General Assembly session the usual combo of triumphs, defeats

ATLANTA – The General Assembly passed much of Gov. Brian Kemp’s legislative agenda for 2023 during the 40-day session that ended shortly after midnight Thursday morning.

Republican majorities in the Georgia House and Senate approved the GOP governor’s $1 billion state income tax rebate and $950 million in property tax relief, promises Kemp made on the campaign trail last year ahead of his reelection to a second term. Lawmakers also enacted the governor’s tough-on-crime legislation cracking down on street gangs.

“You have made promises made promises kept,” Kemp told members of the House Wednesday night, hours before the General Assembly adjourned for the year.

But other Kemp-backed legislation fell short, including a second year of mental health reform that enjoyed bipartisan support, a bill offering private-school vouchers that was criticized by Democrats, and legislation banning no-cash bail for criminal suspects.

The mental health bill was a follow-up to reform legislation the General Assembly passed unanimously last year after the late House Speaker David Ralston made it a top priority. This year’s bill aimed to increase the size of the mental-health workforce in Georgia and make it easier for people who cycle between the streets, emergency rooms and jails to get the help they need. 

But the only piece of House Bill 520 that made it through the Senate was a provision related to data collection senators attached to a separate piece of legislation.

House Speaker Jon Burns said he was disappointed with the Senate over that outcome.

“HB520 was a bipartisan measure in this House with only three ‘no’ votes,” said Burns, R-Newington. “We’ve always focused on people who need help and their family members. I’m sorry they will be kept waiting another year.”

“HB520 is not dead,” added Jeff Breedlove, chief of policy and communications for the Georgia Council for Recovery. “It’s just delayed.” 

Senators expressed concerns over the cost of the mental health bill when it got to their side of the Capitol. Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who presides over the Senate, put the price tag at $72 million.

The House mental health bill also got caught up in negotiations with the Senate over legislation creating an exemption for rural hospitals from Georgia’s certificate of need law, which requires applicants to demonstrate new health-care facilities or services are needed in the community they plan to locate.

Senate Bill 99 was statewide in implication but was prompted by plans to build a new hospital in Jones’ hometown of Jackson. The Senate passed the bill easily, but it failed to even get a committee vote in the House.

The legislature made progress on education during this year’s session. While the ambitious goal of overhauling the decades-old Quality Basic Education (QBE) k-12 student funding formula failed to gain traction, lawmakers supported Kemp’s recommendation to fully fund QBE for the second year in a row.

The General Assembly also agreed to restore full tuition coverage to the HOPE Scholarships program, which had fallen to as low as 80% in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

But Republicans were unable to get the vouchers bill over the finish line. The Senate passed the legislation in early March, voting along party lines. But it fell short by six votes in the House on the last day of the session when a handful of rural Republicans joined Democrats opposed to diverting funds from public schools in voting against it, reflecting the paucity of private schools in rural communities.

“That was tough vote,” said Burns, who supported the vouchers bill as a way to give parents more options for educating their children. “I’m sure you’ll see this issue come before us again.”

Another Republican-backed bill that failed called for prohibiting no-cash bail for a wide range of crimes from murder and rape to non-violent offenses including possession of marijuana.

The Senate passed the legislation along party lines in February, but the House raised objections to the Senate version of the bill. The two sides formed a joint conference committee on the last night of the session, but the General Assembly adjourned before the conferees could reach agreement.

Republicans and Democrats did see eye to eye on legislation aimed at accommodating the growth of electric vehicles in Georgia. After some controversy erupted over how much senators wanted to tax EVs to replace the revenue the state stands to lose as motorists move away from gasoline-powered care, the proposed tax rate was reduced somewhat and Senate Bill 146 passed overwhelmingly on the next-to-last day of the session.

Supporters of legalized gambling weren’t so fortunate. Sports betting was the vehicle of choice for this year’s push to legalize gambling in Georgia. But a proposed constitutional amendment asking Georgia voters to decide the issue couldn’t muster the two-thirds vote needed to pass the Senate.

Senate supporters went back to the drawing board and passed a bill in committee allowing sports betting to come under the oversight of the Georgia Lottery Commission without the need for a constitutional change. But it, too, was defeated.

In the frenzy of the session’s final day, other legislation that fell by the wayside included a tenants’ bill of rights, a bill targeting antisemitism, and a proposal to overhaul the system the state uses to financially compensate the wrongfully convicted.

