Week 7, Ending March 1, 2019
We ended the seventh week, also the 25th day, of the 40-day 2019 legislative session on Friday, March 1, 2019, after a five-day session; the month of February just flew by for me. Next Thursday, March 7 is “cross-over day”, that critical annual deadline when legislation must have passed out of at least one body (House or Senate) to continue to be in play for signing onto law in 2019.
Southwest Georgia Disaster Relief Continues
On Monday, the House passed another bill to support and provide disaster relief to farmers in South Georgia impacted by Hurricane Michael. Hurricane Michael had a catastrophic impact, what I would characterize as “generational damage”, on the citizens and the economy of southwest Georgia; agriculture was particularly devastated. Commercial pecan groves and commercial pine tree stands will take 10, 15 years and longer to return to their marketable maturity. As another common sense measure, House Bill 105 would provide a Georgia income tax exemption for income received as payments from a disaster relief or assistance program if those payments are connected to Hurricane Michael and administered by the United States Department of Agriculture. Those affected by Hurricane Michael would not be taxed on this federal aid over the next three years under this bill to ensure citizens are given the relief and time to rebuild Georgia's agriculture industry.
Commercial Hemp Production (NOT a marijuana legalization bill!)
In response to the enactment of the federal farm bill this past December, which makes growing hemp in the United States legal again, the House passed House Bill 213 in an effort to help Georgia’s farmers. The House Study Committee on Industrial Hemp Production spent last summer and fall analyzing nationwide initiatives that created successful hemp industries, and as a result, House members carefully crafted HB 213 to pilot this new agricultural industry in the state. This bipartisan legislation would allow for the cultivation and processing of hemp and hemp products in Georgia and would also authorize colleges and universities in the University System of Georgia to conduct research on hemp. Under HB 213, the state would allow hemp growers who meet certain criteria to obtain a license and would charge an annual licensing fee of $1,000. This legislation would also let the state issue up to 12 permits to produce hemp, and the Department of Agriculture may award additional permits based on the financial standing and hemp processing experience of applicants. These approved producers would also have to meet specific requirements to obtain permits and would pay an initial fee of $100,000 for a permit and $25,000 annually to renew the permit. The Department of Agriculture would oversee this program and would administer tests to ensure that the hemp grown in-state contains less than .30 percent THC. This exciting proposal would allow Georgia farmers to profit from hemp cultivation and production and compete with the 41 other states that have already created safe and effective avenues to grow and produce hemp.
Mental Health Treatment Access
This week, we overwhelmingly passed another bipartisan bill that would provide greater access to mental health services for all Georgians. If signed into law, House Bill 26 would enter Georgia into the Psychology Interjurisdictional Compact (Psypact), which is an interstate compact to allow psychologists from other states participating in the compact to use telecommunication technology to practice in multiple states using one license. Under HB 26, an individual admitted to practice under this compact could practice telepsychology and/or temporary face-to-face psychology in Georgia after passing a background check. The face-to-face practice seeks to allow individuals moving into the state to temporarily practice for a period of 30 days while they go through Georgia’s licensing process. The proposed bill would also give Georgia’s State Board of Examiners of Psychologists the authority to participate in the Psypact and would create the "Psychology Interjurisdictional Compact Commission" to implement and administer the compact. This legislation would make Georgia a more military-friendly state by giving military spouses the ability to continue to practice psychology when moving to Georgia. HB 26 would also provide greater access to mental health services in rural areas and benefit Georgia schools that do not have fulltime psychologists on staff. HB 26 is an important piece of legislation that reflects the House’s dedication to mental health initiatives this legislative session.
Human Trafficking – Pimping & Pandering Laws Strengthened
The House passed House Bill 281 this week to strengthen Georgia’s laws for those convicted of pimping or pandering. Interestingly, legislation to strengthen pimping laws was pulled before receiving a House vote in 2018, as I recall, because of objections raised from many House members; I found this to be a real head scratcher. Currently, Georgia does not have increasing penalties for repeat offenders who are convicted of pimping or pandering, and the state considers this crime a misdemeanor, regardless of how many times it is committed. The proposed legislation would make the first pimping or pandering offense a misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature and increases the initial jail time from 24 hours to 72 hours. The second offense, and all subsequent offenses, would be considered a felony and would allow sentencing to increase to a maximum of 10 years in prison. This measure would raise the penalties to meet the nature of these crimes in order to protect our citizens and prevent these atrocious crimes in our state.
