New SafeAmerica Collaboration Press Conference Energizes Atlanta Teen to Further Action

The recent press conference hosted by Representatives Paulette Rakestraw (R-HD 19) and Michael Smith (D-HD 41) has inspired a young Atlanta writer to provide further coverage of the event. At the press conference, Safe America Foundation and its collaborators announced a new venture to help rescue victims of human trafficking, as well as opioid addicts and veterans suffering from PTSD.

Damion Olinger, 16, attended the press conference and submitted coverage of it to VoxAtl, which bills itself as “Atlanta’s home for uncensored teen publishing and self-expression.” The article was submitted as part of the Atlanta Teen Voices initiative, supporting teens in metro Atlanta sharing their stories and ideas. You can read Damion’s coverage of the event on the VoxAtl website.

Damion Olinger currently attends Locust Grove High School and The Academy for Advanced Studies. He is a mental health advocate who has pushed for more access to information about mental health in schools.

Rep. Rakestraw, Paulding County’s first female legislator, represents the citizens of District 19 in Paulding County. She was elected to the House of Representatives in 2010 and currently serves as a member of the Appropriations, Regulated Industries, and Small Business Development Committees. She is Secretary of the Juvenile Justice and the Economic Development & Tourism Committees, and also serves as Vice Chairman of the Science & Technology and Special Rules Committees.

Rep. Rakestraw to Co-host Event for Safe America Foundation

Representatives Paulette Rakestraw (R-HD 19) and Michael Smith (D-HD 41) will host a press conference on Friday, June 8 at 10:00 a.m. at the Georgia State Capitol. At the event, the Safe America Foundation will announce a new collaborative venture with youthSpark, AMR Ambulance Company, WellStar Atlanta Medical Center, Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority, and Georgia Global Health Initiative to help rescue victims of human trafficking, as well as opioid addicts and PTSD-suffering veterans.

In addition to the main announcement, there will also be remarks given by executives from some of Safe America’s partner organizations:
• Kim Ryan, President of the WellStar Atlanta Medical Center
• Dr. Joshua Murfree, COO of the Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority
• Rick Ornelas, Director of Operations, AMR (Ambulance Co),
• Jennifer Swain, Executive Director of youthSpark
• Jeff Turner, Chairman of the Clayton County Commission.

Also, on display will be the new ambulance which has been donated to Safe America by AMR Ambulance Company to assist with the HUMANS Care program, which will aim to aid victims of human trafficking, as well as veterans with PTSD.

Safe America Foundation Press Conference — Event Details
Friday, June 8, 2018
10.00 am
Georgia State Capitol
206 Washington Street SW
Atlanta, GA 30334

The event will be held just outside the Capitol on Washington Street, in front of the Central Presbyterian Church.

Rep. Rakestraw, Paulding County’s first female legislator, represents the citizens of District 19 in Paulding County. She was elected to the House of Representatives in 2010 and currently serves as a member of the Appropriations, Regulated Industries, and Small Business Development Committees. She is Secretary of the Juvenile Justice and the Economic Development & Tourism Committees, and also serves as Vice Chairman of the Science & Technology and Special Rules Committees.

2018 Georgia General Assembly — Week Twelve Update

On Tuesday, March 27, we reconvened at the Capitol for the 12th and final week of the 2018 legislative session, and on Thursday, March 29, the House and Senate completed Legislative Day 40 and adjourned Sine Die. Legislative Day 40 is commonly referred to under the Gold Dome as “Sine Die,” a Latin term meaning “without assigning a day for further meeting.” During this busy week, my colleagues and I worked late into the night to ensure that quality legislation was passed this session to benefit our state and its citizens.

The House kicked off our last week of session by unanimously passing two adjoining bipartisan measures, Senate Bill 127 and Senate Resolution 146, legislation that would acknowledge and protect several specific victims’ rights. SB 127 would provide a process for victims to be heard by the court when the victim’s constitutional rights to participation and information have been denied. Under SB 127, if the victim of a crime makes a written request to the prosecuting attorney to be notified of all proceedings, has provided appropriate contact information and asserts that no notification has been provided, the victim can file a motion to the court to be heard on the matter within 20 days after the claimed violation. Further, SR 146, also known as Marsy’s Law, is the companion legislation to SB 127 and would place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to provide victims explicit rights in Georgia’s Constitution. If the amendment is approved by Georgia voters, our state’s Constitution would grant victims several rights, including: reasonable, accurate and timely notice of any court proceedings or schedule changes involving the alleged crime; reasonable and timely notice of the arrest, release or escape of the accused; inclusion in any court proceedings; the opportunity to be heard in any proceedings involving the release, plea or sentencing of the accused; and to be informed of his or her rights. Most states have already adopted similar constitutional amendments, and if SR 146 is approved by voters, Georgia’s Constitution would be amended to include specific language to protect the rights of crime victims.

In addition to approving Marsy’s Law on Tuesday, the House also passed Senate Bill 154 to hold those in positions of authority accountable for sexual assault by defining sexual assault in the first and second degree. Under SB 154, anyone who engages in sexual contact with a victim under their care or supervision would be guilty of sexual assault in the second degree and would be required to serve a prison sentence of one to five years and fined a maximum of $25,000; however, they would not be required to register as a sex offender unless they are convicted of a second or subsequent offense. Anyone who engages in sexually explicit conduct with a victim under their care or supervision would be guilty of sexual assault in the first degree and would be required to serve a prison sentence of one to 25 years, fined a maximum of $100,000 and must register as a sex offender. Furthermore, SB 154 provides exceptions to these sentencing requirements for offenders who commit sexual assault in either degree if the offender did not have supervisory or disciplinary authority over the victim at the time of the offense or if the victim is younger than 16-years-old; if the victim is between 14 and 16-years-old and the offender is 18-years-old or younger; and if the victim is at least 16-years-old and the offender is younger than 21-years-old. This measure would apply to employees and agents of any school, community supervision office, probation office, law enforcement agency, hospital, correctional facility, juvenile detention facility, disability services facility or child welfare and youth services facility, as well as to psychotherapy counselors and practitioners and employees, agents and volunteers of licensed facilities that provide drug and alcohol treatment, senior living care or hospice services. SB 154 would broaden Georgia law to hold those in positions of trust and authority criminally responsible for taking advantage of and violating Georgia’s most vulnerable citizens.

