Georgia House says ‘no’ to COVID vaccine mandates

ATLANTA – State agencies, local governments and local schools could not require Georgians to get a COVID-19 vaccination to receive government services or access government facilities under legislation that cleared the state House of Representatives Tuesday.

The bill passed the Republican-controlled House 99-67 along party lines.

Republicans argued Georgians have a right to make their own health-care decisions without government interference.

“Vaccination for COVID-19 is a personal decision to be made by an individual,” said Rep. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee, who chairs the House Republican Caucus. “This is an issue of liberty, of freedom to choose one’s own health care.”

Democrats countered that the right to choose not to be vaccinated stops when it threatens the health of others.

“If you contract the COVID virus, your family, friends, coworkers and classmates are all placed in jeopardy,” said Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Gov. Brian Kemp has opposed government-imposed vaccine mandates, including going to court to challenge federal mandates ordered by the Biden administration. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal mandate in January requiring vaccinations for employees of businesses with at least 100 workers but left intact a vaccination mandate for health-care workers.

The bill the House passed Tuesday would not apply to health-care workers or to private businesses, Rich said.

Rep. Karla Drenner, D-Avondale Estates, said the legislation ignores the role vaccines have played historically in eradicating diseases including yellow fever, tuberculosis and measles.

“As the memory of epidemics fades, individual rights become more important than collective responsibility,” she said.

Rep. Mark Newton, R-Augusta, said the bill’s supporters acknowledge the success of the COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, many Republican lawmakers have received the shots, he said.

“It’s a fabulous vaccine, an amazing step forward that has changed the course of this illness,” Newton said, “[But] this bill is about requiring an adult to show papers … before they can access any government service. … You can be pro-vaccine and pro-liberty.”

The bill originated in the state Senate, which passed it early this month, also along party lines. Because of changes made by the House, the measure must now return to the Senate before gaining final passage.

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

Legalized gambling back before General Assembly

ATLANTA – Legalized gambling has emerged in the General Assembly with just four days remaining in this year’s legislative session.

The House Economic Development and Tourism Committee approved a constitutional amendment Monday asking voters whether to legalize sports betting and “other forms of betting and gambling” in Georgia. Those “other forms” of gambling would include casinos and pari-mutuel betting on horse racing.

The comprehensive proposal – Senate Resolution 135 – follows years of failed efforts to legalize various forms of gambling separately.

Those efforts reached a high-water mark last year when the state Senate passed a constitutional amendment aimed at legalizing online sports betting. While that measure fizzled in the House at the end of last year’s session, it remained alive for consideration this year.

A Senate committee approved a constitutional amendment during this year’s session limited to horse racing, but it failed to reach the Senate floor before the Crossover Day deadline for bills to clear at least one legislative chamber to stay alive.

The legislation the House committee passed on Monday resurrects the 2021 constitutional change, with casinos and horse racing added.

A major selling point in the various efforts to legalize gambling in Georgia over the years is that the tax revenue from gambling proceeds would go toward education and other vital services.

Under Senate Resolution 135, all the tax proceeds from sports betting would go toward education. Half of that money would support the HOPE Scholarships program, while the other half would go toward need-based college tuition grants and scholarships.

Half of the proceeds from casinos and horse racing would go toward health care, with 20% going to economic development in “less developed” areas of the state. HOPE and need-based grants and scholarships would split the remaining 30% evenly.

Since casinos and horse racing would require building facilities in specific locations, a local referendum would be required for a casino or racetrack to open in a community.

The legislation is expected to reach the House floor by the end of the week.

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

Mental health system overhaul clears Georgia Senate committee

Georgia Sen. Ben Watson

ATLANTA – A state Senate committee approved its version of an overhaul of Georgia’s mental-health system Monday with some changes from legislation the House passed three weeks ago but with key provisions intact.

House Bill 1013 was introduced by House Speaker David Ralston as a response to Georgia’s dismal 48th ranking among the states in access to mental health and substance abuse services.

The legislation would require health insurance companies that offer mental health coverage to treat mental illness the same way they treat physical illness. The parity provision also would apply to Georgia Medicaid and the State Health Benefit Plan.

The bill also would create a service-cancelable loan program to address a workforce shortage by offering loan forgiveness to several types of mental-health specialists. The new version of the bill approved by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee would add primary-care physicians to the group of health-care professionals who would qualify for the program.

