shifted its focus to the pandemic last year. As the economy and job market continue to recover, providing this crucial benefit to our state employees would help Georgia retain and recruit the best and brightest workforce.
We also unanimously passed House Bill 128, which was inspired by Gracie Joy Nobles, a Georgia child with Down syndrome, to help safeguard against organ transplant discrimination for children and adults living with disabilities. If Gracie’s Law is enacted, individuals who are candidates for an anatomical gift or organ transplant would not be deemed ineligible or denied insurance coverage or a medical referral solely based on the individual’s physical or mental disability. Additionally, if an individual cannot independently meet medical requirements after a transplant operation but has an adequate support system to assist with these recovery needs, the individual would not be deemed ineligible for the transplant. Children’s Health Care of Atlanta (CHOA), which performs most of the pediatric solid organ transplants in the state, has expressed support for this legislation and also reported that there is no medical reason to warrant such discrimination. This is another piece of legislation that passed in the House last session with bipartisan support, and I hope that Gracie’s Law will cross the finish line this year after consideration from the Senate.
Earlier this session, Governor Brian Kemp unveiled a legislative package to reform adoption and foster care laws, and the House overwhelmingly passed one of these measures this week to make several changes to these laws. House Bill 154 would lower the age at which a person is allowed to petition for adoption from 25 to 21 years old. It is very rare for a young adult to try to adopt in our state, but this change in HB 154 would allow an older sibling or another close relative to petition for adoption as an avenue for the child to remain with these family members if it is deemed as the best option. Additionally, this legislation would recognize other state’s adoption processes and clarify venue alternatives for out-of-state adoption proceedings. This bill would also specify paperwork requirements for those who seek to adopt a child whose parents do not first need to surrender their rights, allow the state to effect service upon a parent even if a mail request was sent back with a return receipt, as well as allow a non-resident petitioner to appear for the final hearing via electronic means if the petition for adoption is uncontested. Furthermore, HB 154 would permit the state to begin the search of the putative father after an adoption petition has been filed, require the petitioner to request for an investigator to verify the adoption petition if the court fails to appoint one and confirm that juvenile courts would keep children’s names confidential during proceedings. Finally, it would create a civil cause of action as a tort claim to address adoption scams where individuals intentionally misrepresent a pregnancy or intention to place a child for adoption. Since the House first modernized and overhauled adoption laws in 2018, the number of adoptions in our state has grown tremendously, while the number of children in foster care continues to decrease. With these important changes in HB 154, even more Georgia children could be adopted and placed in loving homes, including homes with their own family.
We also passed the following bills during this fast-paced week:
· House Bill 90, which would clarify the damages a person holding a security in land may seek when the land is converted without their consent; this would create uniformity with the Uniform Commercial Code by specifying that a buyer in the ordinary course of business shall not have liability to such persons;
· House Bill 93, which would eliminate duplicative state licensure requirements and regulation of clinical laboratories in Georgia that are certified by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services;
· House Bill 111, which would act as the annual revision of Georgia law related to banking and finance. Superfluous language is clarified, removed and consolidated, and terminology is also updated, and outdated language is removed;
· House Bill 130, which would require counties, municipalities and consolidated governments to treat fence detection systems for non-residentially zoned properties the same as alarm systems and would prohibit these local authorities from banning the installation or use of fence detection systems that comply with Georgia law;
· House Bill 165, which would allow for the use of a mount for a telecommunications device on the front windshield of a motor vehicle;
· House Bill 168, which would create an exception to the confidentiality rules pertaining to inmate files for purposes of responding to actions by the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. This exception would be for information requested by the local district attorney when an inmate has been sentenced for a serious violent felony or a dangerous sexual offense that was committed against a minor;
· House Bill 169, which would add the completion of a commercial driver training course as a requirement to receive a commercial driver’s license to make Georgia law consistent with federal requirements, and it would change the maximum length of time that a commercial driver’s instruction permit is valid from two 180-day periods to one 365-day period;
· House Bill 200, which would change the description of the type of three-wheeled motor vehicle that a driver with a Class C driver’s license is permitted to drive from a three-wheeled vehicle that is equipped with a steering wheel to a three-wheeled vehicle that has seat belts and a frame to partially or fully enclose the driver, as well as exempt drivers of certain three-wheeled vehicles from headgear and eye-protective requirements;
· House Bill 207, which would require certain specified documents and registrations to be submitted to the Georgia Department of Revenue electronically instead of through the mail;
· House Bill 212, which would revise Georgia law regarding cardiopulmonary resuscitation to amend the term “parent” to include a person with legal authority to act on behalf of a minor or a parent of an adult without decision-making capacity, as well as clarify requirements for the issuance of an order not to resuscitate a minor to ensure no such order can be issued without consent of the minor’s parent if the parent is reasonably available or competent;
· House Bill 254, which would update Georgia’s public adjuster laws and increase consumer protections from fraud by requiring public adjusters to be licensed by the Department of Insurance (DOI), requiring these adjusters to use DOI approved contracts, among others; this bill would also outline rules for fees, commissions, advertisements and solicitations;
· House Bill 282, which would update Georgia’s ad valorem tax for qualified timberland property by allowing an applicant to declare a tract of land as contiguous even if the tract is divided by certain boundaries, roads or railways, as well as update the qualified timberland property manual and the requirements for a parcel map drawn by the county cartographer or Geographic Information System technician;
· House Bill 287, which would require that mandatory instruction regarding drug and alcohol use include tobacco and vapor products for students in every grade;
· House Bill 353, which would require drivers to make a lane change away from a bicyclist when passing them on a roadway if it is possible or reduce their speed and pass the bicyclist with at least three feet between the vehicle and bicycle; a violation of this law would be a misdemeanor.