Over the past several years, the Georgia General Assembly, under the leadership of Governor Nathan Deal, has passed significant criminal justice reform measures that have truly changed lives, and this week, the House unanimously passed the last criminal justice bill under Gov. Deal’s administration. Senate Bill 407 consists of several recommendations from the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, and this comprehensive measure notably includes updates to Georgia’s bail system, such as authorizing courts of inquiry to set bail for city ordinance violations; prohibiting courts from imposing excessive bail; requiring courts to only impose conditions reasonably necessary to ensure court attendance and protect public safety; and requiring courts to consider the accused’s financial resources, earnings and other economic factors when determining bail. In cases involving local ordinance violations, the court would be authorized to allow the defendant to satisfy any fines or fees through community service, and courts could waive, modify or convert fines and fees if the court finds that the defendant has a significant financial hardship. Additionally, under SB 407, the Judicial Council of Georgia would develop a uniform misdemeanor citation and complaint form for use by law enforcement officials, and the bill would allow misdemeanors to be prosecuted by accusation, citation or citation and arrest. SB 407 would also expand the list of misdemeanor crimes an officer can arrest by citation, and prior to the offender’s release, the officer would be required to review the accused’s criminal record and ensure the accused’s fingerprints are obtained. Moreover, SB 407 would authorize accountability court judges to order the Department of Driver Services to reinstate or revoke driver’s licenses or limited permits as a reward or sanction for actions in the accountability court, and the court would be permitted to grant petitions for early termination of probation that the state does not oppose within 90 days of receiving the petition. Also, the bill would cap supervision fees collected on pay-only probation at the rate in the private probation company’s contract, and the court would provide probationers who fail to report a 10-day grace period from the time the officer mails a letter to the probationer, as long as the probationer reports. Further, SB 407 includes several provisions regarding firearm theft and those prohibited from possessing a firearm, and the bill would authorize the Department of Community Health to share information on the prescription drug monitoring program database with federal agents and would allow for disclosure to out-of-state prescription drug monitoring programs operated by governmental entities. Finally, SB 407 would allow Technical College System police officers to arrest for offenses committed on or within 500 feet of a Technical College System property. The bill includes several other criminal justice reforms, such as provisions for courts to implement electronic filing and payment systems and protections for first offenders’ records. Gov. Deal’s highly successful criminal justice reforms serve as a model that other states have emulated, and SB 407 is yet another effort to refine and improve Georgia’s criminal justice system for the good of our state’s citizens.

My House colleagues and I also passed a bill this week that would update Georgia’s child support laws to mirror federal regulatory changes that went into effect on Jan. 20, 2017. Under Senate Bill 427, courts would be required to consider an obligor’s, or an individual that owes child support, earnings, income, ability to pay child support and the basic needs of the recipients of such support when making a final determination of child support. Additionally, if a parent fails to produce reliable evidence of their earnings, their income for the current year may be assigned by the court based off the parent’s ability to earn and other economic factors. Furthermore, if the parent is incarcerated, their income may be assigned based off their actual income and assets available, not off their pre-incarceration wages. SB 427 would also prohibit a court from treating incarceration as willful or voluntary unemployment or underemployed when setting a child support amount. Further, SB 427 provides that a child’s enrollment in a public health care program, such as Medicaid or PeachCare for Kids, may satisfy the health care requirement for providing for the child’s health care needs in a child support order; however, such enrollment would not prevent a court from ordering parents to insure their child. This measure would bring Georgia into compliance with new federal child support regulations for the good of our state’s children, as well as their parents.

This week, the House approved of a measure that would help equip Georgia’s students for their professional careers. Senate Bill 401 would require postsecondary institutions that provide dual credit courses to provide enrollment and student record data to the Office of Student Achievement and to the statewide longitudinal data system. In addition, under SB 401, the Office of Student Achievement would collect and monitor enrollment and student record data for dual credit courses and would annually measure and evaluate the dual enrollment program. The bill would also require middle school students to be provided with counseling and information to assist them in evaluating their career orientated aptitudes, and all students would develop a graduation plan with their parents or guardians based on their academic skills, career orientated aptitudes and career interests before the end of eighth grade. Further, beginning with the 2018-2019 school year, guidance, advisement and counseling for high school students would include career oriented aptitude and career interest guidance. SB 401 would also require the Department of Education to review each school counselor’s role, workload and program service delivery in grades six through 12, and the department would report its findings to the State Board of Education and the Georgia General Assembly, including recommendations for counselor improvements to ensure student success in academic skills, career orientated aptitudes and career interests. Lastly, SB 401 includes provisions that would help prepare students in kindergarten through ninth grade to address sexual abuse and assault, as well as allow funding for students taking dual credit courses at eligible postsecondary institutions that utilize nonstandard term systems, such as Georgia Military College. The provisions in this bill would tremendously help our students to explore their strengths, skills and career aptitudes as they move through middle and high school and beyond.

In an effort to expedite statewide deployment of broadband services and other emerging communications technologies, the House passed House Resolution 1698 and Senate Bill 426 this week. HR 1698 urges the House Rural Development Council (RDC), which was established during the 2017 legislative session to examine how to best spur economic growth throughout rural Georgia, to explore ways to streamline and make equitable the use of public rights-of-way while preserving local control of and fair compensation for such rights-of-way. Further, the resolution urges the RDC to examine new pole rates, rentals and pole ownership to level the playing field among current and future communications services providers. In their study of how to best manage public rights-of-way, the resolution encourages the RDC to solicit input from the Georgia Department of Transportation, local governments, communications services providers and other relevant parties. Additionally, SB 426 would authorize electric membership corporations (EMC) to supply and operate broadband services in rural counties with a population of 50,000 or less if the EMC secures a certificate of authority from the Public Service Commission. Access to broadband services and other emerging communications technologies is essential for communities to grow and thrive, and these measures aim to expand to such critical services to every corner of our state, and especially rural Georgia.

Over the past several weeks, I have updated you on the status of various bills as they have moved through the legislative process, and I am proud to announce that on Thursday, March 29, my House colleagues and I gave final passage to two very important bills with significant statewide implications. Senate Bill 402 contains numerous technical changes to facilitate broadband expansion in rural areas. These technical changes include facilitating grant programs for rural broadband and creating a certification process for cities and counties to be designated “Broadband-Ready Communities.” House Bill 930 would create a new regional governance and funding structure for transit in the metropolitan Atlanta region. HB 930 intends to improve the coordination, integration and efficiency of transit in the metropolitan Atlanta region and promote a seamless and high-quality transit system for the 13-county metropolitan Atlanta region. These bills were both major House priorities this session, and I hope that Gov. Deal will favorably consider these bills that will greatly impact the state as a whole for the better

Finally, before we adjourned sine die for the year, the House fulfilled our only legislative responsibility as outlined in Georgia’s Constitution. On Thursday, March 29, we gave final passage to the Fiscal Year 2019 (FY 2019) budget, House Bill 684, by adopting a conference committee report. Amongst many, many important budgetary appropriations, the final FY 2019 budget includes an additional $166.7 million for local school systems, $16 million for school security and $100 million in bonds for transit. These additional education dollars would fully fund Georgia’s Quality Basic Education formula, which provides k-12 school funding, after over a decade of austerity cuts. This final, comprehensive budget would provide for the wide-ranging needs of our state’s and its citizens, and I am proud that the Georgia General Assembly fulfilled its constitutional responsibility by giving final passage to the FY 2019 budget.

