Your Georgia Desk:
Tackling the Tough Topics in the Final Days of the Legislative Session
By: Sen. Steve Gooch (R – Dahlonega)
One of the greatest things about serving District 51 is the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of Georgians statewide. It has been both an honor and a privilege to vote on bills that create growth opportunities for businesses, improve the safety and structure of our roadways, protect our basic Constitutional rights and increase opportunities for our brightest students to attend college at an affordable cost. I am the most proud when legislation is passed that will positively impact our state for generations to come.
Not all of the bills that come up each session are widely supported. Although debate is a normal part of the legislative review process, some bills are downright contentious. There are many reasons why a bill can become a prime target for controversy, but common reasons include funding (both dollar amount and the funding source), personal social beliefs, and grassroots organizations supporting the bill (and who is supporting the bill could be a controversy in itself). When pieces of legislation become emotionally charged, it’s sometimes hard to “see the forest through the trees”—in other words, to understand the facts, numbers and projected results without outside influence.
The 2014 legislative session hasn’t gone without its share of controversial bills. When I was first elected to the Georgia Senate in 2010, I made it a priority to make sure every phone call and email was answered. This is still a priority of mine four years later, and I never vote on a bill without knowing exactly how District 51 feels about it. I am grateful to serve such a politically active district and I thank all of you for your comments about legislation, whether it was in support or opposition.
One of the first bills of this kind that passed the Senate this year was SB 350, which called for child welfare services such as foster care, adoption and case management to be bid on through contracts with community-based providers, including non-profit and faith-based groups. The legislation was drafted in an effort to provide a higher level of support services for Georgia children and families, while also improving access to specialized care and resources. This bill received a large amount of attention because opponents of the bill said privatizing these services would not increase emphasis on care or fix the problems that have plagued the state’s foster care program for years. It appears this bill may be on hold for the time being, because last week, Gov. Deal announced the creation of the Child Welfare Reform Council. This Council will be tasked with performing a full review of the Division of Family and Children’s Services (DFACS) and providing recommendations for legislative and agency reforms.
One piece of legislation that was in the spotlight in 2013 remained a hot topic in 2014 – weapons carry. HB 875 was the original bill containing most of the same provisions as last year, including language on where guns could be carried, the issuing of weapons-carry licenses and the lawful possession of firearms in public housing. However, HB 60—a bill expanding the rights of certain judges to carry firearms—was passed by the Senate with minor changes, and then sent back to the House for final approval. The House not only approved these changes, but also added several provisions mirroring the original version of HB 875. The new version of HB 60 permits the carrying of weapons in churches and bars unless the owner of the property explicitly says it’s not allowed.
The amendment to HB 60 does eliminate campus carry provisions that decriminalized the carrying of weapons on a college or university campus; instead, citizens who are caught carrying with a license are only subject to a $100 fine. Provisions on carrying guns in schools, school safety zones, on school transportation, and at school functions appear to remain the same. The Senate will consider the amended version of HB 60 during the last two days of the legislative session.
Two other controversial bills this year included HB 990 and SB 397. HB 990 would give oversight of expanding Georgia’s Medicaid program to the legislature. The legislature would then have to pass a bill or adopt a joint resolution in order to increase the income threshold for Medicaid eligibility. SB 397 passed the Senate earlier this session, and would require insurers to provide coverage for children up to six years old who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. The language in SB 397 has since been added to two other bills dealing with medical treatments: HB 885, the bill allowing the further research of certain cannabis oils for the treatment of children’s seizure disorders; and HB 943, the Cancer Treatment Fairness Act, which asks insurers providing coverage I.V. chemotherapies to provide the same level of coverage for orally administered chemotherapies. Both of these bills are also likely to be considered by the Senate in this week’s final legislative days.
SB 299, which clarifies minimum standards for watershed protection and empowers local government to draft customized watershed protection plans, passed the House with bipartisan support last week. The bill is now waiting for the Governor’s signature. I am very pleased to see this legislation pass this year, as it will lead to restoring rights to North Georgia property owners. The bill ensures the full compliance of the Soil Erosion and Sedimentation Act and will continue to protect the Blue Ridge Mountains trout streams.
I was honored to recognize Lumpkin County High School with Senate Resolution 984 and Fannin County High with Senate Resolution 1060 last week for their success in the Taco Bell “Graduate for Mas” program. This was a competition that involved almost 1,000 high schools in the U.S. whose students were asked to make a personal promise to graduate high school. Lumpkin County High School received first place, while Fannin County High School took home second place. Lumpkin County High School Principal Rick Conner, School Counselor Sally Edwards, and seniors Megan Abercrombie, Caleb Nunley, and Jordan Rockmore; as well as Fannin County School Counselor Jill Key, joined me in the Senate chamber for the presentation of these resolutions. I was also pleased to host the Fannin County Leadership Delegation during their trip to the Capitol this week.
This week may be the last one of the 2014 legislative session, but my work for District 51 is far from done. I will still be traveling to the State Capitol for study committees that will meet to review current laws and policies that are in need of further review, and I will also continue to travel throughout District 51 to speak with constituents on a regular basis. If you are unable to meet with me in person, please call or email my Senate office any time with your concerns. As always, it is an honor and a privilege to represent District 51 at the Georgia State Capitol.