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Legislative Session Update 2017 for week 11

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The Georgia General Assembly reconvened under the Gold Dome this past Monday, March 20 for day 36 of the 2017 legislative session. Sine die is less than a week away, and the House had another busy week of reviewing legislation in committee hearings, voting on bills and resolutions on the House floor and giving final passage to several bills that will now be considered by Governor Deal. In these remaining days and weeks of the session, one might assume that our Capitol business is winding down, but on the contrary, we have especially ramped up our House efforts to perfect legislation before the 2017 session comes to an end.

This week, the House overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 206, also known as the Hearing Aid Coverage for Children Act, a bipartisan measure that would provide hearing aids to children in Georgia. This bill would require that health insurance plans in Georgia cover the cost of hearing aids for children 18-years-old and under who have been diagnosed with hearing loss. Hearing aid coverage would be limited to $3,000 per hearing aid, and insurers would be required to repair or replace one hearing aid per hearing-impaired ear every 48 months for those who are covered. Additionally, insurance plans would cover all medically necessary services and supplies, including the initial hearing aid evaluation and all follow-up appointments. The bill clarifies that these requirements would not prohibit a health benefit plan from providing more generous coverage to an insured individual, nor can a health benefit policy deny coverage to an individual because he or she was previously diagnosed with hearing loss. Hearing loss is one of the most prevalent defects in children from birth to age three, and early intervention is critical for these children, as oftentimes hearing loss can result in speech and literacy deficiencies. Providing hearing aids to children suffering from hearing loss would not only reduce state costs associated with hearing loss, as the state currently covers the cost of special education, alternative treatments and other necessities for children with hearing loss, but would, more importantly, provide deserving children in Georgia with hearing aids and allow children with hearing loss to lead an unaffected life.

This legislative session, the House has passed several measures to improve our state’s military installations and honor and improve the lives of our active duty military personnel, families and veterans. Continuing in these efforts, the House unanimously passed Senate Bill 108 this week, which would instruct the Department of Veterans Service to create and maintain a women veterans’ office to better serve Georgia’s nearly 100,000 female veterans. The women veterans’ office would conduct outreach to female veterans to inform them of federal and state veterans’ benefits and services eligibility, as well as assess the specific needs of women veterans regarding benefits and services. The office would also review programs, research projects and other initiatives designed specifically to aid Georgia’s women veterans, with a focus on issues such as child care and military sexual trauma. Furthermore, the women veterans’ office would recruit and train women veterans to serve as mentors for those participating in a veterans’ court division, which provides an alternative to the traditional judicial system for cases involving a veteran defendant. Women veterans oftentimes have different needs than those of their male counterparts, and it is essential that the General Assembly leads the way in ensuring that Georgia meets the unique needs of our female veterans.

Another military friendly measure that passed this week was House Resolution 462. HR 462 was adopted unanimously and further confirms the House’s commitment to strengthening Georgia’s military installations and supporting our troops, their families and our veterans. House Resolution 462 reaffirms the House’s dedication to our military personnel by signaling that the House would take all actions it deems appropriate to improve their quality of life, empower them to contribute to our nation’s defenses and maximize the value of our military installations. HR 462 reiterates the House’s sincere desire that the State of Georgia remains integral to our national defense. Georgia has the fifth largest military population in the country, and with an annual impact of $20 billion, our military is one of our state’s biggest economic drivers. The Department of Defense directly employs almost 150,000 Georgians and is indirectly responsible for an estimated 330,000 additional jobs in the state. Furthermore, our state is home to approximately 750,000 veterans, making Georgia state the eighth largest state in terms of veteran population in the nation. There is a real and relevant threat of federal base downsizing and closure due to future federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), and in anticipation of future BRAC proceedings, the House has passed many bills and resolutions that support our military bases and service members this session. We are proud to support our armed forces, and by reaffirming our commitment to the military and adopting HR 462, we are sure to continue this trend of passing military friendly legislation into the future.

Over the past several years, we have seen significant advances in the technology behind self-driving vehicles, and many states have passed legislation allowing these ‘futuristic’ cars to operate on state roadways. This week, the House passed similar legislation in Senate Bill 219 that would amend Georgia’s motor vehicle laws and allow fully autonomous vehicles to operate on Georgia’s roadways. SB 219 would let Georgians operate fully autonomous vehicles without the presence of a human driver. In order to operate, the vehicles would be required to have an engaged automated driving system that would obey all traffic laws and would have to be certified by the manufacturer that the vehicle complies with federal motor vehicle safety standards, covered by motor vehicle liability coverage and registered as a fully autonomous vehicle. Further, in the event of vehicle failure, the vehicle would be required to have the ability to achieve a low-risk operating mode to bring the vehicle to a reasonably safe state or a complete stop, and in the event of an accident, the autonomous vehicle would have to remain on the scene while the vehicle’s operator reports it to local law enforcement officers. Because vehicles with automated driving systems do not require a human driver, SB 219 would exempt those operating autonomous vehicles from Georgia’s driver’s license requirements and would hold the autonomous vehicle occupants responsible for complying with Georgia’s safety belt and child passenger restraining system requirements. Without a doubt, autonomous vehicles could have great impacts on our state by increasing mobility, reducing congestion, improving land use and positioning Georgia for future growth. As this technology quickly develops and changes, our laws and regulations must also evolve, and the passage of this legislation is an exciting and innovative step that will bring this new technology to Georgia.

