Gold Dome Report - February 2020 #10

Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP

After hearing a State of the Judiciary Address from Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton focused on improving access to justice across the state and increasing cybersecurity in the courts, legislators embarked on a committee schedule full of weighty issues today. The Senate Education and Youth Committee held its first hearing on SB 386, Sen. Renee Unterman’s (R-Buford) effort to expand the scope of the state’s Special Needs Scholarship Program, which drew a large crowd of proponents and opponents. Later, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard SB 435, Sen. Brian Strickland’s (R-McDonough) bill promoted by First Lady Marty Kemp and Governor Brian Kemp aimed at helping human trafficking victims restrict criminal records associated with that trafficking. More details inside today’s #GoldDomeReport.

In today’s Report:

  • Committee Reports
  • New Legislation
  • Rules Calendars for Legislative Day 20

Committee Reports

Senate Education and Youth Committee

The Senate Education and Youth Committee, chaired by Sen. P.K. Martin (R-Lawrenceville), met you consider one bill today. SB 386, authored by Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford), expands Georgia’s Special Needs Scholarship to allow any student with a Section 504 Plan to be eligible to receive funds. The bill also removes the prior year attendance requirement for children who attended special education Pre-K and children adopted from foster care. Sen. Unterman stated that she was in the legislature when the program was first created, and advocates acted “as if the sky was falling.” She said the actual cost and impact have been small, and she does not expect this bill to have a substantial cost or detrimental impact to public schools either.

Sen. Matt Brass (R-Newnan) asked what diagnoses could be eligible for a voucher under the bill, to which Sen. Unterman suggested major traumatic events like car accidents. Sen. Brass noted that such would be a temporary condition. Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) asked how temporary conditions might be reassessed, to which Hannah Heck of the American Federation for Children stated they are open to suggestions of how to address these types of concerns. Sen. Lester Jackson (D-Savannah) asked who makes diagnoses to initiate a Section 504 plan development, to which Ms. Heck said it varies by school district. Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-Marietta) encouraged adherence to the purpose of SB 10, which created the Special Needs Scholarship, and the requirement of a third-party diagnosis of a major physical or emotional disorder. Sen. Freddie Powell Sims (D-Dawson) expressed concern that the American Federation for Children is described as a “dark money organization” that promotes private school agendas and asked whether the bill is really about serving special needs or expanding school vouchers.

Chairman Martin noted that he believes there is a special needs population that needs help, but the legislation needs tightening up. He stated that he believed “parents won’t be gaming the system,” and committed to work with the author to tighten up the bill.

Public testimony was extensive and included:

  • A mother of a special needs child whose son was ridiculed and ostracized at a private Pre-K spoke in opposition.
  • A developmental and intellectual disability advocate expressed concern about the lack of data and accountability in voucher programs and the abandonment of federal protections through acceptance of vouchers.
  •  A mother who chose private education for her dyslexic son spoke in support of the bill.
  • Jimmy Stokes of the Georgia Association of Education Leaders spoke in opposition of the bill, noting that IEPs and Section 504 Plans have different purposes and processes and lumping them together is not fair for either.
  • Jeff James of the Bedford School, a private school for learning differences, spoke in favor of the bill.
  • A student from the Bedford School spoke in favor of the bill.
  • Stephen Owens of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute spoke in opposition to the bill, noting that the bill would abandon federal protections for the disabled that have been hard-fought for the past 40 years.
  • Gretchen Walton of Cobb County Schools spoke in opposition and called for sharing of more information on Section 504s, which are incredibly broad.
  • Charlie Miller of the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency expressed concerns with the bill, noting that it does not adequately protect disabled children.

The Committee took no action on the bill and did not indicate its plan for the legislation.

House Higher Education Committee

The House Higher Education Committee, chaired by Rep. Chuck Martin (R-Alpharetta), met to consider two bills today.