WEEK 5 CAPITOL UPDATE
Monday, February 8 marked the start of the fifth week of the 2021 legislative session. During this busy week, the House Rules Committee began holding regular meetings each day, and as a result, my colleagues and I voted on several bills on the House floor. By the end of the week, we completed legislative day 16 and are moving closer to the halfway point of the 40-day session.
The House voted on House Bill 112 at the beginning of the week. The Georgia COVID-19 Pandemic Business Safety Act was enacted early on in the pandemic to provide certain immunities from liability claims regarding COVID-19 for health care facilities, health care providers, businesses or individuals. The legislature first passed the Georgia COVID-19 Pandemic Business Safety Act, or Senate Bill 359, when we returned to the Capitol last June after the stay-at-home order, not knowing then that the pandemic would continue through 2021. Originally set to expire this July, HB 112 would extend these protections until July 14, 2022, and the bill will now undergo consideration in the Senate.
My colleagues and I unanimously passed legislation this week to curb third-party solicitations that cause Georgia’s small businesses and individuals to lose money each year. House Bill 153 would require any person or entity who mails a solicitation for services related to corporate filings with the Secretary of State to include a disclaimer at the top of the document notating that the document is not a bill or official government document. These unfair and deceptive solicitations are known to look very similar to government documents and have misled businesses into paying more to use a third-party service. However, these filings only cost $50 if a business or individual goes directly through the Secretary of State’s Office, and HB 153 would help the business community, especially our small business owners, save money on their annual filings.
The Amended Fiscal Year 2021 (AFY 2021) budget, or House Bill 80, also received final passage this week. The final version of the supplemental budget includes revisions that were made in the Senate earlier in the week, and on Thursday, we approved HB 80 with a House amendment. The final version of the AFY 2021 budget is based on a revenue estimate of $26.56 billion, which is an increase of $654.3 million, or 2.5 percent, over the original budget. With this increase in new revenue, the General Assembly allocated funds to high priority needs like health and education. This new funding will support the Department of Public Health and boost funding for high-demand public health grants due to COVID-19. HB 80 also reflects the governor’s recommendation to restore 60 percent of funding for K-12 education. Finally, this budget recognizes and utilizes additional federal assistance, which will allow us to give Georgia teachers and other school workers a $1,000 pay raise this year, as well as provide funds to help state agencies, colleges and universities and local school systems as they respond to the pandemic. After passing in the House and Senate, HB 80 was sent to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.
Further, Governor Brian Kemp, Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan, Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) and other members of House and Senate leadership gathered this week to announce that 57,159 state employees who earn less than $80,000 will receive a one-time bonus of $1,000 during the current fiscal year. Leveraging savings from federal assistance, the AFY 2021 budget includes an additional $59.6 million for these hardworking employees, and the $80,000 cap aligns with the Teacher Salary Schedule’s maximum salary. To address a more than 90 percent turnover rate, correctional officers will also receive this bonus in addition to a 10 percent salary increase that is included in this budget. Since the pandemic began almost a year ago, our state employees have worked tirelessly to continue to provide state services that every Georgian has benefited from this last year, and this bonus is a way to thank them for their dedication to our state.
