2018 Georgia General Assembly Session — Week Nine Update

On Monday, March 5, the House reconvened for Legislative Day 30 and the ninth week of the 2018 legislative session. Since we are now past the Cross Over Day deadline, much of our legislative work this week was accomplished in committee hearings as my House colleagues and I reviewed Senate bills. In addition to vetting Senate measures in our respective House committees, we also took up several pieces of legislation on the House floor this week, including the Fiscal Year 2019 state budget, which is one of the most important bills that we will pass all session.

The Georgia General Assembly is constitutionally required to pass a balanced budget each year, and the House took a step in fulling this constitutional obligation on Friday, March 9, by granting initial passage to House Bill 684, the Fiscal Year 2019 (FY 2019) budget. This year’s state budget is $50.85 billion and will guide our state’s spending from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019. The FY 2019 budget was determined by a revenue estimate of $26 billion, which is an increase of $1.03 billion, or 4.1 percent, over last year’s budget. The House Appropriations Committee carefully reviewed each portion of the budget and meticulously allocated state dollars towards our state’s needs, and I would like to highlight some of the most significant budget allotments in Georgia’s FY 2019 budget.

As I have explained in previous columns, the House Rural Development Council’s (RDC) work during the summer and fall of 2017 has driven much of this year’s legislative agenda, and as a result of the RDC’s comprehensive study of the issues plaguing rural Georgia, the FY 2019 budget allocates state funding towards a wide range of initiatives to assist our rural communities based on the RDC’s recommendations. Some of this rural funding is specifically aimed at boosting economic development in rural Georgia, including funding for the Department of Agriculture’s Georgia Grown marketing program; a downtown development attorney to help Georgia’s small towns secure redevelopment grants; a deputy commissioner of rural Georgia position; and the Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovations. The budget also includes state dollars for several key rural health programs, including two rural surgical fellowships at St. Joseph’s/Candler Hospital; a statewide residency recruitment fair for rural medical facilities; insurance premium assistance for physicians who practice in underserved counties with one or less physicians; 10 regional Emergency Medical Services (EMS) training positions to train EMS personnel in rural Georgia; and the Rural Health Systems Innovation Center. Additionally, the FY 2019 budget includes appropriations for various programs for rural Georgia’s children, such as funding for soft skills training and character education development for rural Georgia’s lowest performing schools; a mobile audiology clinic to provide audiological care to children in rural Georgia; and birth-to-five literacy and numeracy in rural Georgia. I am proud that the House has prioritized state dollars to support and revitalize our rural communities, and these allocations for our rural communities will help rural Georgia, as well as our state as a whole, to thrive.

Each year, education funding is always one of the largest budget items in the state budget, and this year is no exception, with 55.9 percent of the entire budget allocated to education. First and foremost, the FY 2019 budget includes $119.5 million for K-12 enrollment growth and training and experience for an additional 6,552 students and 1,869 teachers across the state, and $361.7 million for the Teachers Retirement System (TRS) to support 117,957 retired and 218,193 active TRS members. The budget also includes funding for two Advanced Placement exams, one STEM exam and one non-STEM exam, for low-income students, as well as dollars for the new Chief Turnaround Officer program to help Georgia’s schools in most need of assistance. Additionally, the state budget allots $1.6 million for a student mental health awareness training program, including response and intervention training, for students in preschool through 12th grade. Furthermore, the budget includes $111 million for the University System of Georgia enrollment growth and increased square footage; $5.5 million for the Technical College System of Georgia enrollment growth and increased square footage; $27.1 million for the Dual Enrollment program; $2.7 million for 1,177 additional HOPE and Zell Miller private scholarships; and $65.3 million for 27,832 more HOPE and Zell Miller public scholarships. Finally, one of the most important education appropriations included in the FY 2019 budget was $8 million for school security grants to improve security in Georgia’s schools, which was added to the budget in light of one of the deadliest school shootings in recent history. This funding is instrumental in helping to protect Georgia’s students, teachers and school staff members, and we hope that our Senate counterparts will join us in adding supplementary school security funding as well.

In addition to education funding, health care costs also make up a significant portion of the FY 2019 budget. The FY 2019 budget provides $16.9 million for a 4.3 percent provider rate increase for nursing homes and $962,022 for increased background checks for long-term care facility owners and employees. Moreover, the state’s 2019 budget allocates dollars for essential autism services, such as funding for a program coordinator position and to develop capacity in the Department of Community Health and the Department of Public Health to provide behavioral health services to autistic children under the age of 21. In addition, Georgia’s 2019 budget includes $568,057 towards the Marcus Autism Center to cover the cost of treating autistic children with the greatest needs. Lastly, Georgia has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the country, and the FY 2019 budget provides the Department of Public Health $2 million to address this pressing issue.

Mental health initiatives are also a significant budgetary focus in the House, and the FY 2019 budget provides critical funding for several mental health programs that will benefit our state’s citizens. Specifically, the 2019 budget implements the Commission on Children’s Mental Health’s recommendations by funding child and adolescent crisis services, including four new respite homes; 13 new Georgia APEX Program grants to expand mental health services to students in 100 more schools; telemedicine equipment and services; and high-fidelity wraparound services training that will impact up to 3,000 young Georgians. The FY 2019 budget also includes funding to expand the Georgia Crisis Access Line’s operating hours and to create a mobile application to provide mental health crisis services. Additionally, the 2019 state budget includes $2.2 million for Department of Human Services care coordinator positions to improve mental health outcomes for foster care children. Georgia’s mental health programs provide critical services to many of our state’s citizens, and we must adequately fund these programs to support all Georgians.