  • HB 736, authored by Rep. Dave Belton (R-Buckhead), amends Title 20 to establish a loan forgiveness program for teachers who agree to teach in a turnaround school in a high demand subject area. Rep. Belton presented a substitute to the bill today that includes much more detail from the as-filed version. Specifically, the legislation expands eligibility to turnaround and the most rural schools (approximately 325 schools) and requires the Department of Education to select the 100 most needy schools for eligibility. Local school boards would then be allowed to decide what types of teachers are in “high demand” and eligible for loan forgiveness. The program would provide each such teacher with $3,000 in loan forgiveness per year for up to five years, and it would be limited to 1,000 teachers at any given time (creating an annual maximum cost of $3,000,000). Chairman Martin recommended making the loan forgiveness a tax credit. The Committee took no action on the bill today pending additional changes.
  • HB 840, authored by Rep. Marcus Wiedower (R-Watkinsville), amends Title 20 relating to review of nonpublic postsecondary educational institutions. The Committee took no action on the bill during today’s meeting.

Ad Valorem Tax Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee

The Ad Valorem Tax Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Rep. David Knight (R-Griffin) met this afternoon to consider two measures, both authored by Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Savannah).

Rep. Stephens explained that both of the measures, HB 829 and HR 962, allow local school systems to hold a referendum election to authorize a homestead exemption for individuals 65 or older up to 20% of the real property value. The resolution calls for a constitutional amendment and the bill provides for the enacting language. Both the bill and resolution received a recommendation DO PASS from the subcommittee.

House Appropriations – Education Subcommittee

The Subcommittee heard three presentations this afternoon in an effort to provide more clarity around the FY 2021 Budget requests. There was no public testimony taken.

  • Georgia Professional Standards Commission – Matt Arthur spoke to the more than $470,000 cut proposed to the FY 2021 budget from the FY 2020 spending proposal. In essence, staffing changes were taken to meet the number required; some folks have been moved to part-time; more travel cuts were taken; reducing offsite events (such as HR presentations); eliminating vacant positions; and increasing use of webinars. Commissioner Arthur stated that his agency kept education preparation, ethics and certification efforts intact. He did acknowledge that his agency receives no direct funding; teacher testing fees are paid to the actual testing companies. There are 71 providers (e.g. colleges/universities) and 899 approved programs. He indicated that PPEM (preparation education monitor) looks at colleges and universities to see how they are preparing teachers. He further noted that strategic waivers and charter systems want their teachers to be certified by the Commission. In FY 2019, there were 311,000 individuals with active credentials and the Commission issued 118,000 new certificates. Commissioner Arthur also noted that the Commission is the host to “TeachGA” and has the Troops to Teacher program (which is in its second year). Further, the agency works closely with the Departments of Educations and Early Care and Learning. They have received a number of ethics complaints – as many as 130 monthly and as of January 2020, there were 382 cases waiting to be handled. The Commission presently has seven investigators (with law enforcement backgrounds) and one paralegal. Chairman Robert Dickey (R-Musella) had questions around the requirements placed on new teachers – in particular their testing costs which are $681 (nurses to be certified are less – apparently around $400) and those costs arrive in the last semester when students have run out of Pell Grant dollars and HOPE funds. Chairman Dickey is interested in what can be done to address this cost. Rep. Randy Nix (R-LaGrange) indicated he was concerned by the backlog of ethics cases and whether there was sufficient staffing to handle those cases – Commissioner Arthur indicated that an added investigator would be helpful. Rep. Valencia Stovall (D-Forest Park) asked questions around training for HR personnel; this training is not only districts but also individual schools.
  • Department of Education – Transportation – Pat Schofield provided an update on transportation of pupils. Over the last two years, the General Assembly has provided $50 million for transportation. The school buses across the state comprise the largest mass fleet in the state; there are 20,200 school buses and of those 14,761 are driven daily on routes, transporting students to and from school. Of those 20,200 buses, 5,714 are out of the “life cycle” (which is ten years for a Type C and 14 years for a Type B). Sixty percent of Georgia students use the buses daily with 771,000 miles driven daily and a total of 140 million miles annually (excluding extracurricular activity travel).Funding for school buses is in part derived from the QBE formula; there is also bond funding used as well. The total cost for transportation in FY 2019 was $936 million. He stressed that funding for transportation for 2020 is not at the level it was in 2009. Mr. Schofield further stressed the need for safety of the buses – such as stop arm lights, brake system updates, air doors; and etc. There is also new technology available including electronic stability controls; camera systems; fire suppression; and crash avoidance features. There are 4,136 buses in the fleet which are more than 14 years old and those buses do not have many of the safety features. Rep. Stovall inquired about energy efficient buses purchased – yes, there were incentives for those buses of $8,000 per bus and the state put forth a bid for the purchase of those buses. In FY 2019, there were 325 propane powered buses. Rep. Todd Jones inquired if all districts provide school transportation – all but two do so (one in west Georgia and one in northwest Georgia). He also asked about the carve out of students near schools who do not access transportation; that is found in O.C.G.A. § 20-2-188 (which is 1.5 miles within the school; so the LEA makes those decisions). He also asked about autonomous vehicles being considered for use; there are incentives for electric buses and two districts have made those purchases. There was a new formula created two years ago for districts’ purchases of buses.
  • State Schools – The Atlanta School for the Deaf described more of its services and children served. This particular school is the youngest of the “state’s schools” and began its elementary school in 1972 and middle and high schools in 1978. The school primarily serves children in Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett and Macon-Bibb. Each district is responsible for pupil transportation but the school itself provides transportation for special events. The school employs 92 personnel; 28 of those are teachers. The students served are in pre-k through 12th grade. They follow the state’s testing and graduation standards and provide support for their students. They also have CTAE with six pathways (plant and landscaping, audiovisual, technology, graphic arts, internet, and nutrition. They have 17 graduating seniors; five of those have been accepted to four-year colleges and several others are going to two-year schools. The Committee also brought up the mobile audiology unit which has been created through funding by the General Assembly. In part it is to help address students in rural areas who may not have been identified with hearing loss issues at early ages and provide not only assessments but early interventions and supports. There was a change in the law which now requires hearing assessments every six months (through language assessment) for deaf children. This mobile unit is staffed with two pediatric audiologists and speech-language pathologist.

