Session Update: Week Eleven

On Monday, June 22, 2020, the Georgia General Assembly reconvened at the State Capitol for the final week of the 2020 legislative session. My colleague and I were in session every day last week and voted on more than 100 bills and resolutions. The last day of this extraordinary session was Legislative Day 40, or “Sine Die,” which is a Latin term meaning “without assigning a day for further meeting.” We worked long hours most days last week and passed many vital bills that will now go to Governor Brian Kemp for consideration.

We fulfilled our only constitutional obligation last week when we passed House Bill 793, which sets our state’s budget for Fiscal Year 2021 (FY 2021) starting on July 1, 2020. Earlier in the week, Governor Kemp reduced his FY 2021 revenue estimate from more than $28.1 billion to approximately $25.9 billion, a reduction by $2.19 billion, or 7.8 percent. Despite the reduction that were required to balance the FY 2021 budget, the General Assembly maintained its priorities by restoring cuts and mitigating reductions to the greatest extent possible to several essential areas, including services for Georgia’s most vulnerable citizens, such as those with disabilities and mental health disorders; health care access; the criminal justice system; and public education. 

Our largest single expenditure in the budget is Georgia’s K-12 education system, which totals $9.6 billion, or 44.1 percent, of the state general funds portion of the budget. The Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula and corresponding grants are reduced by $950.2 million to reflect a temporary decline in state revenues. However, the FY 2021 budget reflects federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, including $457 million through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and $144.5 million through the Child Care and Development Block Grant. The FY 2021 budget also provides the Department of Education (DOE) with $141.7 million for enrollment growth and training and experience, accounting for 1,438 new teachers and corresponding health insurance costs, and it also maintains full funding for Georgia Pre-K.

The FY 2021 budget also recognizes other vital educational needs. The Georgia Student Finance Commission would receive $54 million in additional funds in the FY 2021 budget to provide a projected 439,041 total awards across all HOPE scholarship and grant programs. HB 793 also provides $1 million in new funds to expand the REACH Scholarship Program to include 13 new school systems in the coming year. Our budget accounts for $157 million in CARES Act funding for the University System of Georgia and more than $37 million in such funds for the Technical College System of Georgia; approximately $36 million of those funds were awarded to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions across the state. HB 793 also accounts for nearly $12 million in additional federal funds for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act; those funds are currently available to the state’s Workforce Opportunities Zones to assist workers affected by the economic impact of COVID-19. We also restored $3.2 million to fully fund the Georgia Public Library System’s materials grants, which are especially vital for rural and smaller systems, to provide resources that are utilized more than 36 million times annually by Georgians.

One area of the FY 2021 budget that my colleagues and I have worked hard to preserve during this difficult time is funding for health care in Georgia. HB 793 provides $268.7 million for growth in the Medicaid programs to meet the projected need and $165.4 million in savings due to a temporary 6.2 percent increase in the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP) rate through the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act. We also restored $13.9 million in reductions to the public health grants to counties and eliminated 12 furlough days proposed for the Department of Public Health (DPH) to minimize the impact on the county public health departments which are on the front lines fighting the spread of COVID-19. The FY 2021 budget also accounts for $261.7 million dollars in federal funds for COVID-19 testing from the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act. To further support health care in rural Georgia, we also restored the $463,000 cut to the Rural Health Systems Innovation Center at Mercer University School of Medicine. HB 793 also adds $12 million to the existing $3 million for the Rural Hospital Stabilization program to further support its work to identify solutions for the state’s rural hospitals. The final budget bill also restores $1.5 million in proposed cuts for maternal mortality prevention grants to Georgia hospitals. 