Although the Georgia General Assembly has adjourned sine die and the 2018 legislative session has officially come to an end, I hope that you will continue to contact me if you have any questions regarding your state government, potential new state laws or if you have any suggestions for future legislation. Over the next 40 days, Gov. Deal will review and sign or veto measures that received final House and Senate passage this session. Any bill the governor signs will become law, and any legislation not signed or vetoed within this 40-day period will automatically become law as well. My House colleagues and I have worked diligently this session on behalf of our constituents, and we are proud of the legislation we have crafted and passed for the good of our state. While the session is over, I will continue to serve you and your family as our district’s state representative. Please feel free to reach out to me or my assistant, Kayla Bancroft, anytime at 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 representative.

2018 Georgia General Assembly — Week Eleven Update

Here is your weekly legislative update about what is occurring under the Gold Dome from your State Representative Paulette Rakestraw:

On Monday, March 19, the Georgia General Assembly reconvened under the Gold Dome for Legislative Day 36 and the 11th week of the 2018 legislative session By the end of this week, we completed Legislative Day 38, and with the end of the 40-day legislative session in sight, my House colleagues and I continued to work diligently in our respective committees and also passed several key bills and resolutions on behalf of our constituents and all Georgians.

My House colleagues and I began this week on Monday, March 19, by unanimously adopting a resolution that would allow us to examine how to best protect our state’s schools. House Resolution 1414 would create the House Study Committee on School Security to study ways to curb incidences of violence, facilitate life-saving responses and provide safer learning environments for Georgia’s students, teachers and other school personnel. The study committee would explore the conditions, needs and issues associated with school security and would recommend any action or legislation it deems necessary based on its findings. The nine-member study committee would hold five hearings to discuss methods to decrease incidents of school violence, as well as how to best respond when such incidents occur. Any findings or suggestions for proposed legislation would be filed by Dec. 1, 2018, when the study committee would be abolished. This resolution was adopted by the House in the wake of one of the deadliest mass shootings in recent U.S. history, and it more critical than ever that we study how to best protect Georgia’s students, teachers and school staff.

On Wednesday, March 21, the House passed Senate Bill 139, another piece of legislation that is designed to benefit of our state’s students. SB 139 would allow local school systems, charter schools and college and career academies to develop and submit new pathways, or focused programs of study. Several focused programs of study currently exist, including finance, information technology, health science and manufacturing, and any new pathways would be submitted to the State Board of Education for consideration. SB 139 would also require the State Workforce Development Board, with input from the Department of Education and the Technical College System of Georgia, to develop and promote an annual list of industry credentials and state licenses, such as welding or computer certifications, that students can earn in middle or high school. This list would include credentials and licenses related to high-demand occupations with wages of at least 70 percent of Georgia’s average annual wage. Furthermore, under SB 139, each local school system would be required to submit an annual report to the Department of Education with the number of students earning an industry credential or state license from the high-demand careers list, and the Department of Education would report the number of students earning such credentials or licenses to the governor, president of the Senate and speaker of the House of Representatives, as well as post the list on their website each year. Finally, HB 759 would expand the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program by allowing students who previously qualified for the scholarship to be exempt from the requirement that the student attend a Georgia public school the year prior. This measure would equip our state’s middle and high school students with the resources needed to attain jobs in high-demand fields after graduation and expand educational opportunities for all of Georgia’s students.

This week, the House adopted a resolution that seeks to help our brave veterans smoothly transition from military service to civilian life. House Resolution 1137 urges the president and Congress to enact federal legislation that would provide members of the armed forces with mental and physical health assistance prior to being discharged from the armed forces. Service men and women often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental and emotional health conditions upon completion of service, and many of these individuals are not properly prepared to return to civilian life. Providing necessary repair and support resources to our service members before they return to nonmilitary life could help them avoid some of the challenges many veterans face, such as homelessness, and this proactive assistance would allow soldiers to be restored physically and mentally before returning to society.

On Monday, March 19, the House passed Senate Bill 331 to better protect the identities of Georgia lottery winners. Under SB 331, the Georgia Lottery Corporation would be required to keep all information on lottery winners of $250,000 or more confidential upon the winner’s written request. Currently, lottery winners may request for their information to be protected, but news organizations can still obtain this information. Lottery winners are often targets of scams, and several people have tragically died after winning the lottery. Other states have enacted similar legislation to address this growing public safety issue, and SB 331 would allow these winners to remain anonymous in order to protect themselves and their loved ones.

The House also passed a measure this week that would ensure our state’s citizens with dementia-related diseases are best cared for. Senate Bill 444, or the “Senator Thorborn ‘Ross’ Tolleson, Jr., Act,” would establish the Georgia Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias State Plan Advisory Council to advise the governor, the General Assembly, the Department of Human Services and all other state agencies on the state’s Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias State Plan. The council would ensure that the state’s focus remains on implementing and amending the goals of the state plan, which was created to determine Georgia’s ability to meet the growing needs of our state’s citizens with dementia and to present a plan to meet those needs. Under SB 444, the council would recommend strategies to reach the state plan’s goals, as well as review progress made towards reaching these goals and how resources and services for individuals with dementia-related diseases have been implemented statewide. Under SB 444, the council would be made up of leaders of various health, human services and aging-related departments, divisions, associations, councils and committees. Additionally, the governor would appoint several individuals with expertise or experience in relevant fields to the council, and the council would submit a report every three years to the governor and the General Assembly on the council’s work. This advisory council would play a critical role in offering strategies on Georgia’s delivery of dementia-related services, and these services serve as vital resources to our state’s citizens with Alzheimer’s and related diseases, as well as their families.

Finally, on Friday, March 23, the House passed Senate Bill 402, the “Achieving Connectivity Everywhere (ACE) Act,” which would lay the groundwork for expanding broadband services throughout the state by promoting public-private partnerships. Under the ACE Act, the Georgia Technology Authority would be authorized to create any programs or policies needed to coordinate statewide broadband implementation efforts. Additionally, the Department of Transportation would plan for, establish and implement a policy for the use of rights-of-way on interstate highways and state-owned roads to deploy broadband services. SB 402 would also permit qualifying electric membership corporations (EMCs) and telephone cooperatives to provide and operate broadband services, wireless services and other emerging communications technologies. Further, the bill would establish the “Georgia Broadband Ready Community Site Designation Program” to allow communities to apply to be designated as “broadband ready” and therefore qualify for certain grant programs and tax exemptions. The Department of Community Affairs (DCA), with assistance from the Department of Economic Development (GDEcD), would create and administer the designation program to encourage economic development and attract technology-enabled growth, and GDEcD would promote statewide broadband deployment, especially in locations designated as broadband ready communities. Furthermore, DCA would develop the “Georgia Broadband Deployment Initiative” to offer funding for qualified broadband providers to deliver broadband services in unserved areas. Finally, the bill would outline the rates and fees charged for attachments to utility poles and wireless support structures that belong to an authority, which is any local authority, local governing authority, political subdivision providing retail electric service, EMC and cooperative. SB 402 would ensure that all Georgians, and particularly our state’s rural citizens, have access to a reliable, high-speed internet connection.