“Workforce is the critical issue we’ve got to address,” said Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge.

The committee took out language in the bill that drew a deluge of emails opposing the measure from conservative activists. Among other things, it removes a reference to the World Health Organization, which has been a target of conservatives since then-President Donald Trump announced in 2020 the U.S. would pull its funding from the WHO and end its relationship with it.

The panel also sought to clarify a provision that would allow some people determined to be mentally disturbed to be committed involuntarily for up to three days for a psychiatric evaluation without having been charged with a crime. The bill’s opponents had raised fears evaluations could be used to take away a person’s right to own a gun.

Law enforcement officers often take people who are threatening to commit suicide but haven’t committed a crime to a mental health facility to be evaluated, said Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, the committee’s chairman.

“Many times, it’s in the home where parents or a spouse are struggling [with a mentally disturbed person], he said. “It’s not an issue for crime enforcement but more of a mental health issue.”

The Senate bill also would incorporate provisions of other bills that have failed to get through the General Assembly as stand-alone measures. One of those measure would authorize the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth to provide mental health training to police officers.

The other would authorize the training of co-responder teams of police officers and mental-health professionals to answer emergency calls.  

The bill also would extend the work of the state’s Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission – a panel formed in 2019 that includes mental health, substance abuse and criminal justice experts ­- until June 30, 2025. The commission currently is due to wrap up by June 30 of next year.

The legislation, which cleared the committee unanimously, is expected to reach the Senate floor later this week.

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

Georgia Senate committee eases time limit on nuisance suits against farms

ATLANTA – A state Senate committee voted Monday to double the length of time Georgia property owners would have to file nuisance lawsuits against neighboring farms.

Under the Right to Farm Act the Georgia House of Representatives passed early this month, property owners bothered by dust, noise or offensive odors emanating from a nearby farm would have one year to file a nuisance suit. A substitute bill the Senate Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee approved Monday would double that statute of limitations to two years.

“Two years is a fair balance to protect the private property rights of both existing landowners and a new [farm] coming in,” committee Chairman Larry Walker III, R-Perry, said before the vote.

Walker’s counterpart, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Robert Dickey, the bill’s chief sponsor, supported the change.

“I think [two years] is the right number,” said Dickey, R-Musella. “Any kind of work on a farm that could possibly be considered a nuisance, by two years, that work would be apparent.”

The bill’s supporters have been pushing off and on for several years for legislation making it harder for neighbors to file nuisance lawsuits against neighboring farms. They argued the bill is needed because of increasing encroachment by residential subdivisions on agricultural areas around the state.

“We’ve lost a lot of agricultural land in the last 20 years to development,” said Rep. Tyler Harper, R-Ocilla. “That’s why it’s important that we continue to protect our state’s No.-1 industry.”

The bill’s opponents, including environmental advocates and legislative Democrats, have argued a one-year statute of limitations for nuisance suits is inadequate. Even with the two-year leeway for suits, they continue to maintain property owners already are well protected by the 1989 law the new bill would replace.

Harper, who is running for state commissioner of agriculture, said Monday he would prefer keeping the statute of limitations at one year.

“In all the states where this [law] was found constitutional, there was a one-year clock,” he said.

The bill likely will reach the full Senate for a vote later this week.

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

General Assembly bans state agencies from doing business with Russia, Belarus

Georgia Rep. Martin Momtahan

ATLANTA – The Georgia House of Representatives gave final passage Monday to legislation prohibiting companies owned or operated by the governments of Russia or Belarus from bidding on state contracts.

The bill, which the state Senate passed unanimously earlier this month, also sailed through the House unanimously with little discussion.

The House also passed a resolution in early March condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some of the troops Russia has used to wage the war have entered Ukraine from staging areas in neighboring Belarus.

The U.S. and its NATO allies have responded to the invasion by imposing economic sanctions on Russia.

“Senate Bill 562 is Georgia’s chance to implement our own embargo,” Rep. Martin Momtahan, R-Dallas, who carried the bill in the House, said Monday. “This is an opportunity to support Ukraine in the best possible way.”

House Democrats joined the vote to make the legislation bipartisan.

“What the Russians are doing is unconscionable,” said House Minority Leader James Beverly, D-Macon. “We stand united as Americans right now in this moment.”

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

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