On Monday, February 27, my House colleagues and I started a long yet productive week of the 2023 legislative session, where we met for four days in the House Chamber and devoted an entire day to working in our respective committees. With Crossover Day coming up next week, we worked longer hours each day to thoroughly review and vote on key pieces of legislation, and I look forward to sharing more about some of these bills that aim to address important issues facing our great state.

Last session, the House of Representatives championed the Mental Health Parity Act to reform Georgia’s mental health care delivery system and improve client outcomes for those with severe mental illness. Building upon this monumental bill’s foundation, the House overwhelmingly passed House Bill 520 this week to continue to streamline and improve the state’s behavioral health care system and expand its workforce. To that end, this year’s bipartisan mental health bill would create new state authorities and pilot programs to help develop standardized terminology for serious mental illness, improve sharing and collecting data among law enforcement and state agencies, as well as establish rules for transferring data in compliance with federal and state law. Additionally, HB 520 would authorize the state’s Behavioral Innovation and Reform Commission to establish a task force to build a continuum of care. Specifically, this task force would conduct a statewide bed study for inpatient treatment centers to better understand and address the lack of inpatient options for struggling individuals; this task force would then make recommendations on needed capacity building, youth specific care and autism spectrum-related care with the ultimate goal of increasing bed capacity for those who need inpatient care. This innovative task force would also examine laws and regulations that may affect those who interact with the behavioral health and criminal justice systems, as well as study the benefits of expanding inpatient treatment options for child and adolescent substance misuse. This legislation also includes a funding mechanism that would allow the Georgia General Assembly to appropriate funds in the Fiscal Year 2024 budget for crisis services in several counties. HB 520 would expand the state’s loan forgiveness program for mental health care providers to include those already in working in this field. By implementing these initiatives, the bill seeks to reduce barriers to care, ensure that individuals receive appropriate treatment for their conditions and decrease recidivism rates for those with mental illness who come into contact with our criminal justice system. These are just a few of the major provisions included in HB 520, which is now headed to the Senate for its consideration.

This week, the House also passed bipartisan legislation to expand mental health care options for veterans living in Georgia. House Bill 414 would create the Veterans Mental Health Services Program, which would serve as a competitive grant program to improve access to mental health services for service members, veterans and their family members in Georgia. The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities would administer these grants to eligible non-profit community behavioral health programs that demonstrate their ability to provide high-quality services to veterans and their families. The grant program would prioritize applicants that are located within 50 miles of a military base and have already made capital investments into veteran services. The Veterans Mental Health Services Program would be a significant step towards improving access to mental health services for our veterans and their families to ensure that these Georgians have the support they need to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.

My colleagues and I also unanimously passed a historic bill to protect the rights of both Georgia’s renters and landlords and ensure that rental properties are kept in a safe and healthy condition. First, House Bill 404 would require rental properties to be “fit for human habitation” upon signing a lease, and landlords would be required to maintain their properties throughout the duration of the lease. Another provision of the bill would prohibit landlords from turning off a rental home’s air conditioning system prior to an eviction to force tenants to move out. HB 404 would also prohibit landlords from requiring a security deposit that exceeds two months’ rent. This legislation also seeks to balance the needs of landlords and their tenants during an eviction process. If a tenant fails to pay rent or charges owed to the landlord, the tenant would have a three business day period prior to an eviction proceeding being filed, which would give tenants time to try and resolve the issue before being evicted. Furthermore, the bill would require an eviction notice to be posted visibly on the tenant’s front door in a sealed envelope or delivered based on stipulations in the rental agreement to ensure that the tenant is aware of the eviction proceeding and has an opportunity to respond. Georgia renters have the right to live in homes that meets certain minimum health and safety standards, and overall, this bill would provide greater protections for tenants under state law and hold landlords accountable for keeping their properties safe for renters.

Next, we passed House Bill 440, which would allow public and private schools to keep lifesaving medications on hand for students who have diabetes. HB 440 would allow public and private schools in Georgia to stock and administer glucagon, a medication used to treat severe hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, in people with diabetes. HB 440 would allow prescribers, such as physicians and nurse practitioners, to provide standing orders or prescriptions for ready-to-use glucagon to schools so that this medication can be rapidly administered to students in an emergency. This legislation would also allow a public or private school to work directly with glucagon manufacturers or third-party suppliers to obtain the products for free or at fair market or reduced prices. Severe hypoglycemia can be life-threatening and may require immediate treatment with glucagon, especially in situations where a student with diabetes does not have their medication with them. By allowing schools to stock glucagon, this bill would improve access to treatment for students who have a diabetic emergency at school.