Next week is the 12th and final week of the 2018 legislative session, and the Georgia General Assembly will adjourn sine die on Thursday, March 29. With only two legislative days remaining, my House colleagues and I will be working hard next week to pass meaningful, good legislation for our state and its citizens. This final legislative week will surely be the busiest week of the entire session, and I urge you to contact me or my assistant, Kayla Bancroft, if you have any questions, concerns or input on any measures being considered in either 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.

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.

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.

2018 Georgia General Assembly Session — Week Eight Update

Here is your Weekly Legislative Session 2018 update about what is occurring under the Gold Dome from your State Representative Paulette Rakestraw:

The House began week eight under the Gold Dome on Monday, Feb. 26, and this week was undoubtedly the busiest week of the 2018 legislative session so far. On Wednesday, Feb. 28, we reached legislative Day 28, better known as “Cross Over Day.” Cross Over Day is a critical deadline in the General Assembly, as it is the last day a piece of legislation can pass out of its original chamber and still remain eligible for consideration by the opposite legislative chamber. My House colleagues and I worked well past midnight on Cross Over Day and passed many significant House bills for the state of Georgia. All measures that passed the House this session are now being considered by our Senate counterparts, and conversely, the House will begin to review legislation passed by the Senate.

Georgia’s economy has tremendously grown in recent years, but not all parts of the state have experienced the same level of economic success. For that reason, the House created the House Rural Development Council last session, and this session, we have prioritized legislation based on the council’s recommendations. This week, we passed several important measures to benefit our rural communities and help rural Georgia prosper, such as House Bill 951, which passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support. HB 951 would create the Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation (CRPI) to serve as a central information and research hub for rural leadership training and best practices, including community planning models, industry-specific assistance and cooperative efforts with nonprofits, religious organizations and other higher education partners. The CRPI would be located within a college or institution of the University System of Georgia that awards Bachelor of Science degrees in rural community development, and the president of the college or institution would appoint a center director to be approved by a majority vote of the Georgia Rural Development Council. The 12-member Georgia Rural Development Council would offer guidance to the CRPI, as well as study the conditions, needs, issues and problems affecting rural economic development, education, unemployment and infrastructure. The center would assume the business and responsibilities of the Centers of Innovation Agribusiness administered by the Department of Economic Development, and the CRPI, the Department of Economic Development and the Department of Agriculture would collaborate as necessary to achieve the center’s mission and duties. The bill would also designate a deputy commissioner for rural Georgia under the Department of Economic Development. This center would serve as a rural think tank, and with help from the deputy commissioner for rural Georgia, the CRPI would bring valuable resources together to come up with meaningful solutions to the challenges rural Georgia faces.

On Wednesday, Feb. 28, the House passed another bipartisan, rural-friendly bill that implements several recommendations from the House Rural Development Council. House Bill 887 seeks to expand broadband and other communications services throughout the state by establishing the Georgia Communications Services Tax Act. HB 887 would allow municipal corporations and electrical membership corporations (EMCs) to provide broadband service in unserved areas within its corporate limits. The bill would also establish the Local Government Communication Services Fair Competition Act of 2018 to encompass all communication services, not just cable service. This act would require franchising authorities to meet several requirements prior to allowing public providers to deliver communications services, thus ensuring fairness, transparency and accountability amongst communications services providers. Additionally, HB 887 would allow communities to apply to be certified as broadband ready through the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency (GEMA). In an effort to provide broadband infrastructure expenditure assistance that enables coverage throughout the entire state, HB 887 would also require GEMA’s director to develop a grant program that would award projects to qualified broadband providers who request the least amount of money to expand in unserved areas. Furthermore, this measure would authorize GEMA to create a broadband availability map of the state showing unserved areas and publish the map on GEMA’s website. Finally, HB 887 would regulate an authority’s pole attachment rate. Rural Georgia depends on broadband access to thrive, and this measure aims to increase access to this critical utility to all corners of the state.

This week, my House colleagues and I passed legislation to expand Georgia’s medical cannabis oil program to help more suffering Georgians. House Bill 764 received overwhelming bipartisan support and would add two additional illnesses, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and intractable pain, to the current list of qualifying medical conditions to allow those patients to be treated with low THC oil. Eligible individuals could apply for Georgia’s Low THC Oil Registry under the Georgia Department of Public Health at the recommendation of their physicians, and once approved, such individuals would receive an identification card exempting them from prosecution in Georgia for possessing medical cannabis oil that meets our state’s requirements. These individuals could legally possess a maximum of 20 fluid ounces of cannabis oil with a maximum of 5 percent THC in Georgia. This critical measure would build upon Georgia’s current medical cannabis oil law to allow even more of our state’s hurting citizens, and especially Georgia’s veterans suffering from PTSD, to reap the benefits of Georgia’s popular and successful existing medical cannabis oil program.

We also unanimously passed a bipartisan measure this week that would update Georgia’s Hidden Predator Act. House Bill 605 would hold negligent individuals or entities who conceal child abuse accountable for these actions. Firstly, HB 605 would extend the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse cases from age 23 to age 38. Also, HB 605 would lengthen the discovery time period from two years to four years for a victim who experiences psychological or emotional problems as a result of child sexual abuse to report such abuse. Finally, this measure would establish a one-year period for a childhood sexual abuse victim to file civil actions against an entity if the entity: was responsible for the victim’s care; knew or should have known of the conduct that brought about the civil action; or intentionally or consciously concealed evidence of sexual abuse. These changes seek to acknowledge that the effects of childhood sexual abuse can be latent, and the updated Hidden Predator Act would align Georgia’s laws with what scientific research and real world experience have taught us about sexual abuse cases.

Our state has seen an alarming rise in automobile accidents and fatalities in recent years, and it is highly likely that increased cell phone usage has amplified this problem. To address this public safety issue, my colleagues and I passed House Bill 673 this week, which would establish a hands-free driving law in Georgia. HB 673 would prohibit drivers from holding, supporting or reaching for a wireless telecommunication device or a stand-alone electronic device while operating a vehicle. This measure would also ban drivers from texting, browsing the internet or watching or recording videos; however, drivers would be permitted to use GPS navigation and voice-to-text features on their devices. Anyone convicted of violating this proposed law would be fined and charged with a misdemeanor. Moreover, first-time offenders would receive a 2-point deduction on their driver’s license, and the bill would establish a staggered point deduction system for repeat offenders. This hands-free law would not apply while a vehicle is lawfully parked, while reporting an emergency or a hazardous road condition or to utility service providers, law enforcement officers or first responders operating within the scope of their employment. This measure intends to decrease automobile accidents, injuries and fatalities and would make our roadways safer for all Georgia commuters.

