With the Georgia General Assembly’s 2019 legislative session ending April 2, local lawmakers reflected on its highs and lows, hits and misses.
District 52 Rep. Deb Silcox, R-Sandy Springs, who represents parts of Buckhead and Sandy Springs, said there were lots of new faces under the Gold Dome.
“I think it was a tough session because we had so many new people: new governor, new lieutenant governor, secretary of state, a lot of new members of the House and Senate,” she said.
District 51 Rep. Josh McLaurin, D-Sandy Springs, who represents part of Sandy Springs, said it was tough to get one of his bills passed as a Democrat when the Republicans control the House, Senate and governor’s office.
“The reality is Democrats get few to no bills approved because even though there are good bipartisan relationships on a personal level, the current leadership does not want a large number of Democratic bills to pass. It’s the unfortunate reality of partisan politics,” he said.
Like McLaurin, District 54 Rep. Betsy Holland, D-Atlanta, who represents part of Buckhead, is part of the blue wave of Democrats who last year won seats previously held by Republicans.
“I compare being an elected official to being a parent in that the good things are better than you expected and the hard things are much worse than expected,” Holland said. “Even veteran legislators said this was one of the highly most emotionally charged sessions in a long time.
“The best possible thing about my first session is I came into the House with 16 other Democrats. Fourteen of us flipped seats (previously held by a Republican) and is the best support group we could ever had. We worked hard to make change where we could, and I’m just really excited about the state of our leadership in our state.”
Perhaps the most controversial bill of the session was the “heartbeat bill” (HB 481), which reduces the definition for when a baby’s fetal heartbeat is detectable from 20 weeks to six weeks, meaning abortions won’t be allowed after the six-week mark.
Silcox, Holland, McLaurin, District 53 Rep. Sheila Jones, D-Atlanta, who represents part of Buckhead; District 40 Rep. Erick Allen, D-Smyrna, who represents Vinings and part of Buckhead; District 55 Rep. Marie Metz, who represents part of Buckhead; District 80 Rep. Matthew Wilson, D-Brookhaven; who represents Brookhaven; and District 6 Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, who represents Vinings and part of Buckhead; voted against the bill, and District 56 Sen. John Albers voted for it, with District 32 Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-east Cobb, absent.
Silcox, McLaurin and Holland each said they believe the governor will sign the bill into law but that the courts will strike it down as unconstitutional.
“I am bewildered (Brian Kemp) has not signed it yet,” Holland said. “My small hope is that members of the business community are talking to him about the negative impact it would have on economic development for the state and the overall well-being of our healthcare system.
“I think if nothing else, the bill is poorly written. Even as a challenge for Roe v. Wade, this is not the way to do this. We’re going to waste a lot of money in court battles over this legislation.”
Silcox said about half a dozen bills she introduced were passed, but some others were not approved. She said her roles as chair of MARTOC (the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Overview Committee) and as a member of the majority whip team helped her get some legislation approved.
First, House Bill 217, which calls for creating needle exchange programs in which users are not subject to criminal prosecution, was approved by the House and Senate and signed by the governor.
“(These programs) have reduced the rate of infection by as much as 33 percent in some cities,” Silcox said. “Ninety percent of the new HIV cases are from the use of dirty needles for the injection of illegal drugs.”
Second, HB 166, also known as the Genetic Counselors Act, was passed by the House and Senate and is awaiting the governor’s signature. According to the bill, it requires licensing for genetic counselors, including physicians, assistants and others, and also mandates some continuing education requirements.
“There are only 89 (genetic counselors) in Georgia,” she said. “Emory (University has) the only master’s degree program, with 11 graduating this year. Half of the counselors are hospital based and half are in the field to educate doctors, primarily in cardiac and cancer and prenatal care categories.”
HB 290, which Silcox co-sponsored and will establish a pilot program to provide PREP DAP (Pre-exposure Prophylaxis Drug Assistance Program) service for people at risk of getting HIV, was approved by both chambers and signed by the governor.
HB 424, which includes certain sex crimes as part of the definition of criminal gang activity, was approved by both chambers and was expected to be signed by the governor April 18.
