"America is a passionate idea or it is nothing. America is a human brotherhood or it is chaos."
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Legislative Update, Week 5 – February 9, 2018

The House kicked off the fifth week of the 2018 legislative session on Monday, February 5, and with only a few weeks left until “Cross Over Day,” we had a very busy legislative agenda to tackle. My House colleagues and I worked diligently this week to pass several noteworthy bills, including one of the most significant pieces of legislation of the entire session – House Bill 683, the Amended Fiscal Year 2018 (AFY 2018) budget.

After thorough consideration by the House Appropriations Committee and subcommittees, House Appropriations Chairman Terry England (R-Auburn) presented HB 683, the AFY 2018 budget, on the House floor on Tuesday, February 6. Following much discussion on the bill, the measure passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 167-8, and I will discuss some of the highlights of the amended 2018 budget.

The original state budget for fiscal year 2018, which was approved during the 2017 legislative session, set state spending at $24.9 billion. Since the Fiscal Year 2018 (FY 2018) budget was determined by estimated state revenue, we must pass an amended budget each year to account for any differences between estimated and actual state revenue. The AFY 2018 budget recognizes $306.7 million in additional state revenue, which is 1.2 percent more than the initial FY 2018 budget, and brings the total AFY 2018 budget to $25.3 billion. The amended version of the 2018 budget focuses this new revenue on required growth in education, healthcare and human services, and also provides targeted funding for key initiatives recommended by the House Rural Development Council (RDC) designed to spur development and meet needs in rural communities throughout the state.

Funding for education and related initiatives makes up some of the largest investments in the AFY 2018 budget. The original FY 2018 budget provided funding for an estimated number of full-time enrolled students, and the amended budget provides $102.1 million for enrollment growth for 7,515 additional students, as well as for charter system grants and State Commission Charter School supplements. The AFY 2018 budget also includes $15.5 million to purchase 200 new school buses for school systems statewide and provides $400,000 to establish a leadership academy for principals across the state. In addition to funding for K-12 education, the amended 2018 budget also contains appropriations for higher education in our state, such as $10.7 million to meet the needs of 4,720 new Dual Enrollment students and $10 million for the Board of Regents to cover the growing cost of graduate-level medical education at Augusta University. Finally, the AFY 2018 budget includes $8.1 million in lottery funds to keep up with the growing demand for HOPE and Zell Miller scholarships and $75,000 to plan for the Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovations, as recommend by the RDC.

Health and human services-related appropriations also make up some of the largest items in the amended 2018 budget. The AFY 2018 budget includes appropriations for many information technology and Medicaid infrastructure initiatives, such as $1 million to fund an electronic visit verification system for home and community-based services. Also, as recommended by Governor Nathan Deal, the House allocated funds in the AFY 2018 budget for initiatives for children diagnosed with autism, including $1.25 million for crisis services, $1.1 million to develop capacity for behavioral health services and $128,292 in existing funds for telehealth services. HB 683 also adds funding for a program coordinator position in the Department of Community Health and for a program support coordinator in the Department of Public Health to provide behavioral health services to children under 21 who are diagnosed with autism. Furthermore, the amended budget provides $15.1 million for out-of-home care growth for the rising number of children in Georgia’s foster care system, which has doubled since 2009. Following the recommendations of the RDC, the AFY 2018 budget also adds $100,000 for a statewide medical fair to recruit employees in rural areas, $75,000 for the Office of Rural Health to identify a postsecondary institution within our state to house the Rural Center for Health Care Innovation and Sustainability and $1 million for more behavioral health crisis stabilization beds.

There are several other important appropriations in the 2018 amended budget to meet a variety of critical needs across our state. One such allocation is $10 million to the OneGeorgia Authority to fund beach nourishment projects in communities that were impacted by Hurricane Irma, which caused tremendous destruction and devastation across Georgia’s coastal region last year. The amended 2018 budget also adds $10 million to replenish Gov. Deal’s emergency fund and $3 million to purchase equipment to prevent and combat wildfires. The amended 2018 includes additional funds for projects to meet the wide-ranging needs of our state, such as $25.2 million to lengthen rural runways to accommodate larger aircrafts in an effort to increase economic development and investment in the Georgia’s rural communities, $5 million for the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to implement the statewide criminal justice e-filing initiative and $500,000 for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to purchase supplies needed to process DNA sexual assault kits.

