On Thursday, February 15, we completed the 22nd day of the 40-day 2018 session. “Crossover Day”, which this year is on February 28th, is also the 28th of the 2018 session. This date, which can vary from session to session, is the cut-off date for legislation that has any chance of being signed into law by Governor Deal. For bills to move ahead in the legislative process, they must have passed out of each respective legislative body – the House of Representatives, in my case, or the Senate - by the end of the session day on “Crossover Day.”
For several challenging bills I am sponsoring (HB-66-Cash Wire Transfers; HB-484-Changing Driver’s License for Certain Persons; HB-879-Coal Ash Dewatering Public Notice; HB-880-Coal Ash Landfill Storage Public Notice) it means I have seven legislative days left to: 1) get the bills voted out of sub-committee, then 2) voted out of full committee. Next, 3) I have to work on the surviving bills to get them added to what we call the “Rules Calendar” by the Rules Committee; the Rules Calendar is the calendar of bills that have a chance of being voted on by the full House of Representatives. Whew! Makes me tired thinking of all the work still to be done. But I do not give up easily on legislative matters that I, and many others in our state, believe are important.
Over the past three weeks, since you heard from me in my last newsletter, the House, and then Senate, passed the supplemental 2018 budget-HB-683. Each session, early in the year, the House and the Governor tweak the current year’s budget for changes in revenue, programs that were budgeted that changed, or whatever. Remember, Georgia is Constitutionally required to have a balanced budget, a lesson the Feds need to learn. These adjustments are constitutionally required.
Hear of some of the highlights of the revised 2018 budget follow. Funding for education and related initiatives makes up some of the largest investments in the AFY 2018 budget. The original FY 2018 budget provided funding for an estimated number of full-time enrolled students, and the amended budget provides $102.1 million for enrollment growth for 7,515 additional students, as well as for charter system grants and State Commission Charter School supplements. The AFY 2018 budget also includes $15.5 million to purchase 200 new school buses for school systems statewide and provides $400,000 to establish a leadership academy for principals across the state. In addition to funding for K-12 education, the amended 2018 budget also contains appropriations for higher education in our state, such as $10.7 million to meet the needs of 4,720 new Dual Enrollment students and $10 million for the Board of Regents to cover the growing cost of graduate-level medical education at Augusta University. Finally, the AFY 2018 budget includes $8.1 million in lottery funds to keep up with the growing demand for HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships and $75,000 to plan for the Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovations, as recommend by the RDC.
Health and human services-related appropriations also make up some of the largest items in the amended 2018 budget. The AFY 2018 budget includes appropriations for many information technology and Medicaid infrastructure initiatives, such as $1 million to fund an electronic visit verification system for home and community-based services. Also, as recommended by Governor Nathan Deal, the House allocated funds in the AFY 2018 budget for initiatives for children diagnosed with autism, including $1.25 million for crisis services, $1.1 million to develop capacity for behavioral health services and $128,292 in existing funds for telehealth services. HB 683 also adds funding for a program coordinator position in the Department of Community Health and for a program support coordinator in the Department of Public Health to provide behavioral health services to children under 21 who are diagnosed with autism. Furthermore, the amended budget provides $15.1 million for out-of-home care growth for the rising number of children in Georgia’s foster care system, which has doubled since 2009. Following the recommendations of the RDC, the AFY 2018 budget also adds $100,000 for a statewide medical fair to recruit employees in rural areas, $75,000 for the Office of Rural Health to identify a postsecondary institution within our state to house the Rural Center for Health Care Innovation and Sustainability and $1 million for more behavioral health crisis stabilization beds.
There are several other important appropriations in the 2018 amended budget to meet a variety of critical needs across our state. One such allocation is $10 million to the OneGeorgia Authority to fund beach nourishment projects in communities that were impacted by Hurricane Irma, which caused tremendous destruction and devastation across Georgia’s coastal region last year. The amended 2018 budget also adds $10 million to replenish Gov. Deal’s emergency fund and $3 million to purchase equipment to prevent and combat wildfires. The amended 2018 includes additional funds for projects to meet the wide-ranging needs of our state, such as $25.2 million to lengthen rural runways to accommodate larger aircrafts in an effort to increase economic development and investment in the Georgia’s rural communities, $5 million for the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to implement the statewide criminal justice e-filing initiative and $500,000 for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to purchase supplies needed to process DNA sexual assault kits.