During Super Bowl 53 held in Atlanta this year, almost 170 arrests were made for human trafficking and prostitution, a problem that is rampant in Atlanta particularly around the professional sports arenas. In 2015, during my first session in the House, I took PSC Commissioner Tim Echols “Unholy Tour” of Atlanta’s many red-light districts. This is a problem that exists throughout our state and country and the tour was certainly an eye-opening experience for me.
House Rural Development Council Reauthorized for Two Years (HR214)
As I have highlighted in previous newsletters, the House has made it a priority to examine the plights of rural Georgia and enact legislation to promote economic growth in these areas of our state. This week, the House adopted House Resolution 214 this week to reauthorize the House Rural Development Council (RDC) for two more years so that we can continue to address these issues. Throughout the next two years, the RDC will travel to different rural areas in the state to consult with local officials and policy experts and develop measures that will confront the challenges that hinder rural economies. Since the RDC’s inception in 2017, the House has introduced and passed a number of bills to aid our rural communities, but there is more work to be done. Rural Georgia faces unique challenges, which includes loss of population, inadequate access to quality health care, poor infrastructure, diminished quality of public education and a scarcity of employment opportunities. I am pleased that the House has adopted this resolution and reaffirmed our commitment to rural Georgia.
Internet Streaming Services Tax HB428
There is one recommendation in particular made by the RDC that I disagree with and that is the proposal to tax internet streaming services such as Netflix and HULU. Not only is this tax increase proposal contrary to fundamental republican principles of lower taxes and less government, but I believe it is a regressive tax, in that those who can lease afford it, and are probably amongst the largest users, are those who can least afford it.
Out of State Cash Wire Transfers
As an alternative to the internet streaming tax, I introduced HB532 again this year that proposes to assess a fully refundable fee for cash wire transfers that originate in Georgia and terminate anywhere out of state. I have suggested to the House Rules Committee Chair and RDC Co-Chair Jay Powell that the projected $100 million dollars that the law will generate be used to help fund the expansion of Rural Broadband without costing taxpayers a single dime.
The legislation targets human traffickers, gamblers, drug dealers and others who are intentionally and illegally trying to hide their cash and is modeled after similar legislation that has been in effect in Oklahoma for many years, which has survived court challenges and has held strong. I have worked out the details of the legislation with the Georgia Commissioner of Banking, the Department of Revenue Commissioner and with the many money transfer companies such as MoneyGram, Western Union and others. Excluded from the fee are bank-to-bank cash transfers, real estate purchase cash transfers, military family cash transfers as well as just about every legitimate scenario for wiring cash that exist. Any individual who is inadvertently assessed the fee, is eligible to receive 100% of the fee back as a tax credit when they file a Georgia Individual Tax Return. The projected $100 million in revenue is net of all fees and tax credits.
As I have explained in previous newsletters, the only piece of legislation the General Assembly is required to pass is the annual Balanced Budget for the following fiscal year. On Thursday, February 28, 2019, the House fulfilled that obligation by passing House Bill 31, the Fiscal Year 2020 budget. The FY 2020 budget is set at $27.5 billion, an increase of $1.05 billion, or 3.95 percent, over the previous year’s budget. The House version of the budget highlights women’s and children’s issues including maternal mortality; education, including funding the largest pay raise in the state’s history for teachers and certified personnel; and additional funding for our most vulnerable Georgians, including the elderly and foster children. I will highlight some of these items that are included in the House’s version of the FY 2020 budget.
The FY 2020 budget promotes economic development across our state through several appropriations that will support our growing transit systems and revitalize rural areas. HB 31 focuses on economic development in our rural communities by providing $300,000 for the creation of the Blight Removal and Code Enforcement (BRACE) program in the Department of Community Affairs. This program, which was a recommendation of the House Rural Development Council, will provide grants to communities with populations of 2,500 or less to initiate a free, neighborhood-level cleanup for dilapidated areas. Supporting the state’s transportation systems and infrastructure is another key element to bolster economic development throughout Georgia. For this reason, the FY 2020 budget recognizes an increase of $38.6 million in new revenue for transportation, an increase of more than seven percent over the current year’s budget. The innovative Atlanta-Region Transit Link (ATL) Authority is included in this appropriation and would receive $2.48 million to establish the initial budget to plan and govern transit projects in the 13-county Atlanta region. The House’s focus on economic development stretches across various industries and issues, and I look forward to seeing the strides Georgia will make with the help of this funding.
