February 21, 2014

After winter weather shortened their legislative work last week, the General Assembly convened five days this week and completed 26 days of this 40-day session.  They will reconvene on Monday, Feb. 24, and will be in session three days next week.

On Monday, the House overwhelmingly passed a $20.8B state budget for the 2015 fiscal year that begins June 1.  This budget includes $662M in new money for public education and local school boards can determine how to spend these additional funds.  Some options for spending include increasing teacher salaries, recouping the number of instruction days which had been cut when budgets needed trimming, or reducing teacher furloughs.  The budget also allows for a small increase in pay for state employees.  It is now going through the budget process in the Senate Appropriations committee.

With around $7M in funding appropriated in the FY 2015 budget for HOPE grants, the House also passed a bill increasing the HOPE grant to reimburse the full cost of tuition for technical college students who earn a minimum 3.5 GPA (HB 697).  This legislation by Rep. Stacey Evans has bipartisan legislative backing as well as support from Governor Deal.  It is anticipated that this grant will recapture at least a portion of the students who left the program when cuts were made a few years ago and enrollment declined by almost 20%.  Rep. Evans noted that Georgia has a skills gap with its current workforce and encouraging technical college students will help alleviate that gap.

After a long debate on Tuesday, the House passed the gun carry bill (HB 875) generally along party lines and sent it on to the Senate for consideration. It has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Non-civil committee.  The Senate may be more accepting of this session’s bill since it does not specifically allow guns on college campuses, although it does decriminalize possession of a gun on campus.  The Senate was uneasy about the campus carry provision in last year’s gun bill and, noting the opposition of the Board of Regents, did not pass it.  Senators have also indicated a preference for an “opt in” provision for churches that want to allow guns.  As the bill is now written, churches would have to “opt out,” which means they are required to take formal action if they don’t want to allow guns on their property.

There was another long debate in the House on Thursday when members debated four pieces of legislation related to the federal government and the federal budget.  SR 371 makes application calling for an Article V convention in order to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring a balanced federal budget except during a national emergency.  HR 1215 also calls for a constitutional convention and limits consideration of amendments to those that “impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government, and limit the terms of office for its officials and for members of Congress.”  SB 206 deals with how members of Georgia’s delegation to the convention would be selected, and HB 794 deals with the issue of requiring a balanced federal budget issue via a “Compact for a Balance Budget.”  In explaining SR 371, Rep. Rich Golick noted that applications for a constitutional convention must be adopted by 34 states in order for a convention to be called and that, should Georgia pass and the governor sign the resolution, Georgia would be the 21st state to “join the call.”  All of these measures passed, largely along party lines.  Since the two Senate provisions were passed by the House without changes, they now await action by Governor Deal, and the House bill and resolution will go to the Senate for consideration.

In a party-line vote, the Senate this week passed a bill (SB 350) that would privatize some of the child welfare services currently provided by the Dept. of Family and Children Services (DFCS).  Even though DFCS would contract with community-based providers for case management, DFCS would still be responsible for investigating child abuse claims.  This bill is supported by Governor Deal and would establish a system in Georgia that is comparable to the one Florida started a few years ago.  It has been assigned to the Judiciary committee in the House.

Senate leaders have backed a bill requiring insurance coverage of autism (SB 397) which was introduced on Wednesday and favorably reported by the Insurance and Labor on Thursday.  The bill now awaits action by the Senate Rules committee. This bill limits the annual payout amount to $35,000, exempts the coverage requirement for businesses with 10 or fewer employees, and applies only to children who are 6 years old and younger.

A House Judiciary subcommittee favorably reported a bill that would require legislative approval before the state could expand Medicaid eligibility (HB 990).  Governor Deal has emphatically stated his opposition to Medicaid expansion in Georgia and the legislative leaders sponsoring HB 990 agree with him; however, they want the legislature to have a say in this decision. This issue has received much attention in the media which has been critical of the governor’s stance.  This bill will now be considered by the full House Judiciary committee.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Ronnie Chance made a surprise announcement that he will serve out his current term but will not seek reelection for a sixth term in the Ga. Senate.  Two other Republican Senators, Cecil Staton and John Crosby, have already declared their intention not to run for reelection.  Three other senators will not be returning because they are running for other elected positions: Senator Buddy Carter (R-Pooler) is running for Congress in U.S. House District 1, Senator Jason Carter (D-Decatur) is running for Governor, and Senator Hardie Davis (D-Augusta) is running for mayor of Augusta.

The full text of all bills can be found on the state’s legislative web site: www.legis.ga.gov.  If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us about any issue or any legislation.

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