House Juvenile Justice Committee

Rep. Matt Dubnik chaired today’s meeting in the absence of Chairman Mandi Ballinger (R-Canton). The Committee passed out a new Substitute on HB 913 which is a clean up bill from the massive overhaul of Georgia’s adoption laws which was done two years ago. Rep. Bert Reeves (R-Marietta) presented HB 913 for a second time and discussed four amendments proposed to address fraud and illegal inducements done by individuals in exploiting adoptive parents. Currently, there is no such crime and no recourse provided to victims of such crimes. The amendments address the use of a victim of “substantial financial resources” and provides for tort recovery. The Committee gave HB 913 substitute, as amended, a DO PASS recommendation, moving it forward to the House Rules Committee.

Rep. Reeves presented a second bill, HB 912, for consideration which addresses temporary caregivers for foster care children. Division of Families and Children Services Director Tom Rawlings spoke to the proposal noting it was about providing a practical change and a common sense reform as the federal law allows for such. He spoke to the Reasonable and Prudent Parenting Standards and urged the Committee to treat foster parents like they are deemed to be – they are licensed foster parents. The bill applies to foster parents who are DFCS foster parents and those from private child placing agencies. The changes will also help recruit new parents and assist with volunteer efforts. Rep. Wes Cantrell (R-Woodstock) indicated he was grateful for the legislation as it was common sense. Rep. Shelly Hutchinson (D-Duluth) inquired about which federal law allows flexibility; that law was passed in 2013. Further Rep. Hutchinson asked what DFCS was doing to help youth who are sixteen to get their driver licenses; Director Rawlings indicated that the discussion involved liability and insurance. Rep. David Wilkerson (D-Powder Springs) asked why it was permitting a person who was 18 to provide this ability to babysit foster care children; he thought it would be better to require that the person be 21 years of age. No vote was taken on this bill.