“It is another great effort toward eliminating sex trafficking because it broadens the definition of criminal gang activity to include sex trafficking,” Silcox said. “This also will allow prosecutor to pierce the rape shield law for purposes of explaining a victims’ behavior in cases of sex trafficking. The third thing it does is it clarifies the child’s hearsay statute so hearsay in a child abuse case can be admitted at the time of the trial instead of at the time of the offense. The reason for that is these cases are not raised for a long time, for years. The victims can’t raise them immediately, possibly because of fear (of retribution).”
HB 246, which revises the manner by which state-mandated depositions are paid, and a related bill, HB 247, which “expands the definition of exploit to include illegal taking of an elderly persons’ resources due to physical or mental incapacity,” Silcox said, were combined with HB 424 and approved.
But a few others were not approved and will have to wait until next year. HB 158 called for “Medicaid recipients have the same access to antiretroviral regimens used to treat HIV and AIDS as to those included in the formulary established for the Georgia AIDS Drugs Assistance Programs,” according to the bill. It was approved by the House but never came before the Senate for a vote.
“It was heard by Senate after getting a fiscal note of $12 million,” Silcox said, referring to its annual cost. “I’m going to work with the (Georgia) Department of Community Health to see if we can still pass this bill next year.”
Also, HB 388, which would have used a portion of development impact fees to fund an affordable housing program. “I think we’re going to have to continue to work on our efforts for affordable housing,” Silcox said.
HB 677, which would have protected Georgians on surprise hospital/doctor’s office bills, were never voted on by the House. “We need to work on a solution to surprise billing. We just need to get the hospitals and the doctors to agree on something there,” Silcox said.
As a freshman Democratic legislator, McLaurin was only able to get approval for a few of the bills he introduced or was a lead sponsor on.
One was HB 460, which calls for a stronger excise tax to be levied in the city of Roswell.
“This was a request by the city to update its excise tax to be competitive with every surrounding jurisdiction,” McLaurin said.
Another was HB 311, which will waive the state’s sovereign immunity to allow non-monetary suits in cases where the state or political subdivisions of the state have acted outside their authority under Georgia law.
“HB 311 is an example of bipartisan work I did this session,” McLaurin said. “It was a bill sponsored by (District 110 Rep.) Andy Welch to waive sovereign immunity under certain circumstances. What that means is the state will allow citizens to hold the government accountable in certain circumstances. It’s lawsuits to correct the policies of the government if the government has taken an unlawful position in a certain situation. An example is if the government shuts down a place where people can exercise their rights of free speech, such as holding a rally or protest.”
A third was HB 656, which allows the Fulton County Board of Commissioners to appoint a member of the board of elections.
“My understanding is the county had less influence over the composition of the board of elections, so members of the Fulton delegation believed the county should have a say in the composition of the elections board,” McLaurin said.
All three of those bills are awaiting the governor’s signature, but several others didn’t make it.
HB 303, which calls for updating a section of the code that makes it a felony to scratch off the serial number on different types of objects and also removes from it some outdated terms such as adding machines or comptometer. It was never voted on by the House.
Two of his proposed new gun laws were shot down: HB 435, which would mandate an individual who was seen as a violent threat to someone he/she is close to have his/her weapons be temporarily confiscated until he/she was no longer a danger, and HB 238, which would require background checks for individuals buying weapons at gun shows.
Neither was voted on by the House, but McLaurin said he’s made some progress on the gun-related bills.
“I think voters, especially in the suburbs, are interested in seeing common-sense gun legislation introduced,” he said. “(Regarding HB 238), polls show there is strong support and a majority for basic background checks for gun sales at gun shows. On the gun issue specifically, I think people are tired of the disproportionate influence the groups like the NRA exert in state and national politics. There’s no reason why we can’t have basic common-sense gun laws and still protect the Second Amendment and a person’s right to own and carry (a gun).”
Though McLaurin wasn’t listed as a co-sponsor of HB 37, which called for expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, he said it was his “top priority” for the session.
