Some perennial causes make it through General Assembly, some don’t

ATLANTA – Tax cuts, private-school vouchers, and health-care reform topped the list of accomplishments for the 2024 General Assembly session, which wrapped up just before 1 a.m. Friday following a frenetic marathon of nearly 15 hours.

Vouchers and reforms to Georgia’s Certificate of Need (CON) law came after years of unsuccessful efforts by majority Republicans to move the needle on school choice and improve access to health care by making it easier to build hospitals and provide new medical services.

Lawmakers passed a tax-cut package championed by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and GOP legislative leaders, including a measure accelerating a state income-tax rollback that took effect this year, which will reduce the income tax rate from 5.49% to 5.39%. Two other bills would raise Georgia’s child-tax credit from $3,000 to $4,000 and double the state’s homestead tax exemption from $2,000 to $4,000.

Legislative Democrats have long blocked Republican attempts to enact private-school vouchers, including a House floor vote last year that stopped a bid to offer vouchers worth up to $6,500 to Georgia students attending low-performing public schools. But GOP leaders found the votes they needed to get the bill through this year, passing it along party lines.

A bill making significant changes to the decades-old CON law also finally made it over the finish line. The measure is aimed particularly at improving health-care access in rural Georgia, including an exemption from the expensive, time-consuming process of obtaining a CON for parties seeking to build hospitals in rural counties.

The legislation also would raise the state’s rural hospital tax credit from an annual cap of $75 million to $100 million.

But the General Assembly again stopped short of fully expanding Georgia’s Medicaid program as legislative Democrats have long sought. However, Medicaid expansion made more progress than ever before when it was blocked by a tie vote in a Senate committee.

Republicans argued lawmakers need to give Gov. Brian Kemp’s limited Medicaid expansion program – Georgia Pathways – more time to get up and running. Launched last summer, the program has only signed up about 2,900 enrollees despite having spent $26 million.

“We think the governor has a great plan with Pathways,” said House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington.

But Burns went on to say a new state commission the CON bill would create will consider Medicaid expansion.

“We want to take a look at every possibility,” he said.

Republicans entered the 2024 session hoping to accomplish another longstanding goal – tort reform. But Kemp announced at the start of the session that the issue needs further study before considering major changes.

“Like every major undertaking our state has tackled in the past, we will work on a Georgia-specific solution; one designed to make meaningful reforms in this area over the next several years,” Kemp said in January at the annual Eggs and Issues breakfast sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

With those marching orders, lawmakers settled for passing legislation limiting the ability of plaintiffs in lawsuits against commercial truckers to file what are known as “direct action” lawsuits against a trucking company’s insurance carrier. Another bill that passed authorizes gathering additional data on tort cases to inform future legislation.

While the General Assembly succeeded on vouchers and CON reform, another issue that’s been around for several years – legalizing sports betting in Georgia – fizzled again. A constitutional amendment the state Senate passed asking Georgia voters to weigh in on sports betting made it through a House committee on the morning of the session’s last day but didn’t reach the House floor.

Other casualties included a bid to rein in some of the state’s tax credits and an 11th-hour effort to move legislation aimed at protecting the Okefenokee Swamp from mining.

The House overwhelmingly passed a bill to put new limits on Georgia’s popular but expensive film tax credit on the last day of the session, but the Senate hadn’t taken up the legislation by the time the General Assembly adjourned for the year.

The bill also called for creating a state commission to do a deep dive on the impacts the rapid growth of energy-hungry data centers is having on the state’s power grid. The commission was offered as a fallback position after an earlier bill that would have suspended the state’s tax credit for data centers for two years failed to move.

The House passed legislation on March 26 – the next-to-last day of the session –  placing a three-year moratorium on the type of mining being planned near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. But it, too, died when it failed to get a vote in the Senate.

Environmental advocates looking to stop Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals from mining titanium oxide near the swamp weren’t happy with the bill and preferred an alternative measure that has been bottled up in a House committee for the last three years.

“Mining along the swamp’s boundary will damage the Okefenokee and shouldn’t be allowed under any circumstance,” said Josh Marks, an environmental lawyer and president of Georgians for the Okefenokee.

