My colleagues and I returned to the Gold Dome on Monday, February 11 for the fifth week of the 2019 legislative session. This week, the House convened on the House floor for a five-day legislative work week to continue to pass meaningful legislation for the good of every Georgian.
The House kicked off Week 5 on Monday with the unanimous passage of House Bill 23 to expand internet access in rural Georgia. HB 23 is a product of the House Rural Development Council’s recommendations and 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 it would also require that yearly audits be conducted to ensure that cross-subsidization does not take place. Lastly, the bill would prohibit EMCs from disconnecting broadband service if a customer fails to pay their electric or gas bills or vice versa. Subsequently, if HB 23 is signed into law, EMCs could apply for federal grants and loans through the USDA’s Rural eConnectivity Pilot Program (ReConnect Program), which a total of $600 million to aid improvement efforts for access to quality broadband services. Broadband is essential to almost every factor of economic development, and this legislation is a tremendous step in the right direction to help spur economic development in rural Georgia.
In addition to passing legislation to improve broadband access in our rural communities, the House also passed a bill this week that would provide a pathway for deployment of small cell and 5G technology in public rights-of-way in Georgia. Over the past seven months, the House has worked with advocates, area experts and local authorities to craft a bill that would support the growing consumer-driven demand for high-speed wireless access while also preserving the ability of our local governments to protect historic districts and community aesthetics. Due to the overwhelming concentration of cellular data in our urban areas, House Bill 184, or the Streamlining Wireless Facilities and Antennas Act, would allow wireless service providers to install “stealthy” small-cell wireless towers throughout cities to offer greater wireless coverage. Starting in urban areas, this groundbreaking technology would eventually deploy 5G streaming services to all of Georgia using small boxes that are attached to utility poles in public areas, providing coverage up to 1,000 feet in any direction of the poles. HB 184 would create a streamlined permitting process for small cell technology, establish application and attachment fees and define the rules of installation, repairs or improvements to the towers that will house this cutting-edge technology. This legislation would allow our state to move forward in deploying small cell wireless technology on a larger scale to further enhance economic opportunities across our state.
Also this week, my colleagues and I overwhelmingly passed House Bill 62, or “Margie’s Law,” to assist in the early detection and treatment of breast cancer. This bipartisan measure passed by a vote of 166-1 and would require mammography examiners to notify patients when dense breast tissue is found. The bill also encourages women to speak with their health care provider about whether other supplemental tests in addition to a mammogram may be appropriate, based on their individual risk. While dense breast tissue is common and not always abnormal, it can make it more difficult to detect cancer through a mammogram and can increase the risk for breast cancer. Findings show that dense breast tissue is detected during annual exams in at least 40 percent of woman over the age of 40. If signed into law, Georgia would join 30 other states that have passed similar legislation to allow women to become active participants in this area of their health and help save lives from breast cancer.
The House took up another very important measure this week to clarify existing law regarding when drivers can or cannot pass stopped school buses. Senate Bill 25 passed unanimously and clarifies ambiguous language that was enacted as a result of House 978 that passed last year that allowed drivers to pass a stopped school bus when traveling in the opposite direction when a turn lane is present. This caused confusion on the roadways and created safety issues for our school children. SB 25 reduces this risk and protects our school bus riders by making it clear that drivers can only pass a stopped school bus on the other side of the road when the roadways are divided by a grass median, unpaved area or physical barrier. Governor Kemp recognized that swift action was needed to resolve this issue and signed SB 25 into law on Friday, February 15, and the bill went into immediate effect to protect the lives of our children.
Over the last two years, the House has supported Georgia’s brave military service members and our veterans by passing 23 military-friendly bills. To build upon these efforts, we passed House Bill 25 this week to provide financial relief for active duty members of the U.S. military, Georgia National Guard or Georgia Air National Guard. This bipartisan legislation would allow over 100,000 active service members in Georgia to terminate contractual obligations with a provider of subscription services like television, video, and audio programming services; internet access services; or health spa or gym services. To qualify, service members must be on active duty, receive orders of deployment to a location that does not support these same exact services and give a 30-day notice. Inspired by similar legislation implemented in 18 other states, the House has worked alongside federal officials to craft legislation that would alleviate some of the financial burdens for those who protect our great state and country.