Another area of the state budget we worked to protect is funding for agencies that provide services to some of Georgia’s most vulnerable citizens. The FY 2021 budget restores $53.5 million to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Department of Veterans Services. This funding restores over 200 positions and prevents the furlough of nearly 9,500 state employees. We restored $46 million in the state’s Out of Home Care program and $1.4 million to DHS to prevent the closure of 54 Department of Families and Children Services (DFCS) offices statewide, which would have been 33 percent of the division’s offices. This budget bill also restores $6 million for behavioral core services, $2.5 million for 95 new crisis beds to serve nearly 5,000 people across the state and $3.6 million for addiction and recovery services. Furthermore, $5.6 million in new funds were added for 100 new NOW/COMP waivers for the intellectually and developmentally disabled.

The General Assembly also passed one of the most important bipartisan bills of the legislative session, historic hate crimes legislation. House Bill 426 was first passed by the House during the 2019 legislative session, and due to recent events around our state and country, it was more vital than ever that we pass this legislation. Under the final version of House Bill 426, anyone convicted of a crime that has been determined to have been committed because of the individual’s belief or perception regarding race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability will be subject to increased penalties for these crimes. The sentencing for a designated misdemeanor hate crime, such as simple assault, simple battery, battery, criminal trespass and misdemeanor theft, will range from six to twelve months of jail time and a fine up to $5,000. Offenders of a felony hate crime will face a minimum of two years in prison along with a fine up to $5,000. Governor Kemp signed HB 426 on the final day of the legislative session on Friday, June 26. This momentous bill addresses a gap in Georgia law to provide vital protections for all Georgians, and this bill sends a strong message that there is no room for hate in Georgia. 

The House passed Senate Bill 313 to increase transparency and address excessive prescription drug pricing by pharmacy benefits managers (PBM), which are companies that manage prescription drug benefits on behalf of health insurers. SB 313 mirrors House Bill 946, which received final passage this week and will go to the governor for consideration. Under the amended version of these bills, physicians employed or contracted by a PBM could only provide advisement within a specialty they have worked in for the past five years. Additionally, when the Department of Community Health (DCH) enters into PBM contracts, the department would be encouraged to require the use of a licensed Georgia physician for prior authorization, step therapy appeals or determination reviews for contracts and amendments entered into with a PBM. DCH would also have authority over PBM audits that affect those enrolled in Medicaid and state benefit plans. In this version of the legislation, PBM pricing methodologies submitted to the Department of Insurance (DOI) would remain confidential. These bills would also require PBMs to pass on 100 percent of all rebates that it receives from pharmaceutical manufacturers to patient’s health insurance plan. If signed into law, our state would have one of the toughest laws in the nation that addresses PBMs and ensures that prescription drug costs remain fair and transparent for all Georgians.

Before the end of Legislative Day 38, the House passed House Bill 1114, which would extend the duration of postpartum Medicaid coverage for new mothers from two months to six months. Included in this legislation is a provision for lactation care and services for expectant and new mothers, as well as children who are nursing. Furthermore, the FY 2021 budget added $19.7 million for this postpartum Medicaid coverage and $125,000 to provide lactation care and services for new mothers. My colleagues in the House Study Committee on Maternal Mortality spent the previous year studying Georgia’s maternal mortality rates and recommended this legislative measure, and we will continue our work to develop strategies to combat this terrible crisis.

My colleagues and I passed Senate Bill 321 to increase the number of important medical workers in hospitals across the state, especially in areas like rural Georgia, which has experienced doctor shortages in recent years. SB 321 would raise the number of physician’s assistants who work under a doctor to four, as well as the same number of advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who work underneath a doctor to four. This bill would also improve the scope of practice for APRNs by authorizing APRNs to order radiographic imaging tests in non-life threatening situations if directed to do so by a physician; this would be vital to ensuring that patients in areas with less doctors can receive their care in a timely manner. SB 321 is one more way the legislature is working to improve access to quality health care across the state.

