From the Desk of Representative Jeff Jones
Legislative Update Week 10, March 20, 2015 - House Considers Senate Bills after "Crossover"
In my last weekly legislative update, I explained that last Friday, March 13, 2015, was “Crossover Day”, the 30th day of the 2015 session of the Georgia General Assembly. “Crossover Day” is a significant point in each year’s 40 day session because it is the last day for “general bills” to “pass” in the House or Senate to “crossover” to the other body for their consideration. With Crossover Day behind us, we returned to Capitol Hill to focus on legislation that has already been passed by the Georgia Senate. To ensure that every bill is fully vetted before its final passage, we spent most of our time this week in committee meetings reviewing Senate legislation. This coming week will very busy as well with committee to review Senate bills.
Ed Note: Below are discussions of a number of bills that have passed the Senate. Only those bills where I indicated my vote as YES or NO have actually come to the House floor for a vote. All of the other bills and resolutions are in the discussion or negotiation stage, but are bills that I thought you may want to read about.
Marsh Buffer Bill (SB101)
One bill of particular importance to Coastal Georgia, that “crossed over” from the Senate to the House, is the Marsh Buffer Bill, Senate Bill 101 (SB101). This bill purports to re-establish the 25 foot Marsh Buffer that has been in existence for many years along Georgia’s coastal marshes. In April 2014, the Director of the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) of the DNR proclaimed that the EPD would no longer enforce the buffer because doing so was not founded in law. The Director further explained that the 25 foot buffer had been enforced for years by virtue of a letter written by then DNR Commissioner Carol Couch. The current EPD Director dismissed the letter, and its establishment of the 25 foot buffer, as being unenforceable.
After careful study of SB101, I reached the conclusion that it contains such large, gaping holes as to render it almost totally devoid of meaningful, enforceable buffer provisions.
In response, I have submitted a “substitute” to SB101, which is officially numbered as “SB101 Substitute LC 40 0902ERS”. (This numbering is important in identifying the correct bill.)
The substitute bill does two things:
1. Inserts a date of December 31, 2015 in the existing bill so that all “new” shoreline stabilization projects are subject to a 25 foot. buffer, unless a variance is granted. SB101, as presented, does not achieve this.
2. Moves language that deals with Army Corps of Engineers Section 404 exemptions to a location earlier in SB101. The current location of this section effectively exempts any project that has a Federal permit from the buffer provision, regardless of size, scope or impact.
Moving the language to an earlier section ensures that EPD must review requests for buffer variance projects, even if those projects have Federal permits.
The question we have to answer is “Do we want local control or Federal control of what happens to our marshes?” In my opinion, this control MUST BE local, not federal; hence we need the substitute bill I have proposed.
Tom Barton of the Savannah Morning News recently penned the following editorial regarding SB101, and this was distributed to house members earlier today. Dead Marsh Walking by Tom Barton (Click Here)
Opportunity School Districts (SB133)
In its review of Senate legislation, the House Education Committee heard public testimony on a very important measure, the creation of the Governor’s “Opportunity School Districts” in the state of Georgia, (SB133). With strong support from Governor Nathan Deal, SB133 and its companion legislation, Senate Resolution 287, would create an “Opportunity School District” to allow the state to temporarily step in to assist chronically failing schools. Because Opportunity School Districts have been successfully implemented in other states across the nation, we have the advantage of learning about the program from teachers and school administrators that have experience with such schools. This week, we heard from some of those educators, and we will strongly consider their statements as we continue to review SB 133 in the coming days. I will keep you updated on this important piece of legislation as it continues to make its way through the legislative process.
Although I must admit I was very skeptical of this legislation when I first heard about it, I have since become a supporter. We must give kids in these chronically failing schools every opportunity we can to succeed in schools. I believe SB133 gives these kids a fighting chance.