The House also passed a major bipartisan bill this week to establish the regulatory framework for Georgia’s electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure, which could encourage more businesses, such as convenience stores, to offer EV charging stations across the state. Under House Bill 406, the sale of electricity at EV charging stations would be similar to the sale of gasoline, and the bill would give the Georgia Department of Agriculture regulatory authority over EV charging stations, including inspecting these stations. This bill would require all EV charging stations to provide accurate readings of electricity charged to each vehicle on a per kilowatt-hour basis as a retail sale and include meters to record the total kilowatt-hours. HB 406 would also establish an excise tax set by the Georgia Department of Revenue to ensure that our state collects revenue similar to revenue that is typically produced from gasoline sales. The number of EV drivers in Georgia has skyrocketed in recent years, along with EV manufacturing, and it’s imperative that we lay the groundwork for a statewide EV charging infrastructure. HB 406 would ensure that EV charging stations operate efficiently and fairly to support the growth and development of EVs in Georgia, which could have numerous benefits for the environment, public health and the economy.

Then, my colleagues and I passed legislation to allow for reinvestigations of cold case murders in an attempt to help solve these cases. House Bill 88, or the Coleman-Baker Act, would require law enforcement agencies to conduct a thorough review of an original cold case murder investigation upon written request to determine if a new investigation could produce new leads or identify a likely perpetrator. This review would examine what procedures may have been missed in the original investigation, whether new or old witnesses should be interviewed, if forensic evidence was properly tested, as well as update the case file using the most current investigative standards. If a new investigation is warranted, agencies could open a new investigation that would be overseen by a new officer. Each law enforcement agency would develop their own written application process for these reinvestigations that keeps applicants informed, and agencies would have six months to review an application and complete its case file review to determine whether or not to proceed with a full reinvestigation. Additionally, the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government would create a case tracking system and public website with information about these applications and investigations. To provide families with some closure when their loved one’s cause of death is inconclusive, this bill would allow a coroner or medical examiner to issue a death certificate with a non-specific cause of death. HB 88 could solve murders that date back to 1970 and could ultimately help bring justice to families and victims of cold case murders in this state.

On Day 27, the House passed legislation to help attract and retain qualified medical examiners in the field of forensic sciences by providing financial support to those burdened with student loan debt. House Bill 163 would create a student loan repayment program for full-time medical examiners who work for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s (GBI) Division of Forensic Sciences. This program would provide these examiners with up to $120,000 to repay their student loans if they work for GBI for five years. The Georgia Student Finance Authority would implement the program using state funds appropriated by the General Assembly. GBI only has nine full-time and two part-time medical examiners to handle all of its forensic testing for the entire state, and each examiner currently handles nearly double their appropriate case load. Across the country, states are facing shortages of these critical workers, and this repayment program could help incentivize prospective and current medical examiners in Georgia to join or remain in this field.

The House also passed House Bill 147, or the Safe Schools Act, to address how Georgia schools prepare for acts of violence on campus. First, this bill would require the Professional Standards Commission to work with the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency (GEMA/HS), Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice and the Georgia Public Safety Training Center to create an endorsement for eligible certificated school professionals who complete a voluntary training program on school safety and anti-gang identification. Under this bill, schools would be required to submit their school safety plan to GEMA/HS. Additionally, the bill would require schools to conduct intruder alert drills by October 1 of each school year and report to GEMA/HS when these drills are completed. Finally, students would be required to participate in these drills, but schools could allow a parent/legal guardian to elect for their child not to participate. The goal of this legislation is to improve school safety and preparedness and reduce incidents of violence and gang activity on school grounds.

When we return to the Gold Dome on Monday, March 6, my colleagues and I are scheduled to complete Legislative Day 28, otherwise known as Crossover Day. Crossover Day is the deadline for legislation to be passed out of its chamber of origin to remain eligible for consideration to become law this year. I hope that you will continue to reach out this session so that I can address any concerns you might have about legislation that we are considering. You can call my Capitol office number at 404-656-0152 or email me at dale.washburn@house.ga.gov. 

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

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