Additionally, Gov. Kemp, Lt. Gov. Duncan and Speaker Ralston announced the expansion of rural broadband service across 18 counties in Middle Georgia this week through a new Electric Membership Cooperation (EMC) partnership. They reported that Central Georgia EMC (CGEMC) and Southern Rivers Energy (SRE) will join forces with Conexon, a full-service fiber broadband provider, to provide high-speed internet to 80,000 homes and businesses that are EMC members within the next four years, beginning as early as June 2021. With more than $210 million in overall capital investment, CGEMC will invest $135 million, SRE will invest $53 million, and Conexon will contribute $21.5 million. This EMC partnership will design and build 6,890 miles of fiber network to provide broadband coverage, improve electric service and increase reliability through smart grid capabilities. The House has spearheaded initiatives and legislation in recent years to support rural economic development, including broadband expansion, and I am pleased to report that Middle Georgia will soon see the fruits of these efforts.
The House also passed the following bills on the House floor this week:
· House Bill 67, which would extend the sunset from July 1, 2021 to July 1, 2026 for state agencies and departments to write off small amounts due to the state, as well as non-lapsing revenue collected by the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia;
· House Bill 97, which would require that any person appointed as a chief clerk of a probate court, or any clerk designated by a probate judge to exercise such judge’s jurisdiction concerning uncontested matters, to take the oath provided in the bill;
· House Bill 105, which would update Georgia’s law to specifically authorize the Department of Defense to provide compensation to Georgia’s guardsmen who are called to active duty without the governor declaring a state of emergency;
· House Bill 106, which would add the Georgia State Defense Force to the state’s indemnification fund;
· House Bill 129, which would raise the minimum salary to $83,750.51 for sheriffs serving in a county with a population of 39,000 to 49,999;
· House Bill 134, which would exclude cybersecurity contracting and planning meetings from the state’s open meeting requirements and exempts any document or plan for cybersecurity devices, programs or systems from public inspection;
· House Bill 174, which would update the effective date of the Uniform Carriers Act from January 1, 2020, to January 1, 2021, to comply with federal law;
· House Bill 205, which would create new regulations for the travel insurance industry, including establishing uniform meanings of key terms and clarifying sales practices and application of Georgia’s unfair trade practice laws;
· House Bill 208, which would designate the second Wednesday of February as “National Swearing-in Commitment Day” to celebrate the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, which allows young men and women to experience a sample of military life;
· House Bill 246, which would increase the fee for a replacement permit or license from $5 to $10, as well as increase the cost of a limited driving permit from $25 to $32 and the replacement fee for this permit from $5 to $10;
· House Bill 265, which would make several annual updates to the state’s Internal Revenue Code, such as an increase in the deductibility of medical expenses, charitable contributions and business meals, as well as clarification of the tax treatment of loan forgiveness from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
After Presidents Day, my colleagues and I will return for another eventful week under the Gold Dome. As bills continue to make their way through the legislative process, please contact me with any questions or concerns you have regarding potential policies that may impact our district.
WEEK 4 CAPITOL UPDATE
Members of the Georgia House of Representatives returned to the Gold Dome on Monday, February 1, 2021, and kicked off the fourth week of the 2021 legislative session. We convened for four days in the House Chamber, and the pace picked up this week in our committees. As such, many House bills passed out of their respective committees and have been sent to the Rules Committee, where they are now eligible to be called for a vote on the House floor. Also this week, Governor Brian Kemp rolled out more of his legislative initiatives for this session.
One of the more notable bills that was sent to the Rules Committee this week was House Bill 86, or the “Georgia Lottery Mobile Sports Wagering Integrity Act,” which passed out of the House Economic Development & Tourism Committee and seeks to legalize and regulate sports betting in Georgia. Specifically, HB 86 would allow the Georgia Lottery Corporation to regulate sports wagering, and individuals who are 21 years of age and older would be able to place bets on specific professional and Olympic sporting events through an interactive sports wagering platform. The bill includes certain restrictions for sports betting, including prohibiting the use of credit cards, as well as prohibiting league and team insider betting. Additionally, HB 80 would provide resources for individuals with gambling problems or addictions, enhance fan engagement and strengthen partnerships with Georgia sports teams. During the committee hearing this week, it was estimated that sports betting could generate $433 million in gross revenue, and the taxable revenue could add $43 million into the HOPE Scholarship fund. Several of Georgia’s professional sports teams have expressed their desire for legalized sports betting since the industry’s revenue has plummeted due to the pandemic. As our stadiums continue to remain empty for the time being, legalized sports betting may be one way to keep the professional sports industry, and the jobs it provides, afloat during this unprecedented time.