Throughout his time in office, Governor Deal has made it his mission to transform Georgia’s criminal justice system, giving offenders a second chance, saving taxpayers money and enhancing public safety in Georgia. To further expand upon these reforms, the House overwhelmingly passed three criminal justice reform bills this week: Senate Bill 174, Senate Bill 175 and Senate Bill 176. SB 174 would allow the Council of Accountability Court Judges to establish a peer review and certification process to guarantee that veteran court divisions are following the council’s standards and are adhering to the same policies, procedures, and standards of other accountability courts in Georgia. This would ensure continuity across accountability courts in the state, which has proved to be viable alternatives to adult incarceration for criminal offenders. SB 174 would also allow the Board of Community Supervision to offer educational, skills-based programs for probationers to encourage employment and successful reentry into society. Additionally, SB 174 would give judges the ability to require fines, fees or restitution payments as a probation condition with the option to waive the payment if the court finds a significant hardship. This measure would also allow the Department of Community Supervision to terminate probation if the probationer has served three years, paid all restitution owed, has not had their probation revoked and has not been arrested for anything other than a non-serious traffic offense. SB 175 would allow juvenile court judges to issue parental compliance orders in cases involving a delinquent child in order to promote the child’s rehabilitation and welfare and encourage parental involvement. SB 175 would also expand a court’s options when determining how to proceed in cases involving a child that has been deemed incompetent but has committed a crime. Currently, these children are released within five days of an incompetent determination, regardless of the threat the child poses to the public, but under SB 175, a court would be allowed to temporarily detain these juveniles who pose a threat to public safety. Finally, SB 176 would offer a lower cost alternative to arrest and incarceration when an individual fails to appear in court for a non-serious traffic violation. Under SB 176, an individual who commits a minor traffic violation would be issued a traffic citation, and the officer would then release the individual for further appearance before the proper judicial officer. If the individual fails to appear for court, the court would notify the accused a second time by mail before issuing a bench warrant, giving the individual 30 days to dispose of the charge or waive arraign and plead not guilty. These landmark criminal justice reforms have been nationally recognized and emulated in other states across the country, and these measures will continue to build upon Governor Deal’s efforts in promoting rehabilitation and productive citizenry and enhance Georgia’s already remarkable criminal justice reform legacy.

Each legislative session, the General Assembly is constitutionally required to pass a balanced state budget, and this week both the House and Senate gave final approval to House Bill 44, the Fiscal Year 2018 state budget. The FY 2018 budget guides all state spending from July 1, 2017, to June 30, 2018, and the final version of HB 44 resulted from the collaborative efforts of a conference committee made up of House and Senate members. HB 44 was set by a revenue estimate of $24.9 billion, a $1.25 billion increase from the original 2017 state budget, and addresses some of our state’s critical needs and moves our state forward for our citizens. HB 44 focuses on our state’s most vulnerable citizens and includes funding for many of the House’s top priorities, such as child welfare, military communities and services members and rural communities. For example, the FY 2018 budget allocates funds to support those who care for our state’s vulnerable children, including a per diem rate for foster parents, additional Division of Family and Children Services positions to provide foster parent support services, additional Court Appointed Special Advocates to advocate on behalf of our children and an hourly rate increase for Special Assistant Attorneys General who support child welfare cases. Additionally, HB 44 supports our military population by providing funds for additional school counselors in school systems with large military student populations, additional scholarships for Georgia National Guard members and additional veterans support positions. Furthermore, to assist with health care in Georgia’s rural communities, the 2018 budget expands the loan repayment programs for rural medical providers and creates four Federally Qualified Health Centers in rural counties. Other highlights of the final version of HB 44 include: $162 million for a 2 percent adjustment to the state teacher salary schedule to provide raises to more than 126,000 teachers in Georgia, as well as a 2 percent salary increase for bus drivers and school nutrition personnel; $1,000,000 for the implementation of HB 338 to improve the academic achievement of the lowest performing schools in the state to ensure those students have an opportunity for success; $1.5 million for the Public School Employees Retirement System; $38.9 million in lottery funds for the Georgia Student Finance Commission to increase the HOPE Scholarship award amount by 3 percent to meet demands; $4.1 million for Georgia Alzheimer’s Project to promote early detection and treatment; $358,996 for the Department of Veterans Service for four veteran benefits training officers and $137,650 for one coordinator position to work with female veterans; $55.5 million to annualize the 20 percent pay raise for state-level law enforcement officers and salary adjustment for criminal investigators and canine officers; $1.2 million to increase funds for cyber insurance premiums for the Department of Administrative services to purchase private market insurance; and $2.6 million to support forensic pathologists and scientists at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to hire new DNA scientists to address and test backlogged rape kits per SB 304 from the 2016 session. While there are many, many more budget items that reflect the diverse and wide-ranging needs of our state’s population, these are just a few of the highlights. HB 44 is a win for each one of Georgia’s 10 million plus citizens and is sure to have long-term, positive impacts on our state. The FY 2018 budget now heads to Governor Deal’s desk for his final approval.

Friday, March 24 marked legislative day 38, and with only two legislative days remaining to complete our business at your State Capitol, my fellow House members and I will be quickly and efficiently reviewing and passing quality legislation to send to Governor Deal. During this last week of the 2017 legislative session, it is especially important to me that I consider your opinions and understand your concerns, so please do not hesitate to contact me to express your thoughts on any pending House or Senate legislation.

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