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.

Paulding County Senior 4-H’ers visit Representative Rakestraw at the Capitol

On February 1, 2018, six Paulding County 4-H’ers joined over four-hundred 4-H youth and leaders for 4-H Day at the Capitol. While in Atlanta, they met with their state Senators and Representatives and saw the House of Representatives during that day’s session. The eventful day included visits with Representative Howard Maxwell (Dist. 17), Senator Bill Heath (Dist. 31), Representative Paulette Rakestraw (Dist. 19), Representative Micah Gravely (Dist. 67), followed by Senator Mike Dugan (Dist. 30).

The State 4-H President, Mason McClintock (Bacon County 4-H’er), addressed both houses of the Georgia General Assembly where he along with other 4-H leadership thanked them for their support of 4-H in Georgia. He also pledged Georgia 4-H’s commitment on working to improve our communities. Between visits, the 4-H’ers enjoyed a luncheon provided by the Georgia 4-H Foundation Board of Trustees. During lunch, Governor Nathan Deal and First Lady Sandra Deal reflected on their own involvement and activities in 4-H through the years.

The day concluded with a picture of the state-wide 4-H delegation. Georgia 4-H thanks our state leaders for their warm welcome, coordination of this annual event, and continued support of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Cooperative Extension, and Georgia 4-H.

The Senior 4-H’ers participating included Hannah Bower, Madison Clemente, Colleen Gilroy, Erin Gilroy, Juliette McKinley, Nicholas McKinley, with Patty McIver: 4-H agent, and Juwan Severson,  AmeriCorps VISTA member.

2018 Georgia General Assembly Session — Week Four Update

We returned to the Gold Dome on Monday, January 29 for the fourth week of the 2018 legislative session. This week, House committees continued to hold hearings to review and discuss bill proposals, and the House convened Monday through Thursday to take up important issues and pass meaningful legislation for the good of every Georgian.

Arguably the biggest news of the week was the House’s unanimous passage of House Bill 159, legislation that would completely overhaul Georgia’s current adoption laws. This bill, which also passed the House unanimously during the 2017 legislative session, has since been a top priority to me and my House colleagues. In a previous update, I wrote to tell you that the Senate passed their version of the adoption bill and made several changes to the original House version of the legislation. This week, the House collaborated with the Senate and the governor’s office to reach a compromise on HB 159, and after much deliberation, the House approved several of the Senate’s amendments and made a few additional changes to the legislation.

Among the major changes, the newest version of the adoption bill would update Georgia’s revocation period from a 10 days to four days. In Georgia, birth mothers currently have 10 days to revoke the surrender of their child. This 10-day revocation period is one of most rigorous revocation policies in the nation, and the new version of HB 159 seeks to strike the right balance between the rights of birth mother and the adoptive parents by shortening this revocation period. Additionally, the House version of the adoption bill would allow birth mothers to receive reasonable living expenses in both private and agency adoptions. Under current law, only birth mothers in agency adoptions are allowed reasonable living expenses, but this change would create a level playing field and give all birth mothers equal access to reasonable living expenses, regardless of which type of adoption they go through. This is the law in most states in the country. Lastly, the bill includes several safeguards on temporary powers of attorney. The updated adoption bill is now back in the Senate, and I look forward to the Senate’s swift action in passing the adoption bill and sending this crucial measure to Governor Nathan Deal’s desk for final approval.

The House also took up several other pieces of important legislation this week. One such measure was House Bill 661, which passed unanimously in our chamber and would change the process for filing and removing tax liens against real estate. HB 661 would update legislation that Gov. Deal signed into Georgia law last year, which created a more efficient and transparent method for filing tax liens with the Department of Revenue. HB 661 would keep the efficiencies of the original legislation, but would simply remove the current provision regarding statewide liens and revert back to county specific liens. This bill would also require every tax lien against realty to be filed with the superior court clerk in the county where the real estate is located. HB 661 would not only simplify the process for filing and removing tax liens, but it would also increase transparency for taxpayers by moving the Department of Revenue’s process to electronic-based transactions and away from paper-based transactions.

The House passed another measure this week aimed at modifying portions of Georgia’s tax laws. House Bill 694 passed unanimously and would update the way motor fuel distributors and wholesalers submit their monthly motor fuel tax reports to the Department of Revenue. Current law requires motor fuel distributers to file these reports electronically if they owe the department $500 or more, but the new measure would require all monthly reports to be submitted electronically, regardless of the distributor’s tax liability. This measure would modernize and streamline the filing process for our state’s oil distributors.

