The 2020 session of the Georgia General Assembly — before leadership hit the big pause button because of the coronavirus — had been a constant fight over finances. And, before operations were put on hold, the House got in its punches.
Taking a big hit were the state’s public school teachers, who stood to receive a $2,000 raise under Gov. Brian Kemp’s spending plan. The House cut that in half.
Of course, nothing is settled. The Senate still has to approve a spending plan before a final deal is reached on the budget for fiscal 2021, which begins July 1.
But Kemp probably felt a few bruises after the House passed its plan. The raise was supposed to fulfill his 2018 campaign pledge to up teachers’ pay by $5,000 — they received the $3,000 down payment last year. Now, he’s still $1,000 short.
The lawmakers also rejected a number of cuts Kemp proposed in his $28 billion spending plan.
That’s not to say the House wasn’t beneficent in its own way.
Among other things, it added 2% pay raises for state employees, kicking in an additional 2% to 5% for some positions the state has had difficulty keeping filled because of low wages, such as food safety inspectors, prison and juvenile facility guards, school bus drivers and mental health workers. House budget writers cited turnover rates as high as 97% for some of those jobs.
The House plan also would restore some of the 1,200 positions Kemp had marked for elimination. That includes food safety inspectors and marketing staff in the state Department of Agriculture, child welfare and program eligibility workers, agricultural extension employees, GBI lab scientists and technicians, juvenile justice security staff, and workers who help make sure veterans receive the benefits they earned.
The lawmakers also voted to fund grants to county health departments that Kemp wanted to cut, and they rejected reductions to several programs focused public health, mental health and rural Georgia.
The House plan also found money to ensure that GBI crime labs don’t fall behind in testing of rape kits and DNA.
“Many of the changes (in the House budget) have been to restore cuts to programs the House and Senate have worked hard on over the last several years to build up with a goal that all Georgians share access to quality health care,” said Rep. Butch Parrish, a Republican from Swainsboro and the House health care budget chairman.
Tit and tat, Georgia government-style
The jabbing between the House and the governor didn’t stop with the fiscal 2021 budget.
The House made a play for a bigger role in shaping the annual spending plan, passing House Bill 1112. The measure would limit a governor’s use of one of his most powerful tools, setting the revenue estimate that determines how much the General Assembly can spend each year.
Under the bill, state agencies would send their budget proposals to the House and Senate each September — they now go to the governor first. A board of economic advisers would also be created to give the Legislature input in setting the annual revenue estimate.
The House also voted to limit the governor’s ability to withhold spending approved by the General Assembly, as Kemp did in October. As a result, in the event of a fiscal shortfall, all agencies would be reduced by the same percentage, meaning a governor could not protect some areas from cuts the way Kemp shielded education and transportation programs.
The bill passed by a margin large enough to override a veto, so Kemp had to find another way to counterpunch.
Two of his floor leaders — Sen. Brian Strickland of McDonough and Rep. Dominic LaRiccia of Douglas — proposed identical amendments to the Open Records Act that would end the exemption legislators gave themselves to avoid complying with sunshine laws the same way all other state agencies do.
The timing makes it difficult, but not impossible, for an amendment to win passage. Leaders in the House and Senate declined to suspend the rules to let the proposals go through Crossover Day. That, however, would not block a little surgery later on in the session, attaching an amendment to another bill.
Republicans push an income tax cut through House
Some Republicans entered the 2020 legislative session aiming to follow through on a plan set two years ago to cut the state’s top income tax rate to 5.5%.
Critics raised several points about the plan, saying that 90% of the savings would go to Georgians with six-figure incomes, including 42% to those earning more than $572,000 a year. It also would mean some middle-income families would pay higher state taxes, they said.
HB 949 would eliminate the state’s graduated system of taxation. Some lower-income earners, who may pay 1% or 2%, would now pay the same 5.375% that the state’s top earners do. The plan, however, does include a credit for some low- and middle-income families to help mitigate that, and those who adopt children could see a tripling of the tax break.
The vote came two years after the Legislature cut the state’s top income tax rate from 6% to 5.75%. At that time, the lawmakers also set 2020 to consider another vote to chop an additional 0.25% off the rate.
At the beginning of this session, however, some key lawmakers — including Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler — didn’t think there was room in the budget for another cut amid slowing tax collections some blamed on the rate reduction in 2018.
Georgia voters also showed little appetite for a second cut in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January. About 50% of voters said they favored the current rate, against roughly 38% who wanted to see it cut again. An additional 9% said taxes should be increased. The remainder either said they did not know or refused to respond.