In other news this week, Gov. Kemp unveiled his major “teacher pipeline” legislative package to recruit, prepare, mentor and retain the best teachers for our classrooms. Through legislative measures, Gov. Kemp intends to boost the educator workforce by allowing retired teachers to return to work full-time in communities with the greatest shortage of teachers. To further address teacher shortages, the governor’s legislative proposal would ease certification requirements for veterans to become teachers and give veterans first priority when enrolling for teacher preparation programs. This plan also seeks to increase the number of minority teachers in classrooms by partnering with historically black colleges and universities to recruit minority educators. Further, Gov. Kemp’s plan would ensure that future teachers are better prepared at the university level with more reading-based instruction, as well as prioritize mentorship in the classroom instead of spending too much time on reviews. Bills associated with this legislative package should be filed in the near future, and I will update you on this legislation as it makes its way through the House and Senate.
The governor also recently announced a legislative package to reform adoption and foster care in Georgia. The first bill, House Bill 114, would increase the state’s tax credit for families that adopt from foster care from $2,000 to $6,000 per year for five years. Gov. Kemp’s legislative package also includes House Bill 154 to make it easier for close relatives to adopt children out of foster care by lowering the age an individual may adopt from 25 to 21. Finally, Senate Bill 28 would increase training and resources for case workers that would allow our juvenile court system to better determine the safety needs of children, including those in foster care. SB 28 would also ensure that all reliable information is made available to the court in order to make decisions that are in a child’s best interest, such as whether placing a child in a new home is actually the best course of action. In recent years, the House has championed adoption reform legislation, and I look forward to building upon that work as we examine these bills.
On Friday, Gov. Kemp rolled out House Bill 304, or the “Georgia Made Medical Manufacturing Act.” This key initiative for the 2021 legislative session seeks to incentivize the production of medicine and medical devices within our state to limit our dependency on other states or foreign countries for critical supplies that aid in the fight against COVID-19. The Georgia Made Medical Manufacturing Act is modeled after Georgia’s Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Tax Credit, which was passed by the House during the 2020 legislative session last June. HB 304 would increase the amount of credit available under the state’s Jobs Tax Credit to incentivize job creation and investment in the medical equipment and pharmaceutical manufacturing industries. This legislation is the next step to ensuring Georgia businesses can operate safely this next year, and my colleagues and I will review this legislation once it has been assigned to a House committee when we return for week five of the session.
While we are busy at work at your State Capitol, we are also closely monitoring the state’s high demand for COVID-19 vaccines. As of this week, Georgia has shipped all of its Moderna allocations and has administered nearly 70 percent of the state’s current vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna). On Wednesday, Georgia hit a major milestone with its vaccination efforts as we surpassed the one million vaccination mark, and more than 500,000 Georgians who are 65 and older have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. To ensure that the state’s supply of vaccines can be administered more efficiently, Gov. Kemp recently signed an executive order to allow more medically trained professionals to safely administer the COVID-19 vaccine. Gov. Kemp also announced that Georgia’s weekly vaccine allocation from the federal government will bump up to more than 154,000 starting this month. The governor reported this week that two million Georgians are eligible for the vaccine, including health care workers, public safety officers and residents who are 65 and older and their caregivers. To learn more about the 1A+ phase of Georgia’s vaccine distribution and other important COVID-19 facts, please visit https://dph.georgia.gov/covid-vaccine.
WEEK 3 CAPITOL UPDATE
The third week of the 2021 legislative session under the Gold Dome began on Tuesday, January 26. This week was especially busy as we spent four days in session, and several House committees held their first meetings, both virtually and in-person, to begin considering legislation. During our third week of session, the House Appropriations Committee and its subcommittees passed the Amended Fiscal Year 2021 (AFY 2021) budget and sent a finalized supplemental budget to the House Rules Committee. On Thursday, January 28, my colleagues and I voted on and passed House Bill 80, the AFY 2021 budget, on the House floor.