The two legislative chambers also didn’t see eye to eye when it came to a “culture wars” agenda pushed by Senate Republicans. Bills aimed at transgender youths and the American Library Association cleared the Senate but got nowhere in the House.

The Senate passed legislation to prohibit the prescribing or administering of puberty blockers to minors experiencing gender dysphoria, require students to use bathrooms that match the gender identify on their birth certificate, and prohibit transgender male students from participating in girls’ sports.

Another Senate-backed bill called for prohibiting city, county, and regional libraries from using tax dollars on any materials offered by the American Library Association, an organization that has fallen into disfavor among conservative culture warriors for promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the selection of library materials. The House Higher Education Committee held hearings on the bill but didn’t bring it up for a vote.

Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, called the defeat of bills targeting the LGBTQ community a major victory.

“It’s undeniable that the tides are shifting, both here in Georgia and across the nation,” Graham wrote in an email to Capitol Beat. “Anti-LGBTQ actors are losing their political power, and more and more Georgians who know and love LGBTQ people are standing up against their baseless fear-mongering.”

The end of the legislative session means the start of bill-signing season. Kemp now has 40 calendar days in which to sign or veto bills lawmakers have passed during the last three months.

Puberty blockers bill fails in General Assembly

State Sen. Ben Watson

ATLANTA – Controversial legislation prohibiting the prescribing or administering of puberty blockers to minors experiencing gender dysphoria died in the General Assembly on the final day of this year’s session when the Georgia House declined to take it up.

The state Senate passed the Republican-backed bill 32-19 Thursday, voting along party lines. But the measure failed to reach the House floor for a vote before the gavel fell on the legislative session shortly before 1 a.m. Friday.

The bill aimed at puberty blockers for minors was part of a Republican legislative agenda pertaining to transgender youths that Democrats derided as politically motivated to appeal to GOP base voters. Earlier this week, the Senate passed legislation that would require students to use bathrooms that match the gender identify on their birth certificate and prohibit transgender male students from participating in girls’ sports.

“Surgery is irreversible. Puberty blockers are irreversible,” Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, chairman of the Senate Health and Health Services Committee, told his Senate colleagues before Thursday’s vote. “By participating in an unproven treatment, (doctors) may do real harm.”

But Senate Democrats argued that prohibiting puberty blockers for minors would let the government interfere with decisions that ought to be left to young people uncomfortable with the mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity, their parents, and their doctors.

“We have no business stripping parents and health-care providers of the right to save children,” said Sen. Sonya Halpern, D-Atlanta.

Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, said gender-affirming health care is supported by every credible medical organization in the nation.

But Watson said several European nations have tightened their laws governing puberty blockers for minors out of concern over their potential long-term effect. The United Kingdom’s National Health Service limits puberty blockers to clinical trials.

“They are not innocuous,” he said. “They have side effects.”

Elections bill clears General Assembly in final hour of ’24 session

State Rep. Saira Draper spoke out against sweeping changes to Georgia election laws

ATLANTA – The Republican-controlled General Assembly approved sweeping changes in Georgia’s election laws early Friday, one of the final actions of this year’s legislative session.

The state House of Representatives passed Senate Bill 189 101-73, with the Senate adopting the bill a short time later 33-22. Both votes fell along party lines.

The legislation cobbled together a series of election-reform bills that were introduced separately earlier in the 2024 session. Some of the provisions were not controversial, including the elimination of QR codes from paper ballots – which tended to confuse voters – and tightening the chain of custody of ballots on Election Day.

But other parts of the bill drew fire from legislative Democrats, who accused Republicans of suppressing the vote by making it easier for citizens to challenge voters’ eligibility. Mass challenges have been filed in some Georgia counties in recent years, gumming up the operations of local elections offices with meritless challenges, the vast majority of which ended up being dismissed.

“I can’t believe we’re still bending over to accommodate election deniers and conspiracy theorists,” said Rep. Saira Draper, D-Atlanta. “There’s a very vocal minority out there who will never be satisfied with our elections if they didn’t win.”

Republicans countered that ensuring “clean” voter rolls will provide the election integrity voters want.

“We’ve taken steps to give Georgians confidence in our elections,” House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, told reporters shortly after lawmakers adjourned the 2024 legislative session just before 1 a.m. Friday.

The bill now goes to GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, who is expected to sign it.