We also passed Senate Bill 367 to reduce the number of state assessments given to Georgia students. SB 367 would eliminate the fifth grade end-of-grade social studies assessment and reduce the number of end-of-course assessments in high school from eight to four. To maximize instruction time in the classroom, this bill would require school systems to administer the state required end-of-grade test for grades three through eight within 25 school days of the last day of school. This bill would also authorize DOE to conduct an analysis of locally implemented assessments and provide guidance to eliminate redundant tests to improve student achievement. Not only would this bill allow the state to redirect critical state funding for other educational needs, but it would allow teachers to perform their jobs more effectively without having to focus their time on early testing deadlines or an excess of state assessments every year.

Here are a few bills we gave final passage to I would like to highlight:

  • Senate Bill 294: Allow the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia to invest in alternative investments
  • Senate Bill 336: Add the Meritorious Service Medal to the list of military medals that are available for special license plates and would create a special and distinctive license plate for past or present members of United States Army Ranger units or graduates of the United States Army Ranger School
  • Senate Bill 340: Establish September 1 as the annual Childhood Cancer Awareness Day in Georgia
  • Senate Bill 359: The “Georgia COVID-19 Pandemic Business Safety Act,” creates certain immunities from liability claims regarding COVID-19 for health care facilities, health care providers, entities or individuals
  • Senate Bill 375: Raise the age for purchasing and possessing tobacco and nicotine vapor products to 21 years old; this bill would also raise excise taxes for vaping products to match tobacco products and would establish further regulations for this industry
  • Senate Bill 416: Reduce the salary for the lieutenant governor by 14 percent and the members of the Georgia General Assembly by 10 percent for Fiscal Year 2021
  • Senate Bill 435: The “First Survivors Act,” protects proven victims of human trafficking from sentencing and punishment for crimes committed while being trafficked
  • House Bill 86: Allow teachers to appeal a summative personnel evaluation to an independent third party or an administrator in the system office, and local administration would develop a complaint review policy for teachers to appeal an evaluation by July 1, 2021, and submit the policy to the Department of Education
  • House Bill 823: Provide that a person who knowingly uses a commercial motor vehicle in the commission of sexual or labor trafficking crimes would be disqualified as a commercial motor vehicle driver for life
  • House Bill 991: Create the Health Care Transparency and Accountability Oversight Committee to have the authority to review the performance and conduct of all state health care plan contractors and their subcontractors
  • House Bill 1090: Require employers to provide break time to employees who need to express breast milk.
  • Senate Bill 68: Increase training requirements for local boards of education by adding financial management training, and it would require all previous annual training requirements to be completed before becoming eligible for re-election

Now that the 2020 legislative session has come to an end, Governor Kemp will begin reviewing the legislation that passed in both the House and Senate, where he can veto or sign bills into law, which you can keep up with at https://gov.georgia.gov/executive-action/legislation. Even though the legislature has adjourned, I remain dedicated to serving the families and businesses in House District 109. I hope that you will contact me with any questions or concerns you may have regarding the legislation that may become law in the next few weeks or with any legislative recommendations to better our state. Please feel free to contact me by phone at 404.656.0254, or by email at dale.rutledge@house.ga.gov. 

I look forward to hearing from you!

Below, I’ve listed out leaders from both chambers. You can click through each of their names to find more information about them.

House:

Speaker of the House: David Ralston

Speaker Pro Tempore: Jan Jones

Majority Leader: Jon Burns

Majority Whip: Trey Kelley

Majority Caucus Chair: Matt Hatchett

Majority Caucus Vice-Chair: Micah Gravley

Minority Leader: Robert Trammell

Minority Whip: William Boddie

Minority Caucus Chair: James Beverly

Minority Caucus Vice-Chair: Erica Thomas

Senate:

President Pro Tempore: Butch Miller

Majority Leader: Mike Dugan

Majority Whip: Steve Gooch

Majority Caucus Chair: John Kennedy

Majority Caucus Vice-Chair: Larry Walker

Minority Leader: Steve Henson

Minority Whip: Harold Jones

Minority Caucus Chair: Gloria Butler

Minority Caucus Vice-Chair: Emanuel Jones