But now, the House has acted, and Hufstetler and his Senate colleagues will take another look at it.
It’s now up to voters to choose how tire fees can be used
Georgia voters will get to decide whether governors and lawmakers can plug holes in the state budget by taking money from funds meant for environmental cleanup.
The Senate voted unanimously this past week for House Resolution 164, placing a proposed “anti-bait-and-switch” constitutional amendment on the ballot in November.
Almost 30 years ago, lawmakers created the Hazardous Waste and Solid Waste funds to clean up tire dumps, landfills and hazardous waste sites. To fund those programs, Georgians pay a $1 disposal fee on each replacement tire they buy, and counties pay a solid waste disposal fee of 75 cents per ton.
Under state law, the General Assembly can’t formally dedicate fee money to specific causes without voters approving a constitutional amendment to do so. So when recessions hit in the early 2000s, governors and lawmakers began diverting the money away from environmental cleanup projects, using it to fund other government services. Money has been taken from other funds as well, including those meant to pay for driver education and law enforcement training.
HR 164 doesn’t tie the hands of the governor and General Assembly entirely. They would still be able to divert the money if a fiscal emergency is declared during a severe recession.
House backs extended Medicaid coverage for new moms
New mothers with low incomes would see their Medicaid coverage extended under a bill the House approved this past week to combat the state’s high maternal mortality rate.
Currently, pregnant Georgia women who earn less than double the federal poverty level — about $34,000 for a family of two and $52,000 for four — qualify for two months of Medicaid coverage following the birth of their child. House Bill 1114, now headed to the Senate, would extend that to six months.
Georgia has long been among the worst states for maternal mortality, and the U.S. rate is one of the highest in the developed world. African American women, women over 35 and rural residents are at highest risk for death following childbirth, according to a state study. Potentially fatal issues that arrive after a baby is born include postpartum depression, high blood pressure and cardiac conditions.
The bill would also provide coverage for lactation specialists to assist women struggling with breastfeeding.
Ban moves forward on sex with a foster child
The House approved legislation this past week that would make it illegal for foster parents to have sexual contact with children under their care.
House Bill 911 is part of a package of bills Gov. Brian Kemp is backing with a goal to overhaul the state’s foster care system.
The bill, now headed to the Senate, would make it illegal for a foster parent to engage in a sexual activity with his or her foster child. HB 911’s sponsor, Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, said that would close a loophole that exists once a child in foster care turns 16 — Georgia’s legal age of consent.
The legislation would impose penalties depending on the extent of the offense, up to 25 years in prison and up to $100,000 in fines when the child is older than 16.
Paid parental leave wins House passage
Nearly 250,000 Georgia state employees could receive three weeks of paid parental leave under a bill the House passed this past week.
House Bill 1094 would allow new parents, regardless of gender, to take time off following the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child. Currently, state employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, which employers must offer under federal law. The bill would have no impact on private companies.
House Speaker David Ralston supported the bill, noting the Legislature itself began offering the same amount of paid parental leave to its employees in January.
HB 1094’s sponsor, Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, said the measure was in part to help keep talented workers in government jobs.
The bill now goes to the Senate.
STAT OF THE WEEK
What is it? An app that provides alcohol delivery in 30 states had to turn down more than that many requests in Georgia last year because of state law, said House Ways and Means Chairman Brett Harrell, R-Snellville.
Why is it relevant? The House approved a measure proposed by Harrell, House Bill 879, that would allow grocery stores and convenience stores to deliver beer and wine directly to customers. Third-party apps such as Drizly and Minibar, which take customers’ orders and obtain beverages from local stores, would also be allowed to make deliveries. Liquor stores are not covered by the bill, so you would still have to drive down to your bottle shop of choice to pick up a fifth of bourbon.
The alcohol would not just be dropped off at your doorstep. HB 879 requires that someone age 21 or over is home to accept the delivery and provide proof of age.
The bill now goes to the Senate.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Don’t you think it’s important for us to have the truth when we’re trying to put good laws together so we have the right information?” — Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, speaking about his chamber’s passage of Senate Resolution 459. The measure takes aim at anyone found intentionally lying or misleading lawmakers while testifying before committees. They would be cited for contempt and banned for the remainder of a two-year legislative session. An earlier recommendation seeking a lifetime ban was removed from the resolution.
SR 459 would not apply to lawmakers. Their speech is constitutionally protected, Mullis said.
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