The House remains devoted to improving educational opportunities statewide, and this commitment to K-12 and higher education is indicated in the House budget. The FY 2020 budget includes a historic pay raise of $2,775 for each certified teacher and school personnel, including counselors, social workers, psychologists, special education specialists, speech and language pathologists, media specialists and technology specialists, in our public education system, which increases the base salary pay for teachers by 8.1 percent. The House budget also appropriates $483 million for the Quality Basic Education program (QBE) and $121.9 million to the Department of Education for enrollment growth and training. Within the Student Finance Commission, the budget provides the important HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships with $74.7 million for 22,000 additional awards. This funding also increases the award amount by three percent to match the rising costs of college tuition and keep in-state colleges affordable. The House budget also ensures the longevity of dual enrollment programs by saving $4.1 million through limiting these programs to hardworking 11th and 12th graders during fall and spring semesters only. To create safer school environments for all Georgia students, and based on the recommendations of the House School Security Study Committee, the FY 2020 budget appropriates $174,000 within the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency (GEMA) to hire two school safety threat assessment trainers to work with local school systems to develop threat assessment plans. Lastly, 4-H centers throughout the state would receive $150,000 in bonds for security improvements and $747,600 to contract with local law enforcement to provide security when students are present.
The House also emphasized funding for health care in HB 31. In order to provide better access to quality health care in Georgia, the FY 2020 budget includes $78.4 million in the Department of Community Health for Medicaid growth, as well as an additional $68.3 million to replace federal funds in the Medicaid programs due to a reduction in the Federal Medicaid Assistance Percentage. HB 31 also appropriates $5.9 million for the Medicaid budget for gene therapy drug coverage, $6.8 million for Medicare Part B premiums and $3.2 million to include seven additional long-term acute care hospitals. Furthermore, the budget allocates $500,000 for a Center of Excellence on Maternal Mortality to advance maternal health and more than $1 million for additional maternal health support to screen, refer and treat maternal depression and related behavioral disorders in rural and underserved areas. Georgia has a high rate of maternal mortality, and this appropriation seeks to combat this issue in our state.
The House FY 2020 budget also includes funding to tackle the opioid epidemic, which is devastating communities and burdening Georgia’s workforce. The House is fighting back by including $4.9 million for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities to invest further in residential treatment of addictive diseases, which would add six new facilities across the regions in Georgia. The House recognizes an additional $29 million in behavioral health services to increase bed capacity and outpatient services, as well as annualize the cost of crisis centers that serve our communities.
HB 31 adds funding to a variety of programs and projects that assist some of the most vulnerable Georgians. HB 31 includes $1.4 million for home-delivered meals for an additional 665 Georgians and $1.3 million to fund 17 additional adult protective services caseworkers, bringing the total to 172. With more than 13,000 children in the state’s foster care program, we must provide adequate resources for these children. The budget includes $9.8 million for Out of Home Care and $940,000 to implement a pilot program recommended by Governor Brian Kemp that would follow-up on closed foster care cases to continue to look after these children.
Finally, the House’s version of the budget allocates $563,380 to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to help solve the crime lab backlog, $780,690 for six positions for the GBI unit at the Cyber Crime Center and $500,000 to implement a GBI Gang Task Force to help local governments prosecute gang activity. HB 31 also includes an addition of $2.1 million to expand the state’s highly successful accountability courts within the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
Special Announcement – Governor Kemp Appoints Glynn County Magistrate Judge Alex Atwood as Commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services (see story after the end of my newsletter below)
My legislative is agenda for 2019-20 is continuing to evolve and change as the 2019 session continue to unfold and develop so please review the March 1, 2019 version.
Crossover Day Looms Ahead on Day 28 - Please Contact Me
We returned to the General Assembly in Atlanta on Monday, March 4, to complete week eight of the 2019 legislative session. “Cross Over Day” is Thursday, March 7, 2019 so this week is extremely busy for all members of the House and Senate. Despite my hectic and very full schedule, I always welcome you to reach out to me and share your thoughts and opinions now or anytime during the session. I can be reached via email at [email protected], or [email protected], and by phone at (404) 656-0177.
As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your state representative.
In your service, I remain,
Rep. Jeff Jones