The House carefully crafted this year’s amended budget to address the diverse and sometimes unpredictable needs of our state and its citizens, and HB 683 is now being reviewed by our counterparts in the Senate. With the passage of the “small budget,” our House Appropriations subcommittees have now shifted their focus to the Fiscal Year 2019 state budget.
In addition to passing the amended state budget this week, the House also overwhelmingly passed House Bill 700, a military-friendly measure that would update and expand the National Guard Service Cancelable Loan program to cover the cost of graduate degree programs for National Guard members. HB 700 would ensure that these loans, which are used to repay the cost of tuition in exchange for National Guard service, do not exceed the cost of tuition and would also require loan recipients to remain in good standing with the National Guard and serve two consecutive years upon graduation. National Guard members interested in the Service Cancelable Loan program would be required to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and utilize all available funding before seeking the loan. Currently, these loans are limited to undergraduate degree programs and public postsecondary technical or vocational schools, and this program is a proven tool that helps our state recruit and retain National Guard members. About 228 National Guard members currently participate in this program, and extending the program to the graduate level would add about 50 individuals to the program annually and allow Georgia to remain competitive with our neighboring states that have similar legislation.

My colleagues and I passed another military-friendly measure this week, House Bill 699. HB 699 would allow firefighters who have served as members of the armed forces to be exempt from firefighter basic training. Current law requires all firefighters to successfully complete a basic training course within one year of their hire date, and the Georgia Firefighter Standards and Training Council determines the content and duration of this course. However, HB 699 would allow individuals who have trained as a member of the United States armed forces, United States Coast Guard, Georgia National Guard or Georgia Air National Guard to present documentation of such training to the council and receive a firefighter basic training certificate of completion. This bill would make it easier for Georgia’s veterans to begin a career as a firefighter as a result of their service and the sacrifices they have made for our country and state.

In an effort to address Georgia’s current opioid crisis, the House overwhelmingly passed House Bill 701 on Monday, February 5. HB 701 would update Georgia law by allowing our state to test candidates for all forms of opioids during state employment drug testing but would not affect those with valid and legal opioid prescriptions. The federal government recently added opioids to federal drug testing laws, and HB 701 would modify state law to reflect this national change. According to the Substance Abuse Research Alliance, Georgia is ranked 11th in the nation in opioid overdoses, and 68 percent of Georgia’s 1,307 drug overdoses in 2015 were caused by opioids and heroin. The General Assembly has worked diligently in recent years to pass measures to tackle Georgia’s devastating opioid crisis, and HB 701 is another piece of legislation aimed at fighting our state’s opioid epidemic.

The House also passed a bill this week that would help protect Georgia’s most vulnerable citizens, our children. House Bill 655 would require public schools, as well as local and state charter schools, to post signs with the toll-free phone number of the child abuse hotline in clearly visible, public areas. This 24/7 hotline is operated by the Division of Family and Children Services and the Department of Human Services and allows students to report incidents of child abuse or neglect to trusted individuals. Twenty-seven other states have passed similar legislation, and if HB 655 is signed into law, Georgia would join these states in this effort to stop child abuse nationwide.

Finally, I would like to update you on the status of House Bill 159, the adoption bill. After much anticipation, the Senate overwhelmingly passed HB 159 on Monday, February 5. The final version of HB 159, as passed by the General Assembly, would update Georgia’s adoption laws for the first time in almost three decades and streamline and expedite all types of adoptions in Georgia, allowing thousands of children to more quickly and efficiently find their forever families. State Representative Bert Reeves (R-Marietta), who authored HB 159, spent nearly two-and-a-half years refining the bill, and its final passage on Monday was a major victory for all of Georgia’s current and future foster care children, birth mothers and adoptive parents. This legislation is one of the first bills of the 2018 legislative session to go to the governor’s desk for final approval, and I am proud to see such a significant and meaningful measure pass the General Assembly.

Thursday, February 8, marked legislative Day 18, and my House colleagues and I are almost halfway through the 40-day legislative session. As your representative under the Gold Dome, your thoughts and opinions are important to me, and I want to know which issues are significant to you and your family. If you find yourself in Atlanta during the legislative session, please feel free to visit my Capitol office, which is located at 608C CLOB. You may also call my Capitol office at 404-656-0298, or email me at [email protected]

As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your state representative.

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