Bill tightening rules on senior-care facilities advances in Georgia House

ATLANTA – Legislation bolstering regulations for assisted senior-living facilities, personal care homes and memory centers in Georgia cleared a state House committee Tuesday.

House Bill 987 aims to tighten rules on assisted-living and long-term care facilities for seniors following reports of elder neglect, poor care and financial troubles in some facilities in the state.

“We have a lot of good assisted living facilities in our state. But as always, it seems that the bad guys come along and they put a spoiler for the good people,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta.

The bill passed unanimously out of the House Health and Human Services Committee, which Cooper chairs, amid concerns over new rules for training and the costs of extra staffing.

Specifically, Cooper’s bill would require at least one direct-care staff member for every 15 senior residents during waking hours, and one for every 20 residents at night.

It would also require a licensed or registered professional nurse to be on-site at assisted living facilities for a certain amount of time each week and require all staff to undergo training in elderly and disabled-adult care.

The bill also includes a slate of rules to tighten staffing standards and training for memory care centers, which provide services for people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive conditions.

Some lawmakers on the House committee questioned Tuesday why these types of rules were not already in state law and whether the Department of Community Health, which oversees senior-care facilities, needs more funding to better enforce safety and health standards.

“This seems like it should have been happening a long time ago,” said Rep. Shelly Hutchinson, D-Snellville.

Cooper traced issues with the facilities in part to the state’s shortage of licensed nurses and the unpredictable impact on facilities as Georgia’s senior population continues growing.

She also said Gov. Brian Kemp has committed to adding certification courses for assistant nurse practitioners to the state-funded HOPE grant program, which covers tuition costs.

“This is a big plus,” Cooper said about the grant addition.

Still, some lawmakers wondered if the new staffing requirements would create financial issues for care facilities.

Rep. John LaHood, R-Valdosta, who owns and operates several senior-living facilities and is a co-sponsor of the bill, said residents would likely have to foot a bit more of the bill if expenses go up.

“This will absolutely have to be passed on to the consumer,” LaHood said. “We were mindful of that and tried to tread lightly.”

Beyond staffing changes, Cooper’s bill would require a 60-day advance written notice of impending bankruptcy proceedings or property evictions, and a 14-day notice prior to ownership changes that could disrupt living arrangements.

Also, facility administrators would need to be newly licensed by a state board under the bill. Fines against facilities would be set at a minimum of $5,000 if a resident dies or is seriously injured.

Georgia voters may get to weigh in on standard or daylight time

ATLANTA – Georgians are divided over whether the Peach State should observe standard time all year or daylight saving time.

But they agree Georgia should stop the “spring forward” and “fall back” switching between the two that takes place twice a year.

Georgia Rep. Jimmy Pruett, chairman of the State Planning & Community Affairs Committee in the state House of Representatives, said Tuesday that’s what he hears from his constituents.

Margaret Ciccarelli, director of Legislative Affairs for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said most of the 85 e-mails she has received from teachers on the issue expressed similar sentiments.

“Almost all agree the toggling back and forth is bad for students and disruptive for families,” Ciccarelli told Pruett’s committee.

The panel held a hearing Tuesday on legislation calling for a nonbinding statewide advisory referendum asking Georgians whether the state should stick with the current system of switching between standard and daylight time twice a year, observe standard time all year or go to daylight time all year.

The same divided opinions exist among the states. Arizona and Hawaii have switched to standard time permanently, while states including California, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Maine have opted to observe daylight time all year, said Scott Yates, a citizen activist from Denver who founded an organization called LockTheClock.

Even though most states that have taken up the issue have opted for daylight time, Yates said the short-term sleep deprivation that occurs when Georgia and other states switch from standard to daylight time in the spring is unhealthy.

“The Circadian rhythm advocates for permanent standard time,” he said.

Gianluca Tosini, a neuroscience professor at Morehouse School of Medicine, cited studies showing an increase in heart attacks, strokes and auto accidents during the week after the yearly switch from standard to daylight time.