In June 2020, the original Fiscal Year 2021 budget was set using a revenue estimate of $25.9 billion and reduced funding for all state agencies in preparation for a state revenue decline due to the pandemic. Our state’s economic outlook has improved greatly since then as businesses have safely reopened and much needed federal relief has been distributed. The House’s version of the AFY 2021 budget is based on Governor Brian Kemp’s comprehensive budget proposal for the remainder of the fiscal year, and his revenue estimate for the AFY 2021 budget is $26.56 billion, which is an increase of $654.3 million, or 2.4 percent, compared to the original budget. Directed by the governor’s proposal, HB 80 restores critical funding and reflects the House’s priorities, such as restoring 60 percent of previous reductions to K-12 education funding formulas and boosting grant funding to support our public health agency as it addresses the pandemic. This budget also recognizes $2.7 billion in federal funds that are meant to help our agencies, colleges and local school systems respond to COVID-19.
K- 12 Education
The largest expenditure in the state budget each year goes toward K-12 education, and as such, HB 80 designates a total of $9.6 billion, or 43.4 percent, of the state’s general funds to our K-12 education systems. Last year, the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula funding was reduced by $950 million to account for a 10 percent decline in state revenue, and, at the time, it was impossible for the General Assembly to pass a constitutional, balanced budget without making reductions. However, since state revenues have increased, we were able to restore 60 percent of this reduction to the QBE formula in HB 80. The House also appropriated $41 million for a midterm adjustment to the QBE formula, holding schools harmless for the 35,264, or 2 percent, decline in student enrollment due to the pandemic. Also, as a result of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the House’s version of the amended budget reflects $144.6 million in federal funds for the Department of Early Care and Learning for the Child Care and Development Block Grants.
The House’s supplemental budget also includes important funding for higher education in our state. In the House’s AFY 2021 budget, the University System of Georgia (USG) receives $70.1 million that was not included in the FY 2021 budget; this accounts for the USG’s 1.8 percent enrollment growth and a half percent increase in square footage for its campuses throughout the state. Just as we restored funding for K-12 education, we also restored $8.1 million, or 60 percent, to the USG B-Unit programs, such as the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Medical College of Georgia Hospital/Clinic, among others. HB 80 also adds $3.5 million in new funding for enrollment growth at the Technical College System of Georgia.
As the state continues to grapple with COVID-19, the House also prioritized funding to support our public health agency, which has been pivotal in our state’s handling of COVID-19, as well as other health-focused initiatives. To improve the state’s current response plan, HB 80 includes $18 million for the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) to replace and modernize its outdated epidemiologic surveillance system; with these funds, the DPH would also be able to implement further infrastructure improvements that would help keep track of COVID-19 cases. Likewise, HB 80 provides $285,997 for the DPH to hire three essential leaders to help navigate the agency’s COVID-19 response: a chief medical officer, a deputy commissioner of public health and a chief data officer. We also recognized more than $1 billion from federal relief packages to support the DPH, including funding for epidemiology and laboratory capacity, COVID-19 vaccine preparedness and public health crisis response. The House approved $19.3 million to increase the Medicaid growth allowance for skilled nursing centers by five percent, totaling a rate increase of 3.5 percent. Skilled nursing centers have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic, and this allowance would assist these centers that have experienced large revenue losses and increased staffing costs associated with COVID-19. As a result of the federal “Families First Coronavirus Response” Act, HB 80 captures $372.9 million in savings for the AFY 2021 budget from a temporary 6.2 percent boost in the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) rate. In HB 80, we also appropriated $1.8 million in start-up costs for the Patients First Act and the state’s 1115 Medicaid waiver, which will be effective July 1, 2021. Further, our version of the AFY 2021 budget provides $15.4 million to support the increased utilization of the AIDS Drug Assistance Program during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Georgia’s human services agencies also receive important appropriations in the House’s amended budget. In the AFY 2021 budget, my colleagues and I recognized various federal investments that protect essential programs for the Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD). HB 80 acknowledges more than $130 million in federal relief funds for human service agencies used for a variety of pandemic response-related grants, and the bill also recognizes an additional $35 million in savings from the enhanced FMAP rate, which will ensure funding for certain essential programs within the DHS and the DBHDD. Furthermore, HB 80 utilizes $1.7 million in FMAP savings for a new 10-bed behavioral health crisis center to specifically serve Georgians with a mental health diagnosis and/or an intellectual or developmental disability. We also allocated $4.7 million to the DHS to anticipate an increase in Medicaid services resulting from the Patients First Act. Finally, HB 80 supports foster care in our state by partially restoring $176,500 for the Georgia Multi-Agency Alliance for Children (MAAC) to provide educational services to more than 80 foster children, in addition to the more than 1,700 children already served through this program.
