On Monday, January 23, both the Georgia House and Senate returned to the Gold Dome in Atlanta to begin the Third Week (legislative days 5-8) of the 2017 session.
Week Two was devoted entirely to Budget and Appropriations Hearings which are integral in the process of developing the 2018 budget do not count in the 40 day session. Read More>>
This week issues ranged from, helping a Glynn County Iraq/Afghanistan Vet deal with VA medical issues in our dysfunctional VA system; to assisting a deserving couple work through the DFACS bureaucracy to become foster parents, thus binging together brothers and sisters that had become separated; to helping improve traffic flow at the intersection of the Spur 25 at the Altama Connector in Brunswick (Home Depot/Chick-Fil-A center intersection). Dealing with these local matters, while simultaneously looking out for the interests of South Georgia in the context of state-wide legislative matters. Is a lot of work, and I enjoy doing it.
This week was extremely busy legislatively and brought about progress as several House committees and subcommittees met throughout the week to consider legislation. On Thursday, the House overwhelmingly (174-1) passed our first bill of the session, the Amended Fiscal Year 2017 budget. As I’ve mentioned in previous newsletters, the singular, Constitutional requirement of the General Assembly is to pass a balance budget, which also includes revisions to the current year’s budget. We could do these two fundamental items and go home were we living in perfect world. I have often commented - the fewer days any legislative body is in session the better off for our citizenry.
At this early stage of the 2017-18 biennial session, we have already had over 100 bills and resolutions filed between the House and Senate – and we are just warming up! Here’s a link that will take you directly to web pages listing every bill and resolution filed in the Georgia General Assembly. This link will work for the entire 2017-18 session.
Authored Legislation for 2017-2018 Session
Teacher Out of Pocket Schools Supplies Tax Credit HB13 Which proposes to give teachers a $250 tax credit instead of the current $250 tax deduction for out-of-pocket classroom supplies.
Cash Wire Transfer HB66 Which proposes to charge a fee for cash wire transactions that originate in Georgia and terminate elsewhere, targeting Georgia’s huge, multi-billion underground or cash economy. This hidden economy consists of human traffickers, gamblers, drug dealers and employees paid in cash for their work. The effort could easily raise $100 million for the state of Georgia – without a tax increase.
Sponsored Legislation for 2017-2018 Session
Georgia Space Flight Act HB1 An important regional and state-wide bill that passed out of committee this week is the Georgia Spaceflight Act, sponsored by Rep. Jason Spencer, and for which I am a co-sponsor. Aerospace jobs in Georgia average over $40,000 per year.
I am working on several additional pieces of legislation that I will report on as they come together. Until bills are “filled” they do not show up on any official website but you can click here to see 2016-17 Legislation that I have sponsored or have co-sponsored.
State of the Judiciary Address
As a part of the annual opening of each General Assembly session, We also convened for a joint session with the Senate, in the House Chamber, on Wednesday to hear the Supreme Court of Georgia’s Chief Justice P. Harris Hines deliver the annual State of the Judiciary Address. The address reports on what the judicial branch has accomplished and the challenges it faces in the year ahead.
We are a state and nation of laws. Consequently, our state judicial system is an integral part of our Georgia governmental structure for without our courts and our laws, we would quickly devolve into anarchy., which reports what the judicial branch has accomplished and the challenges it faces in the year ahead.
Chief Justice Hines, who serves as the head of the judiciary, confidently reported to my colleagues and me me that Georgia’s third branch of government, the judicial branch, is strong and on a path towards an even greater future. Chief Justice Hines noted that 2017 marks a “historic year of change” for Georgia’s judicial branch with the expansion of Supreme Court Justices serving on our state’s highest court. Previously, Georgia’s Supreme Court consisted of only seven Supreme Court Justices, but this year, for the first time in Georgia’s history, Georgia’s Supreme Court has nine Supreme Court Justices. This expansion is both historic and necessary as Georgia has seen immense growth in its population and overall economy in recent years, considerably increasing and intensifying the judicial needs of our citizens. Furthermore, our state recently elected or appointed 32 superior court judges. This unusually high number is also reflective of our state’s swelling demands and judicial complexities.
Our state is growing, without which we would wither on the vine, and we must staff our judicial to fairly and timely handling our state’s legal matter. I am confident that these new justices and judges will not only provide a fresh perspective on our justice system, but will cohesively and consistently interpret the law and fairly administer justice to Georgia’s citizens. We heard a report of a judge in the Atlanta metro area who hears 100, yes 100, courts cases a day. Hard to imagine!
