General Assembly authorizes study committee to plan rollout of EV charging stations

ATLANTA – The General Assembly has decided it needs more time to prepare for the coming wave of electric vehicles.

The state House of Representatives voted unanimously this week to create a joint study committee to develop a plan for rolling out a network of electric vehicle charging stations across Georgia. The Georgia Senate passed the resolution two weeks ago, also in a unanimous vote.

“EVs are here. We see them all around us,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, told House members shortly before Wednesday’s vote. “But one part that’s lacking is charging infrastructure in this state.”

The U.S. Department of Energy has allocated $160 million to build EV charging stations in Georgia during the next five years, primarily along interstate highways.

Several bills were introduced in the General Assembly this year setting regulations governing the construction of charging stations.

Another measure was introduced in the Senate that would allow auto manufacturers to bypass dealerships and sell their cars directly to consumers if they maintain one or more repair facilities in the state. The bill was aimed at EV startup Rivian, which announced in December a $5 billion investment to build a manufacturing plant off Interstate 20 east of Atlanta, creating 7,500 jobs.

But when none of the bills made it through either legislative chamber by the mid-March Crossover Day deadline, lawmakers decided to form a study committee to do a deep dive on the issue this summer and and potentially come up with legislation for consideration next year.

Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said time is of the essence if Georgia is to keep up with the growing proliferation of electric vehicles.

“The future of this country in transportation is all-electric vehicles,” he said. “We need to get our ducks in a row so we’re not in the same situation we were in with broadband.”

Under Senate Resolution 463, the joint committee will include four House members, four senators, the Georgia commissioners of transportation and economic development, and the chair of the state Public Service Commission.

The committee will have until Dec. 1 to make recommendations.

 This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia House OKs tax credit for law enforcement

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – The Georgia House of Representatives has passed legislation aimed at providing additional resources to local law enforcement agencies, a major priority of Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.

The “LESS” (Law Enforcement Strategic Support) Crime Act cleared the House 153-5 Wednesday after passing the state Senate in February.

The bill offers Georgia taxpayers a dollar-for-dollar income tax credit on contributions to public safety initiatives in their communities. It’s modeled after the highly successful rural hospital tax credit Duncan championed back in 2016 as a member of the House.

Under Senate Bill 361, law enforcement agencies could use the money for police officer salary supplements, to purchase or maintain department equipment and/or to establish or maintain a co-responder program so mental-health professionals could help police officers de-escalate behavioral health emergencies.

“The LESS Crime Act is symbolic of what can happen when leaders seek solutions beyond the scope of government and promote good policy,” Duncan said Wednesday. “Our legislation serves as a model for government entities around the country.”

“The resources generated through the LESS Crime Act will significantly aid Georgia’s 159 sheriffs in strengthening local public safety initiatives,” added Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association.

The bill includes a statewide cap on the program of $75 million a year. Individual law enforcement agencies are limited to $3 million annually.

Single taxpayers could receive a tax credit of up to $5,000, with married couples filing jointly eligible for up to $10,000.

If signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, the legislation would take effect with the 2023 tax year.

Because of changes the House made in the bill, it must return to the Senate on Friday or Monday for final passage. The General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn for the year by midnight Monday.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Kemp delivers Crime Suppression Unit’s first year results

Gov. Brian Kemp (Gov. Kemp’s official Facebook page)

ATLANTA – The multi-agency Crime Suppression Unit Gov. Brian Kemp put together last April to fight a crime wave apprehended 26 murder suspects and made 214 drug arrests during its first year in operation.

Kemp gave a progress report on the unit on Wednesday. The state and metro-Atlanta law enforcement agencies that make up the unit also arrested 451 wanted persons, made more than 23,600 vehicle stops – including 588 for driving under the influence – and impounded about 1,300 vehicles, the governor reported.

“We’re going to keep chopping, keep up the good work and go even harder in taking the fight to the street gangs and criminals,” Kemp said.

Kemp put together the unit in response to a rise in violent crime that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic. Coordinated by the Georgia Department of Public Safety, the unit includes the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the state Department of Natural Resources, the Georgia Department of Community Supervision, the Atlanta Police Department and the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office.

The Crime Suppression Unit also has been active in other Georgia cities including Columbus and Macon.

Col. Chris Wright, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, said the unit also has arrested nine major street-racing organizers in the Atlanta metro region.

