The Georgia House of Representatives reconvened for Legislative Day 28, otherwise known as Crossover Day, on Tuesday, March 15, 2022. Crossover Day is always one of the longest days of the entire session as it is the last day for legislation to pass out of its chamber of origin and still be eligible to become law this year. In preparation, we dedicated the day before as a committee workday to ensure that legislation had ample opportunity to be considered ahead of this deadline. During Crossover Day, we spent the entire day in the House Chamber debating and voting on legislation, and we passed almost 60 bills and resolutions by the time we adjourned around 11 p.m.
My colleagues and I passed House Bill 1354, the Wrongful Conviction Compensation Act, this week to help streamline and standardize the compensation process for wrongful convictions in our state. This bipartisan legislation would create the Wrongful Conviction Compensation Review Panel under the authority of the state’s Claims Advisory Board, and this panel would review claims and provide recommendations to the Claims Advisory Board for those who have been wrongfully convicted. This panel would include five experts and professionals who specialize in felony criminal matters and wrongful convictions, including a state court judge appointed by Georgia Supreme Court chief justice, a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney appointed by the governor, and the speaker of the House and the president of the State Senate would each appoint an attorney, forensic science expert or law professor. This legislation would establish specific eligibility requirements for compensation, such as proof of the claimant’s innocence, being exonerated or pardoned based on innocence for the crime. HB 1354 would establish similar requirements for individuals to receive their compensation, and it would require these claims to be filed within three years of the claimant becoming eligible. Once a claimant is granted a hearing, the panel could recommend between $50,000 to $100,000 for each year of wrongful conviction and payment to cover attorneys’ fees. The panel’s recommendations would be sent to the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia within seven days, and any adopted compensation recommendations would be reviewed by the Georgia General Assembly to incorporate into the state budgeting process, allowing the legislature to maintain oversight of these funds. While we can’t give people back the time that they served for their wrongful conviction, however, this measure would provide a pathway for a standardized process and reparations for these individuals, which is long overdue in our state.
The House also passed legislation on Crossover Day to help low-income Georgia students access financial aid to complete their undergraduate degrees. House Bill 1435 would allow part-time and full-time college students to apply for a needs-based financial aid program to fill an outstanding financial aid gap, which is the amount of money remaining after qualified institutions account for the cost of attendance and other funds. After their other funding has been applied to their schooling, these students could apply for up to $2,500 in grant funding to cover this gap. Eligible undergraduate students would be required to complete their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), complete 80 percent of credit requirements towards a specific degree and meet other standard state scholarship and grant requirements. This grant program would be offered for students at all University System of Georgia and Technical College System of Georgia schools, as well as non-proprietary institutions that are eligible for Tuition Equalization Grants. The Georgia Student Finance Commission would oversee these grants and monitor student enrollment and data for the needs-based financial aid program, and the commission would annually measure and evaluate the program with data provided by the Office of Planning and Budget, the Department of Education and our college systems. Students who are close to earning their college degrees should not miss out on this opportunity to cross the finish line due to a lack of financial assistance, and I believe that this legislation could help thousands of Georgia college students reach their graduation day.
Late in the evening on Crossover Day, we also passed legislation to expand grant funding opportunities to low-wealth K-12 school systems that need help building and maintaining their schools. House Bill 1482 would revise the eligibility criteria for project-specific capital outlay grants for low-wealth school systems, which is a grant program that allows K-12 school systems access to funding for school construction. To apply for these grants, the local school system would have to be currently or recently have been ranked in the bottom 25 percent in sales tax revenue per full-time equivalent (FTE) student count and value of property per FTE student count; this FTE data is collected for our state’s Quality Basic Education funding and is based on student enrollment and the education services provided by local school systems to students. For local school systems in which the amount of special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) revenues is ranked in the bottom 25 percent of eligible local school systems receiving such sales tax revenues, that system could submit a request to the Department of Education for consideration, and the system would also have to commit five years of their SPLOST revenues towards the applicable project. If the school system seeks to consolidate educational facilities, the system must be more than 35 years old, and these schools systems could only receive one of these capital outlay grants every 10 years after their need has been met. This bill would also direct the State Board of Education to establish rules and regulations to implement this updated grant program. Currently, 44 school systems, mostly in rural areas with low populations, desperately need access to this funding. With low SPLOST revenues, these schools cannot afford to build new facilities in today’s expensive construction market, but these grants would help these systems replace their aging buildings to offer better learning environments for our students.
We passed two more bills that would support students as they make their way through their K-12 education. For high school students, House Bill 1184 would allow local school systems, charter schools, special chartered schools, and the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice to administer nationally recognized college entrance exams, to 11th grade students who choose to participate. Schools could administer these exams, such as the ACT or SAT, up to three times each year during normal school hours. For some Georgia high schoolers, finding a way to take college entrance exams can be difficult and costly, but this legislation would provide them with a more convenient and cost-effective opportunity to do so while they’re already at school. Additionally, the House passed House Bill 1283 to ensure that our elementary schools students have a chance to enjoy recess every day, which we believe is a crucial part of a child’s learning experience. Starting in the fall, HB 1283 would require schools to offer recess to students in Kindergarten through fifth grade, and schools would not be able to withhold recess from students for disciplinary or academic reasons. My colleagues and I recognize that an excellent education is well-rounded, and these bills would ensure their success in the classroom, as well as assist them as they prepare for college.