Identity theft and credit fraud cases are also increasing annually, and in light of this growing problem, the House overwhelmingly passed House Bill 866 on Monday, Feb. 26. This legislation would prohibit credit reporting agencies from charging a fee for freezing or unfreezing a consumer account. Currently, consumer credit reporting agencies may charge consumers a fee up to $3 for each security freeze placement, any permanent security freeze removal or any temporary security freeze lifting for a period of time. Additionally, under current law, consumer credit reporting agencies may charge protected consumers up to $10 for each placement or removal of a security freeze. HB 866 would remove all of these fees. This bill was introduced in the wake of a security breach that put the private information of 145 million Americans at risk, and other states have passed similar measures to decrease the likelihood of identity theft. HB 866 would empower Georgians to protect their identity and credit accounts without being financially burdened with fees.

My House colleagues and I unanimously passed a measure this week that would benefit our state’s military families, House Bill 718. Under HB 718, schools could grant students up to five excused absences to attend military affairs sponsored events if a student’s parent or guardian currently serves or previously served in the armed forces, Reserves or National Guard. HB 718 would require students to present proper documentation prior to the absence, and absences may not exceed five days per school year for a maximum of two years. This bill would not require all school systems to adopt this excused absence policy. Georgia has a large military population and is home to several military installations statewide, and this measure is one of many military-friendly pieces of legislation the House has passed in recent years to improve quality-of-life for our state’s military members and their families.

Finally, I would like to update you on the status of House Bill 930, legislation that would create a new regional governance and funding structure for transit in the 13-county metropolitan Atlanta region. As I mentioned in a previous column, State Representative Kevin Tanner (R-Dawsonville) introduced HB 930 a few weeks ago, and on Wednesday, Feb. 28, the House overwhelmingly passed this vitally importation transportation measure by a vote of 162-13. House Bill 930 seeks to improve transit in the metropolitan Atlanta region by facilitating transit coordination, integration and efficiency and promoting a seamless and high-quality transportation system for the area. The bill would create the Atlanta-region Transit Link (ATL) Authority to coordinate transit planning, funding and operations within 13-county metro Atlanta region and would establish state and local funding sources to improve transit access. This comprehensive transportation measure is a product of the House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding and would have a lasting and positive impact on the metro Atlanta region for generations to come.

The General Assembly has officially passed the Cross Over Day deadline, and from this point forward, my House colleagues and I will be thoroughly considering Senate measures in our respective committees and passing such measures in the House Chamber. Legislative Day 40, our last day to conduct business for the 2018 legislative session, is quickly approaching on March 28, and with this end in mind, I hope that you will contact me with input you might have regarding any pending legislation. I welcome your thoughts and opinions, and I encourage you to reach out to me, or my assistant at anytime. My Capitol office phone number is 404-656-0178, and my email address is paulette.rakestraw@hosue.ga.gov.

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

2018 Georgia General Assembly Session — Week Seven Update

The House got back to work at the Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 20, and we had a very busy seventh week of the 2018 legislative session. As we get closer and closer to “Cross Over Day,” our agendas continue to get fuller and our days get longer. This week, the House voted on several bills in the House Chamber, and committees worked diligently to hear important legislation before next week’s Cross Over Day deadline. Also, on Thursday, Feb. 22, we convened for a joint session with our Senate counterparts to hear the Supreme Court of Georgia’s Chief Justice P. Harris Hines deliver the annual State of the Judiciary address.

On Tuesday, Feb. 20, Governor Nathan Deal, along with several House and Senate members, held a press conference to introduce House Bill 918, legislation that would update Georgia’s tax code. After being vetted in committee, HB 918 made its way to the House floor on Thursday, Feb. 22, where it passed overwhelmingly. This legislation would make necessary changes to our state’s outdated tax code, which has not been updated in decades, and seeks to decrease the tax burden on our citizens by cutting individual and corporate state income taxes. HB 918 would double the state standard deduction for Georgia taxpayers for all filing statuses, effective Jan. 1, 2018, and would reduce the income tax rate for individuals and businesses from 6 percent to 5.75 percent beginning on Jan. 1, 2019. The legislation would further reduce the tax rate to 5.5 percent on Jan. 1, 2020, but would require approval of the General Assembly and signature of the governor in order to take effect. Furthermore, the bill would eliminate the sales tax on jet fuel to help our state be more competitive and to encourage airlines to fly additional direct flights from Georgia to global destinations. Finally, this revenue neutral tax proposal would also address the state revenue projections resulting from the recent Federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. This historic tax update would benefit all of Georgia’s citizens by allowing them to keep more of their hard-earned money in their pockets, and I am proud of the General Assembly’s work on this important measure.

This week, the House passed several bills that came from the House Rural Development Council’s (RDC) legislative recommendations. On Wednesday, Feb. 21, the House overwhelmingly passed House Bill 769 in an effort to improve access to quality health care in the rural parts of our state. This bill includes several health care provisions, such as allowing for remote pharmacy orders, updating credentialing and billing practices, establishing the Rural Center for Health Care Innovation and Sustainability, establishing micro-hospitals and creating a grant program for physicians practicing in medically underserved rural areas of the state.

Under HB 769, a Georgia licensed pharmacist located within the United States could remotely place pharmacy drug orders for hospital patients, provided that the orders are reviewed by a pharmacist who is physically in the hospital within 24 hours or by the next business day. The bill would also direct the Department of Community Health to study various ways to streamline and expedite the credentialing and billing process for state medical plans. Additionally, HB 769 would establish a Rural Center for Health Care Innovation and Sustainability through the existing Office of Rural Health. This center would provide leadership training and health data analysis for rural hospitals and would be located at a Georgia postsecondary institution with a health program or college that focuses on rural and underserved areas of the state. The center would educate and train rural hospital leaders on best practices and hospital operating standards. Furthermore, the legislation would allow for the creation of micro-hospitals, a hospital in a rural county that has two to seven inpatient beds and provides 24/7 emergency services, without requiring a new certificate of need when a hospital is closing or has recently closed and is purchased by a hospital in a neighboring county. Finally, the bill would create a grant program within the Georgia Board of Physician Workforce to provide financial assistance for some rural physicians who establish or operate a practice in an underserved area of the state. This measure was the first RDC-related bill to pass the House this session, and the bill’s wide-ranging health care provisions would allow this critical sector to thrive in rural Georgia.