Surprise Billing Act HB-678 (I serve on the Insurance Committee; I voted YES in committee and YES on the House floor)
In an effort to increase transparency and eliminate “surprise hospital billing” for scheduled, non-emergency; procedures, the House passed House Bill 678.. This bill provides several consumer protections regarding health insurance and would help to eliminate patients from receiving “surprise” bills, which can be 10 to 12 times higher than in-network charges, when an out-of-network doctor participates in their treatment team during an elective procedure. Under HB 678, hospitals, health care providers and insurers would be required to disclose to patients – when the patient or family member asks the question - which doctors in their treatment team are part of their insurance network, which health care plans they participate in and which hospitals they are affiliated with prior to providing nonemergency services.
While this bill makes great strides in solving the “surprise billing” problem, I questioned Insurance Committee Chairman Richard Smith on the House floor, who BTW has worked very hard for years to solve this troubling problem, if this new law required the insured to know to ASK about their in-network vs. out-of-network coverage issues as compared to the health care provider being REQUIRED to proactively provide the information up front. The answer is that patients must know and then to ASK about the in-network vs out-of-network issue. Not the best solution, but certainly much improved over the current situation.
While this is a huge step forward to provide health care consumer protection, I have found that most health care consumers do not know or do not think to ask these very important questions before services are provide.
The bill also includes much improved billing procedures protection rights to help patients. Patients who receive a surprise bill will have the right to file a dispute with an arbitrator from the insurance department. Finally, HB 678 would require insurance providers to bill patients for all services within 90 days of the service, and the patient would have 90 days once they receive the bill to secure payment, negotiate or initiate a dispute. This is important because in today’s world, these huge surprise bills can show up in our mailboxes many months after the procedure which have forced many Georgians into bankruptcy. The House’s passage of this legislation is a positive step forward in eliminating this frustrating practice and increasing transparency between patients, health care providers and insurers. We need to watch this bill in action to see if it achieves the desired results.
This week, we unanimously passed House Bill 749, a measure that would benefit Georgia’s retired veterans and their families by specifying that survivor military retirement income is excluded from Georgia income tax. Our state has passed many military-friendly measures over the past several years, but Georgia is currently one of only nine states in the nation that does not address survivor military retirement pay tax exemptions. If signed into law, this bill would bring Georgia up to speed with other states that have instituted similar pro-military policies. Many veteran support groups have also requested that all veteran retirement pay be exempt from GA Income Tax. This measure is being considered but the challenge is that it would reduce income to the state by several hundred million dollars. It will take some work to get such a bill passed.
Firefighter Training Certification HB-699 (I voted YES)
We passed HB-699, another military friendly bill, in the past couple of weeks which will allow firefighters who have served as members of the armed forces to be exempt from firefighter basic training. Current law requires all firefighters to successfully complete a basic training course within one year of their hire date, and the Georgia Firefighter Standards and Training Council determines the content and duration of this course. However, HB 699 would allow individuals who have trained as a member of the United States armed forces, United States Coast Guard, Georgia National Guard or Georgia Air National Guard to present documentation of such training to the council and receive a firefighter basic training certificate of completion. This bill would make it easier for Georgia’s veterans to begin a career as a firefighter as a result of their service and the sacrifices they have made for our country and state.
Student Suspension Act HB-740 (I voted YES)
The House passed an interesting bipartisan bill this past week. I say interesting because I did not realize this was an issue or problem in our schools for our younger students but apparently it is. The measure attempts to be sure that, before our younger students are expelled or suspended, that there are no other extenuating circumstances that have not be realized or understood that may be causing behavior issues. I think we all agree that we want to get these younger students off on the right track as they begin their journey towards achieving a high school diploma. Surprising to me is that there are approximately 15,000 kindergarten through third grade students in Georgia’s public schools that are suspended annually, and approximately 2,600 of those students are assigned out-of-school suspension for five or more days. Rather than continuously suspending and expelling students from the classroom and limiting students’ access to integral curriculum, HB 740 would address students’ underlying needs to help improve their educational outcomes. My fear is that we have created one of those compassionate pieces of legislation that has unintended consequences or creates an unfunded mandate for our local school districts. This bill deserves close scrutiny as time goes by.