As many of us know, the state has experienced challenges in hiring and retaining workers, especially nurses and doctors, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exasperated this issue. Therefore, we passed two bills on Crossover Day to support health care systems and workers alike. House Bill 1520 would create the Georgia Council on Addressing Health Care Workforce Challenges, and this council would actively meet until July 2025 to provide strategic thought, leadership and recommendations on the future of the health care workforce in Georgia. This 27-member council would examine education programs, funding sources, loan forgiveness programs, technology investments, workforce readiness, and state regulations. This council could also create subcommittees to work simultaneously to study specific issues, such as advancements in rural health care. We also passed House Bill 1533 to provide protection for health care professionals who seek to address their career fatigue and wellness confidentially through a professional mental health program. HB 1533 would provide that no person or entity would be required to report information to a licensing board regarding a health care professional who participates in these professional programs, unless there is a reason to believe this professional could be a danger to themselves or others. The bill would also provide immunity from civil liability to entities that review, evaluate or make recommendations on these professional programs. These two bills aim to address two serious challenges that our health care system is facing these day by providing direct support to both the health care entities and their workers.
In 2019, the Georgia House passed legislation to allow limited in-state licensing, production and distribution of low-THC oil for Georgians suffering from certain chronic or terminal illnesses. This program has launched, but, production has not started, and thousands of eligible Georgians have been left without access to this alternative medicine. As such, we passed legislation this week to ensure that we get this medicine into the hands of those who desperately need it. House Bill 1425 would cancel the original 2020 competitive application request for medical cannabis licensing proposals and would direct the Medical Cannabis Commission to take all necessary steps to purchase or obtain necessary quantities of low-THC oil or other similar products from an available legal source. The commission would also take all necessary steps to provide for low-THC oil dispensation, including the development and issuance of dispensing licenses for independent pharmacies and designated universities. The commission would be required to issue a new competitive application request by the end of this year to award two initial Class 1 medical cannabis production licenses and four initial Class 2 production licenses, and any applicants who submitted prior licensing applications would be allowed to submit a proposal without paying an additional application fee. This bill would also add reporting requirements to the Medical Cannabis Commission Oversight Committee and would add ulcerative colitis to the list of eligible conditions for the Georgia Low-THC Oil Registry. The new application requests would be managed by the Georgia Department of Administrative Services, evaluated by an independent third party, and subject to state purchasing and open records laws. As the number of Georgians registered for low-THC oil grows, this bill would also allow the state to increase the number of licenses to produce this product in the future. We have previously experienced production delays, but this measure would jump-start low-THC licensing and production to finally provide treatment and relief for suffering Georgians.
Additionally, we passed House Bill 918, which would create the Georgia Rare Disease Advisory Council within the Department of Public Health to advise the General Assembly and state agencies on the needs of those with rare diseases in Georgia. This council would meet at least every quarter, offer opportunities for public comment and convene public hearings. The council would also consult with experts, evaluate recommendations, publish resources and identify best practices. Appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House, council members would include academic researchers, public and community health experts, a geneticist, medical professionals who specialize in rare diseases in adults and children, patients with a rare disease and other individuals and organizations who work with these patients. Starting in June 2023, the council would publish an annual report about its work and its recommendations, which would be provided to the governor and General Assembly and be made available for public comment. Approximately one in 10 Georgians currently live with a rare disease, and this legislation would provide hope and greater resources for those Georgians.
House Bill 1484 was also passed on the House floor, and this bill would create a pilot program to help diagnose, treat and expand coverage for pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infection (PANDAS) and pediatric acute onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS). Advocates estimate that approximately 13,000 Georgia children are suffering from these illnesses that cause a sudden onset of a variety of neuropsychiatric symptoms, such as tics and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Administered by the State Health Benefit Plan, this three-year pilot program would begin in 2024 and help treat up to 100 individuals annually using intravenous immune globulin therapy and other treatment methods. The Georgia Department of Community Health would work with a patient advocacy organization to create outreach and educational resources for the eligible population and pediatric providers. At the end of the program’s first year, the department would submit an annual report to the House and Senate Health and Human Services committees with extensive details to include covered treatments, cost, as well as the total number of participants, providers, and claims. In 2019, the Georgia House established a study committee to delve into PANS and PANDAS, and this study committee found that patients and families face barriers for treatment due to medical providers being unfamiliar with these diseases and unreliable medical coverage by insurers. This new program would help spread awareness and educate the medical community and insurance providers about the evidence-based legitimacy of these diagnoses, and in turn, help more families access treatment for these debilitating diseases.
After Crossover Day, the House convened for three more legislative days this week, and our committees began considering legislation that passed in the State Senate before the Crossover deadline, and the Senate began reviewing House bills before the week ended. We will spend the remainder of the session meeting in our respective committees and on the House floor to consider these Senate bills, as well as give final approval to House legislation that could undergo changes by the Senate. I encourage you to contact me regarding bills that may be up for consideration during these final weeks of the session. You can reach me at my Capitol office at 404-656-0152, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your representative.