Finally, Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), presented HB 958 which is his Maternity Supportive Housing Act. It is similar to SB 307 by Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford). The legislation is to permit more of these nonprofit homes provide housing to young women who are single moms with newborns between ages of 18-20. These homes would not have the same regulation that homes have when serving individuals under 18 in similar types of programs. No other services would be provided; these homes would provide housing. There were a number of questions raised by Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Atlanta) especially around what is being avoided – such as local codes and regulations. There was no vote taken at this meeting on HB 958.

Powell Subcommittee of the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee

The Powell Subcommittee of the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Rep. Alan Powell (R-Hartwell), met this afternoon to consider multiple bills.

  • HB 903, authored by Rep. Matt Dollar (R-Marietta), gives law enforcement the ability to ticket the owner of a vehicle pulled over for a violation related to the condition of the vehicle if the driver is in the car but not driving. The bill received a motion DO PASS.
  • HB 883, authored by Rep. Carl Gilliard (D-Garden City), creates the Georgia Gang Prevention and Intervention Task Force. Rep. Gilliard explained that this bill is the result of a study committee which found that many stakeholders testified about a lack of wraparound services to divert children from gang related activities. Rep. Becky Evans (D-Atlanta) thanked Rep. Gilliard for this bill and noted that it is important to find solutions to gang related crime beyond simply incarcerating offenders. Polly McKinney from Voices for Georgia’s Children suggested that the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council within the Department of Juvenile Justice might be a better host for the task force than DFCS. Chairman Powell expressed concerns that the membership of the task force is focused on the Metro-Atlanta area and does not cover the entire state. He noted that the gang violence problem is statewide and suggested that the bill be restructured to reflect this fact. Rep. Gilliard explained that his intent was for the task force to have a statewide makeup, and was open to amendments or changes to better accomplish this goal but cautioned the subcommittee against making too many changes that prevent the bill from passing before crossover day. The subcommittee did not take action on the bill today and will work with Rep. Gilliard on changes.
  • HR 1008, authored by Rep. Gerald Greene (R-Cuthbert), urges the State Board of Pardons and Paroles to issue a posthumous pardon for Susan Eberhart. The resolution received a recommendation DO PASS.
  • HB 917 was not heard due to time constraints.

New Legislation

The following legislation of interest was introduced in the House today:

  • HB 1015, by Representative Marcus Wiedower (R-Watkinsville), seeks to amend Georgia’s Carbon Sequestration Registry Act at O.C.G.A. § 12-6-220 et seq. In part, it addresses the purposes of this Registry so as to now require that it also include the ability to enable participants to voluntarily record carbon sequestration from the utilization of building materials that sequester carbon dioxide. It further requires that the Director establish the Sustainable Building Material Carbon Sequestration Technical Advisory Committee which will consist of up to seven individuals. The legislation further outlines participants’ reporting of their certified carbon sequestration results – which will include sequestration of carbon dioxide from standing trees and utilization of building materials which sequester carbon dioxide. It also adds requirements for the State Forestry Commission including that it review its standards for the registry program and publish a listing of certified organizations. This bill was referred to the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee.
  • HB 1024, by Representative Mark Newton (R-Augusta), seeks to amend Georgia’s Certificate of Need laws in O.C.G.A. § 31-6-2(16.05). It proposes to provide for free-standing emergency departments under the state’s CON program and provide for an exemption from CON for those with one inpatient beds for behavioral health patients and for free-standing emergency departments in rural counties. This bill was referred to the House Special Committee on Access to Quality Healthcare.
  • HB 1026, by Rep. Robert Dickey (R-Musella), seeks to address Georgia’s REACH Scholarship program in O.C.G.A. § 20-3-499 to amend the number of REACH scholars in districts. It decreases the number of REACH scholars in school districts with five or more high schools from 12 to 8 and in school districts with less than five high schools from 7 to 5 such districts. This bill was referred to the House Education Committee.
  • HB 1027, by Representative Lee Hawkins (R-Gainesville), seeks to amend Chapter 64 of Title 33 relating to regulation and licensure of pharmacy benefit managers. New definitions are added and it further proposes to require that pharmacy benefit managers annually report aggregate amounts of all pharmacy rebates but also to calculate enrollee’s defined cost sharing for each prescription drug at the point of sale based on a price that is reduced by an amount equal to at least 80 percent of all rebates received , or to be received, in conjunction with the dispensing or administration of the prescription drug. This bill was referred to the House Special Committee on Access to Quality Healthcare.