Also this week, the House passed a measure to provide more law enforcement officers with important state retirement benefits. House Bill 135 would expand the term “law enforcement officer” to include Department of Driver Services (DDS) investigators. Under HB 135, these investigators would qualify to receive up to an additional five years of creditable service in the state’s Employees’ Retirement System (ERS) for prior law enforcement service. DDS investigators would only be eligible for this benefit if they are not receiving retirement benefits from a local government for that same service and if they have been a member of the retirement system for at least ten years. The governor signed a measure into law in 2016 that allowed all other law enforcement officers to obtain creditable service through the ERS, but the measure inadvertently omitted 16 investigators employed by DDS. HB 135 would correct this oversight by ensuring that those officers who are investigating fraudulent licenses are eligible to receive creditable retirement benefits.

Lastly, my House colleagues and I passed a measure this week in support of Georgia’s official state insect, the honey bee. House Bill 671, which passed unanimously, would create a specialty license plate to promote the conservation and protection of the honey bee, and the license plate would display an image of a honey bee and include the phrase “Save the Honey Bee.” These license plates would be available for purchase, and all proceeds collected from the license plate sales would be distributed to the Georgia Beekeepers Association. These funds would be used to raise awareness about honey bee conservation and would fund and support several associated programs, including beekeeper education and training, prison beekeeping, grants to beekeeping nonprofit organizations and beekeeping research facilities in our state. Georgia is the third largest producer of bees and the tenth largest producer of honey in the nation. The honey bee is absolutely essential in sustaining our state’s ecosystems, and this measure would help to ensure that our state insect and the beekeeping industry are preserved for future Georgians.

We are well into the 2018 session, and on Monday, February 5, the General Assembly will reconvene for legislative Day 15 and legislative week five. My colleagues and I will be busier day by day as we get closer to legislative Day 28, or “Cross Over Day,” so we will be hard at work next week reviewing bill proposals in our respective committees and taking up legislation in the House chamber. As we continue to progress through the session, I encourage you to contact me to discuss your thoughts and opinions. I greatly value any feedback I receive from my constituents, and your input truly helps guide the decisions I make under the Gold Dome. My Capitol office number is 404-656-0178, and my email address is paulette.rakestraw@house.ga.gov. Please contact me or my assistant, Kayla Bancroft, anytime.

2018 Georgia General Assembly Session — Week Three Update

 On Monday, January 22, the House convened for the third week of the 2018 legislative session. By the end of this week, we completed Legislative Day 10, which means the General Assembly is now one-fourth of the way through our 40-day session with just 30 legislative days remaining. This week was busy and productive, and the pace has noticeably picked up as House committees met more frequently to consider and vet proposed legislation. The House also saw measures introduced this week that were recommended by our interim House councils and commissions, and we worked with the Senate and passed an adjournment resolution that set our legislative schedule for the remainder of the session. While it may seem like we have a great deal of time left in the 2018 session, we have several important issues to address before adjourning Sine Die.

Although Georgia’s economy has grown exponentially over the past several years, not all parts of our state have experienced the same levels of prosperity. For this reason, the House is heavily focused on improving economic opportunities for our state’s rural communities. Last session, we adopted House Resolution 389, which established the House Rural Development Council (RDC). During the interim, the members of the RDC traveled to many different rural communities across the state and met with local leaders, studied issues specific to Georgia’s rural areas and explored ways to encourage economic growth. The RDC closely examined the components of economic development and related policy areas, such as education, infrastructure, access to health care and economic growth incentives. Then, in December, the RDC released the first of two reports outlining several legislative recommendations that would boost rural Georgia’s economic opportunities. This week, we saw the first rural development-related bill, House Bill 735, be introduced for the House’s consideration. HB 735 would create a tax credit for short line railroad track maintenance expenditures to incentivize investment in rail infrastructure in rural Georgia. This measure is likely the first of many pieces of legislation that we will consider this session to help Georgia’s rural communities grow, and the RDC’s proposals are a result of the council’s findings and hard work during the interim. Since this bill was just introduced this week, it will now make its way through the legislative process, and I will update you as it moves through the House.

