Ryon Horne/RHORNE@AJC.COM
Photo: Ryon Horne
Photo: Ryon Horne

The Follow Up: Tighter oversight of Georgia senior homes advances

Greater safety sought at assisted living facilities

Legislation moved through the House this past week to improve safety and strengthen the oversight of Georgia’s assisted living facilities and personal care homes.

House Health and Human Services Chairwoman Sharon Cooper, a Republican from Marietta and the sponsor of House Bill 987, said she was unaware of many of the problems involving senior care in the state until an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation uncovered them in a series called “Unprotected.”

The series found lax state oversight and weak fines when facilities abuse and neglect residents, who average well over age 80, are frail and often have memory issues. In all, nearly 700 cases of abuse and neglect were documented across Georgia, and more than 20 deaths were linked to breakdowns in care.

The investigation also revealed how a rush to profit from the growing number of aging seniors led to a building boom in Georgia, creating competitive pressures that caused some facilities to struggle financially and allowed the quality of care to suffer.

The House voted 160-1 for Cooper’s bill, which would significantly increase penalties, moving the maximum daily fine from $1,000 to $2,000 for serious violations. In the case of deaths and serious injuries, facilities would face a mandatory fine of $5,000 if the incidents were linked to poor care.

HB 987 also would require:

  • Nurses to be on staff at assisted living and memory care centers.
  • Special training and licenses for administrators who run assisted living and large personal care homes. Nursing home administrators already face similar requirements.
  • Facilities to disclose financial problems and ownership changes that could affect care. As part of the process in obtaining a state license, homes would also have to demonstrate they are financially viable. Currently, the state’s regulator, the Department of Community Health, does not track financial stability, leaving consumers in the dark.

Senior advocates and representatives of the care industry offered support for Cooper’s bill.

“We applaud the standards that you are bringing for us,” Beth Cayce of the Georgia Senior Living Association told the committee. “We want to raise the bar of accountability across the board for all members.”

Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, said he supported the bill, but he wants to make sure the DCH has the staff to enforce the rules.

“We can pass rules all day long,” Petrea said. “If it’s another rule that doesn’t get surveyed, it’s meaningless.”

HB 987 now moves to the Senate.

Checking tax breaks against their promises

Legislation that does what it’s meant to do. What a concept.

When tax breaks are proposed, promises are made — often about job creation.

State senators voted 54-0 this past week to find out whether those promises are kept. They passed Senate Bill 302, which would force the state to study the impact of at least some of the tax breaks that the lawmakers give out each year. More importantly, Gov. Brian Kemp is apparently on board.

Kemp vetoed similar legislation last year.

This time, the Kemp administration worked with lawmakers on the bill, said Sen. John Albers, the Roswell Republican who sponsored SB 302.

The measure would allow the chairmen of the Legislature’s two tax committees — the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee — to request independent economic impact reviews of a handful of tax breaks each year.

House Ways and Means Chairman Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, has already found a tax break that didn’t measure up. A House subcommittee voted this past week to eliminate a credit given to employers for hiring parolees. It seems that nobody took advantage of the credit.

“Obviously, I was for the original intent, but it ain’t working,” Harrell said. “I just also love taking things off the books.”

Traffic safety bill sent down different road

When Rep. John Carson proposed House Bill 113, he was seeking higher fines for violations of the state’s 2-year-old Hands-Free Georgia Act, hoping they would deter distracted driving.

What came out of the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee was significantly different.

Carson, a Marietta Republican, wanted the maximum fines to increase to $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense and $300 for a third offense. But when HB 113 emerged from committee, the fines for all offenses fell in a range of $25 to $100, judge’s choice.

The Hands-Free Georgia Act has been credited with helping the state’s traffic fatality rate, which had been rising, dip 2.2% in 2018. But many drivers still violate the law, dividing their attention between the road and their smartphones. Carson, who wrote the law, thought a greater penalty was needed.

But he ran into Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, who called the proposed fines “over the top” and “overzealous.” Powell, whose amendment altered the penalties in HB 113, finds higher fines unnecessary. As evidence, he points to the broad compliance of the state’s seat belt law even though the fine is just $15.

Film tax credits could be in for increased oversight

Georgia spends about $800 million a year through its film tax credit program, and a legislator thinks it’s time the state did a better job of watching more than just what’s on the screen.

House Bill 1037 would require mandatory audits of expenditures for film productions to make sure they are eligible for the credits, which pay up to 30% of filmmakers’ expenses in the state.

State auditors found millions of dollars in ineligible expenditures by film companies that the state did not disallow for credits, including payments to workers or contractors for work performed outside Georgia.

“The code hasn’t been updated in 12 years,” said Rep. Matt Dollar, a Republican from Marietta and the sponsor of HB 1037. “The industry has changed a lot.”

