Capitol Recap: Georgia Legislature votes to expand access to mental health care

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, gives a thumbs up after the House voted unanimously to approve legislation to expand Georgians' access to mental health care.. Maya T. Prabhu/maya.prabhu@ajc.com

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House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, gives a thumbs up after the House voted unanimously to approve legislation to expand Georgians' access to mental health care.. Maya T. Prabhu/maya.prabhu@ajc.com

Passage was the House speaker’s top priority for legislative session

Insurance companies would have to start treating mental health care the same way they do physical health care under legislation that won final approval this past week in the General Assembly.

It was a big win for House Speaker David Ralston, who made it his primary goal this legislative session to improve Georgians’ access to mental health care services.

House Bill 1013 sat in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee for about two weeks, with hearings full of emotional testimony, before the two chambers reached a compromise.

Conservative groups and voters rolled out a number of claims about the measure. They included accusations that it would protect pedophiles from prosecution, require private insurance companies to cover treatments that go against the religious beliefs of the businesses’ owners and make it easier for the government to take away somebody’s guns.

Bill sponsors denied the legislation did any of those things, but they still made changes.

Georgia ranks low nationally on most measurements of mental health treatment, and a high percentage of its residents face challenges, according to a 2021 report by Mental Health America, a nonprofit advocacy group. It ranked Georgia last for the number of mental health professionals per capita. The state has only eight psychiatrists for every 100,000 children, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which recommends a ratio of 47 per 100,000.

Those numbers won’t change quickly, senators said, but Georgia would move in the right direction under the bill.

“I’ll acknowledge that House Bill 1013 doesn’t solve our mental health crisis,” said state Sen. Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican who sponsored the bill in the Senate. “Many parts of this bill have long-term investments that require much more work in the years to come.”

The measure — which, among other things, would also forgive student loans for mental health providers who work in underserved areas — can be traced back to more than 50 recommendations made by the Georgia Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission.

A key point of the bill was parity, meaning equal treatment by insurance companies for mental and physical health care, complying with a 2008 federal law. Data has not been collected in Georgia to determine whether the state has achieved parity, but anecdotal evidence suggests it has not.

Ralston, as speaker, rarely puts his name on a bill, but he did it on HB 1013.

“Today, countless Georgians will know that we have heard their despair and frustration,” Ralston said after the final vote on the bill. “We have set Georgia on a path of lifting up and reforming a failed mental health care system.”

The bill now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto.

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Changes a Senate panel made to a tax-cut plan could have a big impact on the state's film tax credit, which has made Georgia a huge draw to the movie and television industries.

Changes a Senate panel made to a tax-cut plan could have a big impact on the state's film tax credit, which has made Georgia a huge draw to the movie and television industries.

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Changes a Senate panel made to a tax-cut plan could have a big impact on the state's film tax credit, which has made Georgia a huge draw to the movie and television industries.

Georgia’s film industry faced dramatic change in rewrite of tax cut plan

The state House’s $1 billion tax cut went through a rewrite once the Georgia Senate’s finance people got their hands on it.

The House proposal would do away with an income tax rate that tops out at 5.75%, turning it into a flat tax of 5.25%.

Some of the numbers in the Senate version would seem better, gradually reducing that 5.75% rate to 4.99%, making it potentially an easier pitch to taxpayers.

But for the state’s film industry, it included no Hollywood ending.

The Senate Finance Committee’s adaptation of House Bill 1437 would have capped the amount of money the state spends on its film tax credit at $900 million a year. For the fiscal year that ended June 30, the credits totaled $1.2 billion.

But it’s another part of the proposal, putting an end to the transfer of the tax credits, that could have been a deal-breaker.

About 80% of the credits are sold by film companies that pay little in Georgia taxes. Snatching them up are people or companies that owe state taxes, according to state auditors.

So, for instance, if a film company spends $3,333,333.33 in Georgia and meets all the necessary state criteria, it can earn a 30% tax credit worth $1 million.