Our state’s continued economic success largely depends on a connected and efficient transportation network, which is why transit is also a top priority in the House this session. During the 2017 session, we adopted House Resolution 848, which established the House Commission on Transit Governance and Funding. This commission is charged with studying our state’s transportation needs and exploring ways our state can sufficiently plan and provide for those needs. Like the RDC, the transit commission held hearings across the state during the summer and fall of 2017, and this session, we can expect to see legislation come up aimed at meeting Georgia’s wide-ranging transit needs as a result of the commission’s report. Both the transit commission and the RDC have worked diligently since the end of the 2017 session to study pressing issues facing to our state, and it is exciting to see initial proposals come to fruition in the form of legislation.

We also worked with our counterparts in the Senate and adopted another adjournment resolution this week, which determined our calendar for the remainder of the 2018 legislative session. Legislative Day 40, or Sine Die, is the final day of the legislative session and will be Thursday, March 29. Until then, my House colleagues and our Senate counterparts have a busy and aggressive schedule and will be working diligently to pass meaningful bills for Governor Nathan Deal to consider signing into law.

Also this week, the House Rules Committee held its first meeting of the session on Thursday, January 25. After bills have passed out of their respective committees, they must also pass out of the Rules Committee, which determines which bills should be debated and voted on the House floor. Bills that pass out of the Rules Committee are generally heard on the House floor the following legislative day, so we will likely vote on the session’s first pieces of legislation next week as several committees are beginning to pass bills out of their committees.

While we largely focused on reviewing Gov. Deal’s state budget recommendations last week during joint appropriations committee hearings with the Senate, this week, the House Appropriations subcommittees held several hearings at the Capitol to further review the governor’s budget proposals. The General Assembly is constitutionally required to pass a balanced state budget every year, so after we review Gov. Deal’s budget proposals in our various Appropriations subcommittees, my House colleagues and I will draft a bill for the Amended Fiscal Year 2018 (AFY 2018) budget and another bill for the Fiscal Year 2019 (FY 2019) budget. The AFY 2018 budget, nicknamed the “small budget,” is an adjusted budget for the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30. The small budget uses a more precise estimate of state revenue to account for any differences between anticipated and actual state revenue. The FY 2019 budget, nicknamed the “big budget,” is the state budget for fiscal year 2019 beginning on July 1. This budget is based on projected state revenue for the upcoming fiscal year. Once passed by the respective Appropriations subcommittees, those portions of each budget will then go before the full House Appropriations Committee, which will then review and pass balanced budgets for AFY 2018 and FY 2019.

After the House Appropriations Committee passes complete budgets for AFY 2018 and FY 2019, the measures will then go to the Rules Committee, where they will be placed on the House calendar. Each budget then goes to the House floor, where every member of the House will have the opportunity to voice their opinions on each budget and ask questions before voting.

Once the AFY 2018 and FY 2019 budgets pass out of the House, they will go to the Senate and repeat this same committee process before being voted on by all of the members of the Senate. By this point, each budget will likely differ from its original versions as passed by the House. When this happens, the Speaker of the House and the Lieutenant Governor will both appoint a conference committee to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the state budgets.

Once the conference committee reaches an agreement, their versions of the budgets will go back to the House and Senate for a final vote. Both legislative chambers must vote on the conference committee’s versions of the budgets to guarantee that all contents of the bills are fully agreed upon by both chambers. Finally, if approved by both the House and Senate, the budgets are sent to the governor’s desk where Gov. Deal can either sign or veto the legislation. Once signed by Gov. Deal, these budgets become law. All legislation must go through this process before becoming state law.

While we had a busy week on the House floor and in House committees, my House colleagues and I also took time to honor a distinguished Georgian and former state representative in the House Chamber. On Thursday, January 25, Congressman Doug Collins visited the Georgia State Capitol and brought greetings and updates from our state’s congressional delegation in Washington D.C. Congressman Collins praised our legislative body for the work we are doing on behalf of all Georgians, and he noted that the Georgia General Assembly is an excellent and productive legislative example for Congress to follow. It was an honor to welcome Congressman Collins to the House from our nation’s capital, and his continued commitment to bettering our state is an inspiration.