Wellstar, Augusta University finalize partnership

ATLANTA – The University System of Georgia Board of Regents voted unanimously Friday to approve a partnership between the Wellstar and Augusta University health systems.

The partnership will expand the university’s health sciences training and research across the state and build a broader affiliation between Wellstar and the university’s Medical College of Georgia (MCG).

The boards of Wellstar and the Augusta University Health System (AUHS) signed off on a 40-year partnership agreement earlier this week.

“This partnership, I believe, will truly be transformational for health care in this state,” said Gov. Brian Kemp, who began working on a potential partnership between Wellstar and AUHS during his first year in office in 2019 only to be interrupted by the pandemic.

To be known as Wellstar MCG Health, the partnership will expand medical training, research and clinical care throughout Georgia while bringing together community-based health systems and academic medical centers like MCG and its affiliate hospitals.

Kemp said increasing Georgia’s health-care workforce, which is suffering shortages that became glaringly apparent during the pandemic, is a top priority of the new partnership. It also aims at expanding access to health care – particularly in rural Georgia – through the use of digital technology.

“New digital health offerings will help us care for patients wherever they are,” Wellstar CEO Candice Saunders said. “Through this partnership, we will train more physicians to help address a critical shortage of clinicians in our state.”

Wellstar and AUHS signed a letter of intent to form a partnership last December. But university system Chancellor Sonny Perdue said work on the agreement began in earnest well before then, almost a year ago.

“It’s been complex. It has a lot of moving parts, a lot of attorneys and consultants overseeing this,” Perdue said. “Forty years is a long time. We want to make sure it’s not just good for today.”

In the agreement, Wellstar has committed to investing nearly $800 million over 10 years in AUHS
facilities and infrastructure, including more than $200 million allocated to Augusta University Medical Center, a more than 600-bed safety net and teaching hospital. Additionally, capital for a new hospital, medical office building and ambulatory surgery center in Columbia County will be included in the funding.

Brooks Keel, president of Augusta University and acting CEO at AUHS, said Wellstar has committed to protecting the jobs of AUHS employees “the very best way we can.”

Kemp said the partnership will enhance the national image of Georgia’s only public medical school.

“It’s going to bring a lot of options to MCG … students didn’t have before,” he said.

Perdue said the agreement will be filed with the state attorney general’s office early next week. Pending regulatory approvals, the organizations plan to close the partnership late this summer.

Teacher planning period bill passes  

Rep. John Corbett, R-Lake Park, sponsored a successful bill guaranteeing teachers a daily planning period.

ATLANTA – The General Assembly has approved a bill guaranteeing Georgia public school teachers a daily planning period to use for lesson planning, grading and other tasks.  

The new measure will apply to those who teach kindergarten to 12th grade and is aimed at addressing teacher burnout.  

 “For teachers, our number one job is providing appropriate instruction for our students and, in order to provide that instruction, planning time is of utmost importance,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. 

Morgan said teachers need time not only to develop lesson plans but to analyze assessment data to determine where students need additional support.  

“That type of planning takes time,” she said. “The fact that it’s now going to be in state law that planning time is guaranteed — that’s very important.”  

A state Department of Education report published last year recommended guaranteed planning periods as one measure that could help address teacher burnout.  

“The teachers I know don’t want to walk away … but too many teachers I know are running on empty,” Cherie Bonder Goldman, the 2022 Georgia teacher of the year, wrote at the start of the report.  

The bill was sponsored by state Rep. John Corbett, R-Lake Park, and carried in the Senate by Sen. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas.  

The measure picked up several additional amendments during the legislative process. One would set a sunset date at the end of 2026 for a tax credit for donations for the purpose of providing grants to public schools.  

Another amendment specifies that local school board members cannot discuss any individual personnel matter with the district superintendent or other school personnel unless authorized by law.  

A third amendment outlines the rights of appeal for a public school or school system wishing to dispute the findings of an accrediting agency.  

The bill received final passage in the Senate Wednesday on a 48-4 vote. It now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp’s desk for his signature. 

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

Medical cannabis bill dies in final hour of General Assembly session

ATLANTA – Legislation aimed at clearing up the legal morass that has delayed Georgia’s medical marijuana program for years died in the waning hours of this year’s General Assembly session, eventually a victim of its own weight.

The state Senate balked at major 11th-hour changes the Georgia House made to House Bill 196, including inserting an entirely different bill regarding the regulation of hemp products into the underlying medical cannabis measure.

Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, House Bill 196’s chief sponsor, took to the House floor Wednesday with a new version of the legislation calling for abolishing the commission lawmakers created in 2019 to oversee the medical cannabis program and turning over its duties to the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

The commission has been criticized for taking too long to begin awarding licenses to companies to grow marijuana in Georgia and convert the leafy crop to low-THC oil for sale to patients suffering from a range of diseases.

But the version of the bill the Senate had passed earlier in the week stopped short of getting rid of the commission by authorizing the agriculture department to study how the commission was handling the program and return by Dec. 1 with recommendations.

“It seems unfair to unilaterally abolish a commission without holding any hearings on that,” Senate Regulated Industries Committee Chairman Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, said Wednesday night when the bill got to the Senate floor.

The House bill also sought to address the rash of lawsuits filed by nine companies that lost bids for licenses that are holding up the licensing process by asking Commissioner of Agriculture Tyler Harper to mediate their complaints by May 31. Mediation could lead to those companies being awarded licenses if they agreed to drop the legal challenges, Powell said.

“We’re not saying the commission will give a license,” he said. “They can go through mediation.”

“This legislation will move the needle forward for all the people who have been patiently waiting for this medicine,” added Rep. Shelly Hutchinson, D-Snellville.

The House passed Powell’s bill 154-13 and sent it across the Capitol to the Senate.

But Cowsert said allowing the protesting companies to mediate their cases but not offering the same to the losing bidders that didn’t take their complaints to court smacks of favoritism.

“We punish those people who didn’t sue and reward the ones who sued,” he said.

The House bill did find some support in the Senate. An impatient Sen. Carden Summers, R-Cordele, urged his Senate colleagues to pass Powell’s bill.

“This has been going on for four and a half years,” he said. “This bill is a solid bill that moves the state forward. It is time for us to get off the pot and deliver.”

But Cowsert cautioned patience. He cited testimony from the two companies that have been awarded medical cannabis licenses and expect to have the product on the shelves by June. They have said they will be able to supply 300,000 patients each, while the number of patients signed up on the state registry to receive the medicine is fewer than 30,000.

“We already have enough production for 20 times the people who are listed, who are signed on to the registry,” Cowsert said.

The final straw that irked senators as well as some House members was the 39-page medical cannabis bill had an additional 15 pages tacked onto the end concerning hemp products, which had not gone through the normal vetting in committee. The key provision in the bill would prohibit Georgians under age 21 from buying consumable hemp products with a THC content of more than 0.3%, including the popular Delta-8 gummies.

Senators first narrowly defeated a motion by Summers essentially to pass the House bill, then voted overwhelmingly to disagree with the House. That put the bill on a path to be resolved by a joint legislative conference committee, but time ran out on the 2023 session before that could happen.

General Assembly OKs higher truck weights

ATLANTA – Legislation raising the legal weight limits on commercial trucks hauling certain types of cargo in certain parts of Georgia was one of the last to gain final passage during this year’s General Assembly session.

The state House and Senate adopted the final version of House Bill 189 produced by a joint legislative conference committee after 11 p.m. Wednesday. The House passed the bill 95-75, followed within minutes by a 37-16 Senate vote.

The main change to the legislation the conference committee made was to add a year to the one-year sunset provision to the bill, meaning it will expire on July 1, 2025, rather than in the middle of next year.

Otherwise, the measure’s earlier provisions survived the conference committee. The bill would let commercial trucks exceed the current legal weight limit of 80,000 pounds by 10% on roads other than federal highways, which are subject to federal limits.

Commercial trucks had been hauling loads weighing up to 95,000 pounds since the pandemic struck Georgia, but the executive order Gov. Brian Kemp issued in March 2020 to allow the heavier weights expired earlier this month.

The 10% exemption letting trucks run with up to 88,000 pounds of cargo applies only to trucks hauling agricultural products – including livestock – and logs. The original version of the bill would have exempted commercial trucks hauling any products.

The final version of the measure allows the higher weight limits to apply only within a 150-mile radius of the farm or other point of origin of the cargo. It also prohibits the heavier trucks from running inside metro Atlanta.

The bill sets penalties for violations that increase in several stages depending on how much a truck is exceeding the new legal weight limit.

As the final votes indicated, the legislation got some pushback Wednesday night. Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, argued the bill should have stuck with the broader exemption to allow more trucking companies to realize savings from fewer trips.

Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna, said a section of the bill allowing local law enforcement officers to enforce the weight limits without providing the training or resources for them to do so properly renders the legislation “toothless.”

The bill now heads to Gov. Brian Kemp for signing.