This week, the House overwhelmingly passed two other bills that would also greatly benefit our rural communities, House Bills 735 and 876. HB 735 would create an income tax credit for track maintenance expenditures on owned or leased short line railroads. This legislation mirrors the Federal Railroad Track Maintenance Credit, and the tax credit would be 50 percent of the maintenance expenditures during the taxable year and would be capped at $3,500 per mile of railroad track. Short line rails serve as a virtual lifeline to our rural communities, and this measure would incentivize investment in rail infrastructure, boost reinvestment, create jobs and keep rural Georgia connected to the rest of the state. Further, HB 876 would prohibit counties and municipalities from banning the use of wood products as a construction material, as long as the products meet the state minimum standard codes and the Georgia State Fire Code. Several cities across the Metro Atlanta area have banned wood products from being used in construction in buildings over three stories high, but the Atlanta region is a crucial lumber market for Georgia tree farmers. This measure would level the playing field for our state’s tree farmers, as well as boost business for Georgia’s 97 sawmills, most of which are located in rural parts of the state. HBs 735 and 876 are also results of the RDC’s rigorous and determined efforts to help further economic growth and prosperity for rural Georgians and businesses.

In addition to passing rural development-related bills this week, the House unanimously passed legislation that would benefit Georgia’s students. Under House Bill 853, public school students who are admitted under a physician’s order into a licensed psychiatric residential treatment center would be exempt from paying tuition or fees to a local school system. Under current law, public school students receiving treatment in medical hospitals are exempt from tuition and fees, but students who are referred to psychiatric residential treatment facilities are not exempt from such fees. There are six psychiatric residential treatment facility hospitals across our state, and approximately 300 to 500 students are treated at these centers annually. This legislation would allow these students to continue their education and stay on track academically while receiving long-term medical and psychological treatment.

This week, the House unanimously passed a measure to help fight the horrific practice of sex trafficking within our state. House Bill 732 would expand the definition of sex trafficking to include anyone who patronizes sexually explicit conduct from a sex trafficking victim. With this clarification to state law, anyone who commits this offense would be charged with a felony and would be required to serve a prison sentence of five to 20 years. HB 732 would ensure that individuals who knowingly engage in sex trafficking acts with victims of sex trafficking are prosecuted accordingly, and this bill is a significant step to address this serious issue in our state.

On Thursday, Feb. 22, the House unanimously passed a bill that would have a great impact on Georgia’s active-duty military members. House Bill 840 would exempt active-duty military members serving in a combat zone from penalty fees associated with unintentionally unpaid special, occupational or sales taxes and license, regulatory or administrative fees incurred while they are in a combat zone. HB 840 does not exempt active-duty military members from paying these taxes, but it does give them 60 days from the time they return from their military service to make full payment of the taxes due without penalties if they present proof of their presence in a combat zone. Oftentimes, active-duty military members are unable to renew licenses, like small businesses licenses, that expire while they are stationed in a combat zone, and this bill would prevent our service members from being penalized with late fees while they are deployed.

Finally, on Thursday, Feb. 22, Chief Justice Hines delivered the annual State of the Judiciary address. Each year, the Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court addresses the General Assembly to report on the judicial branch’s accomplishments and future objectives. During his remarks, Chief Justice Hines, who serves as the head of the judiciary, pointed out that 2018 will bring about great change to the judicial branch, as several new judges will be elected, Georgians will elect a new state Supreme Court justice and Gov. Deal will make his fifth appointment to Georgia’s highest court. Chief Justice Hines also highlighted several accomplishments of Georgia’s criminal justice reform, which is one of Gov. Deal’s greatest legacies during his time in office. Furthermore, Chief Justice Hines announced that the Court Reform Council recommended the creation of a statewide business court to handle complex financial cases. This court would have jurisdiction similar to our federal courts and would operate similarly to the specialized business courts that now operate in Fulton and Gwinnett counties. Legislation relating to these courts will likely come before the General Assembly in the future.

Next Wednesday, Feb. 28, marks legislative Day 28, otherwise known as Cross Over Day. This is the last day a bill may pass out of its original legislative chamber and remain eligible for consideration this legislative session. With this deadline in mind, my colleagues and I will be working even longer hours next week to ensure that quality and meaningful legislation passes the House this session. If you have any questions or concerns regarding any legislation up for consideration in the House, or any input on how I may better serve our community, please do not hesitate to contact me or my assistant. Kayla Bancroft. I can be reached at my Capitol office at 404-656-0178, or via email at paulette.rakestraw@house.ga.gov.

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

2018 Georgia General Assembly Session — Week Six Update

On Monday, February 12, my House colleagues and I reconvened at the Georgia State Capitol for week six of the 2018 legislative session. The General Assembly is now officially over half-way through this year’s session, and “Cross Over Day” is just a few legislative days away. The legislative pace has quickened considerably, and this week, the House was hard at work passing meaningful legislation for the good of our state and its citizens.

To start our week, on Monday, February 12, the House overwhelmingly passed House Bill 487, which would provide more flexibility to emergency response volunteers. This bill would allow state agency employees who are certified Civil Air Patrol disaster service volunteers to be granted paid leave for no more than 15 work days per year to participate in Civil Air Patrol specialized emergency service operations. Eligible state employees would be required to get permission from their employer, and volunteers would only be allowed to use this leave at the request of the Civil Air Patrol once a county emergency management agency, the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency or a comparable federal agency has activated emergency services. This measure would give Civil Air Patrol volunteers the same leave allowances as American Red Cross volunteers for specialized emergency services, and HB 487 would ensure that those who volunteer with the Civil Air Patrol do not lose seniority, pay, vacation, compensatory time, sick time or earned accumulated overtime at work because of their assistance in emergency situations. Civil Air Patrol volunteers play a vital role in search and rescue and disaster relief efforts, and this measure would allow these hardworking volunteers to serve without facing penalties in the workplace.

In an effort to increase transparency and eradicate surprise hospital billing for scheduled procedures, the House passed House Bill 678 this week. This bill would provide several consumer protections regarding health insurance and would prevent patients from receiving “surprise” bills, which can be 10 to 12 times higher than in-network charges, when an out-of-network doctor participates in their treatment team during an elective procedure. Under HB 678, hospitals, health care providers and insurers would be required to disclose to patients which doctors in their treatment team are part of their insurance network, which health care plans they participate in and which hospitals they are affiliated with prior to providing nonemergency services. If a provider is not in the patient’s network, the provider would be required to give the patient an estimated bill upon request. This legislation would also allow patients to request and obtain information about other medical professionals and hospitals and potential care costs before care is given. Furthermore, patients who receive a surprise bill would have the right to file a dispute with an arbitrator from the insurance department. Finally, HB 678 would require insurance providers to bill patients for services within 90 days, and the patient would have 90 days once they receive the bill to secure payment, negotiate or initiate a dispute. These unexpected and astronomically expensive out-of-networks bills have forced some Georgians into bankruptcy, and two out of three Georgians will receive a surprise medical bill in the next two years. The House’s passage of this legislation is a positive step forward in eliminating this frustrating practice and increasing transparency between patients, health care providers and insurers.