Finally, the House celebrated National Guard Day at the Capitol on Thursday by recognizing some our state’s most honorable citizens. Several men and women of the Georgia National Guard visited the House Chamber and were presented with House Resolution 902. The Georgia Department of Defense, which provides military-ready forces to the president and disaster response forces to the governor, employs over 10,891 Army National Guard Soldiers, 2,746 Air National Guard Airmen, 583 State Defense Force members and over 600 state employees. Since 9/11, over 18,000 Georgia National Guard members have been deployed overseas, and more than 200 are currently being deployed. These courageous men and women have selflessly served our state’s citizens in so many ways, and it was an honor to recognize their great contributions and sacrifices for all Americans, and especially all Georgians, and welcome them to the House Chamber.

As we continue to make our way through the 2018 legislative session, House committees will continue to meet more frequently to review proposed legislation. I serve as a member of the Appropriations, Economic Development and Tourism, Juvenile Justice, Regulated Industries, Science and Technology, Small Business Development, and Special Rules committees, and I encourage you to contact me to discuss any measures that will be discussed by these committees or any other legislation that may interest you. Please visit my Capitol office, which is located at 501 Coverdell Legislative Office Building Atlanta, GA 30334 anytime. You can also reach me by phone at my Capitol office at 404-656-0178 or by email at paulette.rakestraw@house.ga.gov. Your input and comments are invaluable to me, and I hope that you will reach out to me or to my assistant, Kayla Bancroft, with any questions or concerns you may have about our district or our state as a whole.

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

2018 Georgia General Assembly Session — Week Two Update

My House colleagues and I returned to the Gold Dome on Tuesday, January 16, for the second week of the 2018 legislative session. This week, we began the state budget process, which is one of the most important responsibilities we have during the entire legislative session. The General Assembly is constitutionally required to pass a balanced state budget every year, and as we began the budget process, the joint House and Senate Appropriations committees met for a series of hearings to review Governor Nathan Deal’s budget recommendations. In addition to the joint budget hearings this week, the House also convened on Thursday and Friday for legislative Day Five and legislative Day Six of the session.

To kick off the budget process on Tuesday, Gov. Deal presented his comprehensive budget proposal to the members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees. Gov. Deal’s Fiscal Year 2019 (FY 2019) budget is the largest budget to be presented to the General Assembly in our state’s history. Georgia has experienced a tremendous economic boom in recent years, and because of our state’s success, we have maintained our AAA credit rating, been named the No. 1 state in which to do business for five consecutive years, invested billions of dollars in education and grown our Rainy Day Fund. Our state’s financial success and robust economy have made Georgia a national leader economically, and Gov. Deal’s budget proposals build upon these successes, as well as create new prospects for growth. During this week’s budget hearings, we also heard testimonies from several state agency heads, each of whom expressed their respective agency’s fiscal needs and answered questions from my House colleagues and Senate counterparts. The final budget will outline state funding for each of these agencies, which is why it is critical that we hear their budgetary needs as we begin this arduous process.

While our state has experienced significant growth over the past several years, Georgia’s future economic success heavily relies on a connected and efficient transportation network. Gov. Deal’s FY 2019 budget recommendations include more than $1.9 billion in annual funding to maintain and enhance our state’s transportation infrastructure, as well as an additional $100 million to repair and replace bridges throughout the state. The governor’s Amended Fiscal Year 2018 (AFY 2018) budget proposal also allocates more than $25 million to expand runways at 11 airports in Georgia to ensure that larger aircrafts can access all areas of our state, including our rural communities. Our state’s citizens, and especially our businesses, depend on a viable transportation system, which is why it is important to invest in all areas of our state’s transportation network.

Education has consistently been one of Gov. Deal’s top funding priorities, and in his final budget proposal, the governor continued his commitment to Georgia’s students by investing in many education programs and initiatives. Gov. Deal’s AFY 2018 budget includes $102.1 million for a midterm adjustment for K-12 enrollment growth and $10.7 million for growth in the Dual Enrollment program. The governor’s FY 2019 budget proposal also includes $30 million to assist low‐wealth school districts and adds $127.6 million to fund K-12 enrollment growth and training and experience for Georgia teachers. Additionally, Gov. Deal’s FY 2019 budget allots $1.8 million for the REACH Georgia Scholarship program, which would provide 226 additional scholarships statewide and expand the program into 44 new school districts. The governor also added $361.7 million for our state’s Teachers Retirement System to fully fund the state’s determined employer contribution. An investment in our state’s young minds is an investment in Georgia’s future, and our state will reap the benefits of these education appropriations for generations to come.

