Rep. Carl Gilliard named Chair of Economic Development & Tourism Subcommittee on International Trade and Commerce

ATLANTA – State Representative Carl Gilliard (D- Garden City) was recently named Chairman of the House Economic Development & Tourism Subcommittee on International Trade and Commerce by State Representative Ron Stephens (R-Savanah), Chairman of the Economic Development & Tourism Committee.

“I am humbled and thankful to serve in this capacity and hope that we will be able to build new relationships to foster new economic development for the State of Georgia,” said Rep. Gilliard.

Other members of the subcommittee include: Rep. Dwayne Hill (R-Ringgold); Rep. Doreen Carter (D-Lithonia); Rep. Karen Mathiak (R- Griffin); Rep. Derrick Jackson (D-Tyrone); Rep. Brenda Lopez (D-Norcross); and Rep. Sam Park (D-Lawrenceville)

For more information on the House Economic Development & Tourism Committee, please click here.

Rep. Jesse Petrea named Chairman of House Human Relations & Aging Committee

ATLANTA – The Georgia House of Representatives’ Committee on Assignments named State Representative Jesse Petrea (R-Savannah) as the Chairman of the House Human Relations & Aging Committee.  Rep. Petrea will also serve as a member on the Science & Technology, Appropriations Subcommittee on Health, Game, Fish & Parks and Health & Human Services committees.

“I am honored to be entrusted with this chairmanship,” said Rep. Petrea. “I have spent my entire career as an advocate and a provider of services to the aged, developmentally disabled and physically disabled populations. These Georgians are our most vulnerable. Our committee will continue to solve the problems faced by these populations to ensure the greatest quality of life for all.”

The House Committee on Assignments, chaired by House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), is charged with making all House committee assignments for the members of the Georgia House of Representatives.

For a complete list of all House Committee assignments, please click here.

Speaker Ralston Announces Members of the House Working Group on Creative Arts & Entertainment

ATLANTA – Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) today announced the members of the House Working Group on Creative Arts & Entertainment.

“I am proud to ask these members to serve our citizens by focusing on the creative arts and entertainment industries,” said Speaker Ralston. “We will redouble our efforts to support the growth of these industries throughout our state and ensure that our workforce is ready for the jobs they create. We are committed to Georgia remaining a leader in the creative economy.”

The members of the working group are:

  • Matt Dollar (R-Marietta) – Chair
  • Josh Bonner (R-Fayetteville) – Vice Chair
  • Teri Anulewicz (D-Smyrna)
  • Timothy Barr (R-Lawrenceville)
  • Dave Belton (R-Buckhead)
  • Park Cannon (D-Atlanta)
  • Mike Cheokas (R-Americus)
  • Winfred Dukes (D-Albany)
  • Spencer Frye (D-Athens)
  • Carl Gilliard (D-Garden City)
  • Chuck Martin (R-Alpharetta)
  • Randy Nix (R-LaGrange)
  • Bert Reeves (R-Marietta)
  • Terry Rogers (R-Clarkesville)
  • Deborah Silcox (R-Sandy Springs)
  • Lynn Smith (R-Newnan)
  • Ron Stephens (R-Savannah)
  • Al Williams (D-Midway)

The House Working Group on Creative Arts & Entertainment will work with state agencies and stakeholders to bolster investment and job creation in Georgia by the film, television, music and video game production industries among other creative industries. Combined, these industries employ 200,000 Georgians and generate more than $60 billion of economic activity in the state each year.

The House Working Group on Creative Arts & Entertainment is constituted pursuant to the authority granted to the Speaker by House Rules. The working group is authorized for the entirety of the 2019-2020 legislative term.

Editorial: Georgia Legislature to seek healthcare cure

Medically speaking, Georgia has a chronic illness when it comes to healthcare.

The state’s uninsured rate is among the nation’s highest. Approximately 500,000 Georgians qualify as “working poor.” Their incomes exceed Medicaid thresholds, yet they can’t afford insurance, even through the Obamacare exchange. Many live without coverage.

Georgia lawmakers of both political parties find this reality unacceptable. The newly appointed chair of the Senate Health and Human Service Committee, Savannah’s own Ben Watson (R-District 1), calls healthcare coverage a “right.”

Legislators disagree on a cure for this malady, however, and the 2019 session of the Georgia General Assembly will show the range of treatments.

The Republican-controlled legislature promises to discuss every option and is sure to prescribe those that foster greater competition among providers, thereby improving quality and driving down costs.

Those therapies are unlikely to include one many consider a panacea: Medicaid expansion. Under the Affordable Care Act, Georgia would qualify for a 9-to-1 federal match by expanding Medicaid coverage to the aforementioned “working poor.”

