During Week 3 of Session, the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee held a hearing to consider two bills that came from the Rural Development Council’s legislative recommendations, House Bills 22 and 23. HB 22 would amend the Rural Telephone Cooperative Act to allow telephone cooperatives to provide, improve or expand broadband services to our rural communities with or without the purchase of a landline. Similarly, HB 23 would allow electric membership corporations (EMCs) and their affiliates to provide broadband services. HB 23 would prohibit cross-subsidization between an EMC’s broadband service and its electric or natural gas services, and yearly audits would be conducted to ensure cross-subsidization does not take place. Additionally, HB 23 would prohibit EMCs from disconnecting broadband service if a customer fails to pay their electric or gas bills or vice versa. After the committee carefully reviewed these bills, HB 22 and HB 23 passed out of the Economic Development and Tourism Committee and are now in the Rules Committee.
Consequently, if these bills are signed into law, EMCs and telephone cooperatives could apply for federal grants and loans for broadband expansion through the USDA’s Rural eConnectivity Pilot Program (ReConnect Program). In 2018, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, which included $600 million in funding to establish the ReConnect Program to expand broadband service to rural areas without sufficient broadband access. The program allows non-profit entities, for-profit corporations and cooperatives to apply for a 100% loan or a 50% loan/50% grant option for rural communities in which 90% of households do not have adequate broadband access. If enacted, HB 22 and HB 23 could open the door to allow for additional, federal assistance for our rural citizens. As this session continues, I am eager to see these bills and other rural-development related measures make their way through our legislative process so that we can continue to help our rural neighbors.
Not only was it the third week of the 2019 legislative session, but it was also “Super Bowl Week” in Atlanta. The City of Atlanta braced itself for the arrival of an estimated one million visitors for the weeks’ worth of Super Bowl festivities. The expected economic impact that the Super Bowl will have on metro Atlanta and the entire state is estimated between $198 million and $400 million. Georgia’s airports, hotels, and local businesses will benefit tremendously from this year’s Super Bowl, and the state as a whole will also benefit from an increase in state and local tax dollars from tourist spending. After the most recent Super Bowl, the Twin Cities area of Minnesota saw close to $32 million in state and local tax revenues. As this year’s host state, Georgia has a unique and exciting opportunity to showcase all the great things that our state has to offer. Here at the Capitol, we are excited to host a nationally celebrated event that will display the wonderful state that we call home.
Tuesday, February 4, marked the start of a very busy fourth week of the 2019 legislative session. The pace of the session is picking up, and this week brought about notable progress as my colleagues and I convened in the House Chamber for four legislative days and voted on the first bills and resolutions of the session. This week, the House passed several pieces of legislation on the House floor, including important measures like the Amended Fiscal Year 2019 budget and an adjournment resolution that sets the legislative calendar for the remainder of the session.
My colleagues and I cast our first vote of the 2019 legislative session for House Resolution 1 on Wednesday, February 6 in the House chamber. This bipartisan legislation passed overwhelmingly and honors former Governor Nathan Deal and his legacy by naming the new state appellate judicial complex, which will house our Georgia Supreme Court and Georgia Court of Appeals, the “Nathan Deal Judicial Center.” As our Governor, Deal guided our state through difficult financial times, grew local small businesses, attracted top corporations from around the globe, produced consistently balanced budgets, maintained Georgia’s AAA bond rating, increased the state’s “rainy day” reserve fund to more than $2.5 billion and implemented investment in the state’s transportation system. Arguably, one of Gov. Deal’s greatest accomplishments during his time in office was his robust criminal justice reform initiatives, which now serve as model for other states and are emulated nationwide. Because of Gov. Deal’s lifetime of public service and dedication to the State of Georgia, it seems only fitting that this building bear his name to serve as a symbol of justice in our state.
On Friday, House Appropriations Chairman Terry England presented House Bill 30, the Amended Fiscal Year 2019 budget (AFY 2019), on the House floor, where it passed by a vote of 166- 8. The FY 2019 budget, approved during the 2018 special session, set state spending at $26.4 billion for the current year. The state has collected $435.7 million in new revenue since we passed the full budget, which is a 1.6% increase over the current budget and brings the total appropriation for AFY 2019 to $26.9 billion. After meticulously crafting a budget that is conscientious of tax payer dollars, the House version of the AFY 2019 budget prioritizes areas like our children’s safety and well-being through new school security grants, improving mental health services for high school students and supporting our growing foster program, which accounts for $87.7 million, or 20% of the total new revenue. The House’s amended budget also includes important funding for our K-12 education needs, health and human services and additional funding to support Georgia farmers impacted by Hurricane Michael.