Healthcare has also continued to be a top priority in our state’s budget. Since 2011, our state has invested almost $240 million in behavioral health, and as a result of this investment, we have seen a significant decline in individuals civilly committed to Georgia’s behavioral health hospitals. The governor’s FY 2019 budget proposal allots $15 million to continue to fund Georgia’s intellectual and developmental disabilities waiver services and to provide supportive housing for Georgians in need. Gov. Deal’s recommendations also include $3.5 million in the AFY 2018 budget and almost $7 million in FY 2019 budget towards the Children’s Autism Initiative. Additionally, the governor’s FY 2019 budget allocates $22.9 million to fund crisis services, therapeutic foster care, Apex grants, telehealth services, suicide prevention, wraparound services, supported employment and education and opioid prevention and treatment, which were all recommendations made by the Commission on Children’s Mental Health. Georgia’s behavioral health services have helped countless Georgians to thrive in our state, and investing in such services is critically important so we can continue to assist these citizens.

Gov. Deal’s successful criminal justice reform initiatives also received additional funding in his budget proposal. One such initiative is Georgia’s accountability court system, which provides low-level, non-violent offenders with sentencing alternatives, such as rehabilitative services. Since FY 2012, our state has allotted a total of $113.9 million to establish and operate these courts statewide, and the FY 2019 budget includes an additional $5 million to continue those efforts. Gov. Deal’s sentencing reform initiatives have a proven track record and have helped low-level offenders receive the help they truly need, rather than keeping those individuals in Georgia’s prison system.

Finally, the governor’s proposed budgets provide state dollars for several essential programs and initiatives that meet the wide-ranging needs of all of our state’s citizens. The governor’s FY 2019 budget proposal provides funding for Georgia’s child welfare services, including $15.1 million for growth in out‐of‐home care utilization, $10.1 million to continue to increase Georgia’s foster parent per diem rates and $3.6 million to increase out‐of‐home care provider rates. Gov. Deal’s FY 2019 budget also allocates almost $256 million for Medicaid expense growth and to offset federal revenue and settlement loss.

These are just some of the highlights of the governor’s budget proposals. The House Appropriations subcommittees will hold hearings next week to continue to review these proposals and delve even further into the governor’s recommendations. These subcommittees will eventually pass portions of the state budget in their respective subcommittees, and those portions of the budget will then go before the full House Appropriations Committee, which will review and pass balanced budgets for AFY 2018 and FY 2019.

Other important news this week comes from our colleagues in the Senate. On Thursday, our Senate counterparts passed their version of House Bill 159. The original bill passed the House unanimously last session and would modernize our state’s adoption laws for the first time in nearly 30 years. The Senate amended some key provisions in the legislation and added HB 359, a bill dealing with temporary powers of attorney, which Gov. Deal vetoed last year. We began reviewing the Senate’s changes this week, and we hope to work with them and Gov. Deal to get this measure finalized and signed into law.

Also this week, Gov. Deal made a few major announcements that I would like to share with you. On Wednesday, Gov. Deal issued a state of emergency for 83 of Georgia’s central and northern counties impacted by winter weather. As a result of the snow and icy roads, our budget hearings that were originally scheduled for Wednesday were rescheduled, and the House and Senate convened Thursday afternoon rather than Thursday morning. Despite the winter weather, my House colleagues and I continued our legislative work on behalf of all Georgians.

Gov. Deal made another major announcement on Thursday morning. After much anticipation, the governor announced that Atlanta is included on Amazon’s short list of Top 20 finalists for the company’s second headquarters. Georgia has consistently been ranked the best state in the country for business, and our state has many attractive resources and benefits that give us a competitive advantage over other states. I look forward to seeing how Georgia continues to fare in Amazon’s site selection process.

The House will be back in session on Monday, January 22, and we have another busy week ahead of us as the pace of the session continues to pick up. As we move forward, I encourage you to visit me at my capitol office, or call me if you have any questions or concerns regarding the state budget bills, the legislative process or any other measures being considered under the Gold Dome. As your representative at the Georgia State Capitol, I want to know what issues are most important to you, your family and our neighbors, and I welcome any opportunity hear feedback from my constituents..My Capitol office is located at 501 Coverdell Legislative Office Building, Atlanta, GA 30334. My office phone number is 404-656-0178 and I can be reached via email at paulette.rakestraw@house.ga.gov. If you reside within District 19, and have any questions or concerns, please feel free also to contact Kayla Bancroft, my Administrative Assistant, in our office at 404-656-0178.