Criminal Justice & Public Safety
In HB 80, we also identified funding opportunities to help our criminal justice and public safety agencies conduct their work more efficiently. In our AFY 2021 budget, my colleagues and I allocated more than $427,000 to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) for recruitment and retention of medical examiners. Georgia’s medical examiners conduct nearly 40 percent more autopsies than the recommended amount due to staff shortages caused by low wages, and this funding would make these positions more competitive. At the governor’s recommendation, HB 80 also includes an additional $223,600 for the GBI to expand the state’s gang database with critical gang-related information provided by local law enforcement. Additionally, the amended budget accounts for $100 million from the CARES Act for public safety agencies to help other state agencies as they continue to respond to the pandemic.
Economic Development & Transportation
The House also designated funding in the AFY 2021 budget to assist Georgia’s economy as it continues to recover from the pandemic. The House reaffirmed its commitment to rural broadband expansion by allocating $20 million for the OneGeorgia Authority to launch its new broadband infrastructure grant program, which would greatly assist rural areas in leveraging resources to address broadband needs that are specific to each rural community. This funding would also provide for a grant administrator to oversee and maintain this broadband program. Furthermore, the AFY 2021 budget recognizes the following CARES Act funding that specifically supports transportation efforts in our state: $25.7 million in CARES Act payments to the Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority and $410.8 million in CARES Act funding for the Georgia Department of Transportation’s Airport Aid program.
Georgia Department of Labor
The House’s AFY 2021 budget recognizes more than $60 million in federal funding for the Georgia Department of Labor (GDOL) to address workforce issues resulting from the pandemic. This includes funding for the department’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) Program, the Short-Term Compensation Program and the Dislocated Worker Program. Many Georgians have experienced unemployment since the start of the pandemic, and the GDOL staff have certainly been overwhelmed by the continual high number of UI benefit claims submitted each week. With this federal funding, the GDOL will be able to better process and pay claims to Georgians.
These are just a few of the highlights of the House’s amended budget. The AFY 2021 budget will now go through the legislative process in the Senate, where it will undergo further review. Next, the House Appropriations Committee and its subcommittees will begin to focus on the Fiscal Year 2022 budget.
WEEK 2 CAPITOL UPDATE
The Georgia General Assembly resumed its work on Tuesday, January 19 for the second week of the 2021 legislative session, which is commonly known as “budget week.” The House and Senate Appropriations committees held a series of joint budget hearings this week, where Governor Brian Kemp delivered opening remarks and presented his formal recommendations for the amended budget and upcoming fiscal year budget. Later in the week, House Appropriations subcommittees quickly got to work to further examine the recommendations and requests for the current year’s amended budget. Whether we participated in the budget hearings in-person or virtually, it was a busy week under the Gold Dome as we worked to ensure that critical state funds are spent wisely while our state continues on the road to economic recovery.
The Georgia General Assembly is required by our state constitution to pass a balanced budget each legislative session, and as such, the appropriations process is one of the most important responsibilities we are tasked with each year. This session, my colleagues and I will first consider legislation for the Amended Fiscal Year 2021 (AFY 2021) budget, which adjusts the current fiscal year’s budget to account for changes in revenue. Then, we will turn our attention to the Fiscal Year 2022 (FY 2022) budget, which is the budget for the upcoming fiscal year that begins on July 1 and ends June 30 of the next calendar year and is set at a revenue estimate of $27.2 billion. Last June, in the midst of the pandemic, the General Assembly prepared for the worst when it passed a reduced Fiscal Year 2021 budget, bracing for the economic fallout due to COVID-19. However, I am pleased to share with you that Gov. Kemp reported optimistic revenue projections that will allow us to restore and expand funding in certain areas of the budgets to help rebuild our economy.
One of the governor’s top budgetary priorities is to restore funding and resources to our K-12 and higher education systems to provide Georgia students with high-quality educational opportunities and the essential skills needed to enter the workforce. Consequently, Gov. Kemp’s proposal includes more than $647 million in the AFY 2021 budget and $573 million in the FY 2022 budget for K-12 education. These appropriations would fully fund enrollment growth, regardless of any reductions in enrollment this fiscal year due to COVID-19. Under the governor’s proposal, our higher education systems would also see restored and additional funding to account for enrollment growth during the current and upcoming school years. Gov. Kemp also announced that Georgia’s education system is estimated to receive more than $3.5 billion from the federal Education Stabilization Fund to ensure that our teachers and school systems are equipped with the necessary resources to provide the best education possible to Georgia students throughout the pandemic.
