In the 2022 Legislative Session, the Georgia Senate Democratic Caucus faced an onslaught of bills aimed at placating far-right voters. Rather than solving problems faced by ordinary Georgians, many bills seemed tailored to satisfy conspiracy theorists and internet culture warriors. Democratic efforts to expand Medicaid, raise the minimum wage, and uplift teachers and students who are suffering from pandemic fatigue and learning loss were once again stymied by GOP intransigence. There were a few bright spots, in particular the passage of HB 1013, the Mental Health Parity Act and SB 338, expanding Medicaid coverage for new mothers to one year postpartum.
A major target for Republicans this year was Georgia’s public education system. Teachers, administrators, and even students, were subjected to bills aimed at chilling speech and restricting the ability of local districts to determine their guidelines. HB 1084 will chill speech and inclusive instruction in public school by restricting the teaching of certain ‘divisive concepts,’ including system racism. HB 1178 imposes an onerous reporting process for schools responding to parental objections regarding curriculum. SB 226 lays the groundwork for censorship in school libraries. All of these bills passed over loud objections from local teachers, administrators and students, but the GOP was determined to sacrifice Georgia’s public schools in its efforts to whip up right wing resentment.
Fortunately, thanks to strong Democratic resistance, a dramatic expansion of school vouchers failed to pass the Senate. SB 601 would have diverted an unprecedented amount of public money to unaccountable private schools.
Governor Kemp began the session declaring war on public safety by insisting this was the year that permitless carry would finally have its day in the General Assembly. Bills allowing Georgians to carry weapons without a permit were introduced in both chambers, and despite vigorous opposition and poll numbers showing an utter lack of public support, SB 319 ultimately passed.
Health care has long been a major priority for our caucus, and the 2022 legislative session provided some gains and some setbacks when it comes to health care access. The GOP once again refused to expand Medicaid and provide health insurance to the more than 500,000 Georgians who still don’t have it. Every year we fail to expand Medicaid, it costs our state lives, livelihoods, and millions of federal dollars that taxpayers have already paid in taxes. In better news, HB 1013, the Mental Health Parity Act, was bipartisan legislation marking a major step forward in mental health care for Georgia. This bill brings Georgia in line with federal requirements that insurers provide coverage for mental health claims at the same rates as physical health. It also provides incentives, such as tuition forgiveness, to encourage mental health professionals to work and stay in Georgia. Another important bill that passed in 2022 was SB 338, expanding Medicaid coverage for new mothers to one year postpartum, a goal that Democrats had been seeking for many years. A patient protection bill, HB 1324, makes it harder for insurance companies to deny emergency room claims and adds mental health services or conditions as eligible for emergency care. Finally, Democratic bill, SB 610, paves the way for improved access and availability of home health care aids and other community based health services.
Unfortunately, these gains were tempered by Republican efforts to undermine COVID-19 protections and precautions. SB 345 bans state agencies from requiring so-called “vaccine passports.” SB 514 forces school districts to allow parents to opt-out of mask mandates. Both of these bills show an aggressive disregard for medical science and best practices in public health. We should not be undermining trust in vaccines or limiting school districts’ ability to react to future viral outbreaks.
In a victory for women’s health care and abortion access, SB 456, which limited access to medication abortion via telehealth, failed to gain passage in the House.
Prior to session, Republican leadership indicated there was no appetite for further election legislation, but nevertheless, HB 1464 was introduced. This bill imposed arduous and unnecessary chain of custody rules for absentee ballots and banned donations and grants upon which local elections offices have been dependent. Adamant opposition from Democrats, voting rights activists, and ultimately local election officials of both parties, put a stop to the bill and it failed to reach the floor of the Senate. Some elements of HB 1464 were ultimately adopted as part of another bill, but the most problematic language was dropped. A bill banning drop boxes and an (unnecessary) bill banning non-citizens from voting similarly failed to gain support.
The only legislation Senators and Representatives are legally required to pass is the state budget, and this proved to be a bright spot in the 2022 legislative session. The FY 2023 budget reverses many of the deep budget cuts of the past two year and represents an 11% increase in per capita state spending. It restores most agencies return to pre-pandemic funding levels, increases salaries for teachers and many state employees, and fully funds Georgia’s Quality Basic Education formula, restoring education cuts. It’s important to note, however, that even with the proposed increases, Georgia remains on track to spend slightly less per person than in 2008, and we are still failing to address cumulative effects of underfunding vital agencies and services, such as Dept. of Corrections, which is currently in crisis, or Dept. of Juvenile Justice, which reported a 90% officer turnover rate.
In the final days of the session, Republicans were in agreement that they wanted to move state revenue to a regressive flat tax system, but they were unable to come to an agreement over how low they wanted the flat rate to be, and how quickly to implement it. Ultimately, HB 1437 was put into conference committee, and the version that emerged gradually lowers the state income tax to 4.99 for all payers by 2029. This dramatic reduction in revenue could spell doom for the state budget in the near future.
In a session where GOP lawmakers, including the Governor, were facing primary challenges from the far right, much of the legislation passed was short-sighted political theater with unfortunate real-world consequences for our state. Though much of Democrats’ energy was focused on fighting bad policy, some of our caucus’s bills did pass. In addition to SB 610, the home health care bill, two bills helping veterans (SB 87 and SB 96) passed both chambers.
Fighting for Georgians’ best interest can be an uphill battle under the Gold Dome, but our caucus is always committed to doing what is best, finding a path forward, and ultimately expanding our numbers in order to better serve the people of our state.
Download the full summary here: 2022 GSDC Legislative Summary Final Sine Die