2018 Georgia General Assembly — Week Ten Update

On Thursday, March 15, my House colleagues and I completed Legislative Day 35 and our tenth week of the 2018 legislative session, and we now only have five working days remaining until Legislative Day 40, or sine die. Legislative Day 40 is the last day the House will take up business for the year, and since we only have a few days left to wrap up our legislative work, this week was extremely busy in committees, and our agendas were very full as we reviewed and passed Senate measures in the House Chamber.

This week, the House passed a critical measure that seeks to better coordinate state health care policies in an effort to address the unique health challenges facing our state. Senate Bill 357, also known as “The Health Act,” would establish the Health Coordination and Innovation Council of the State of Georgia under the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget to streamline and coordinate all components of our state’s health care system. The council would bring together academic, industry and government experts and leaders to share information, coordinate the major functions of Georgia’s health care system and develop innovative approaches to stabilize costs and improve access to quality health care. The council would serve as a research forum to identify our state’s greatest health issues and promote cooperation between private and public agencies to test new ideas. The council’s responsibilities would include evaluating the effectiveness of previously enacted and ongoing health programs; determining how to best develop new approaches and promote innovation to improve Georgia’s health care system; and maximizing the effectiveness of existing resources, expertise and improvement opportunities. The 18-member council would consist of commissioners and directors from health and human services-related departments and divisions, including a new position for a director of health care policy and strategic planning, and health care professionals appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House of Representatives. The bill would also establish an advisory board that would provide guidance to the council. The council and advisory board would help lead the way to a higher quality and more effective health care system in Georgia and improve health care access and outcomes for all Georgians, and this bill is a major step forward in addressing the health care-related challenges our state faces.

My House colleagues and I unanimously passed a measure this week that would ensure children with autism in Georgia have access to vital treatments and therapies needed to lead full and healthy lives. Senate Bill 118 would increase the age of coverage for autism spectrum disorder treatments from six-years-old to 20-years-old and would increase the coverage limit from $30,000 to $35,000 per year. Additionally, SB 118 would require insurers to provide coverage for applied behavior analysis, which is recognized as a necessary medical treatment for autism. If signed into law, SB 118 would take effect on Jan. 1, 2019. SB 118 would greatly benefit our state’s autistic youth and their families, as the measure would guarantee that more of Georgia’s children who are on the autism spectrum receive the therapies, treatments and care they need to thrive.

Elder abuse cases have risen significantly across the state in recent years, and on Thursday, March 15, the House passed a measure to address this alarming trend. Senate Bill 406 would create the Georgia Long-term Care Background Check Program, which would require elder care providers in personal care homes or other assisted living facilities to undergo comprehensive, fingerprint-based criminal background checks. This provision would apply to owners, applicants for employment and employees of personal care homes, assisted living communities, private home care providers, home health agencies, hospice care, nursing homes, skilled nursing facilities or adult day cares. If SB 406 is signed into law, the background check requirement would take effect on Oct. 1, 2019, for new applicants and on Jan. 1, 2021, for existing employees and owners. In addition, under SB 406, the Department of Community Health would establish and maintain a central caregiver registry so that a family member or guardian looking to hire a personal caregiver for an elderly person could access information on eligible and ineligible applicants and employers. SB 406 is based on the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform’s recommendations, and this significant measure seeks protect our state’s senior citizens and decrease cases of elder abuse.

As I have discussed in previous columns, the House has greatly prioritized legislation to boost economic development in Georgia’s rural communities throughout this legislative session, and this week, the House continued its commitment to rural Georgia by adopting House Resolution 1376. HR 1376 urges the House Rural Development Council (RDC) to solicit input from Georgia’s hospitals on their financial conditions, including profitability, community benefit, cash revenue and viability projections for hospitals in financial crisis. The resolution also suggests that the RDC receive recommendations from the hospital industry on any legislative or regulatory changes that could help sustain our state’s health care industry. Georgia’s hospitals are extremely important to the areas they serve, as they play a key role in a community’s economic development and provide indigent care to those in need. However, in Georgia, there is a wide discrepancy among hospitals in regards to how much indigent and charity care they provide. Some of Georgia’s hospitals are very profitable, while others, especially in rural Georgia, are at risk of closing, and the recommended provisions in this measure would provide the RDC with valuable information needed to help our state’s rural hospitals flourish.