The committee did not vote on the bill Tuesday. Pruett suggested it might be a better idea for the General Assembly to decide the issue rather than hold an advisory referendum, based on research into the potential impacts of the options.

Similar legislation is pending in the Georgia Senate sponsored by Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah.

Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, the sponsor of the House bill calling for a nonbinding referendum, also is pushing legislation urging the federal government to allow states to observe daylight saving time all year.

Lawmaker wants Georgia’s medical marijuana financing to get creative

ATLANTA – A Lithonia lawmaker wants to explore financing options to help minority businesses have a fair shot at participating in the Georgia’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry.

Rep. Dar’Shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, is sponsoring a resolution that would create a study committee of state lawmakers that would meet later this year to look at financing low-interest loans for medical cannabis dispensaries owned by minorities, women and military veterans.

If created, the study committee would also consider “emerging technologies” including blockchain systems – like electronic bitcoins – that aim to “reduce or eliminate the handling of cash” in transactions involving medical cannabis.

The House Special Rules Committee did not vote on the resolution at its hearing Tuesday.

Low amounts of oil containing the active chemical in marijuana, called tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, have been legal since 2015 in Georgia for use in patients diagnosed with certain conditions like terminal cancer, severe Alzheimer’s disease, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.

But qualifying Georgians had no legal way to acquire THC oil until last year, when state lawmakers created a commission to oversee research institutes now allowed to produce cannabis and licenses for businesses to supply it to state-registered patients.

Last year’s House Bill 324, which created the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission, also requires 20% of all licenses for cannabis-based businesses to go to minority, women and veteran-owned companies.

Kendrick told members of the committee on Tuesday that her resolution calls for finding “viable options” to meet that 20% threshold and make sure “those three groups are able to participate in the market” for medical marijuana.

Some lawmakers on the committee questioned what financing options could be available besides funding from the state, which would eat into an already tight budget as spending cuts are taking effect.

Kendrick pointed to Illinois’s recently enacted cannabis law that established a social equity program for disadvantaged business entities to qualify for low-interest loans.

She noted the study committee would explore options beyond traditional bank lending since the federal government still outlaws marijuana.

“If there are no viable ways, then obviously they would not come up with anything,” Kendrick said.

The study committee would have until December 2020 to produce recommendations if state lawmakers approve Kendrick’s resolution.

Georgia teacher pensions to allow ‘alternative investments’ with Senate bill

ATLANTA – The Georgia Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would allow the state teacher retirement fund to invest in “alternative investments” that critics view as potentially too risky.

The Teachers Retirement System is among the most major retirement plans that the state manages, along with the Employees’ Retirement System covering all other government workers besides teachers.

With thousands of beneficiaries, the teacher pension fund had a net position of nearly $79 billion through the 2019 fiscal year with roughly 20% in unfunded liability.

Senate Bill 294 would let the teacher pension fund diversify by up to 5% in alternative investments, which is same percentage available to other government-backed retirement in Georgia. Those investments could include venture capital funds, private equity and distressed debt.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ellis Black, said contracted investors who manage the teacher pension fund have achieved returns above the national average in recent years but say they could grow the fund more by having access to other investments.

He dismissed concerns those investments might imperil the pension fund, noting the track record of the fund’s investors.

“You’ve got a whole spectrum of risk involved,” said Black, R-Valdosta. “A wise investor is going to have a balanced portfolio.”

Ellis said two-thirds of the teacher pension fund is currently invested in equities, with the remainder invested in stocks.

Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, also urged lawmakers to trust in the investing acumen of the retirement fund’s caretakers.

“They have done better than the national average with what they’ve done,” Hufstetler said. “They also tell us they can do a better job with more flexibility.”

But concerns arose from several Democratic senators worried about the risk teachers could face with more volatile investments in their retirement portfolio.

Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Stone Mountain, said lawmakers would be unwise to tamper with the pension fund with signs of a possible economic recession on the horizon. He argued teachers would rather lawmakers take a conservative approach to managing their retirement money.