In other action on the final day of the ’24 session, lawmakers passed a Republican-backed measure  requiring local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal immigration authorities by notifying the U.S. Department of Homeland Security when they have a suspected illegal immigrant in custody. Those that don’t comply would face the loss of state funds.

The General Assembly also gave final passage in the wee hours Friday morning to legislation doubling the state’s homestead tax exemption to $4,000 and protecting teenagers from cyberbullying and other negative effects of social media, a top priority of Lt. Gov. Burt Jones.

State busts up smuggling ring at prisons that used drones

Man in prison hands of behind hold Steel cage jail bars. offender criminal locked in jail.

ATLANTA – The Georgia Department of Corrections and the FBI have broken up a multi-state criminal operation involving the use of drones to smuggle contraband into state prisons.

“Operation Skyhawk” has led to the arrest of 150 suspects, including eight prison employees who were immediately fired. Those arrested – including civilians, inmates, and prison staff – face more than 1,000 charges stemming from contraband introduction, drug trafficking, and possession of firearms, as well as racketeering.

“The success of ‘Operation Skyhawk’ should be a reminder to anyone – inside or outside our prisons – that we have zero tolerance and will take swift action against those who threaten the safe operations of our facilities and the safety of the public,” Corrections Commissioner Tyrone Oliver said Thursday. “I am immensely proud of our agents for their commitment to seeing that these individuals are brought to justice.”

Confiscated contraband thus far during the operation includes 87 drones, 22 weapons, 273 cellphones found inside state prisons, 180 civilian cellphones, 185 pounds of tobacco, 67 pounds in marijuana, 51 pounds of the drug Ecstasy, 12 pounds of methamphetamines, and 10 grams of cocaine. Altogether, the items have a combined street value of $7 million.

Lawmakers pass $36.1 billion state budget

The General Assembly passed the fiscal 2025 state budget Thursday night. (Photo by Beau Evans)

ATLANTA – The General Assembly gave final passage to a $36.1 billion fiscal 2025 state budget Thursday night, including raises for state employees and public school teachers as well as an 11th-hour influx of funding for Georgia’s Pre-Kindergarten program.

The spending plan, which passed the state House 175-1 and the Senate 54-1 in the final hours of this year’s legislative session, represents an increase of $3.7 billion over the fiscal 2024 budget lawmakers adopted last spring.

It includes 4% cost-of-living raises for most state and university system workers, with an additional $3,000 for employees in state agencies suffering large turnover rates, including law enforcement officers and welfare workers. Teachers would get increases of $2,500.

The budget also contains substantial increases in funding for various education initiatives, including $243 million to account for student enrollment growth, $200 million to buy more school buses, and $108 million in school safety grants to upgrade security on public school campuses. Every public school in Georgia will get grants of $45,000.

A late-arriving increase of $48.4 million would go to Georgia’s lottery-funded pre-kindergarten program, thanks to brisk lottery ticket sales. Gov. Brian Kemp announced late Wednesday he would revise his revenue estimate upward to make room for the additional funds.

“Ensuring Georgia’s children have the strongest possible start in their educational career continues to be a priority for my administration,” the governor wrote in a letter to the chairmen of the House and Senate Appropriations committees. “I am increasing my revenue estimate … to further address class size, teacher pay, and capital and operational needs critical to the continued success of our nationally recognized Pre-Kindergarten program.”

“We made progress for the first time in 30 years on pre-k,” added House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, R-Milton, who chaired the Working Group on Early Childhood Education, which released a report in January blaming declining pre-k enrollment on an inability to find teachers willing to work at state-funded salaries and inadequate state funding for opening and operating classrooms.

The ’25 budget also includes $10.7 million for a technology upgrade inside state prisons to head off a flood of cellphones being smuggled in to inmates. Another $18.6 million will boost reimbursement rates to health-care providers.

Lawmakers approved $6.3 million for free breakfasts and lunches for 64,000 children from low-income families.

In a departure from the usual policy of borrowing the funds for building projects, the state’s $16 billion budget surplus allowed the legislature to load up the spending plan with $1.2 billion in cash for a variety of projects. Of that amount, $866 million would go toward buildings at public schools, colleges and universities, and at state agencies.

The budget now heads to Kemp’s desk. Governors typically sign annual budgets in early May.