“The Democratic caucus filed the bill, but it didn’t go anywhere because the governor preferred a more limited option in the form of a waiver, which would cover fewer people and be more expensive,” McLaurin said.
Holland had limited success with the bills she introduced or was a lead sponsor of, especially gun safety-related ones.
HB 289 would prohibit the sale of bump stocks, which can turn a semiautomatic gun into an automatic one like the one Stephen Paddock used in the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting. HB 384, which would require gun owners to safely store them in a locked container in their home or vehicle. Neither bill was ever voted on by the House.
“There (was) overwhelming support for (them), but unfortunately no gun safety bills made it to the (House) floor,” Holland said. “That was frustrating because my constituents had requested more gun safety laws. The reverse of that is HB 2 on the constitutional carry bill (also failed). On the plus side, we didn’t expand anything on gun rights but we didn’t approve any bills to make us safer.”
Holland said she made headway when it came to education-related bills, partly due to the fact she is a member of the House Education Committee. Though she wasn’t listed as a co-sponsor for three bills — HB 218 and 83 and SB 48 — she was proud of her role in helping get all three approved by the House and Senate.
HB 218 amends the state code to extend a student’s eligibility for the HOPE Scholarship to up to 10 years, no matter what.
HB 83 guarantees children in public schools a recess or similar unstructured play period in kindergarten through fifth grade starting in August.
SB 48 calls for providing screening dyslexia resources in kindergarten and elementary schools; before, those screening did not start until the third grade.
“We’ve been talking to parents who have been advocates for their kids, even spending their own money to get their children tested for dyslexia, and (this bill) increases resources to families who receive that diagnosis,” Holland said, adding K-2 teachers will get more dyslexia-related training.
She also said she helped the state approve the $3,000 raises for public school full-time teachers and staff members.
Bills tied to Albers’ legislative priorities for 2019 were approved by both chambers, he said in a guest column for the Neighbor.
SB 15, the Keeping Georgia’s Schools Safe Act, requires all the state’s public schools to have a school safety plan, to mandate drills to carry out that plan and to have school safety coordinators.
“One change made by the House is that when reasonable suspicion of violent criminal activity exists, reports should be made to any law enforcement agency with jurisdiction over the school’s geographic location,” Albers said.
SB 120, the Georgia Tax Credit Business Case Act, allows for “economic analyses to be conducted by the state auditor for certain tax benefits upon request by the chairpersons of the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Finance Committee” on a five-year basis, the bill states.
“The final passage of SB 120 further emphasizes the priority I have pushed through my legislation this year: transparency in government and fiscal responsibility,” Albers said.
Other lawmakers weigh in
In interviews with the Marietta Daily Journal, other local lawmakers talked about the session, each giving a brief “victory” and “defeat” comment.
Victory: Victory is surviving my first session! Legislatively the step therapy and cannabis oil bills are the ones that will have a huge impact on Georgia. They both make progress on providing quality healthcare to Georgia families and improving quality of life.
Defeat: A disheartening defeat is seeing the “heartbeat” legislation narrowly pass. This legislation will cost the state, not only in unnecessary legal fees, but also in terms of restricting access to healthcare and negatively impacting our medical community. The negative impacts of this bill will be long lasting if signed into law by the governor.
Victory: Unanimous passage of SB 150 from (the) judiciary committee. This bill would make Georgia and federal laws consistent and allow our law enforcement to prohibit convicted domestic abusers from possessing guns. Survivors, law enforcement and politicians on both sides of the aisle are supportive. Hopefully next year it will pass both chambers.
Defeat: I firmly oppose HB 481 and consider its passage not only a defeat, but a fundamentally unconstitutional action taken by government. Women and doctors should not be prosecuted for seeking or providing common healthcare, and, if the governor signs, Georgia will strip women of their basic autonomy and right to privacy.
Victory: SB 18, direct primary care. My bill that allows private contracting between patients and doctors outside of insurance, giving another option for primary care.
Defeat: SB 32, hot car animal bill. Popular bill surprisingly defeated in House after flying through the Senate. I will continue to work on the bill for next year.
Marietta Daily Journal News Editor Ricky Leroux contributed to this report.