The snow and ice melted from Winter Storm Pax, and we returned to Capitol Hill on Monday, February 17, 2014. This was the sixth week of the 2014 legislative session and a very important one. In that week, we passed the Fiscal Year 2015 budget, as well as many other significant pieces of legislation.
House Bill 744, the Fiscal Year 2015 budget, is an initial guide for all state spending to occur from July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015. The budget was set by a revenue estimate of $20.8 billion, a 4.6 percent increase from the Fiscal Year 2014 budget. Nearly 72 percent of the new revenue is budgeted for K-12 and higher education expenses. These funds, totaling $916 million, will help finance enrollment growth, increase opportunities for technical education, and distribute more dollars to local school systems in hopes of eliminating furlough days and raising salaries for teachers. New revenue will also provide for an increase in salaries for correctional officers, additional child protective service workers and an extension of the Planning for Healthy Babies program, which helps prevent babies from being born at a low birth weight.
While we set education as our top priority in the budget, we also passed legislation to increase educational opportunities for Georgians. House Bill 697 creates a Zell Miller grant scholar designation to cover 100 percent of tuition for those students who maintain a 3.5 GPA or above in Georgia’s technical colleges. Since 2011, the last time HOPE provided a full scholarship to these students, technical college enrollment has declined by 20 percent. HB 697 will help address this decline, bringing students back to school, so they can gain the skills needed to join the workforce. This legislation also helps close a technical skill-gap, making Georgia more attractive to those businesses that are looking for skilled labor.
In addition to passing legislation to improve educational opportunities, we also passed several pieces of legislation to protect Georgians’ constitutional rights. One such measure was House Bill 875, a comprehensive bill that expands Second Amendment rights for law-abiding citizens. Under HB 875, Georgia Weapons Carry license holders would gain broader access to those government buildings that do not provide active security at entrances. HB 875 also allows veterans under the age of 21 who have been honorably discharged from service to receive a weapons carry license. Furthermore, it eliminates the re-fingerprinting requirement for weapons carry license renewals, prohibits the creation of a database of license holders and lessens the penalty for license holders who carry on college campuses. In addition, HB 875 prevents the confiscation of weapons or ammunition by the state, which is currently legal in the event of a state of emergency declaration by the governor.
Private property rights are also expanded by HB 875. Measures in the legislation enable property owners to decide on the prohibition or permit of weapons at churches and bars. Additionally, HB 875 gives school boards the opportunity and choice to arm employees under their well-thought-out guidelines and supervision.
While we want to protect the Second Amendment rights of responsible citizens, we also want to try to prevent guns from falling into the wrong hands. As a result, HB 875 includes measures to improve mental health regulations for Georgia Weapons Carry license applicants. Under HB 875, licenses would be denied to any person who has been deemed “mentally incompetent to stand trial” or any person who is been deemed “not guilty by reason of insanity” at the time of the trial. The bill also ensures that these individuals are reported within 10 days to the Georgia Crime Information Center (GCIC), so that probate judges can use GCIC to check the accuracy of every application form.
In addition to the Second Amendment, another imperative part of the U.S. Constitution is Article V. Article V allows states to call a constitutional convention so that they can make amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Under Article V, a constitutional convention may be called if at least two-thirds, or 34 states, petition on the same subject. This week the Georgia House passed a series of bills and resolutions to call for a constitutional convention that would focus on adding a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Those pieces of legislation that were passed in the House this week were: House Bill 794, Senate Resolution 371, House Resolution 1215, and Senate Bill 206. Since SB 371 has now passed both the House and Senate, Georgia will now become the 21st state to pass legislation calling for a convention of this purpose. As a lawmaker that has worked to balance Georgia’s state budget year after year, I believe that Congress should be doing the same with our national budget. Adding a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution would help control America’s growing debt and make the nation’s economic future more secure for our children and grandchildren.
In addition to conducting legislative business last week, we also took some time to honor Jim Chavers, the last surviving member of the 4th Marine Division that fought in Iwo Jima. Considered one of the deadliest battles of World War II, the Invasion of Iwo Jima began on February 19, 1945 and lasted until March 26, 1945. Chavers was one of only 60 survivors from his company of 250. After his time in the Marines, Chavers served as a customs inspector for the U.S. Customs Service for 33 years. It was a privilege to meet such an outstanding Georgian as Jim Chavers. I am inspired by his dedication and commitment to this great country.
With less than a month left in the 2014 legislative session, if you reside within District 19, and have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact Lauren Talley in State Representative Paulette Rakestraw’s Office, 404-656-0177.