“Proactive policing and high visibility patrols result in crime reduction and improve the quality of life for our citizens,” he said. “We share the governor’s vision of reducing crime and making Georgia communities safer.”

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

General Assembly sends library book-banning measure to Gov. Kemp

ATLANTA – Local school boards will have to develop policies to screen and potentially remove books from school libraries deemed harmful to minors under legislation that gained final passage in the Georgia Senate Wednesday.

Senate Bill 226 passed the Republican-controlled chamber 29-21 along party lines. It already had passed the state House of Representatives last week 97-61, also on a party-line vote.

Under the bill, school principals would have seven business days to review complaints from parents that a given book is obscene and “lacking in serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.” Principals would have three additional days to determine whether a book should be removed from that school’s library and inform the parent of the decision.

Local school boards would have 30 calendar days to handle appeals of principals’ rulings.

The bill also requires school boards to post titles of books removed from the shelves on the system’s website within 15 business days of a determination.

School boards would have until Jan. 1 to develop policies for handling complaints. They would get help from the state Department of Education, which would have until Sept. 1 to develop and publish a model policy.

Opponents argued there are already local policies in place for handling complaints from a parent that a school library is displaying obscene material on its shelves inappropriate for minors.

Similar arguments of existing policies have come from educator groups and legislative Democrats about other bills majority Republicans have been considering this year. Opponents also have accused Republicans of pushing a conservative education agenda to win votes in an election year.

Senate Bill 226 is the first to gain final passage and go to GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, who is expected to sign it.

Other Republican-backed legislation specifying how Georgia schools should teach about racism and a Parents’ Bill of Rights aimed at guaranteeing parental involvement in their children’s education are still pending, as is legislation prohibiting transgender students born male from competing in most girls’ sports.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.

Georgia lawmakers give mental-health reform bill final passage

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – The General Assembly gave final passage Wednesday to an overhaul of the state’s mental health-care delivery system praised as “transformative” by one legislative supporter.

The Georgia Senate passed House Bill 1013 unanimously. The House of Representatives followed a short time later, also voting unanimously to agree with changes to the legislation made on the Senate side.

Georgia ranks among the lowest states in the nation for access to mental-health services.

But that dismal status should end as a result of Wednesday’s vote, an emotional House Speaker David Ralston – who made the bill his top priority for this year’s session – told House members after the vote.

“Today, hope won,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, to a standing ovation from the lawmakers. “Countless Georgians will know we’ve heard their despair and frustration.”

The legislation, which now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature, requires health insurance companies to cover mental illness the same way they cover physical illness. The parity provision also would apply to Georgia Medicaid and the State Health Benefit Plan.

Care management organizations (CMOs) participating in Georgia Medicaid will have to dedicate at least 85% of their revenues to patient care.

The bill also creates a service-cancelable loan program to address a workforce shortage by offering loan forgiveness to several types of mental-health specialists as well as primary-care physicians.

The Senate left intact in the measure the current law requiring that a mentally disturbed person pose an “imminent” threat to themselves or others before they can be involuntarily committed for an evaluation at a mental-health care facility. The original House version of the bill had removed “imminent” from that provision.

“An officer may take an individual to be evaluated without having to charge them with a crime,” said Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, who carried the bill in the Senate.

The bill also includes legislation originally introduced into the House by Rep. Yasmin Neal, D-Jonesboro, authorizing the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth to provide mental health training to police officers.

Legislative leaders have been working on mental health reform for several years. Some of the recommendations from a task force of industry experts formed in 2019 are included in the bill that passed Wednesday.

Strickland said the work the Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission isn’t done. The bill authorizes the panel to keep working on mental-health reforms, setting a new deadline of June 30. 2025.

“Many parts of this bill are long-term investments,” he said. “But we’ll start the process to make Georgia not just the No.-1 state in which to do business, but the No.-1 state for mental-health services.”

Also Wednesday, the House unanimously passed a related Senate bill allowing local law enforcement agencies to develop procedures for mental-health workers to join police in responding to 911 calls.

“If [police] find a mental-health crisis, they can call in a trained mental-health worker,” said Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, who carried Senate Bill 403 in the House. “This is the way we should be dealing with our mental-health people.”

Because of changes the House made to the bill, it must return to the Senate to gain final passage.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.