Gov. Kemp’s budget proposal also reinforces the critical role of Georgia’s expansive transportation infrastructure, which fuels our tourism and logistics industries, as well as attracts businesses looking to bring well-paying jobs to Georgia. To properly maintain this infrastructure and plan for future economic needs, the governor recommends adding nearly $200 million in both the AFY 2021 and FY 2022 budgets to the Georgia Department of Transportation for roadways, including $38.8 million for the State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA). Leveraging more than $500,000 in future Guaranteed Revenue Bonds, the SRTA would focus on developing our toll system and reducing traffic delays on busy interstates. Gov. Kemp’s budget also accounts for $110 million in general obligation bonds for transportation. This bond package includes $100 million to repair and replace bridges and $10 million to upgrade our more than 1,000 miles of short-line rail, both of which play an essential role in supporting Georgia’s manufacturing and agricultural industries.
The governor’s budget also seeks to promote growth and prosperity across our state, particularly in rural areas that have faced unique challenges during the pandemic. To that end, the FY 2022 budget proposal includes nearly $40 million for the OneGeorgia Authority to establish a Rural Innovation Fund, which would offer resources for public-private partnerships tailored to meet the specific needs of every rural community. Additionally, Gov. Kemp recommends an appropriation of $20 million in the AFY 2021 budget and an additional $10 million each year going forward for the OneGeorgia Authority to establish a broadband infrastructure grant program. Many of us have been able to adapt to working from home using virtual apps and programs during the pandemic, yet rural communities with limited broadband access have struggled with remote learning and work-from-home environments. This appropriation would provide rural communities with access to funding that would enable them to leverage federal, local and private resources to implement much needed broadband expansion.
In an effort to protect the health and wellbeing of Georgians, Gov. Kemp’s budget would increase access to affordable health care. Gov. Kemp recommends allocating more than $329 million in the upcoming fiscal year for Medicaid and PeachCare to cover projected needs for some of our most vulnerable citizens. His FY 2022 budget proposal also includes $76 million to implement the Patients First Act, which would allow our state to identify innovative health insurance coverage solutions and increase access to health insurance for low-income Georgians. Gov. Kemp’s proposal for health care funding could alleviate rising health care costs, as well as give employers the ability to expand their business or raise wages for employees.
The state’s fiscal economist, Dr. Jeffrey Dorfman, also joined us during budget week and provided important insight regarding Georgia’s economic forecast as we continue to battle COVID-19. Dorfman shared that Georgia’s successful recovery is partially due to the governor’s decision to reopen the economy last year, as well as the ingenuity of Georgia’s business owners who figured out how to operate amid the pandemic. He also explained that U.S. personal income is still above the March 2019 level by 2.9 percent as the federal government supplemented many incomes last year, and Dorfman stated that he believes that Georgia’s labor market has recovered as best as possible until the pandemic is over. Overall, he reported that consumer spending was strong this past year, which has been held up by various federal assistance initiatives, and this has helped our sales tax collections tremendously. Dorfman also stated that most households are in a much better financial condition than a typical recession, and Georgia’s economic recovery will get stronger as COVID-19 vaccinations continue this next year. We will monitor further economic projections like this as we craft a state budget that takes care of families and businesses here in Georgia.
After the joint hearings concluded, several House Appropriations subcommittees met this week to delve even further into Gov. Kemp’s recommendations to create the amended budget bill for AFY 2021. The Georgia constitution requires the state budget bills to begin in the House; therefore, each Appropriations subcommittee will pass portions of the state budgets, and those portions will be brought before the full House Appropriations Committee, which will review and pass balanced budgets for AFY 2021 and FY 2022. The budget bills will then go to the House Rules Committee to be scheduled for a vote on the House floor. After the budget bills makes their way through the House, the bills will be transmitted to our counterparts in the Senate, where they will begin the same process.
WEEK 1 CAPITOL UPDATE
On Monday, January 11, 2021, newly elected members of the Georgia General Assembly from across the state gathered at the State Capitol for the first day of the 156th Legislative Session. Since Monday marked the first day of the 2021-2022 term, every member of the Georgia House of Representatives took the oath of office and was formally sworn in by Superior Court Chief Judge Brenda Weaver. It was an honor to take the oath and be sworn in to represent the citizens and of our great district. Once we were sworn in, we promptly got to work to cast our first vote of the legislative session to re-elect our leaders who will guide the House through our next two years of public service. After hearing the nominations, Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) and Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones (R-Milton) were both re-elected to their respective positions. We also convened in the House Chamber to hear Governor Brian Kemp’s annual State of the State address during this busy and exciting week.
