With a new Governor and Lt. Governor, along with increased numbers of Democrats, Georgia’s 2019 Legislative Session began on a ominous note when the Republican majority introduced new Senate Rules changes that would have curtailed reporting of sexual harassment complaints against sitting senators and senate candidates, along with harsh suppression of free speech.
The swift and furious protest of the Democrats led to a promise from the Lt. Governor that the rules would be revisited. Not until day 39 of the session were the rules actually revised. The tone that was set by the ill-advised, legally questionable, and the tone-deaf Senate rules controversy turned out to be a general theme of the session: Republicans injecting unpopular legislation, ignoring the advice of experts, and excluding the voices of those most affected.
Also, early in the session, Democrats decried the imbalanced and discriminatory ways in which committee assignments are handled by Republican leadership. We highlighted the problem that though Democrats make up 38% of the body, they are vastly underrepresented on committees that handle the most legislation. Committees in which Democrats are stacked handled only 1.5% of the total legislation passed in the senate in previous years. Additionally, women and minority senators are severely underrepresented on committees that handle most of the significant legislation.
Shortly after the backlash over Senate rules, Democrats in the Senate were joined by some Republicans in a push to make Georgia the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. While gaining momentum and wide public support, resistance from the overwhelmingly male Senate Republican Caucus prevented ERA ratification from moving forward.
Our right to vote and access the ballot box is sacred and enshrined in our Constitution. Disregarding a huge public outcry for new voting equipment that includes the security of hand marked paper balloting, the Republican majority rammed through a measure to purchase new voting machines that have highly questionable security assurances to ensure all votes are properly cast and counted.
Some gains were made in the area of education. The Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula, that governs how school systems are funded, will be fully funded for a second year in a row. Though the formula is badly outdated, fully funding it begins to provide a minimum level of resources to schools. Teachers and other full time educators will receive $3000 raises– once again, not enough, but moving in the right direction.
Senate Bill 48 creates testing and training to identify and treat students with dyslexia in grades K-3. And HB 218 extends the time students can apply for the HOPE Scholarship from 7 to 10 years.
Many good education bills introduced by Democratic Senators were blocked by Republicans including a Community Schools bill to provide on-site wraparound services in school districts.
Republicans in the Senate tried repeatedly to pass legislation that would expand access to private school vouchers, which strip much needed funding from public schools. Senate Bill 173 failed in a floor vote after a vigorous fight from Democratic Senators. Voucher language was then attached to other bills in an effort to force the legislation through, but after failing to garner support, it was ultimately held up in the Senate.
It was a huge year for healthcare legislation at the Capitol. Unfortunately, most of the laws that passed will move Georgia in the wrong direction. Despite overwhelming public support for Medicaid expansion, Republicans refused to even hold a hearing on the Democratic bill to expand Medicaid. Instead, they passed legislation that will allow the Governor to apply for waivers from the Federal Government that may offer Medicaid to some Georgia citizens, though not the majority of the working poor. The waivers will also allow the Governor to alter the healthcare market in Georgia with experimental healthcare offerings that could have negative consequences for all Georgia citizens, especially those with pre-existing conditions.
The highly controversial and cruel HB481, which bans most abortion in Georgia by making it illegal after a “heartbeat” can be detected (about six weeks of pregnancy), passed in the last week of session. Despite overwhelming resistance from the medical community and the women of Georgia, Republicans passed the bill in both chambers, keeping in language that allows fetuses to count as dependents on tax returns and includes fetuses in state population counts.
Georgia’s economy is a major focus for our caucus. Some of the bills that passed in 2019 are likely to be a boon for our state economy. SB 2 allows telephone cooperatives in rural areas to provide much-needed broadband services. Unfortunately, a refusal by the majority party to analyze the fiscal impact of many bills made it difficult to know their influence on the state’s economy. Several of the bills supported and passed by Republicans are likely to have a negative impact on Georgia’s financial health. A bill that allows the state to establish a committee to oversee Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport takes a dangerous approach to management of one of the driving economic engines of our state. And the refusal to pass Medicaid expansion will continue to burden our hospitals and state economy by leaving hundreds of thousands of Georgians uninsured, without a hospital and thousands of jobs.
Finally, HB 316, the bill to overhaul Georgia’s voting system passed despite widespread opposition. Mandating a $150 million expenditure on insecure voting machines that are difficult to audit, HB 316 is fiscally and logistically irresponsible. All Democratic Senators and the majority of Georgia voters prefer a hand-marked paper ballot system that is cheaper and more secure.
Despite a Republican controlled Senate and House, Senate Democrats were successful in passing legislation to improve the lives of Georgians, including:
- SB 1 (Parent, 42nd) will increase an enhanced penalty for hit and run accidents that result in serious bodily harm.
- SB 9 (Jones, 22nd) will criminalize sexual extortion and coercion for those who engage in sexually explicit conduct or the distribution of photographs and videos depicting nudity
- SB 31 (Rhett, 33rd) will provide civil immunity for law enforcement officers for the rescue of people or pets trapped in motor vehicles.
- SB 103 (Davenport, 44th) will require publicly owned airports to provide at least two priority parking spots for disabled veterans.
- SB 137 (Lucas, 26th) will create a new Tuskegee University license plate with funds from sales disbursed to the Atlanta Tuskegee Alumni Club.
The following full report breaks down legislation that passed and failed during the 2019 Legislative Session.