The House completed Week 5 on Friday, February 15 by passing House Bill 63 to allow health care providers to request exceptions to step therapy protocols to provide proper medication to patients when it is medically necessary. Currently, insurance companies in Georgia often use step therapy, which is a process that requires a patient to try and fail one or more medications preferred by their insurer before receiving coverage for the medication that their doctor originally prescribed. This process restricts a patient’s access to quality care and prolongs ineffective treatments by preventing an individual from starting the treatment that their doctor thinks is best, and physicians cannot override this process. This bill would allow physicians to submit a step therapy exemption or appeal if the required prescription drug will cause an adverse reaction or physical or mental harm to the patient, is expected to be ineffective, the patient has tried the required prescription drug or the patient’s condition is stable on a prescription drug previously selected by his or her practitioner. HB 63 also ensures that patients would not have to begin a step therapy process for a medication after switching insurance providers. This bipartisan legislation would help patients who are suffering from serious illnesses by expediting this process and increasing access to critical treatment options.
The Georgia House resumed our work on Tuesday, February 19 to begin the sixth week of the 2019 legislative session. We started this week by convening for a joint session with our colleagues in the Senate to hear the Supreme Court of Georgia’s Chief Justice Harold D. Melton deliver the annual State of the Judiciary address. In addition to hearing the State of Judiciary address this week, my colleagues and I met in the House Chamber for four legislative days, as well as in our committees, to consider and pass several important bills.
The recently appointed Chief Justice, Harold D. Melton delivered his first State of the Judiciary address before a joint session on Tuesday. This annual address recounts the accomplishments of Georgia’s judicial branch and the challenges it will face in the year ahead. Due to the great relationships built between the judiciary branch, the state legislature and the executive branch, Chief Justice Melton reported that Georgia’s judiciary branch stands sturdy, stable and strong and is poised to meet the inevitable changes that lie ahead.
In his remarks, Chief Justice Melton touted the success of our state’s innovative criminal justice reform initiatives, led by former Governor Nathan Deal. Through these efforts, Georgia has reduced recidivism rates, saved taxpayer dollars spent on Georgia’s high prison populations and strengthened communities by giving non-violent offenders the chance to become law-abiding and productive citizens. One initiative that has made a critical impact in our judicial system is our accountability courts, or “specialty” courts, which provide effective alternatives to sentencing for nonviolent offenders. These specialty courts have been highly successful in combatting recidivism because judges, social workers and volunteers take the time to understand the struggles and the individual backgrounds behind the people they serve. Chief Justice Melton went on to say that although Georgia continues to set a national example with our criminal justice reform measures, our communities can have even more success by addressing the root cause of criminal behavior before it reaches the court system. Chief Justice Melton challenged the House and Senate to consider initiatives that engage high risk individuals earlier in the timeline. An extraordinary number of Georgia children are placed in foster care, and the challenges that these children face often put them at higher risk of getting into trouble, dropping out of school, having unplanned teenage pregnancies and ultimately encountering the judicial system as adults. Chief Justice Melton reiterated the importance of keeping children with their families and out of foster care with the help of the Kinship Care program. Kinship Care works to give guardians like grandparents, relatives and even family friends who serve as guardians the legal authority they need to make medical, financial and educational decisions for the children. Chief Justice Melton encouraged us to support these efforts and use these tools to intervene and steer individuals on a better path to reduce the number of court cases.
Chief Justice Melton went on to highlight the profound changes courts have seen with the use of technology. New technology can help citizens without legal representation and those with language barriers navigate complex court procedures. To simplify this process and speed it up, courts across Georgia already take advantage of chatbots and online forms to improve access and guide self-represented litigants through the process of filling out civil pleadings. This technology can also handle basic questions, look up citation information, utilize a text reminder service and expedite judges’ responses to emergency requests from the victims of domestic violence to give victims assurance of safety and peace of mind. Chief Justice Melton thanked the General Assembly for its support, which has provided opportunities for electronic filing and access to court documents from anywhere in the state and an electronic data system that shares information about criminal cases at every stage. The Chief Justice noted that the courts have made tremendous strides with technology, which will continue to transform our courts in the coming years.