Georgia’s Probation System
Another historic change that Chief Justice Hines highlighted in his address is the substantial progress our state has made in the criminal justice arena. While Georgia’s criminal justice system has undergone significant reform over the past six years that has resulted in great forward progress and national recognition, Chief Justice Hines called upon the General Assembly to continue to make improvements by pointing out that our state has the highest rate of individuals on probation in the country, and about half of those individuals are on probation for simple misdemeanors. To address this area of concern, Chief Justice Hines announced that the Council on Criminal Justice Reform, a bi-partisan council that conducts periodic reviews of criminal laws, will work with the General Assembly to reform probation sentencing for low-risk, non-violent offenders. The council hopes to decrease low-level offender supervision, ultimately saving taxpayer dollars, and allowing probation officers to focus their efforts on high-risk offenders. It is obvious that our probation system desperately needs improvement, and I look forward to carefully reviewing any legislation that may come before us that aims to improve our state’s overall criminal justice system and our public safety.
Legal Representation for All Citizens
In addition to improving Georgia’s probation system, Chief Justice Hines named other areas of the court system that also need improvements. One of his priorities is closing the gap in legal representation for Georgians who cannot afford an attorney. While wealthy Georgians can afford to hire lawyers, and low-income Georgians are eligible for legal aid services, many times working, middle-class Georgians are unable to afford legal representation because they make too much to qualify for aid but not enough to hire a lawyer. As a result, many of our state’s citizens have no choice but to represent themselves in court, which decreases their likelihood of winning their case and slows down court proceedings. In the last year alone, Georgia courts heard more than 800,000 cases in which Georgians represented themselves in court. Chief Justice Hines committed told my colleagues and me that he will work alongside with Georgia’s State Bar and our state’s law schools to develop a program to expand the supervised practice of Georgia law students to fill this gap.address this gap in representation. This year, more than 1,000 law students will represent low and moderate income Georgians in legal matters who otherwise could not afford a lawyer. This program helps our law students gain experience, helps Georgians who otherwise would not have representation in the courtroom, and does not create any excess cost for the client or the state.
Georgia’s Juvenile Courts
Finally, Chief Justice Hines stressed the critical importance of Georgia’s juvenile court judges who fight to protect the well being of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens. Because of their vital work, Chief Justice Hines announced the need for independent, full-time juvenile court judges who are the among the best and brightest and have the proper resources to identify the needs of Georgia’s children. Moreover, Chief Justice Hines asked for the General Assembly’s support in institutionalizing a juvenile court data exchange system which would ensure that judges and state agencies involved in a child’s life have access to the same information, and are therefore able to make the best and wisest decisions for the child. I was incredulous when I learned that our juvenile courts do not share a common state-wide data base! We must do everything in our power to take care of Georgia’s children, and we must also ensure that our juvenile court judges are fully able to serve the needs of these children.
Amended 2017 Budget
While the State of the Judiciary Address was both insightful and inspiring, the House was hard at work this week as we passed our first piece of legislation of the session: the Amended Fiscal Year 2017 budget (AFY 2017). The original 2017 fiscal year budget, which set state spending at $23.7 billion, was passed during the 2016 legislative session, but to recognize any discrepancies between the projected estimate and actual revenue obtained, the legislature must also pass an amended state budget. The Amended Fiscal Year 2017 budget recognizes $606.2 million in additional revenue, or 2.5 percent more than the initial FY 2017 budget, and brings the total appropriation for the AFY 2017 budget to $24.3 billion. Following last week’s budget hearings and the diligent work of the members of the House Appropriations Committee, subcommittees and the House Budget and Research Office, the amended budget, or House Bill 43, was introduced on the House floor on Thursday, January 26, and passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 174-1.
Narrative of 2017 Amended Budget Changes
Follows is a narrative describing details of the 2017 Amended Budget, great for nights you are having trouble sleeping.
