2014 General Assembly Session Legislative Review

The 2014 legislative session came to a frenetic end on March 20th as the House adjourned at midnight. While several headlining bills hit procedural snags and failed to pass both the House and the Senate, the legislature did fulfill their constitutional obligation to pass a budget and passed several bills that strengthened educational opportunities, enabled low- income families to work towards home ownership, and celebrated the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Here is a review of the session:

Spencer’s Legislation:

Spencer introduced and passed House Bill 750. This legislation allows for non-profit organizations that promote access to affordable housing to be exempt from the requirement of getting a state license to offer low-interest mortgages. HB 750 passed the House by a vote of 164 to 2 and the Senate by a vote of 45 to 10. The bill now sits on the Governor’s desk awaiting his signature.

The Fiscal Year 2015 Budget:

Spencer also supported the passage of the fiscal year 2015 budget which passed the House by a vote of 166 to 2 and the Senate by a vote of 49-0. State revenues rebounded to pre- recession levels in this year’s budget, allowing investments in education that return the school year to a full 180 days in most districts. There were funding increases for K-12 education, Medicaid and PeachCare, the State Employee Retirement System, the Board of Regents Health Plan, State Employee and Board of Regents salaries, and a Department of Justice Settlement Agreement.

Despite the increases, there is still a long way to go for Georgia to return to making sufficient investments in the foundations of our economy. According to GBPI analysis, 40% of new funds for K-12 education simply cover the growth in the number of Georgia students. Funding on a per-student basis is still lower than it was in 2002. The Great Recession presented Georgia with significant financial challenges in providing the needed investments to programs like education, however if Georgia wants to continue to be a national leader in economic growth and quality of life, we must commit to these investments.

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Source: Georgia Budget and Policy Institute

Legislation Spencer Supported:

Spencer supported several other pieces of legislation that will help strengthen Georgia programs and honor our state’s history. House Bill 697, introduced by State Representative Stacey Evans, builds on her work in 2013. After reducing the GPA requirement to 2.0 for the HOPE Grant Scholarship, her efforts in 2014 continued to expand the HOPE Grant by creating the Zell Miller Grant Scholarship which covers 100% of tuition for students with a GPA of 3.5 or above. Spencer joined 168 Representatives and 56 Senators in supporting this bill.

Spencer also voted in favor of placing a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. on the state capitol grounds and creating a study committee to learn more about compensating those wrongfully convicted in our judicial system. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of Georgia’s proudest sons who led the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. He deserves a place on our capitol grounds as one of the finest Georgians in the history of our state. Regarding those wrongfully convicted, advances in technology have allowed for a better analysis of criminal evidence that has revealed mistakes in convictions. It is important that our legislators understand this issue fully and work to help Georgians convicted erroneously.

Finally, Spencer voted in favor of legalizing the use of medicinal cannabis to treat seizure disorders. Treatment would have occurred in clinical trials and research settings. On March 3, the House passed House Bill 885 by a vote of 171 to 4. The Senate passed substitute legislation on Day 40, however both houses failed to reach a consensus on the changes made in the Senate’s bill before the end of Day 40 so changes to medical cannabis were not enacted.

Legislation Spencer Opposed:

There were several bills that Spencer opposed during session. The first was House Bill 60 which expanded the places where guns can be carried to include churches, bars and government buildings. This expansion allows for the potentially tragic combination of guns and alcohol in places like Athens and other college towns across the state. This bill passed the House and Senate with significant Democratic opposition.

Spencer also opposed two pieces of legislation that impede the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. The first was House Bill 990 which requires that the legislature approve any expansion of Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act. The second was originally House Bill 707. This legislation would have ended the consumer assistance program run by the University of Georgia, prohibited the use of any state personnel or resources in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and prohibited the insurance commissioner from enforcing any health insurance provisions in the Affordable Care Act including enforcing provisions that keep insurance companies from discriminating against those who have pre-existing conditions. Ultimately, a watered-down version of this bill was passed in a substitute to House Bill 943, the Cancer Treatment Fairness Act. This legislation will end the UGA consumer assistance program when the current grant ends this year. It will also prohibit state government personnel from exploring the establishment of a state- based health insurance exchange, a model that has fared better than the federal exchange in some states.

Two bills that impact low-income families in Georgia were also opposed by Spencer and others during the session. House Bill 772 requires that recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) pass drug tests in order to receive benefits. These tests will be paid for by those applying for help. This legislation creates another obstacle for working, low-income families who are trying to better their circumstances. There are also legal and cost concerns with this legislation as previous proposals in other states have been found to be unconstitutional and states like Florida and Oklahoma lost money when adopting testing programs. Despite concerns, this legislation was passed in the House and Senate. The legislature also passed House Bill 714 that prohibits school contract employees like bus drivers and lunch workers from collecting unemployment benefits when they are on a school break. Like HB 772, this bill is yet another obstacle for low-income families working their way out of poverty.

Finally, Spencer opposed two bills that did not pass this session. Senate Bill 167 would have withdrawn Georgia from the Common Core Standards. Created via a state-led initiative started under Governor Sonny Perdue, Common Core aligns educational standards with those in other states. This legislation would have required Georgia to reinvent the wheel by recreating educational standards solely at the state level. There were also concerns regarding the bill’s impact on preparation for national tests like the SAT/ACT and the composition of the proposed Content Standards Advisory Council which potentially excludes education professionals with advanced degrees. Fortunately, this legislation was not sent to the Governor before session ended. The Legislature also failed to pass the privatization of foster care in Georgia that was proposed by Senate Bill 350. Problems with foster care privatization in Florida caused the House to propose a two-year pilot program, but both sides of the Gold Dome did not reach agreement.

At the beginning of session, Spencer laid out three foundations that should guide the legislature through 2014. While there were some advances regarding education through the expansion of the HOPE Grant, the legislature still has work to do when it comes to supporting K-12 education, Georgia’s health care system, and our environment. Closing rural hospitals, dirty rivers and underfunded schools significantly damage Georgia’s ability to prosper and for that prosperity to be shared by Georgians from all walks of life. Although session has ended, we will continue to work in pursuit of these goals. Stay tuned to Capitol Corner throughout the summer. After a brief break, we will continue to share news and our views on the issues impacting Athenians as well as the great work groups and people in our community do each day.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve you and your family during the 2013-2014 legislative sessions. Please connect with us on Facebook and Twitter to let us know your concerns and goals for our state. Spencer and his team look forward to continuing to serve Athens throughout the rest of 2014 and into the next legislative session. Have a great day!