The 2019 budget includes many, many more allocations designed to meet the wide ranging needs of our state, such as funding to clear hurricane debris and remove sunken vessels along the Georgia coastline and dollars to implement several economic development projects across the state. The budget also includes an extra $15.1 million for growth in out-of-home care and $15.2 million in additional funding to increase foster care per diem rates for relative and child placement agency foster care providers. Georgia’s 2019 state budget also provides funding for Georgia’s highly successful accountability courts, as well as for nine additional assistant district attorney positions and nine assistant public defenders to support juvenile courts across the state. Finally, the budget includes appropriations for statewide transportation infrastructure construction, maintenance and improvements. These highlights are just a handful of all the items in Georgia’s FY 2019 budget, and the state budget in its entirety reflects the diversity of our state’s citizens, needs and opportunities.

The state budget was surely the biggest legislative item on the House’s agenda this week, but we also passed several other noteworthy measures on the House floor, including Senate Bill 2, “The FAST Act – Fairness, Accountability, Simplification and Transparency – Empowering Our Small Businesses to Succeed.” This bill seeks to enhance accountability, expedite local government permitting processes and reduce regulatory burdens on small businesses by removing certain regulations that make it more difficult to conduct business in Georgia. SB 2 would allow the Department of Community Affairs to establish “Ready for Partnership Georgia,” a voluntary best-practices certification program for each county and municipality in the state. Under this measure, a 13-member working group would develop best practices and standards for certifying counties and municipalities as “Ready for Partnership Georgia” and would establish a process to review, renew and revoke the certifications. The certification would be based on several metrics, including county or municipality licensing and permitting fees, the time required by the local government to process license and permit applications and the consolidation of forms and documents to avoid repetitive or duplicative information requests. For the past several years, the House has passed many pro-business measures, which have greatly contributed to Georgia being named the best state for business for five consecutive years, and SB 2 would strengthen our state’s business-friendly reputation and help Georgia’s businesses, and especially our small businesses, to excel in our state.

On Wednesday, March 7, my colleagues and I overwhelmingly adopted another measure that would benefit rural Georgia, as well as rural communities across the country. House Resolution 1225 urges Congress to pass the Building Rail Access for Customers and the Economy (BRACE) Act. This act would make permanent the federal Railroad Track Maintenance Tax Credit, also known as the 45G tax credit, which would be used for rail improvement and enhancements. The 45G tax credit, which expired in December 2016, allowed short line and regional rail lines to claim 50 cents for every $1 spent, up to $3,500, per mile on track improvements. Currently, there are 29 Class III short line rails in Georgia that stretch over 1,000 miles. This resolution is in concert with the findings of the RDC, and if passed by the federal government, the BRACE Act would greatly benefit rural Georgia, as short rail lines provide jobs and promote economic growth in Georgia’s rural communities. Georgia’s freight rail network provides $2.4 billion in direct economic impact, and establishing a permanent 45G tax credit would incentivize continued rail maintenance and improvements and positively impact the rural areas of our state and our country.

The House is always eager to find ways to improve our state’s education system, and on Friday, March 9, we unanimously adopted a resolution for the benefit of Georgia’s schools, teachers and students. House Resolution 1162 would establish the House Study Committee on the Establishment of a State Accreditation Process to explore whether a state accreditation process for Georgia’s public schools and school systems should be formed. Currently, there is no state entity that is responsible for accrediting Georgia’s primary and secondary public schools and local school systems, and as a result, most of these schools and school systems seek accreditation through private organizations. The five-member study committee would explore the resources and structure needed for a state accreditation entity, as well as any obstacles that would need to be addressed and how such an entity would interact with existing private accreditation agencies. The study committee would also analyze ways to align accreditation review with charter renewal for charter systems and contract renewal for strategic waivers school systems; examine the possibility of establishing a state process to annually review system charters and contracts; study potential consequences of losing state accreditation; and explore the possibility of establishing a school board review commission. Should the study committee adopt any specific findings or recommendations, including suggestions for proposed legislation, the study committee’s chairperson would file a report by Dec. 1, 2018, the date upon which the study committee would be abolished. This study committee would ultimately help our state determine if a state accreditation process would be beneficial to our education system, and I look forward to hearing the committee’s findings next year.

Finally, on Monday, March 5, Governor Nathan Deal signed House Bill 159, one of the House’s most important bills this session, into law. HB 159 will significantly update and modernize Georgia’s adoption laws for the first time in nearly three decades, and this bill will streamline and expedite all types of adoptions in Georgia. State Representative Bert Reeves (R-Marietta) spent nearly two-and-a-half years refining the bill, which has been a top priority in the House for the past two legislative sessions and passed the House unanimously three times. The new adoption laws will increase efficiencies in every aspect of Georgia adoption, and these additions and revisions to our adoption code will bring Georgia up to speed with the rest of the country. Our state’s updated adoption code will benefit every family going through the adoption process and every child in Georgia in need of adoption, and this groundbreaking legislation will go into effect on Sept. 1, 2018.

With only eight legislative days remaining until we adjourn sine die, the General Assembly is in the final stretch of the 2018 legislative session. Legislative Day 40, the last day of session, is Thursday, March 29, and although we only have a few weeks left to finish our legislative business, my colleagues in the House, as well as our Senate counterparts, will be hard at work to ensure that we pass meaningful legislation for the people of our great state. Until then, please feel free to reach out to me or my assistant to voice any concerns or questions you have on any legislation up for consideration in the House or the Senate. I can be reached at my Capitol office 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.