After the joint session dissolved on Tuesday, the House unanimously passed House Bill 158, legislation that would give HIV-positive individuals on Medicaid access to the most effective antiretroviral medications on the market. This bipartisan legislation would require that all individuals suffering from HIV/AIDS, whether in the state drug program or on Medicaid, receive the same antiretroviral drugs, including single tablet regimens. The cost to treat an individual with HIV/AIDS under the state drug program is $338,000, whereas, the cost per individual without this program is $1.7 million. Our state has an extremely high number of new HIV diagnoses per year, and the proposed legislation seeks to ensure the health and well-being of all Georgians while combatting the spread of HIV/AIDS in our state.
This week, we also passed House Bill 130 and House Bill 59 to expand educational opportunities for our K-12 students across our state. In 2010, the Georgia General Assembly established the Georgia Foundation for Public Education (GFPE) to promote and implement educational initiatives and programs throughout the state. Under HB 130, the GFPE would be authorized to qualify as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the foundation would be able to solicit and accept more funding to carry out its purpose of supporting educational excellence in public schools and at the Georgia Academy for the Blind, Georgia School for the Deaf and Atlanta Area School for the Deaf. Additionally, the House passed HB 59 to ensure that military families that move to Georgia have the same access to public education as Georgia residents. HB 59 would allow parents or guardians on active duty in the military to pre-enroll a student in a local school district when they receive official military orders to transfer to Georgia, instead of requiring the family to establish residency first. This legislation would expedite the enrollment process for these students so that they can continue to learn without interruption. Both bills will help foster educational excellence and ensure that Georgia students achieve the best educational outcomes possible.
My colleagues and I also passed House Bill 186 this week to continue in our efforts to provide quality health care to all Georgians. This bill ensures that the proceeds from the sale or lease of a hospital property are put into an irrevocable trust fund solely for the purpose of providing indigent care in our state. After selling or leasing hospital properties, hospital authorities in Georgia may have significant assets available, but there is not a purposeful avenue for a hospital authority to use these funds to give back to the local community. Currently, proceeds over $100,000 from a sale or lease are placed in a trust fund and used for hospital care for indigents, but HB 186 amends current Georgia law so that the interest on these funds can be used for health care purposes for indigents instead of for hospital only use. This change would allow local authorities to use the funds generated by the trust fund for a wide variety of healthcare purposes for indigents, including clinics and preventative measures. This important legislation would be economically efficient, provide better health care for indigent patients and ensure that citizens throughout Georgia can receive desired health care within their communities.
On Thursday, February 21, the House adopted a resolution that would seize the potential of our coastal ports and expand our growing economy. Georgia is fortunate to have a range of deep-water ports and transportation systems that are utilized by businesses across the nation. Our ports and freight industries provide 439,000 jobs a year, generate $25 billion in personal income and $2.9 billion annually in state and local tax revenues, and 10 percent of all exports in the country come through our ports. While these ports, rail systems and highways have great potential, the Georgia General Assembly must be proactive in implementing policies that will aide these industries as they grow. House Resolution 37 establishes the Georgia Commission on Freight and Logistics, which would be comprised of members of the House and Senate, along with various area experts from the Georgia Municipal Association, Association County Commissioners of Georgia, Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the Georgia Ports Authority. The joint commission would spend one year analyzing, determining and recommending comprehensive public policy development and funding for the 2020 legislative session that would support our freight and logistics industries and keep our state economically competitive. The current and future economic health of Georgia relies on a thriving and productive freight industry, and through the work of the Georgia Commission on Freight and Logistics, Georgia will remain one of the top states to do business.
We have now officially reached the half-way point of the 2019 legislative session. The House will meet again on Tuesday, February 25, for legislative week seven. As we get closer to “Cross Over Day,” please do not hesitate to contact my office with questions or concerns regarding the session.
Rep. Lynn R. Smith, House District 70
228 State Capitol
Atlanta, GA 30334
**Thank you for keeping up with all that is going on at the Capitol. I know that this was a long newsletter- from now on you can expect a weekly post in order to shorten your reading times. Thanks again for taking the time to stay up to date.