On Tuesday, February 18, the Georgia General Assembly returned to the Gold Dome for the sixth week of the 2020 legislative session. With one-third of the legislative session already completed, the week was productive from start to finish. My colleagues and I met for four days in the House chamber this week to cast our votes on several pieces of legislation, including the Amended Fiscal Year 2020 (AFY 2020) budget.
We passed one of the most important bills of the legislative session on Wednesday, February 19—House Bill 792—to amend the state budget for the current fiscal year. Last session, the original Fiscal Year 2020 (FY 2020) budget was set by a revenue estimate of $27.5 billion, and when Gov. Kemp first released his budget recommendations at the beginning of the 2020 legislative session, he adjusted the state revenue estimate for AFY 2020 down to $27.3 billion; overall, our state funds have been reduced for the current fiscal year’s budget by $159 million. The House Appropriations Committee and its subcommittees have spent much time so far this session to finalize the AFY 2020 budget bill based on Gov. Kemp’s budget proposal and fulfill our constitution obligation to pass a balanced budget. During this process, the House made adjustments to the governor’s recommendations to reflect several House priorities and restore funding to vital state programs and services.
During this time, the House focused its attention towards identifying efficiencies to restore funding to areas that are the most impactful to Georgia citizens for the rest of the current fiscal year. In the House version of the AFY 2020 budget, the House recognized the need for expanding mental health and crisis intervention services and increasing access to quality health care across the state. We also restored funding for other important budget items, including grants to county health departments, as well as a restoration of funds to ensure a fully-functioning criminal justice system, which included funding for our public defenders, accountability courts and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s (GBI) crime labs.
My colleagues and I carefully crafted the amended budget to include funding for these important initiatives, and I will highlight some of these changes that are reflected in HB 792.
- One of our priorities was to restore important funding for programs and services related to criminal justice, public safety and the court systems. At present, the GBI’s crime lab has more than 45,000 pieces of crime-related evidence more than 30 days old, and this backlog continues to grow. With current staff levels, the GBI crime lab can process approximately 106 sexual assault kits per month, but the lab receives more than 200 kits monthly, which adds to the current backlog of 768 unprocessed sexual assault kits. HB 792 restored more than $801,000 of Gov. Kemp’s proposed reductions to GBI to allow the agency to hire up to eight forensic scientists and two lab technicians to process more DNA evidence and alleviate the growing backlog of these evidence kits.
- The House also included new funding of more than $1.2 million for the GBI’s gang database and taskforce to help local law enforcement agencies fight gang violence. Also, HB 792 restored $1.7 million for the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and completely restored $1.34 million for our accountability courts. Our accountability courts have been proven to offer effective alternatives to sentencing for non-violent offenders, and this funding restoration would save our state $10.3 million in cost avoidance for offenders who may otherwise go to prison.
- Furthermore, the House’s AFY 2020 budget reinstated more than $1.85 million to the Georgia Public Defender Council to allow the council to hire 16 attorneys to reduce the average caseload from 148.8 to 138 per public defender, and these positions would fill vacancies that left eight Georgia counties without a state public defender.
We also identified opportunities to reestablish funds for initiatives that encourage economic growth across Georgia. We have seen rapid growth across the state in the number of:
- Grocery stores
- discount stores
- gas stations that sell food products.
Because of this, the House restored $281,000 for the Department of Agriculture (GDA) for five food safety inspectors and two animal industry inspectors to ensure that food sold at these stores is inspected and safe for Georgians. HB 792 also added $200,000 for the GDA to develop the Georgia Hemp Program, which was authorized during the 2019 legislative session. These funds would allow the GDA to develop regulations for this new industry in our state and secure federal approval for the program.
Also, at the recommendation of the House Rural Development Council, my colleagues and I restored approximately $338,000 in the AFY 2020 budget to enhance the Georgia Grown brand through marketing initiatives and web development, as well as add two new positions to help promote Georgia products in the U.S. and around the world. We also restored funds for several areas within the Department of Community Affairs, such as $54,225 in funding for the Georgia Advocacy Office to ensure that citizens with disabilities receive proactive support and $100,000 for the southwest state hub of the Statewide Independent Living Council’s Home Access Program to promote independence for people with disabilities.
The House’s version of the AFY 2020 budget also reflects the important role of agriculture in Georgia, as the number one industry in the state, and to support this industry, the House addressed cuts that would have an impact on vital programs that our farmers depend on. HB 792 reduced proposed cuts to the Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service in the Board of Regents by more than $2.8 million to allow these programs to continue to support Georgia agribusinesses without interrupting services.
My colleagues and I also reallocated more than $345,000 to the state’s Forestry Research program to further address the 2.4 million acres of forest that were impacted by Hurricane Michael in 2018.
The House restored funding for several services that seek to enhance access to healthcare for citizens across the state, under HB 792. The House’s version of the amended budget restored $2.6 million for public health grants to county health departments, which provide basic health care services, programs and resources to local communities, especially in rural parts of the state, where eight counties have no physician and nine rural counties only have one.