The following legislation of interest was introduced in the Senate today:

  • SB 439, by Senator Matt Brass (R-Newnan), seeks to amend Chapter 11 of Title 15, relating to the Juvenile Code, so as to provide for enhanced notice to and improved participation of foster, pre-adoptive, and relative caregivers in certain hearings; to provide for the court's consideration of issues relevant to a child's placement, care, well-being, and permanency raised by such persons; and to require certain findings be made by the court. This bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • SB 440, by Senator Bruce Thompson (R-White), seeks to amend Chapter 2 of Title 20, relating to elementary and secondary education, so as to provide that certain individuals between ages 21 and 35 may be eligible to enroll in a charter school that provides instruction only for over-age students. It further proposes to provide for an exception to the maximum age of eligibility for enrollment; authorize local boards of education or the State Charter Schools Commission to approve charter schools that serve only an over-age population; provide for funding for such charter schools; and provide for an effective date and applicability. This bill was referred to the Senate Education and Youth Committee.
  • SB 443, by Senator Jesse Stone (R-Waynesboro), seeks to amend Chapter 4 of Title 18, relating to garnishment proceedings, so as to revise procedures for garnishment proceedings and provide for uniform procedures for garnishment actions. It also seeks to limit the maximum part of disposable earnings subject to garnishment in relation to certain educational or student loans (and also amends Article 7 of Chapter 3 of Title 20 regarding these scholarships, loans and grants) and provide a fixed time for continuous garnishments. This bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • SB 444, by Senator Harold Jones, II (D-Augusta), seeks to amend Chapter 1 of Title 22, regarding eminent domain, so as to provide for an alternative process for a county, municipality, or consolidated government to condemn certain blighted properties and proposes to provide for the procedures relating to same. This bill was referred to the Senate Government Oversight Committee.
  • SR 818, by Senator Greg Dolezal (R-Cumming), seeks to amend the State’s Constitution to clarify that only citizens of the United States have a right to vote in elections in Georgia. Further, it seeks to provide for the submission of this amendment for ratification or rejection. This resolution was referred to the Senate Government Oversight Committee.
  • SR 826, by Senator Larry Walker (R-Perry), seeks to recognize the Statewide Independent Living Council for its “Day at the Capitol” on March 3, 2020. This resolution was read and adopted.

Rules Calendars for Legislative Day 20

The House is expected to consider the following measures on Wednesday for Legislative Day 20:

  • HB 378 - Revenue and taxation; collection and remittance of excise taxes on rental motor vehicles by marketplace facilitators that are dealers that facilitate the rental or lease of five or more rental motor vehicles; require (Substitute)(W&M-Williamson-115th)
  • HB 808 - Alternative ad valorem tax; motor vehicles; revise a definition (Substitute)(Trans-Momtahan-17th)
  • HB 838 - Law enforcement officers and agencies; Office of Public Safety Officer Support; change the name (PS&HS-Hitchens-161st)
  • HB 846 - Revenue and taxation; interest paid on refunds of overpayments of taxes and past due taxes shall be equal to the bank prime loan rate; provide (Substitute)(W&M-Corbett-174th) (Rules Committee Substitute LC 43 1586S)
  • HB 861 - Motor vehicles; commercial carriers; amend certain definitions (MotV-Wiedower-119th)

The Senate is expected to consider the following measures on Wednesday for Legislative Day 20:

  • SB 316 - Military Spouses; licensed in other states to practice certain professions; obtain a license by endorsement to practice in this state; provide (Substitute) (VM&HS-14th)
  • SB 320 - Sexual Offender Registration Review Board; sexually dangerous predators who fail to verify or update registration information; provide penalty (PUB SAF-54th)
  • SB 377 - Inspections; number of required annual elevator inspections; reduce (Substitute) (I&L-25th)

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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