The way we conduct our legislative business has changed in many ways due to the threat of COVID-19, and this session is no exception. A bipartisan committee, which was previously appointed by Speaker Ralston, met last fall to further explore solutions to keep House members and staff safe at the Capitol. To that end, many of our committee meetings this session will have in-person and virtual attendance options, and the public can watch live streams of all official House meetings on our website from the safety of their homes. Additional safety procedures have also been implemented at the State Capitol to allow us to meet in-person during the next several months, including a bi-weekly, asymptomatic COVID-19 testing program for House members and staff, as well as guidelines for social distancing and wearing masks. Things certainly looked a lot different this first week of session, but we are committed to serving the citizens of Georgia while keeping the health and well-being of members and staff at the forefront of our minds.
As is customary during the first week of session, Governor Kemp came before the joint legislature and judicial branch to deliver his State of the State address on Thursday, January 14. This annual speech gives our governor an opportunity to convey his assessment of the current condition of our state and our shared goals for continued progress and success over the next year. A video of Legislative Day 4, which includes Gov. Kemp’s address, can be found here: https://bit.ly/3snKHU9.
During his address, Gov. Kemp reflected on the many storms our state has weathered since the start of the pandemic. He also reminded us of the steps that were taken this last year to combat the deadly virus in Georgia, including opening mobile hospital units, implementing a widely available COVID-19 testing infrastructure and deploying the Georgia National Guard to assist in response operations. Our state also prioritized personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement and additional health care personnel staffing. Furthermore, Georgia allocated a quarter of a million dollars in CARES Act funds to assist in the fight, and the governor plans to distribute additional federal funding through early March. Through Operation Warp Speed, the state has administered more than 283,000 COVID-19 vaccinations as of Jan. 13. The governor thanked the legislature for passing a PPE tax credit for businesses that manufacture PPE in our state, but implored us to continue to find solutions to allow businesses to operate safely. Together, we observed a moment of silence for the thousands of Georgians that succumbed to the virus and commended our health care heroes who have been on the frontlines saving lives every day. Dr. Kathleen Toomey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health, was in attendance for the annual address, and we applauded her for her unparalleled leadership that has guided our state’s carefully measured response to COVID-19.
To further protect lives and livelihoods against the virus in the coming months, the governor also laid out some of his top legislative priorities for this year, which include expanding the new PPE tax credit to include pharmaceutical and medical equipment manufacturers. Gov. Kemp also announced his intentions to build upon ongoing efforts to support schools by restoring funding to school systems across our state, fully funding enrollment growth and holding schools harmless for enrollment reductions. The governor went on to discuss several funding initiatives to support teachers, families with special needs children and institutions that serve minority students. The governor then revealed his plans to boost access to rural broadband grants to help improve broadband access across Georgia; this effort is especially critical for new remote learning environments. In addition, he outlined a funding proposal to implement the Georgia Pathways and Access program in order to drive down health care costs and increase access to quality health care. Finally, Gov. Kemp stated that he will push for legislation to protect human trafficking survivors who seek to change their names and allow victims to seek court action against their traffickers or those who knowingly aided in trafficking. As the session progresses, I will update you on any related legislation as it makes it through the legislative process. Before Gov. Kemp closed his address, he highlighted some of his budget recommendations for the Amended Fiscal Year 2020 and Fiscal Year 2021 budgets. The governor’s budget recommendations do not include any new budget cuts for our state agencies and departments, as well as no furloughs or layoffs for state employees, without increasing state taxes. My colleagues and I will be busy next week reviewing Gov. Kemp’s budget proposals and beginning the state budget process through a series of Joint House and Senate Appropriations Committee hearings, which is commonly referred to as “budget week.”
Now that the 2021 session is underway, I will be working diligently on behalf of our entire district while I am at the Capitol. I hope you will take the opportunity to review updates like this to stay informed on legislative matters that affect our district and state. The House recently launched its new public House website, www.legis.ga.gov/house, where you can track our progress throughout the session. It features a new intuitive layout with a number of tools for you stay up-to-date on what’s going on at the Capitol, such as archived committee meetings and an easy to use legislative search function.