We also restored $250,000 for loan repayment awards for rural physicians, physician assistants, dentists and advanced practice registered nurses who provide care in counties with populations of 50,000 or less. HB 792 also included a restoration of $150,000 to the Sickle Cell Foundation of Georgia for training, education programs and mobile unit testing. The foundation’s mobile testing unit has screened more than 100,000 Georgians and has detected more than 10,000 sickle cell cases, and the unit also reaches rural areas, where 60 percent of Georgia’s cases are located.
Furthermore, the House’s budget fully restored the four percent cut to the Mercer School of Medicine and Morehouse School of Medicine operating grants and fully restored the proposed 25 percent cut of $463,000 for the Rural Health Systems Innovation Center at Mercer School of Medicine. These medical schools focus on providing health care to underserved and rural areas of the state.
Finally, the House’s budget for AFY 2020 included an additional $2 million to the Georgia Trauma Care Network Commission to provide support for the 24 percent of trauma centers in the state that are unfunded, as well as support trauma system expansion in rural Georgia.
- The House also prioritized funding adjustments for mental health and disability services in the AFY 2020 budget. HB 792 added $5.4 million to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) for crisis beds and behavioral health core services, which would allow the DBHDD to maintain its current serving capacity of 4,953 individuals with 95 crisis beds in 21 crisis units statewide, as well as serve an additional 2,320 individuals.
- The House also restored more than $761,000 for the residential treatment of addictive diseases to increase the bed count by 22 statewide. The House reinstated approximately $287,000 for provider support and training to build and maintain the state’s behavioral health workforce capacity, especially in rural areas. In the area of developmental disabilities, the House restored $750,000 to the Marcus Autism Center which would result in fewer children being on waitlists for intensive and critical services and would prevent a decrease in the number of patient care days in the intensive day programs.
- As Georgia’s Alzheimer’s population grows, the House restored $164,800 in funding to the Department of Human Services for the Georgia Memory Net to allow the five established memory clinics to continue to meet the growing demand for Alzheimer’s patients.
In addition to passing HB 792 this week, my colleagues and I also unanimously passed House Bill 487, or the Robert Argo Disaster Volunteer Relief Act, which will provide a greater opportunity for more of Georgia’s state employees to volunteer after declared natural disasters occur. Georgia has experienced many natural disasters in recent years, and after these disasters occur, selfless Georgians, including state employees, volunteer their time and energy to rebuilding our impacted communities.
- Under HB 487, state employees who are certified volunteers of the Civil Air Patrol United States Air Force Auxiliary would be granted paid leave for up to 15 workdays per year for volunteering after certain natural disasters in specialized emergency services operations for the Civil Air Patrol.
- This legislation, which is named in honor of former Georgia State Representative Robert Argo who was active in the Civil Air Patrol during World War II, would extend the same courtesy to state employees who are members of the Civil Air Patrol that is currently provided to state employees who are members of the American Red Cross.
- Georgia’s wing of the Civil Air Patrol is one of the largest in the country, and these volunteers provide an important service to our state.
Several measures were also passed by the House this week. They include:
House Bill 716, which would require any carrier that issues a health benefit plan in Georgia through an agent to pay a commission to that agent and file their proposed commission rates with the Department of Insurance;
House Bill 758, which would allow motor carriers to implement, require or deploy a motor carrier safety improvement program for individuals without affecting the individual’s status as an employee or independent contractor;
House Bill 759, which would authorize the annual drug update to comply with federal regulations and would capture new synthetic drugs, such as spice and bath salts;
House Bill 765, which would increase the minimum salary and compensation of magistrates and clerks by providing a cost-of-living adjustment and a five percent raise;
House Bill 777, which would require the Department of Community Affairs (DCA) to review the tall mass timber provisions in the 2021 International Building Code and consider whether amendments should be made to the minimum standard codes;
House Bill 780, which would allow the State Properties Commission to use a written appraisal of value for the conveyance of property that solely and directly benefits the state;
House Bill 781, which is the annual legislation brought by the Department of Banking that would update and modernize Georgia’s banking code;
House Bill 786, which would allow for an additional superior court judge in the Flint Judicial Circuit;
House Resolution 1023, which would provide for a constitutional amendment that would allow Georgia citizens and corporations domiciled in Georgia to seek declaratory relief.
We will reach Legislative Day 20 next week, which is the half-way point of the 2020 legislative session, and our days will be even busier as we vote on more legislation on the House floor. Please feel free to contact me in the coming days and weeks so that I can hear your feedback on legislation that could impact our communities. You are welcome to come visit me at my Capitol office. You can also call me at 404.656.0152 or email me at email@example.com. Remember to visit my Facebook Page for news during the 2020 Legislative Session.
As always, I want to sincerely thank you for allowing me to serve as your state representative. God bless you and your families!