On Tuesday, February 13, we overwhelmingly passed House Bill 79, a measure that would protect our information from being unnecessarily saved for an undetermined period of time. HB 79 would require law enforcement agencies that obtain license plate information through automated license plate recognition systems to destroy unused data after 30 months. Agencies, however, would be allowed to keep this data beyond 30 months if the data is part of an ongoing investigation or a toll violation. HB 79 would also permit law enforcement agencies to share license plate information with other agencies, as well as impose penalties for unlawfully sharing this information, and captured license plate data collected would be exempt from open records requests. These automated systems are high-speed cameras that use computer algorithms to convert images of license plates into computer data, and currently, there is no limit to how long law enforcement agencies can save this data. House Bill 79 would strengthen our state’s privacy laws and protect Georgians from having their license plate information stored indefinitely or subject to open records requests.

This week, we unanimously passed House Bill 749, a measure that would benefit Georgia’s retired veterans and their families by specifying that military retirement income is excluded from Georgia income tax. If a deceased veteran’s surviving family member, regardless of the family member’s age, were to receive any military retirement income, it would also be excluded from state income tax under this legislation. Our state has passed many military-friendly measures over the past several years, but Georgia is currently one of only nine states in the nation that does not address military retirement pay tax exemptions. If signed into law, this bill would bring Georgia up to speed with other states that have instituted similar pro-military policies.

My colleagues and I passed a bipartisan bill on Wednesday, February 14, that would support Georgia students and seeks to improve students’ learning environments. House Bill 740 would prohibit schools from expelling or suspending students in public preschool through third grade for five or more days per school year without first providing the student with a multi-tiered system of supports. This multi-tiered system of supports includes a team of educational professionals, such as school social workers and guidance counselors, as well as Response to Intervention (RTI), a preexisting program that identifies and addresses students’ academic and behavioral needs to help them succeed in the classroom. The RTI program brings together educational professionals to help identify students’ academic, behavioral and social-emotional learning needs, and if appropriate, the program screens students for hearing, vision and speech-language disabilities. HB 740 would not prohibit a school from suspending a student who is in possession of a weapon, drugs or any other dangerous item. There are approximately 15,000 kindergarten through third grade students in Georgia’s public schools that are suspended annually, and approximately 2,600 of those students are assigned out-of-school suspension for five or more days. Rather than continuously suspending and expelling students from the classroom and limiting students’ access to integral curriculum, HB 740 would address students’ underlying needs to help improve their educational outcomes.

On Thursday, February 15, the House passed a measure to protect our state’s elderly and disabled adult populations, groups that are particularly vulnerable to neglect and abuse. House Bill 635 would authorize district attorneys in each judicial circuit to establish an Adult Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation Multidisciplinary Team to coordinate investigations of and responses to suspected elder or disabled adult abuse, neglect or exploitation. These multiagency teams would be made up of the district attorney or his or her designee and representatives from law enforcement agencies, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Adult Protective Services and any other relevant state department, organization or entity. House Bill 635 would grant team members the legal right to share information generated in the team’s investigations, responses and activities with one another, thus allowing the people involved in such cases to work collaboratively to address these issues. The teams would also identify ways to improve local notification and response policies and procedures when an elderly person or disabled adult is abused, neglected or exploited. Elder abuse is on the rise in every county and every city in our state, and this measure would allow for seamless cooperation between those who work for the good of our state’s elderly and disabled adults.

Finally, on Tuesday, February 13, State Representative Kevin Tanner, Chairman of the House Transportation Committee, introduced House Bill 930, a critically important transportation measure that would create a new regional governance and funding structure for transit in the 13-county metropolitan Atlanta region. This measure would improve the coordination, integration and efficiency of transit in the Metro Atlanta region and promote a seamless and high-quality transit system for the Metro Atlanta region. Specifically, HB 930 would create the Atlanta-region Transit Link (the ‘ATL’), a regional transit governance structure that would coordinate transit planning and funding and would oversee all Metro Atlanta transit activity, including planning, funding and operations. This bill would also improve access to transit funding for the region from state and local sources, and the measure would preserve the current operational and funding autonomy of transit providers, such as MARTA. HB 930 is a product of the House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding, which was established by House Resolution 848 during the 2017 legislative session to study Georgia’s transit needs and analyze ways for the state to adequately plan and provide for those needs. I will continue to update you in the coming weeks on the status of this critically important bill.
We will reconvene on Tuesday, February 20, for legislative Day 23, and with only 17 working days until we adjourn sine die, be assured that your representatives at the Georgia State Capitol will be working diligently on behalf of you, your family and your neighbors. If you have any questions or concerns on any upcoming legislation, please do not hesitate to contact me or my assistant, Kayla Bancroft, as I welcome any opportunity to hear your input. My Capitol office phone number is 404-656-0178, and my email address is paulette.rakestraw@house.ga.gov. As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your state representative.

2018 Georgia General Assembly Session — Week Five Update

The House kicked off the fifth week of the 2018 legislative session on Monday, February 5, and with only a few weeks left until “Cross Over Day,” we had a very busy legislative agenda to tackle. My House colleagues and I worked diligently this week to pass several noteworthy bills, including one of the most significant pieces of legislation of the entire session – House Bill 683, the Amended Fiscal Year 2018 (AFY 2018) budget.

After thorough consideration by the House Appropriations Committee and subcommittees, House Appropriations Chairman Terry England (R-Auburn) presented HB 683, the AFY 2018 budget, on the House floor on Tuesday, February 6. Following much discussion on the bill, the measure passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 167-8, and I will discuss some of the highlights of the amended 2018 budget.

The original state budget for fiscal year 2018, which was approved during the 2017 legislative session, set state spending at $24.9 billion. Since the Fiscal Year 2018 (FY 2018) budget was determined by estimated state revenue, we must pass an amended budget each year to account for any differences between estimated and actual state revenue. The AFY 2018 budget recognizes $306.7 million in additional state revenue, which is 1.2 percent more than the initial FY 2018 budget, and brings the total AFY 2018 budget to $25.3 billion. The amended version of the 2018 budget focuses this new revenue on required growth in education, healthcare and human services, and also provides targeted funding for key initiatives recommended by the House Rural Development Council (RDC) designed to spur development and meet needs in rural communities throughout the state.