That change has included rapid growth in the state fueled by roughly $4 billion in tax credits since the program’s inception. In fiscal 2016, for instance, state auditors found 450 movies, TV shows and other projects were eligible for the credits, which are considered the most lucrative in the nation.

Measure could mean guns in the pews

Some gun owners would be allowed to carry weapons into places or worship under a measure now in the Senate.

State Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, said his legislation, Senate Bill 357, is designed to allow churches and other places of worship, as well as the schools they run, to protect themselves.

Heath said he was motivated by a number of high-profile shootings at places of worship across the country, including an incident in December in Texas when armed security shot and killed a gunman.

“It would be a huge disservice to the members and attendees of Georgia’s places of worship to continue to leave them as sitting ducks for evil people who seek to murder and maim them in the one place where they should be most safe,” he said.

A Senate committee discussed Heath’s bill, which would allow selected licensed gun owners to carry their weapons in a place of worship. The committee, however, did not vote on the legislation.

Current state law allows congregants to carry weapons only if the place of worship’s governing body lets them. Few have decided to “opt in,” gun rights advocates said.

Bill on hold that aims to stop trial delays

The pause button has apparently been pushed — maybe permanently — on a bill that would limit the ability of attorneys serving in the Legislature to postpone criminal cases for their clients.

House Bill 982 is the work of several leading GOP critics of House Speaker David Ralston, who — an Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Actions News investigation found last year — had stalled cases for clients accused of such crimes as child abuse, rape, assault, terroristic threats and drunken driving.

The bill has now been parked in the House Rules Committee, an important stop on the way for any piece of legislation to clear the Legislature but also an easy way to halt the progress of any measure.

Other routes are available: Another version of the bill could be introduced in the Senate for use later in the session as a bargaining chip.

HB 982’s supporters are also trying to get Gov. Brian Kemp involved. The bill’s primary author, Rep. Jeff Jones, recently sent out a press release about the bill through email, and at the bottom was a photo of Kemp and Hailie Massey. When Massey was 14, she was sexually abused by a traveling evangelist who then became one of Ralston’s clients. Ralston, citing his state duties, delayed the case for years.

Legislation would ease absentee ballot voting

Georgians would be able to sign up to vote by mail in every election if legislation in the Senate becomes law.

The state already gives all voters the opportunity to cast an absentee ballot, but Senate Bill 409 would eliminate the need to request a ballot for each primary, general and runoff election.

“This is going to help voters of all different political stripes,” said the bill’s sponsor, Democratic state Sen. Elena Parent of Atlanta. “To be honest, it’s probably going to be most popular among older voters, and they tend to skew Republican.”

Besides Parent, eight other Democrats are listed as co-authors of the bill. But no Senate Republican has signed on as a co-sponsor, meaning the measure faces a difficult climb to passage.

Five states permit permanent absentee voting: Arizona, California, Montana, Nevada and New Jersey. Five other states use all-mail voting.

STAT OF THE WEEK

21,000

What is it? That’s roughly how many people living in Georgia are participating in the federal government's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The program, started in 2012, grants two-year work permits and deportation deferrals to immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. People in the program are often referred to as “Dreamers.”

Why is it relevant? Two bills — House Bill 896 and House Bill 920 — would grant Dreamers in-state tuition to study at University System of Georgia schools. Those students currently pay out-of-state tuition, which is at least three times higher than the in-state cost. A group of six Democrats, led by House Minority Leader Robert Trammell, filed HB 896. Republican Rep. David Clark of Buford filed HB 920. A third piece of legislation, House Bill 997, was introduced by Republican Rep. Kasey Carpenter of Dalton, and its co-authors are Republican Reps. Josh Bonner and Wes Cantrell and Democratic Reps. Spencer Frye and Bee Nguyen.

Immigration attorney Charles Kuck said the bipartisan support is an effort by lawmakers to help businesses hire more college-educated workers. State leaders have cited statistics showing a future gap in qualified employees in the state.

Even though members of both parties are advancing Dreamer bills, Carpenter acknowledges that it will hard for some lawmakers to sell the idea to their constituents. “Some districts can support it. Some can’t,” he said. “There’s no hard feelings if you can’t.”

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“I started reading the book and I saw she really didn’t know what was going on. According to the book, she was completely innocent.” — Rep. Mack Jackson, D-Sandersville, explaining why he is co-sponsoring House Resolution 1008, which urges the State Board of Pardons and Parole to grant a pardon in an 1872 murder case. Susan Eberhart was 19 when she was convicted in the killing of Sarah Spann in Webster County.

The book Jackson referred to is Fay Stapleton Burnett’s “The Hanging of Susan Eberhart,” which was published in 2018. It makes a case that Eberhart, out of fear for her own life, cooperated in the killing with Spann’s husband, Enoch Spann, and that she was convicted based on false testimony from his friends. Rep. Gerald Greene, R-Cuthbert, is the sponsor of HR 1008, and he has shared the book with other members of the Legislature.

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