Investments in our children and in the state’s education system are always large and essential components of any budget; therefore, HB 43 includes $108.9 million for midterm enrollment growth of .68 percent to ensure that every child has the educational resources they need. This year’s amended budget also accounts for the growing needs of our education system, including those needs of our institutions of higher learning. The AFY 2017 budget allocates $16.7 million to meet the projected needs of Move on When Ready, a program allowing eligible Georgia students to take advantage of dual enrollment and progress at their own pace, and $2.3 million to create the Georgia Center for Early Language and Literacy at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, an education training center for developing literacy skills among children from birth to age 8 throughout the state. Investments in education are investments in Georgia’s future, and I am proud of the work we have done, and are continuing to do, for our state’s students. Additionally, the House fully supported Gov. Deal’s budget recommendation to support our public safety officials and proudly appropriated $25.1 million in the AFY 2017 budget for a 20 percent pay raise for these dedicated state law enforcement officers. This increase impacts officers and criminal investigators across 16 state agencies, including the Department of Public Safety, the Department of Community Supervision and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The AFY 2017 budget also includes $23.5 million for 612 new vehicles for public safety agencies to replace high mileage or old vehicles. These additions to the amended budget are well deserved and will give our state troopers reliable vehicles that allow for faster response times, and I commend the House for passing these important budget items in HB 43.
As an exciting investment for our state, the House agreed with the governor’s recommendation and appropriated $50 million for the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in Augusta in the AFY 2017 budget. This state-owned education and training center will be designed to enhance both public and private cyber-security, focus on research and development, promote innovation in cyber-security technology and prepare students to combat cyber-attacks. The Cyber Innovation and Training Center will place Georgia at the forefront in protecting our state and country from cyber-attacks, and will bring young talent and businesses to our state. This is a tremendous opportunity for the city of Augusta and the state of Georgia.
Other areas of additional funding: My fellow House members and I also funded a number of critical financial needs in the amended fiscal year budget, including:
There is an the immediate need for a rate increase for Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) foster parents. The AFY 2017 budget provides $974,712 to expedite the 57 percent per diem rate increase for these foster parents by moving the effective date to April 1, 2017. The AFY 2017 budget also provides $746,243 for a $1 per day increase for the relative, or kinship, foster care providers also effective April 1, 2017. Every little bit can help these families and caregivers who play such a vital role in the lives of these young children in their care.
Storms Impacting Southwest Georgia and Financial Assistance
Lastly, in the AFY 2017 budget we appropriated an additional $5 million to the Governor’s Emergency fund for the critical needs of many of our fellow Georgians. Last weekend, severe weather devastated communities in the south western region of our state, taking the lives of at least 15 Georgians, injuring many others and ravaging homes and businesses. These catastrophic storms resulted in school closures, power outages and insurmountable property damage. Gov. Deal declared a state of emergency in 16 South Georgia counties, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) granted individual assistance to six of these effected counties to ensure the affected populations receive the help needed. Due to this unforeseen natural disaster, the AFY 2017 budget appropriated these funds to supplement federal funding received from FEMA to aid in rehabilitating communities damaged by the storms. I send my sincerest condolences to those who have lost loved ones in these grievous events, as well as those recovering from injuries sustained during these devastating storms.
Resolutions and Recognition
While we accomplished a substantial amount of legislative work this week, we also took time to recognize one of our state’s most admirable public servants. On Thursday, January 26, the House of Representatives took time to honor and reflect upon the life of a dear friend and former colleague, State Representative Bob Bryant from Garden City. Bob passed away last year during the legislative session, and he is remembered as a loving husband, father, grandfather, veteran and friend to all. He humbly served his constituents and the state of Georgia for 12 years as a state representative, and his warmth and positivity left a lasting impact on all he interacted with. In honor of Bob’s great legacy, State Representative Mickey Stephens, along with the Savannah-Chatham Delegation, joined by the Bryant family, introduced House Resolution 116 in his honor and memory.
Staying In Touch
As always you are welcome to visit me at our capitol office, which is located at Suite 501 in the CLOB (Cloverdale Legislative Office Bldg.). You may call my capitol office at 404-656-0126; additionally, I can be reached via email at [email protected]. I encourage you to reach out to me and share your thoughts and opinions as this legislative session progresses.
Now that session is underway, I want you to know that I will be working diligently on behalf of our entire district while at the Capitol. I hope you will take the opportunity to review updates like this to stay informed on legislative matters that affect our district and state. Our House website, www.house.ga.gov, has a number of tools to help you stay up-to-date on what’s going on at the Capitol: you can watch a live-stream of the House proceedings, and or archived committee meetings and review legislation we are considering.
As always, thank you for allowing me the opportunity to serve as your state representative.
Rep. Jeff Jones