School Posting for Child Abuse HB-655 (I voted YES)
The House also passed a bill that should help protect Georgia’s children. HB-655 will require public schools, as well as local and state charter schools, to post signs with the toll-free phone number of the child abuse hotline in clearly visible, public areas. This 24/7 hotline is operated by the Division of Family and Children Services and the Department of Human Services and allows students to report incidents of child abuse or neglect to trusted individuals. Twenty-seven other states have passed similar legislation, and if HB 655 is signed into law, Georgia would join these states in this effort to stop child abuse nationwide. I served on the Board and as Chairman of the Safe Harbor Children’s Center in Glynn County for 15 years. To see kids mistreated and abused by the adults they must trust is heart-breaking. However, we must be careful that we do not pass legislation that hinders our local school districts or imposes unreasonable standards or rules, but this bill makes good common sense to me.
Georgia Adaption Bill HB-159 (I voted YES)
I also want to update you on the status of House Bill 159, the adoption bill. After much anticipation, the Senate overwhelmingly passed HB 159 on Monday, February 5. The final version of HB-159, as passed by the General Assembly, would update Georgia’s adoption laws for the first time in almost three decades and streamline and expedite all types of adoptions in Georgia, allowing thousands of children to more quickly and efficiently find their forever families. State Representative Bert Reeves (R-Marietta), who authored HB 159, spent nearly two-and-a-half years refining the bill, and its final passage on Monday was a major victory for all of Georgia’s current and future foster care children, birth mothers and adoptive parents. This legislation is one of the first bills of the 2018 legislative session to go to the governor’s desk for final approval, and I am proud to see such a significant and meaningful measure pass the General Assembly.
Elderly Abuse Protection Act HB-635 (I voted YES)
We have all heard horror stories of the abuse of our elderly citizens because they are easy prey for such abuse without anyone being aware or being there to make reports. House Bill 635 would authorize district attorneys in each judicial circuit to establish an Adult Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation Multidisciplinary Team to coordinate investigations of and responses to suspected elder or disabled adult abuse, neglect or exploitation. These multiagency teams would be made up of the district attorney or his or her designee and representatives from law enforcement agencies, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Adult Protective Services and any other relevant state department, organization or entity.. Elder abuse is on the rise in every county and every city in our state, and this measure would allow for seamless cooperation between those who work for the good of our state’s elderly and disabled adults. As with every bill we pass, we hope that it will achieve the intended good results.
Electronic Filing for Unemployment Benefits HB-767 (I voted NO)
I was the lone “NO” vote on this bill that passed the House last Thursday (a big red NO amongst all the other green YES votes on the board is a rather glaring thing, if you can imagine). Because of my work on my Georgia Driver’s License bill HB 484, which is intended to force the GA DDS to stop issuing driver’s licenses to illegal alien, I learned that many illegals are receiving Unemployment Benefits; obviously, they should not be receiving these benefits. This bill will make it easier for these same people, and many others, to improperly receive unemployment benefits simply by providing their driver’s license as their ID. I have alerted Senator Ligon of the problem so perhaps he can work on the Senate side to fix this bill so that only legally eligible persons receive unemployment pay.
There is another bill making its way through the legislative process that I am studying and evaluating very carefully relating to the state’s promise, or contract, to our teachers regarding their retirement pay from the TRS (Teachers Retirement System).
Admittedly, the actuarial process of projecting the funding requirement of our TRS is very complicated. I am very concerned that the promise or contract, we made to teachers when they agreed to be a teacher in our state and they accepted the retirement pay rules, is a contract that the state, if financially able, must fulfill. I ask all teachers, active and retired, to contact me with your views and opinions on this very important issue. At this stage. I am inclined to be a NO vote on this bill.
We will reconvene on Tuesday, February 20, for legislative Day 23, and with only seven legislative days until “crossover” and 17 working days until we adjourn sine die, be assured that I am working very hard on your behalf.
Please, if you become aware of red flags regarding legislation or feel the need to let me know your views on legislation, PLEASE let me hear from you! If you have any questions or concerns on any upcoming legislation, please do not hesitate to contact me, as I welcome any opportunity to hear your input. My Capitol office phone number is 404-656-0178 and my email address is [email protected].
As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your state representative.