But since many companies aren’t based in Georgia, they owe little or no money in state taxes. It’s advantageous for them to sell the credit to a person or company that owes state taxes, most likely at a slight discount. The buyer may pay $800,000 for a $1 million credit. The film company gets $800,000 to make “Dude, Where’s My Car Now?” while the buyer saves $200,000.

Ray Brown, president of the local International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees and Motion Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts, said the changes “would crush the industry in Georgia as we know it.”

The state’s film tax credit is currently the most lucrative in the nation. Over the past 14 years it has turned Georgia into a huge draw for the industry. At any time, more than 50 film and television productions are underway in the state.

More than 20 studios operate in Georgia, supporting 75,000 jobs, backers say.

“I would feel very cautious about whacking this tax credit,” said state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta.

But Danny Kanso, senior tax policy analyst for the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, praised the Senate panel’s work on the tax credit.

“Why should Georgia be on the hook for up to 30% of the expenses for film & TV productions?” he wrote on Twitter. “Permanently subsidizing a huge portion of costs for an entire industry is not justifiable. This is made worse by the current lack of caps, disclosures, or basic safeguards.”

Kanso may have liked it, but it didn’t test well with its audience in the Senate Rules Committee, the chamber’s version of a cutting-room floor. Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis said his committee, which determines what legislation gets a floor vote, removed the film tax provisions before advancing the rest of the measure.

The House and Senate have until the session ends Monday night to make a deal, or the tax cut will vanish.

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One of the few things a state Senate panel allowed to remain in what had been a major voting bill is a provision that would require businesses to give workers time off to vote either on election day or during early voting. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

One of the few things a state Senate panel allowed to remain in what had been a major voting bill is a provision that would require businesses to give workers time off to vote either on election day or during early voting. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Combined ShapeCaption
One of the few things a state Senate panel allowed to remain in what had been a major voting bill is a provision that would require businesses to give workers time off to vote either on election day or during early voting. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Senate panel does heavy surgery on election bill

It isn’t always easy to quantify the differences between the Georgia House and Senate on particular pieces of legislation.

But we know that for this year’s big election bill, it’s 37 pages.

A Georgia Senate committee voted unanimously this past week to take the 39 pages of the House version of House Bill 1464 and chop it down to two sheets of paper.

Gone is a proposal that House Speaker David Ralston backed to empower the GBI to launch its own election investigations independent from the secretary of state’s office.

So is a section that would have made original ballots public records available for inspection.

As is another part that would have required any outside election funding to be distributed by the State Election Board in a “fair and equitable” manner across Georgia.

Also gone are additional chain-of-custody procedures involving seals and transfer forms that local-level election officials called counterproductive.

“There are two kinds of security in elections: There’s real security that we need, and then there’s security theater,” Bartow County Election Supervisor Joseph Kirk said. “All it really does is make folks feel better without accomplishing any good toward securing our elections.”

What’s left on those two pages?

Businesses would have to give workers up to two hours off to vote either on election day or during three weeks of early voting. Currently, workers are only entitled to time off to vote on election day.

The fate of the bill is uncertain.

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The Georgia House passed two bills in March that would both allow Georgians to carry handguns without a permit.

The Georgia House passed two bills in March that would both allow Georgians to carry handguns without a permit.

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The Georgia House passed two bills in March that would both allow Georgians to carry handguns without a permit.

House passes another bill allowing permit-less carry of handguns

State lawmakers increased their options this past week for passing legislation that would allow Georgians to carry a concealed handgun without first getting a permit from the state?

The Georgia House this past week passed Senate Bill 319, with the GOP majority supporting it and Democrats opposing it.

A similar measure, House Bill 1358, cleared the House several weeks ago.

SB 319 would allow a “lawful weapons carrier” to carry a concealed handgun everywhere license holders currently are allowed — meaning guns would still be prohibited in places such as the secured areas of airports or government buildings that have security at the entrance, including the state Capitol.

Causes for preventing the purchase or possession of handguns would be:

  • Prior drug convictions.
  • Felony charges or convictions.
  • Treatment for mental health issues or substance abuse within the past five years.
  • Involuntary commitment to a mental health hospital.

