Monday, January 9, 2017, marked day-one of the 154th Legislative Session of the Georgia General Assembly, and the first day of the two-year 2017-2018 term (aka “biennial”). As such, all 180 members of the Georgia House of Representatives took the oath of office and were formally sworn in.
The first sections I discuss the procedural opening of the 2017-18 session and the Governor’s State of the State address to the joint session of the House and Senate. Later in this email, I discuss legislative issues I am involved in.
Opening of the 2017 Session of the Georgia General Assembly
Bear with me a minute as I explain what happens in the opening days of each session of the Georgia General Assembly. You may have read previous emails over my first two years in office, explaining that the first few days of every legislative session is a combination of necessary procedural and ceremonial activity. By rule, and to make everything legal, we must formally call the 2017 session of the House of Representatives of the Georgia General Assembly to order; the Georgia Senate followed very similar procedures. The House formally nominated and elected the 2017-18 Speaker of the House Rep. David Ralston, (R-Blue Ridge), Speaker Pro-Tempore Jan Jones (R-Milton) was also re-elected to her respective positions.
Governor Deal’s 2017 State-of-the-State Address
On Wednesday, January 11, before a joint session of the House and Senate, Governor Nathan Deal delivered his seventh annual State of the State address.
From a legislative perspective, this speech is important because it spells out the Governors report card of how well our state performed the previous years but also lays out his legislative agenda for the new 2017 session.
During this annual speech, the governor presented the current conditions and goals of our state government for the year ahead Gov. Deal began his address by highlighting the remarkable progress Georgia’s economy has made since his first year in office. Since 2011, our state’s unemployment rate has dropped from 10.4 percent to 5.3 percent; our cash reserves, more commonly called our “Rainy Day Fund”, increased from a low $116 million to approximately $2.033 billion; Georgia has maintained a AAA bond rating; and the state has set new records in trade, film production and tourism. Additionally, new private sector jobs have reached more than 575,000, and for four consecutive years, Georgia has been named the No. 1 state in the country in which to do business. These figures provide a positive outlook and a strong foundation for us to begin this legislative session as we work to craft policies that will continue to allow our citizens and state to grow and thrive.
Gov. Deal went on to mention that due to the state’s economic success and projected revenue growth in the upcoming fiscal year, Georgia will be able to continue to support its existing vital programs, as well as address new areas that require the state’s attention. For example, in September 2016, Gov. Deal announced two monumental statewide law enforcement improvements that the General Assembly will review this session: a 20 percent pay raise for state-level law enforcement officers and an overhaul and expansion of officer training courses. Gov. Deal’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget recommendations, which he also released this week, include this pay increase for these public service men and women. Further, the officer training courses would focus on deescalating violence, community policing and alternatives to deadly force, as well as providing access to local law enforcement for Crisis Intervention Training. Gov. Deal noted that following this announcement last fall, the Georgia State Patrol had more new applications in one month than it had had in the entire previous year. Our law enforcement officers protect the lives of all Georgians every day, and I commend Gov. Deal’s effort to reward them for their service to our state and its citizens.
As we look at the pay of our State Patrol officers, I want to remind our citizens of how this change will impact the ability of our County Sheriff’s and City Police Departments to stay competitive in attracting and retaining law enforcement professionals at the local level. I promise to keep an eye on this issue.
Georgia’s Veteran’s Affairs
The governor’s address also focused on providing a better quality of life through access to quality healthcare services for another group of brave and selfless Georgians: Georgia’s veteran and active duty military personnel. Our state is home to 61,288 active military members, 27,233 reservists and 752,000 veterans, and nearly one in four active military personnel show signs of a mental health condition. Because of our state’s large military population, Gov. Deal encouraged the allocation of funds by the General Assembly to train existing state and federal employees to more efficiently and effectively assist our veterans and improve access to mental health services. Additionally, the governor called for the creation and funding for a Women Veterans Coordinator position to work with female veterans who have suffered military sexual trauma, to offer counseling and to assist with veteran’s claims and appeals. Finally, in an effort to aid veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, Gov. Deal hopes to secure funding in the state budget for the construction of a rehabilitation facility to provide behavioral health services to these individuals. Our veterans and active duty military personnel make tremendous sacrifices to protect our freedom, and as lawmakers, it is our responsibility to ensure that these men and women have access to the healthcare services they need.
In addition to improving healthcare benefits for our military population, Gov. Deal also spoke on the importance of enhancing healthcare benefits for our youngest citizens. He recommended that my colleagues and I consider legislation this session to allow Medicaid and State Health Benefit Plan coverage for treatments of those diagnosed with autism up to the age of 21, as well as an expansion of coverage to treat children with behavioral and mental health issues from birth to age four. Currently, community behavioral health services are only offered to Medicaid and PeachCare members age four and up. It is important that we treat, diagnose and offer the proper care at the earliest stage possible for children with behavioral and mental health issues.
