This was definitely the most unusual legislative session in living memory. It was also the most divisive. But I am happy we produced many good results.
I’m pleased the Hate Crime Bill finally passed both Chambers. The Senate, thankfully, took out its controversial “protection for law enforcement language” in the bill and instead inserted it in a different pro-police bill. Thus, the Hate Crime Bill passed 127-38 in the House, while the police bill passed narrowly with the Democrats in opposition. (They also inexplicably voted against a really good anti-human trafficking bill.) The new Hate Crime Bill does NOT create special groups of people. Rather, it says that if a person is already convicted of a crime, then enhanced penalties can be applied by the judge if that crime is found to be motivated by hatred towards, “race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, or physical or mental disability.” It is different from most states’ Hate Crime language in that it does NOT make speech itself a crime. Normally the governor waits many weeks to sign legislation. But signifying the importance of this moment, Gov. Kemp signed the bill on Friday.
A bill of local interest was an ETO measure that requires the public report of any leak of ethylene oxide, regardless of how small it is. This passed nearly unanimously. I’m also pleased that we voted on a 10% pay cut for us legislators. As nearly all of our state government will suffer a 10% cut, I think we should share in their pain. The Democrats voted en masse against this.
On a positive note, the budget looks a lot better than it did just a week ago. Because of Gov. Kemp’s decision to re-open Georgia, and the subsequent good economic numbers for May, the previous plan to cut 14% of the budget was moved down to 11% and then to about 10%. We severely gutted all travel and operations budgets – and many vacant positions will not be filled – but no teachers or state employees should face furloughs. The education rormula lost about $910 million, but was subsidized by the federal government by an additional $457 million and by the state by another $173 million for equalization and growth. Thus, education lost about $280 million, or 4% overall, but still occupies 53% of the total budget. Pre-K, the Lottery (HOPE), and the Honors Program were preserved. I’m also happy to report that collectively, local boards of education are currently sitting on over $3 billion in rainy day funds — more than the state itself. Mental health, law enforcement and public defenders suffered less than most. The budget passed late Friday night by 104–62, mostly on a party line vote.
We passed a maternal mortality bill that would extend Medicare for low income mothers from two to six months, and a separate bill for lactating mothers. We also passed a nursing home measure that requires greater training, staffing, and accountability. We also passed a very important bipartisan measure by Sen. Tonya Anderson that gives people with minor criminal records a second chance by restricting public access to the records of minor misdemeanors. A vaping bill also passed, which regulates the industry and increases the age to buy the vaping products (as well as cigarettes) to 21. Another bill lowered the number of state mandated standardized tests. Another bill protects businesses, especially in health care, from frivolous COVID law suits. My three bills passed as well, two of which were military-friendly telemedicine compact measures, and another for fiscal transparency on public charter schools.
Takeda, the pharmaceutical company located in Stanton Springs between Newton and Morgan counties, is on the forefront of creating medicine that will help COVID patients. It involves collecting plasma from people who have recovered from COVID and harvesting those antibodies to help cure others. If you are willing to donate plasma, please go to www.CoVig-19PlasmaAlliance.org.
Overall, the session ended on a positive note. There were some very difficult days, filled with hard feelings between the House and the Senate, across the aisle, within each other’s parties. But in the end, we came together and passed some good legislation and balanced a very difficult budget.
Georgia’s own Dr. King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” When the Israelites were about to cross the River Jordan – after wandering in the wilderness for 40 long years – Joshua told them, “you have never been this way before. Sanctify yourselves; for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” These, indeed, are troubling times, but if we start to love each other like Jesus taught us, I know our days before us will be even better than the days before.