Thank you for allowing me to serve as your representative.

2018 Georgia General Assembly Session — Week One Update

The House convened for the second regular session of the 154th Georgia General Assembly on Monday, January 8, 2018. The first week of session is always eventful and exciting, and this year was no exception. My House colleagues and I have a great deal of legislative business to accomplish before we adjourn Sine Die, so as soon as Speaker David Ralston gaveled the House into session on Day One, we got right to work on behalf of our state’s citizens. This week, the House convened to take up legislative business, committees began meeting to review and discuss proposed legislation and Governor Nathan Deal delivered his annual State of the State address.

On Thursday, Gov. Deal delivered his eighth and final State of the State address to a joint session of the House and Senate in the House Chamber. Gov. Deal has served as Georgia’s governor for the last seven years, and in about a year’s time, he will retire after four decades of public service to our state.  In his touching address, the governor reflected on his administration’s challenges and successes, and he expressed his hopes and dreams for Georgia’s future generations.

Gov. Deal began his remarks by reflecting back to the year that he became Georgia’s 82nd governor in 2011. Since that time, our state’s unemployment rate has dropped from 10.4 percent to 4.3 percent, which is the lowest it has been in over 10 years; more than 675,000 private sector jobs have been created; our state has maintained a AAA bond rating and added to our Rainy Day Fund; and Georgia has been named the No. 1 state in which to do business for five consecutive years. In addition to recognizing the significant economic progress our state has made in recent years, Gov. Deal also touted Georgia’s booming film and television industry, as well as investments in education and criminal justice reform.

Georgia’s film industry has experienced extreme growth over the past decade. In the past fiscal year alone, the film industry had a $9.5 billion economic impact on our state. More than 200 new companies have located to Georgia to support film and television production, and this thriving industry accounts for 92,000 jobs across our state. These jobs have an average annual salary of almost $84,000, which is 75 percent higher than the national average salary. Over the past two years, about 1,900 students have taken courses at the Georgia Film Academy, and these students will make up Georgia’s future film and television production workforce. Programs such as the Georgia Film Academy will help to ensure that film is a sustainable, long-term industry in our state, and I am confident that film and television production will positively impact Georgia for years to come.

Gov. Deal continued his address by noting that since taking office, state spending on education has increased by $3.6 billion for a total of $14 billion in state education expenditures. Last year, Gov. Deal appropriated funds to establish the Sandra Dunagan Deal Center for Early Language and Literacy at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. This state-of-the-art training and research center opened its doors in June 2017 and provides Georgia’s educators with skills and techniques to teach reading and literacy to our state’s youngest learners. The center is named for First Lady Sandra Deal, a former teacher and champion of education in Georgia. As Georgia’s first lady and a former educator, Mrs. Deal has traveled to every corner of our state to read to students and has worked diligently to improve child welfare and educational opportunities for all of our state’s citizens. During his address, Gov. Deal recognized and thanked the First Lady for her efforts and her passion for education.

Gov. Deal went on to mention that while K-12 education is critically important, Georgia’s higher and continued education institutions and programs also play a key role in ensuring our state’s long-term economic prosperity. When Gov. Deal first took office, Georgia’s merit-based HOPE Scholarship and Grant programs, which were once some of the most substantial scholarship programs in the U.S., were close to bankruptcy, and several industries faced workforce shortages throughout the state. To combat these issues, Gov. Deal created reforms that allowed the HOPE Scholarship and Grant programs continue to help Georgians pay for college, and he established the HOPE Career Grant program to fill gaps in Georgia’s workforce. The HOPE Career Grant program completely covers the cost of technical school tuition for students who enroll in one of 17 strategic industry, high-demand fields, and 99.2 percent of students who have completed the program have found employment. Additionally, Gov. Deal has created a marketing campaign to highlight Georgia’s technical colleges. In Georgia, 30 percent of high school graduates do not to complete any type of continued education or training, but this campaign encourages high school students to pursue this type of post-secondary education. Gov. Deal’s marketing campaign has been widely successful in reaching young people across the state, and the governor concluded his remarks about our technical colleges by recommending that the General Assembly allocate $1 million in the state budget to continue this effort.