Opioid Addiction Epidemic
In his remarks, the governor also reminded us of his recent action last month to address the growing and critical statewide opioid addiction epidemic that has affected the lives of so many Georgians. Deal signed an executive order directing the Department of Public Health to allow pharmacists to distribute naloxone, an emergency drug used to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses, over-the-counter. He also requested that the Georgia Board of Pharmacy remove this drug from the dangerous drug list, and as a result, lives have already been saved. Gov. Deal urged the general assembly to adopt legislation supporting his executive order and strengthening Georgia’s drug monitoring program.
Gov. Deal also unveiled plans for the development of the Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center, a $50 million state-owned facility designed to promote innovation in cyber-security technology. This education and training center, in conjunction with the Department of Defense and the National Security Agency, will be instrumental in teaching and preparing students to combat cyber-attacks. The facility, which will serve to enhance American cyber-security in both the public and private arenas, will also house a cyber-crime lab operated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. With the addition of the Cyber Innovation and Training Center, Georgia will truly be at the forefront of our nation’s effort to both prevent and fight cyber-attacks – something that is all too relevant in today’s world.
Education in Georgia
Finally, the governor discussed his continued plans and legislative agenda to improve Georgia’s education system, a goal that has remained consistent throughout his time in office. He noted that Georgia’s graduation rate has significantly improved since he took office, jumping from 64.7 percent in 2011 to 79.2 percent today, and he attributed this significant achievement to the dedicated teachers working with our students on a daily basis. In recognition of the diligent work of Georgia’s educators, Gov. Deal included a two percent salary increase built into the pay scale for all teaching positions in his budget recommendations, in addition to the three percent merit pay increase for teachers in the budget for the current fiscal year. Gov. Deal concluded his remarks on education by suggesting that legislation to address our state’s chronically failing schools would likely appear again this legislative session, with the emphasis being on the chronically failing schools that serve elementary-aged children.
State Budget – Amended 2017 and 2018
After announcing his goals for the upcoming legislative session in the State of the State Address, Gov. Deal released his budget recommendations on Wednesday, January 11. Highlights of the Amended Fiscal Year 2017 budget include $50 million for the new Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center in Augusta and $27.3 million for a 20 percent increase in salary for law enforcement officers.
In his Fiscal Year 2018 budget, Gov. Deal set aside over $300 million to provide salary increases for our state’s critical personnel, including law enforcement officers, teachers, criminal investigators, Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) caseworkers and environmental health personnel.
My fellow General Assembly colleagues and I will now use Gov. Deal’s budget recommendations as a model to further review and ultimately craft the state’s budget. I will provide you with more information next week once we carefully review these recommendations in our Joint Budget Hearings with the Senate.
Legislation for 2017-2018 Session
This session, I am sponsoring what I consider to be three important pieces of legislation:
1. Teacher Tax Credit for Out-of-Pocket School Supply Expenses (HB13)
This is a simple but important piece of legislation (two pages) affecting every single one of our state’s classroom teachers. – public, private and home school. The bill proposes to replace the current $250 “tax deduction” for teacher’s personal out-of-pocket school supply expenses to a “tax credit “of $250 (50% of $500 out-of-pocket expenses).
2. Out-of-State Cash Wire Transfers (HB66)
This bill targets individuals who exploit the massive underground (aka cash or shadow economy) in the US, estimated to be upwards of $2 trillion dollars. This includes human traffickers & prostitution rings, gamblers, drug traffickers and employees paid in cash.
In Georgia, the shadow economy is conservatively estimated to be from $5 billion to $40 billion dollars annually money that leaves Georgia, contributing nothing to the economy of Georgia. Independent estimates are this fee could raise $100 million, without a tax increase.
3. Filling Superior Court Clerk Vacancies
This proposed legislation, still in the drafting stage, proposes to improve and clarify the process by which vacancies to the state’s very important Clerk of the Superior Court offices around the state (a Georgia Constitutional Office) are filled. The legislation will differentiate on the replacement depending on the amount of time remaining in the term, and who will make appointments vs. a requiring a “special election: to fill the remainder of the term. More on this later when I have a draft of proposed legislation in hand.
This week, we also received our committee assignments for the 2017-2018 legislative term. I am honored to announce that Speaker Ralston, and the Committee on Assignments appointed me to serve on the following house committees: Motor Vehicles as Vice-Chairman; Insurance; Science & Technology and Intergovernmental Relations. Each of these committees is responsible for thoroughly vetting, and discuss proposed legislation before it is allowed to reach the House floor for a vote – an important step in our legislative process.
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.
Thank you for allowing me to serve as your Representative.
Rep. Jeff Jones