We started the seventh week of the 2019 legislative session on Monday, February 25, 2019. We were in session all five days this week and passed over 40 bills and resolutions on the House floor. We are over halfway through this legislative session, and with “Cross Over Day” quickly approaching, this week was our busiest yet.
On Monday, the House passed another bill to support and provide disaster relief to farmers in South Georgia who were impacted by Hurricane Michael. Hurricane Michael had a catastrophic impact on the citizens and the economy of southwest Georgia, and it has particularly devastated the agriculture industry. To assist in the recovery efforts, House Bill 105 would provide an income tax exemption for income received as payments from a disaster relief or assistance program if those payments are connected to Hurricane Michael and administered by the United States Department of Agriculture. Those affected by Hurricane Michael would not be taxed on this federal aid over the next three years under this bill to ensure citizens are given the relief and time to rebuild Georgia’s agriculture industry. Through HB 105, the House remains committed to aiding southwest Georgia farmers as they continue to restore their lives and businesses.
In response to the enactment of the federal farm bill this past December, which makes growing hemp in the United States legal again, my colleagues and I passed House Bill 213 in an effort to help Georgia’s farmers. The House Study Committee on Industrial Hemp Production spent last summer and fall analyzing nationwide initiatives that created successful hemp industries, and as a result, House members carefully crafted HB 213 to pilot this new agricultural industry in the state. This bipartisan legislation would allow for the cultivation and processing of hemp and hemp products in Georgia and would also authorize colleges and universities in the University System of Georgia to conduct research on hemp. Under HB 213, the state would allow hemp growers who meet certain criteria to obtain a license and would charge an annual licensing fee of $1,000. This legislation would also let the state issue up to 12 permits to produce hemp, and the Department of Agriculture may award additional permits based on the financial standing and hemp processing experience of applicants. These approved producers would also have to meet specific requirements to obtain permits and would pay an initial fee of $100,000 for a permit and $25,000 annually to renew the permit. The Department of Agriculture would oversee this program and would administer tests to ensure that the hemp grown in-state contains less than .30% THC. This exciting proposal would allow Georgia farmers to profit from hemp cultivation and production and compete with the 41 other states that have already created safe and effective avenues to grow and produce hemp.
This week, we overwhelmingly passed another bipartisan bill that would provide greater access to mental health services for all Georgians. If signed into law, House Bill 26 would enter Georgia into the Psychology Interjurisdictional Compact (Psypact), which is an interstate compact to allow psychologists from other states participating in the compact to use telecommunication technology to practice in multiple states using one license. Under HB 26, an individual admitted to practice under this compact could practice telepsychology and/or temporary face-to-face psychology in Georgia after passing a background check. The face-to-face practice seeks to allow individuals moving into the state to temporarily practice for a period of 30 days while they go through Georgia’s licensing process. The proposed bill would also give Georgia’s State Board of Examiners of Psychologists the authority to participate in the Psypact and would create the “Psychology Interjurisdictional Compact Commission” to implement and administer the compact. This legislation would make Georgia a more military-friendly state by giving military spouses the ability to continue to practice psychology when moving to Georgia. HB 26 would also provide greater access to mental health services in rural areas and benefit Georgia schools that do not have fulltime psychologists on staff. HB 26 is an important piece of legislation that reflects the House’s dedication to mental health initiatives this legislative session.
The House also passed two measures this week to protect Georgia children from situations that could hinder their success or jeopardize their safety. First, we passed House Bill 228 to raise the minimum age of marriage in Georgia to 17 years old and require any person who is 17 years old who wishes to be married to provide proof of emancipation by law. HB 228 also states that the older party to the marriage must be no more than four years older than the 17-year-old younger party, and both parties of the proposed marriage would have to complete six hours of professional premarital counseling. If the minor seeks emancipation to get married, the minor would have to provide information about the intended spouse, including copies of criminal records or protective orders, and a Georgia court would appoint an attorney to examine whether the intended marriage is in the minor’s best interest or puts the minor at risk. If emancipation is granted, the two parties would have to wait at least 15 days before the court can issue a marriage license. This bipartisan measure would protect minors from abusive or exploitive relationships that could become sanctified through a marriage license and allows Georgia to join the growing movement to stop child marriage. Additionally, the House passed the Protecting Military Children Act, which seeks to protect our most vulnerable population from abuse and neglect. HB 64 mirrors similar legislation that has passed in eight other states, and the bill calls for child welfare agencies, such as the Department of Family and Child Services, to notify a military installation’s family advocacy program when there are allegations of child abuse or neglect involving an active-duty military parent or guardian. HB 64 would help the military track these cases across state lines and would create a safeguard for military children.
My colleagues and I also passed legislation this week to strengthen Georgia’s laws for those convicted of pimping or pandering. Currently, Georgia does not have increasing penalties for repeat offenders who are convicted of pimping or pandering, and the state considers this crime a misdemeanor, regardless of how many times it is committed. To deter offenders from taking advantage of the minimal penalties that are currently in place, the House overwhelmingly passed House Bill 281. The proposed legislation would make the first pimping or pandering offense a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature and increases the initial jail time from 24 hours to 72 hours. The second offense, and all subsequent offenses, would be considered a felony and would allow sentencing to increase to a maximum of 10 years in prison. This measure would raise the penalties to meet the nature of these crimes in order to protect our citizens and prevent these atrocious crimes in our state.