In his speech, the governor also discussed his administration’s bipartisan criminal justice reform initiatives, which have been some of his proudest and most successful accomplishments during his time in office. Our state’s accountability courts have been a key component of Gov. Deal’s criminal justice reforms and were created to provide sentencing alternatives to nonviolent offenders. Gov. Deal praised the overwhelming success and effectiveness that these courts have had in reducing prison populations and giving Georgians a second chance. Gov. Deal noted that when he first began his criminal justice reform efforts, there were only 12 state-funded accountability court programs. Today, there are 149 such programs, and each of Georgia’s 49 judicial circuits operates at least one sort of accountability court. Gov. Deal’s criminal justice reform initiatives have positively impacted so many lives and continue to serve as a model for other states, and the House will likely see legislation this session that will further enhance criminal justice reform and public safety in our state.

Along with delivering his State of the State address this week, Gov. Deal also released his recommendations for the Amended Fiscal Year 2018 state budget and the Fiscal Year 2019 state budget. Amongst several recommendations for the amended budget, Gov. Deal proposed an allocation of $102 million for K-12 enrollment growth, $10.7 million for growth in Georgia’s Dual Enrollment program, $43.6 million for the Indigent Care Trust Fund and Medicaid, $15.1 million for child welfare services to care for children in state custody, $2.4 million for autism services for children under the age of 21, $17.6 million for Forestland Protection Act grants and $10 million for beach nourishment projects and $25.2 million for airport runway extension projects. Highlights from Gov. Deal’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget recommendations include $361.7 million for the Teachers Retirement System, $127 million for K-12 education, $30 million to assist low-wealth school systems, $28.8 million for child welfare services to fund out-of-home care growth and foster care per diem increases, $22.9 million to implement recommendations from the Commission on Children’s Mental Health, $5 million for accountability courts to implement new courts and expand existing courts, $31 million for transportation and $100 million to repair roads and bridges in Georgia. Gov. Deal’s FY 2019 budget recommendations will financially preserve Georgia’s pension system for educators, provide determined students with additional access to higher education opportunities, grow mental health services for our state’s youngest citizens and upgrade and expand Georgia’s transit system. My colleagues and I in the General Assembly will use these recommendations as a guide to further revise and craft the state’s budget in our Joint House and Senate Budget Hearings next week. I will provide you with more information regarding the state budget and the budget process next week once we thoroughly review Gov. Deal’s recommendations.

This week, the House and Senate also adopted an adjournment resolution, a measure that sets our legislative calendar through the first few weeks of session. As the session progresses, we will adopt one or more adjournment resolutions to set the remainder of the legislative calendar, and I will update you on our schedule as it evolves. Georgia is a citizen legislature, meaning that elected officials in the Georgia General Assembly are part-time lawmakers. Since my colleagues and I are not full-time lawmakers, the General Assembly has a limited amount of time to tackle issues facing our state, so it is critical that we prudently set the legislative calendar to make the most of the 40 day session.

While we spent much of this first week of session taking up legislative business, my House colleagues and I also celebrated College Football Playoff National Championship Day at the Capitol. On Monday, for the first time in Georgia’s history, our state hosted the College Football Playoff National Championship, where the University of Georgia Bulldogs played against University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide in Atlanta’s new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. On Day One of the session, the House adopted House Resolution 867 recognizing Dan Corso and commending the Atlanta Football Host Committee for organizing this great event for our state. Although our state’s flagship university lost in the final minutes of the game, it was a true honor for our great state to host the National Championship game.

Now that the legislative session has officially begun, my House colleagues and I will be working diligently to pass meaningful legislation on behalf of all Georgians. I hope that my session updates will help you to stay informed on legislative matters that impact our community and state as a whole. The House website, www.house.ga.gov, has several tools that might be useful to you throughout the legislative session: a live stream of House proceedings, live and archived committee meeting videos and detailed information on all legislation we are considering in the General Assembly.

If you ever find yourself in Atlanta during session, I encourage you to visit me at my Capitol office and please do not hesitate to call or email me if you have any questions or concerns regarding any current or upcoming legislation. My Capitol office is located at 501 Coverdell Legislative Office Building, Atlanta, GA 30334. My office phone number is 404-656-0178 and I can be reached via email at paulette.rakestraw@house.ga.gov. If you reside within District 19, and have any questions or concerns, please feel free also to contact Kayla Bancroft, my Administrative Assistant, in our office at 404-656-0178.

Thank you for allowing me to serve as your representative.