Funding for education and related initiatives makes up some of the largest investments in the AFY 2018 budget. The original FY 2018 budget provided funding for an estimated number of full-time enrolled students, and the amended budget provides $102.1 million for enrollment growth for 7,515 additional students, as well as for charter system grants and State Commission Charter School supplements. The AFY 2018 budget also includes $15.5 million to purchase 200 new school buses for school systems statewide and provides $400,000 to establish a leadership academy for principals across the state. In addition to funding for K-12 education, the amended 2018 budget also contains appropriations for higher education in our state, such as $10.7 million to meet the needs of 4,720 new Dual Enrollment students and $10 million for the Board of Regents to cover the growing cost of graduate-level medical education at Augusta University. Finally, the AFY 2018 budget includes $8.1 million in lottery funds to keep up with the growing demand for HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships and $75,000 to plan for the Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovations, as recommend by the RDC.

Health and human services-related appropriations also make up some of the largest items in the amended 2018 budget. The AFY 2018 budget includes appropriations for many information technology and Medicaid infrastructure initiatives, such as $1 million to fund an electronic visit verification system for home and community-based services. Also, as recommended by Governor Nathan Deal, the House allocated funds in the AFY 2018 budget for initiatives for children diagnosed with autism, including $1.25 million for crisis services, $1.1 million to develop capacity for behavioral health services and $128,292 in existing funds for telehealth services. HB 683 also adds funding for a program coordinator position in the Department of Community Health and for a program support coordinator in the Department of Public Health to provide behavioral health services to children under 21 who are diagnosed with autism. Furthermore, the amended budget provides $15.1 million for out-of-home care growth for the rising number of children in Georgia’s foster care system, which has doubled since 2009. Following the recommendations of the RDC, the AFY 2018 budget also adds $100,000 for a statewide medical fair to recruit employees in rural areas, $75,000 for the Office of Rural Health to identify a postsecondary institution within our state to house the Rural Center for Health Care Innovation and Sustainability and $1 million for more behavioral health crisis stabilization beds.

There are several other important appropriations in the 2018 amended budget to meet a variety of critical needs across our state. One such allocation is $10 million to the OneGeorgia Authority to fund beach nourishment projects in communities that were impacted by Hurricane Irma, which caused tremendous destruction and devastation across Georgia’s coastal region last year. The amended 2018 budget also adds $10 million to replenish Gov. Deal’s emergency fund and $3 million to purchase equipment to prevent and combat wildfires. The amended 2018 includes additional funds for projects to meet the wide-ranging needs of our state, such as $25.2 million to lengthen rural runways to accommodate larger aircrafts in an effort to increase economic development and investment in the Georgia’s rural communities, $5 million for the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to implement the statewide criminal justice e-filing initiative and $500,000 for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to purchase supplies needed to process DNA sexual assault kits.

The House carefully crafted this year’s amended budget to address the diverse and sometimes unpredictable needs of our state and its citizens, and HB 683 is now being reviewed by our counterparts in the Senate. With the passage of the “small budget,” our House Appropriations subcommittees have now shifted their focus to the Fiscal Year 2019 state budget.

In addition to passing the amended state budget this week, the House also overwhelmingly passed House Bill 700, a military-friendly measure that would update and expand the National Guard Service Cancelable Loan program to cover the cost of graduate degree programs for National Guard members. HB 700 would ensure that these loans, which are used to repay the cost of tuition in exchange for National Guard service, do not exceed the cost of tuition and would also require loan recipients to remain in good standing with the National Guard and serve two consecutive years upon graduation. National Guard members interested in the Service Cancelable Loan program would be required to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and utilize all available funding before seeking the loan. Currently, these loans are limited to undergraduate degree programs and public postsecondary technical or vocational schools, and this program is a proven tool that helps our state recruit and retain National Guard members. About 228 National Guard members currently participate in this program, and extending the program to the graduate level would add about 50 individuals to the program annually and allow Georgia to remain competitive with our neighboring states that have similar legislation.

My colleagues and I passed another military-friendly measure this week, House Bill 699. HB 699 would allow firefighters who have served as members of the armed forces to be exempt from firefighter basic training. Current law requires all firefighters to successfully complete a basic training course within one year of their hire date, and the Georgia Firefighter Standards and Training Council determines the content and duration of this course. However, HB 699 would allow individuals who have trained as a member of the United States armed forces, United States Coast Guard, Georgia National Guard or Georgia Air National Guard to present documentation of such training to the council and receive a firefighter basic training certificate of completion. This bill would make it easier for Georgia’s veterans to begin a career as a firefighter as a result of their service and the sacrifices they have made for our country and state.

In an effort to address Georgia’s current opioid crisis, the House overwhelmingly passed House Bill 701 on Monday, February 5. HB 701 would update Georgia law by allowing our state to test candidates for all forms of opioids during state employment drug testing but would not affect those with valid and legal opioid prescriptions. The federal government recently added opioids to federal drug testing laws, and HB 701 would modify state law to reflect this national change. According to the Substance Abuse Research Alliance, Georgia is ranked 11th in the nation in opioid overdoses, and 68 percent of Georgia’s 1,307 drug overdoses in 2015 were caused by opioids and heroin. The General Assembly has worked diligently in recent years to pass measures to tackle Georgia’s devastating opioid crisis, and HB 701 is another piece of legislation aimed at fighting our state’s opioid epidemic.

The House also passed a bill this week that would help protect Georgia’s most vulnerable citizens, our children. House Bill 655 would require public schools, as well as local and state charter schools, to post signs with the toll-free phone number of the child abuse hotline in clearly visible, public areas. This 24/7 hotline is operated by the Division of Family and Children Services and the Department of Human Services and allows students to report incidents of child abuse or neglect to trusted individuals. Twenty-seven other states have passed similar legislation, and if HB 655 is signed into law, Georgia would join these states in this effort to stop child abuse nationwide.

Finally, I would like to update you on the status of House Bill 159, the adoption bill. After much anticipation, the Senate overwhelmingly passed HB 159 on Monday, February 5. The final version of HB 159, as passed by the General Assembly, would update Georgia’s adoption laws for the first time in almost three decades and streamline and expedite all types of adoptions in Georgia, allowing thousands of children to more quickly and efficiently find their forever families. State Representative Bert Reeves (R-Marietta), who authored HB 159, spent nearly two-and-a-half years refining the bill, and its final passage on Monday was a major victory for all of Georgia’s current and future foster care children, birth mothers and adoptive parents. This legislation is one of the first bills of the 2018 legislative session to go to the governor’s desk for final approval, and I am proud to see such a significant and meaningful measure pass the General Assembly.

Thursday, February 8, marked legislative Day 18, and my House colleagues and I are almost halfway through the 40-day legislative session. As your representative under the Gold Dome, your thoughts and opinions are important to me, and I want to know which issues are significant to you and your family. If you find yourself in Atlanta during the legislative session, please feel free to visit my Capitol office, which is located at 501 Coverdell Legislative Office Building. You may also call my Capitol office at 404-656-0178, or email me at paulette.rakestraw@house.ga.gov. You can always contact my assistant, Kayla Bancroft, at the office number above.

As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your State Representative.