Additionally, on Thursday, March 15, the House passed Senate Bill 330, the Georgia Agricultural Education Act. Under this bill, Georgia’s agricultural education programs for students in grades six through 12 would be required to be based on the nationally recognized three-component model of school-based agricultural education. The three-component model would consist of daily classroom and lab instruction; hands-on, experimental learning through a supervised agricultural experience program; and leadership and learning opportunities through participation in agricultural education programs, such the Georgia Future Farmers of America (FFA) Association. The Department of Education would develop curriculum and standards for the program with input from agricultural education teachers. Further, this legislation would authorize the Department of Education to establish an elementary agricultural education pilot program to determine whether such a program would be appropriate for statewide implementation. Georgia’s agriculture education programs provide our students with valuable and unique learning opportunities outside of the traditional classroom setting, and it is essential that we preserve and expand these programs so that more of our state’s students can learn about agriculture and the agriculture industry, which is the biggest industry in Georgia.

Last legislative session, the House championed 12 military-friendly bills and six resolutions in honor of Georgia’s military, and this session, we have passed almost a dozen additional bills to benefit our state’s military, including Senate Bill 395, which passed the House unanimously this week. This bipartisan bill would establish the 18-member Georgia Joint Defense Commission, which would be responsible for advising the governor and the Georgia General Assembly on state and national-level defense and military issues; recommending policies and plans to support the long-term sustainability and development of Georgia’s active and civilian military; developing programs to enhance communities’ relationships with military installations; and serving as a task force to prepare for potential base realignment or military installation closures in the state. The council would submit an annual report to the governor and the Georgia General Assembly on the state of Georgia’s military installations, as well as a tactical plan for navigating a possible base realignment or military installation closure. Finally, this bill would establish the Defense Community Economic Development Grant Program to assist military communities with projects, events and activities that promote military installations. The Joint Defense Commission and the Defense Community Economic Development Grant Program would help to further strengthen Georgia’s military-friendly reputation, bolster our state’s military installations and ultimately enhance the quality of life for Georgia’s active-duty military members and veterans.

In addition to SB 395, the House passed another bill to assist our service men and women on Thursday, March 15. Senate Bill 82 would allow members of the Georgia National Guard or a reserve component of the United States Armed Forces located in Georgia to be classified as a legal residents under eligibility requirements for HOPE scholarships and grants. This expansion would only apply to Georgia National Guard or reserve members who are stationed in Georgia or who list Georgia as his or her home of record. Currently, only active-duty military service members, their spouses and their dependent children are eligible to receive Georgia’s HOPE scholarships and grants, and SB 82 would allow the brave men and women who serve in the Georgia National Guard and the reserves to reap the same educational benefits as their active-duty military counterparts.

Finally, the House passed Senate Bill 17, also known as the “Brunch Bill,” on Monday, March 12. This legislation would allow local governing authorities to authorize alcoholic beverage sales beginning at 11 a.m. on Sundays, subject to the passage of a local referendum. SB 17 would only apply to licensed establishments that derive at least 50 percent of their total annual gross sales from food sales or from room rentals for overnight lodging. If SB 17 becomes law, it is expected to increase sales by $100 million and generate approximately $11 million in additional state and local tax revenue. This measure would not change existing local alcohol sales laws, but it would allow voters to decide whether or not to approve of early Sunday sales within their communities.

With five legislative days remaining until we adjourn sine die for the 2018 legislative session, it is more important than ever that you reach out to me to express any concerns or share any input you have regarding pending legislation. I highly value your thoughts and opinions, and I want to know what you, your family and our neighbors think about legislative matters that impact our community and our state. My Assistant or I can be reached by phone at 404-656-0178, or by email at paulette.rakestraw@house.ga.gov.

As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your state representative.