A critical item in the House AFY 2019 budget includes an additional $10 million for emergency disaster relief to aid our farmers in southwest Georgia who were devastated by Hurricane Michael last October. Our House Appropriations subcommittees came together to include this funding in the AFY 2019 budget to bolster loans for our farmers. This additional funding builds upon the $55 million that was appropriated to the Georgia Development Authority (GDA) during the 2018 special session in November. Since then, the GDA has received 412 loan applications, totaling more than $100 million in assistance requests. Of those 412 applications, 124 have already been approved, and nearly all of the $55 million has been used to secure loans. Southwest Georgia landowners lost $1.6 billion in agriculture commodities, $763 million in forest products and $63 million in agricultural related equipment, and this additional funding will continue to bring much needed relief to hard-working farmers in southwest Georgia. I commend the GDA and the Department of Agriculture for their quick response and helping to secure these loans in less than eight weeks to help our southwest Georgia neighbors.
Another key budgetary item, and a top priority for the governor and the House, is education funding to benefit Georgia’s most precious assets. After considering K-12 educational needs throughout the state, the AFY 2019 budget allocates 55%, or $238.6 million, of the total new funds to be dispersed throughout different agencies to accommodate our state’s educational needs. Specifically, the House version of the AFY 2019 budget prioritizes the safety and well-being of children at school and state facilities in Georgia by appropriating $69.4 million to provide school security grants of $30,000 for each of the 2,314 school facilities. These school security grants will establish new safety measures for Georgia schools, including charter schools, college and career academies, GNETS facilities and the three state schools. The House also included more than $38,000 in this year’s amended budget to provide security to the state’s FFA-FCCLA centers when students are present and $1 million to the Georgia School for the Blind and Georgia School for the Deaf to purchase new generators for residential students during severe weather. Lastly, I am proud to report that HB 30 will continue to fully fund Quality Basic Education (QBE).
In his budget recommendations, Gov. Kemp also encouraged the General Assembly to tackle the growing threat of violence in Georgia schools. In an effort to prevent school violence and promote healthy behaviors for our students, Gov. Kemp and the House agreed to include $8.4 million for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to address mental health issues in Georgia high schools. This appropriation will help expand the Georgia APEX Program, which has piloted successful mental health services for high schools across the state by providing support counselors that engage with students to prevent dangerous behaviors. With this additional funding, the APEX program will continue to serve more than 17,000 students in 418 Georgia schools.
To ensure that all Georgia citizens have access to quality healthcare, the House version of the AFY 2019 budget provides $1 million in state funds, which matches $1 million in federal funds, for experts to explore, analyze and recommend new Medicaid waver options to Gov. Kemp. HB 30 also increases Medicaid funding by $35.2 million to provide coverage for enrollment growth, gene therapy drug coverage, Medicare Part B premiums and Part D Clawback payments and the addition of long-term acute care hospitals and intermediate rehabilitation facilities.
Other highlights of the House AFY 2019 budget include $3.5 million for the Georgia Student Finance Commission to assist students in the Duel Enrollment Program, nearly $26,000 for the Engineer Scholarship Program and $2.9 million from new lottery funds to meet the projected needs of the HOPE Scholarship program. HB 30 also supports the more than 15,000 children that are currently in Georgia’s foster care system by appropriating $9.8 million in additional funds to address the 7.1% increase in utilizing the Out-of-Home Care program.
Further, the House included more than $790,000 for the Substance Abuse Prevention program to fight the growing opioid epidemic. We also celebrated receiving Forestland Protection Act grant reimbursements, making up a total of 11 percent of new revenue from the last fiscal year. These reimbursements will fund the AFY 2019 adjustments for the majority of the general government agencies in our local counties. And, lastly, the AFY 2019 budget includes more than $490,000 in one-time funding to kick-off the first full year of the new Atlanta-region Transit Link (ATL) Authority, which is a regional transit governance structure that coordinates transit planning and funding and oversees all Metro Atlanta transit activity, including planning, funding and operations.
This week, the House and Senate also adopted a second adjournment resolution that sets our legislative schedule for the remainder of the 2019 legislative session. Legislative Day 40, or Sine Die, is the final day of the 2019 legislative session and will be on Tuesday, April 2. Until then, we have an aggressive schedule to tackle as we work to ensure that we pass sound public policies for the betterment of our state and its citizens.
Thank you for your support, and I look forward to continued service to you as we move forward. Please feel free to contact me at any time with your questions and concerns!
Rep. Lynn R. Smith, House District 70
228 State Capitol
Atlanta, GA 30334