Over the past two years, the House has made it a priority to examine the plights of rural Georgia and enact legislation to promote economic growth in these areas of our state. This week, the House adopted House Resolution 214 this week to reauthorize the House Rural Development Council (RDC) for two more years so that we can continue to address these issues. Throughout the next two years, the RDC will travel to different rural areas in the state to consult with local officials and policy experts and develop measures that will confront the challenges that hinder rural economies. Since the RDC’s inception in 2017, the House has introduced and passed a number of bills to aid our rural communities, but there is more work to be done. Rural Georgia faces unique challenges, which includes loss of population, inadequate access to quality health care, poor infrastructure, diminished quality of public education and a scarcity of employment opportunities. I am pleased that the House has adopted this resolution and reaffirmed our commitment to rural Georgia.
Each legislative session, the General Assembly is constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget for the next fiscal year, and on Thursday, the House fulfilled that obligation by passing House Bill 31, the Fiscal Year 2020 budget. The FY 2020 budget is set at $27.5 billion, an increase of $1.05 billion, or 3.95%, over the previous year’s budget. The House version of the budget highlights women’s and children’s issues including maternal mortality; education, including funding the largest pay raise in the state’s history for teachers and certified personnel; and additional funding for our most vulnerable Georgians, including the elderly and foster children. I will highlight some of these items that are included in the House’s version of the FY 2020 budget.
The FY 2020 budget promotes economic development across our state through several appropriations that will support our growing transit systems and revitalize rural areas. HB 31 focuses on economic development in our rural communities by providing $300,000 for the creation of the Blight Removal and Code Enforcement (BRACE) program in the Department of Community Affairs. This program, which was a recommendation of the House Rural Development Council, will provide grants to communities with populations of 2,500 or less to initiate a free, neighborhood-level cleanup for dilapidated areas. Supporting the state’s transportation systems and infrastructure is another key element to bolster economic development throughout Georgia. For this reason, the FY 2020 budget recognizes an increase of $38.6 million in new revenue for transportation, an increase of more than seven percent over the current year’s budget. The innovative Atlanta-Region Transit Link (ATL) Authority is included in this appropriation and would receive $2.48 million to establish the initial budget to plan and govern transit projects in the 13-county Atlanta region. The House’s focus on economic development stretches across various industries and issues, and I look forward to seeing the strides Georgia will make with the help of this funding.
The House remains devoted to improving educational opportunities statewide, and this commitment to K-12 and higher education is indicated in the House budget. The FY 2020 budget includes a historic pay raise of $2,775 for each certified teacher and school personnel, including counselors, social workers, psychologists, special education specialists, speech and language pathologists, media specialists and technology specialists, in our public education system, which increases the base salary pay for teachers by 8.1%. The House budget also appropriates $483 million for the Quality Basic Education program (QBE) and $121.9 million to the Department of Education for enrollment growth and training. Within the Student Finance Commission, the budget provides the important HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships with $74.7 million for 22,000 additional awards. This funding also increases the award amount by three percent to match the rising costs of college tuition and keep in-state colleges affordable. The House budget also ensures the longevity of dual enrollment programs by saving $4.1 million through limiting these programs to hardworking 11th and 12th graders during fall and spring semesters only. To create safer school environments for all Georgia students, and based on the recommendations of the House School Security Study Committee, the FY 2020 budget appropriates $174,000 within the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency (GEMA) to hire two school safety threat assessment trainers to work with local school systems to develop threat assessment plans. Lastly, 4-H centers throughout the state would receive $150,000 in bonds for security improvements and $747,600 to contract with local law enforcement to provide security when students are present.
The House also emphasized funding for health care in HB 31. In order to provide better access to quality health care in Georgia, the FY 2020 budget includes $78.4 million in the Department of Community Health for Medicaid growth, as well as an additional $68.3 million to replace federal funds in the Medicaid programs due to a reduction in the Federal Medicaid Assistance Percentage. HB 31 also appropriates $5.9 million for the Medicaid budget for gene therapy drug coverage, $6.8 million for Medicare Part B premiums and $3.2 million to include seven additional long-term acute care hospitals. Furthermore, the budget allocates $500,000 for a Center of Excellence on Maternal Mortality to advance maternal health and more than $1 million for additional maternal health support to screen, refer and treat maternal depression and related behavioral disorders in rural and underserved areas. Georgia has a high rate of maternal mortality, and this appropriation seeks to combat this issue in our state.
The House FY 2020 budget also includes funding to tackle the opioid epidemic, which is devastating communities and burdening Georgia’s workforce. The House is fighting back by including $4.9 million for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to invest further in residential treatment of addictive diseases, which would add six new facilities across the regions in Georgia. The House recognizes an additional $29 million in behavioral health services to increase bed capacity and outpatient services, as well as annualize the cost of crisis centers that serve our communities.
HB 31 adds funding to a variety of programs and projects that assist some of the most vulnerable Georgians. HB 31 includes $1.4 million for home-delivered meals for an additional 665 Georgians and $1.3 million to fund 17 additional adult protective services caseworkers, bringing the total to 172. With more than 13,000 children in the state’s foster care program, we must provide adequate resources for these children. The budget includes $9.8 million for Out of Home Care and $940,000 to implement a pilot program recommended by Governor Brian Kemp that would follow-up on closed foster care cases to continue to look after these children.
Finally, the House’s version of the budget allocates $563,380 to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to help solve the crime lab backlog, $780,690 for six positions for the GBI unit at the Cyber Crime Center and $500,000 to implement a GBI Gang Task Force to help local governments prosecute gang activity. HB 31 also includes an addition of $2.1 million to expand the state’s highly successful accountability courts within the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
The “Cross Over Day” deadline is this Thursday, and I encourage you to contact my office with questions or concerns regarding any issues or legislation that may interest you. As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your voice under the Gold Dome.
Rep. Lynn R. Smith, House District 70
228 State Capitol
Atlanta, GA 30334