Currently, Georgians seeking to carry a concealed handgun have to apply for a license with their local probate court or sheriff’s office (depending on the county), get fingerprinted, submit to a background check and pay a fee up to $75. Background checks still would be required when purchasing a handgun from a store or a dealer under HB 1358.

The state permitting process would remain in place to allow Georgians to take advantage of agreements with other states allowing gun owners to carry concealed handguns in states that offer the same permissions.

Opponents said removing the handgun licensing process would make it easier for those who don’t have a legal right to possess and carry handguns to do so — leading to an increase in gun violence.

Gun rights advocates have pushed for years to eliminate the gun licensing process. Their efforts got a boost this year when Gov. Brian Kemp — who is up for reelection — said he supported passing legislation allowing permit-less carry of handguns.

Support within the general public could be a different matter. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in January showed nearly 70% of respondents did not believe adults in Georgia should be allowed to carry concealed handgun in public without first getting a license.

Because SB 319 was amended in the House, it had to go back to the Senate for its consideration.

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Gov. Brian Kemp, shown in January, signed legislation this past week that allows parents to opt out their children from mask mandates from schools. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Gov. Brian Kemp, shown in January, signed legislation this past week that allows parents to opt out their children from mask mandates from schools. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Gov. Brian Kemp, shown in January, signed legislation this past week that allows parents to opt out their children from mask mandates from schools. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Kemp signs bill establishing mask opt-out

Georgia parents who don’t want their children wearing masks as a precaution against the coronavirus can now opt them out of any school district mandate.

“This will ensure that parents have the final say when it comes to the health and well-being of their child,” Gov. Brian Kemp said before signing into law Senate Bill 514. “It is a commonsense measure that puts parents in charge — not the government.”

The law takes effect immediately and will run through June 2027, although the Georgia Department of Public Health has said a governor could suspend it in a state of emergency.

Only one major school district in metro Atlanta, Clayton County, was still requiring masks at the time of the bill signing. Superintendent Morcease Beasley said the district will abide by the new law.

State Republican lawmakers have said COVID-19 is relatively harmless for children and masks are not effective enough to merit their use in schools. A recent study cited by the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, found lower infection rates in schools that mandated masks for everyone than in those without universal mask requirements.

Democrats and other critics say the legislation eliminates local control over the pandemic response, and that shifting classes to online is the only remaining defense for schools.

As infection rates have fallen, the CDC has relaxed its guidance on masks, saying the face coverings are no longer necessary in most indoor settings, including schools and on school buses. Public health experts, however, warn that infections could increase again due to a subvariant of omicron called BA.2 that has been spreading in Georgia and the rest of the country.

General Assembly takes a stand for ‘courage’

Will a brain and a heart come next?

“Courage” — it’s “what makes a muskrat guard his musk,” as “The Wizard of Oz” tells us — would be added to the state’s pledge of allegiance under Senate Bill 152, which won final approval this past week in the state House.

It would join “wisdom,” “justice” and “moderation” in the pledge to reflect all four of the cardinal virtues of government that the Greek philosopher Plato identified in “The Republic.”

“Our pledge was missing ‘courage,’ " said state Rep. Joseph Gullett, a Republican from Acworth. “I can tell you that courage is not lacking in our state. There is no better time than now to acknowledge that courage.”

The pledge is fairly obscure. While the state Senate recites it before the chamber begins its daily business, it isn’t used often in schools, state agencies or even in the state House.

The bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature or veto.

Candidates, endorsements, etc.:

— Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams endorsed reelection bids by U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop and state Sen. Nan Orrock.

— Rich McCormick, who is running in the 6th Congressional District’s GOP primary, picked up support from U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls of Texas.

— The Republican Jewish Coalition PAC is backing Jennifer Strahan in the party’s 14th Congressional District primary against U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Elsewhere online

Other stories about Georgia government and politics can be found at www.ajc.com/politics/.