Bio-Similar Drugs (SB51) (I voted YES)
Although most Senate bills are still in the committee process, a few pieces of legislation passed out of their respective committees and made it to the House floor for a vote. One such measure was Senate Bill 51. SB 51 will help patients enjoy greater convenience in Georgia pharmacies by allowing a pharmacist to give a patient a drug that is “interchangeable,’’ or “bio-similar,” with the patient’s currently prescribed, and usually more expensive, biologic drug. As medical innovation continues to advance, more doctors are using complex drugs made from living organisms, called biologic medicines, to treat their patients with chronic diseases like arthritis and psoriasis. By allowing physicians to prescribe and pharmacists to dispense bio-similars, similar to a generic version of biologics, the cost of medication could potentially be reduced by up to 80 percent. Furthermore, to ensure patients have full disclosure and knowledge of the change, SB 51 requires the pharmacist to indicate the substitution on the original prescription and on its label. SB 51 also requires the pharmacist to notify the prescriber of this substitution within 48 hours so the doctor is aware of the changes made to the patient’s treatment. SB 51 will improve efficiency in the delivery of Georgia’s healthcare by making it easier for patients to obtain their prescribed medications and offering potential cost-saving benefits.
In addition to approving Senate legislation this week, we also adopted some House Resolutions, which are typically not subject to the Crossover Day deadline. One measure, House Resolution 303, urges the State Board of Education to develop and implement a comprehensive civics education curriculum to improve students’ civic knowledge and skills. As specified by HR 303, this education should teach students about their legal rights, as well as their responsibilities as law abiding citizens. Classroom discussions on current events, community service opportunities, and extracurricular activities could all be used as means for delivering the important civics lessons. I hope that the State Board of Education will implement our suggestions because it is crucial that our children comprehend basic civics and understand how our government works. They are the future of our state and country.
Another resolution passed this week, House Resolution 302, strives to increase the number of doctors in Georgia through a plea to the United States Congress. Currently Georgia faces a shortage of doctors, particularly in rural parts of the state. Last year, Gov. Nathan Deal appointed a committee of legislators and health care advisers to study the problem, and the House Study Committee on Medical Education found that the shortage of doctors is primarily caused by a shortage of residency slots in our state. While the state has taken great steps to increase the number of medical students in Georgia, we still need more support from the federal government to help fund residency slots. Currently, the federal government’s distribution of residency slots is ineffective in addressing the needs of growing populations in states like Georgia. HR 302 urges Congress to enact reforms to the nation’s federally-financed graduate medical education programs, so that states like Georgia can receive the fair amount of support we need to meet the health workforce requirements of the future. Since doctors tend to reside where they do their residencies, it is important that we offer more residency slots to ultimately gain more doctors in Georgia. I hope that Congress will take this request to heart, and in the meantime we will continue to consider state policies that make Georgia a more attractive place for new doctors.
Recognition of Distinguished Visitors
Also this week, we also took some time to recognize some distinguished guests in the House chamber. On Thursday, March 18, we welcomed Chris “Ludacris” Bridges to the Georgia State Capitol. Ludacris is a recording artist, actor, and rapper, record label executive, entrepreneur, philanthropist, hip-hop culture icon, and resident of Georgia. He is also the founder of The Ludacris Foundation, which has donated over $1.5 million and 5,000 hours in hands-on service to youth organizations across the country. Ludacris was recognized for his accomplishments with House Resolution 643.
Also on Thursday, we had the pleasure of hearing former Governor Jeb Bush speak before the House chamber. Governor Bush, who served as the 43rd governor of Florida, reminded us that academic achievement should be our number one priority every year. He discussed that diligence in bettering our education system will help every child in Georgia gain the skills they need to obtain good jobs in adulthood. It is clear that education is a key concern in the General Assembly, and I could not agree more with Governor Bush on this matter.
Budget Bill for 2016 (HB76) Passed the Senate
On Friday, the Senate passed House Bill 76, the 2016 Fiscal Year budget, which will guide state spending from July 1, 2015, through June 30, 2016. The $21.7 billion state budget plan designates a majority of state revenue to education, proving that Georgia’s children are once again our most important investment. Behind education, other priorities include health and human services and public safety initiatives. Now that the Senate has passed their version of the budget, members from both chambers will work together to resolve any discrepancies through a joint conference committee. I look forward to seeing the final version of the budget soon, which we will vote on in the next two weeks.
As we continue working with the Senate to ensure final passage of bills, I encourage you to contact me with any concerns you might have. Your comments are always very important to me, so I hope to hear from you soon. You can reach me at my state capitol office at 404-656-0126 or through email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for allowing me to serve as your representative.
Thank you for your prayers and your continued support.
Representative Jeff Jones
Georgia State House