“I think the conservative path is to stay the course we have,” Henson said. “I don’t think now is the time to jump into a riskier market.”

The bill now heads to the Georgia House for consideration.

Volunteer firefighters to see training tweaks in Georgia Senate bill

ATLANTA – The Georgia Senate passed legislation Tuesday aimed at loosening training requirements for volunteer fire departments in the state.

Senate Bill 342 would create a council tasked with establishing training and certification rules for volunteer fire departments in Georgia that are separate from those required for full-time professional fire departments.

The bill passed the Senate unanimously and heads to the Georgia House for consideration.

Its sponsor, Sen. Burt Jones, said the measure’s intent is to loosen training requirements for volunteer firefighters. Currently, volunteers receive the same kind of stringent training that professional firefighters are required to take.

Jones, R-Jackson, said tougher training may scare off qualified people interested in volunteering particularly in rural areas where volunteer firehouses are often critical to a community’s public safety readiness.

“This will alleviate those requirements and hopefully improve our volunteer network again,” Jones said.

The bill would hand oversight functions to a new seven-member Georgia Volunteer Fire Service Council tasked with establishing training programs for volunteer firefighters and certifying anyone who has received training as a federal firefighter.

It would also prohibit persons with felony convictions from joining a volunteer firehouse, unless more than five years have passed since the conviction and the person has both completed a training program and been recommended by the trainers.

Last week, Senate Public Safety Committee Chairman John Albers, R-Roswell, said changing the rules for volunteer firefighters would greatly help rural parts of the state that are stretched thin in terms of fire-safety resources.

“We all need to remember that the grand majority of the land mass of this state is covered by rural volunteer firefighters,” Albers said. “We want to make sure we set them up for success and we’re doing the right things in order to maintain safety in each one of those communities.”

Push for fewer school tests in Georgia advances in Senate

ATLANTA – Legislation to reduce the number of standardized tests public school students must take in Georgia advanced in the state Senate on Monday.

Senate Bill 367, which would nix five tests and give the state Department of Education more leeway on how and when to administer two dozen other tests, passed unanimously out of the Senate Education and Youth Committee.

Under the bill, four tests would be yanked from the roster of exams Georgia high schoolers would have to take. Another test in social studies would be nixed for fifth graders.

Tests to be eliminated would include American literature, geometry, physical science and economics.

The bill’s sponsor, Education Committee Chairman P.K. Martin, said end-of-year testing in Georgia has grown too rigorous.

“The testing has been too much,” said Martin, R-Lawrenceville.

Representatives from several teachers’ groups voiced support for the bill at Monday’s committee hearing, including the Professional Association of Georgia Educators and the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE).

They highlighted how easing test requirements would help relieve stress on both students and teachers.

“We test our kids to death,” GAE President Charlotte Booker said. “There comes a time when we have to say enough is enough.”

Besides fewer tests, the legislation would require the remaining tests to be given within 25 days of the school year’s end instead of at any time, so that teachers could focus more on teaching class subjects rather than preparing for exams.

Additionally, the changes would allow school districts discontinue a practice comparing Georgia’s testing standards with other states, and let them abstain from “formative assessments” meant to see how much students learned in a school year.

Amid an outpouring of support from local educators, the bill prompted Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks to call for a deeper probe of how to tighten Georgia’s standardized testing regimen.

“I don’t know that it will be the best for education,” Wilbanks said. “But I think it will make a lot of people who are in education happy.”

The bill has backing from both Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia Schools Superintendent Richard Woods.

Kemp has made rolling back some standardized tests in Georgia a key component of changes he wants to see for the state’s public schools.

The governor has pushed for new restrictions for the popular dual enrollment college credit program and a $2,000 salary raise for teachers, following a $3,000 raise lawmakers approved last year.

Woods, meanwhile, said fewer tests and other changes outlined in the bill would make for a more accurate assessment of what students have learned over the past year.

“We are not getting rid of tests,” Woods told committee lawmakers Monday. “I think we are testing smarter instead of harder.”