Georgia lawmakers, including Watson, a practicing physician, consider Medicaid a failed system when it comes to the quality of care. They have pledged instead to look at alternative ways to access those federal dollars, from “waivers” and “carve-outs” to government-funded Health Savings Accounts and reinsurance plans — and all combinations in between.

Members of the Savannah-area delegation in both chambers are active in drafting proposals. Watson’s Senate health committee is looking at waiver opportunities. In the House, Jesse Petrea (R-District 166) is among those exploring the possibility of creating a pool to fund premiums for high-risk individuals.

A call for deregulation

Insuring more Georgians is far from the only healthcare priority for the legislature.

Expect decisive action on two other fronts: Certificate of Need reform and expansion of the Rural Hospital Tax Credit.

Certificate of Need, or CON, is of particular interest locally because Watson is among those pushing the hardest for reform. CON is a decades-old state regulation meant to protect hospitals. The mandate requires medical businesses show that the local hospital is not meeting demand before adding specialty services, such as imaging or outpatient surgery, to their offerings.

By limiting competition, these lucrative revenue streams would offset the losses hospitals suffer in treating all medical conditions.

Many argue CON allows hospitals to fleece consumers instead.

Predictably, CON divides two powerful lobbies: Hospitals vs. entrepreneurial doctors.

Watson’s involvement muddies CON reform. He is a partner in SouthCoast Medical, a business with an interest in becoming an ambulatory services provider. CON currently prohibits SouthCoast from doing so; a repeal of CON could potentially enrich the company.

The situation raises ethical concerns. Watson maintains that he is not a surgeon and would not benefit— at least not directly — from ambulatory services revenue.

CON reform is “the right thing to do for the consumer,” Watson said.

Helping rural hospitals

The other healthcare must this session involves a campaign promise by Georgia’s new governor, Brian Kemp.

Kemp’s healthcare platform included doubling the cap for the Rural Hospital Tax Credit program to $200 million. Introduced in 2017, this initiative allows Georgians to claim a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations to the Georgia HEART Hospital Program.

HEART disperses these funds to the state’s rural hospitals, including nearby facilities Effingham Hospital and the Liberty Regional Medical Center. The program is meant to stem the rash of hospital closures; Georgia has lost six hospitals in recent years.

An increase in the cap could mean as much as $8 million a year for each hospital.

We encourage the Georgia General Assembly to explore these treatments and more to address our state’s healthcare crisis.

Editorial: Georgia Legislature must set, follow priorities for education reforms

A teacher pay raise is among the guaranteed outcomes from the 2019 session of the Georgia General Assembly.

Gov. Brian Kemp promised as much during his gubernatorial campaign. What’s more, our educators deserve a bump.

The pop quiz for the state legislature is how to fund that raise while still addressing several other pressing education-related issues.

Spending for K-12 public schools accounts for nearly 40 percent of the state’s total annual budget. The reality is that $10 billion-plus is not enough given the festering problems related to the outdated funding formula, a tax incentive that funds private school scholarships and school safety and security.

Toss in Kemp’s teacher pay increase proposal, estimated to add more than $600 million to education spending, and you need not be an A student in mathematics or economics to understand the challenges legislators face.

Even so, the legislature must move decisively on all these issues between this session and the next. Bills crafted during the 40-day term that opened Monday can carry over to 2020, giving the lawmakers two budget revenue cycles to solve the education equation.

They’ll need the time and the dollars as many understand the folly of fulfilling a campaign promise at the expense of the long-term stability of Georgia’s schools.

A formula to follow

The first priority for K-12 education reform is to follow a formula that already exists: the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula.

The state met that quasi-mandate in 2018 for the first time since 2002. The Georgia General Assembly must insist on doing so again this year and every year.

The teacher raise should follow, albeit after legislators study and analyze the compensation amount. Kemp’s $5,000 figure was arbitrary. To make Georgia competitive with other states — and attract and retain the best educators — may take more or perhaps even less.

Whatever the appropriate number, the legislature doesn’t have to do it all at once. They could phase in the increase to spread out the budget impact.

Those same researchers should also look at updating the school funding formula. The QBE was implemented in 1985, when the state’s population was half what is is today. Former Gov. Nathan Deal said QBE fails to “meet the needs of a 21st century classroom.”

The legislature should play a leading role in overhauling the funding formula.

Public support for private schools

Another key education priority is the private school scholarship tax credit.

This is a hidden cost from a budget perspective — the $100 million program is not part of the $10 billion-plus in education spending; rather it is funded by income tax dollars redirected by taxpayers to private school scholarship organizations.

The GOP-controlled legislature has grown this initiative, increasing the cap from $60 million to $100 million last year. Many favor raising that cap again, diverting even more tax dollars.

Gov. Kemp pledged prior to the November election that he would fully fund QBE before adding to the private school scholarship fund. The legislature must hold him to that.

Dollars for safety

A new — and necessary — pressure on state education funding is money to improve school safety.

The massacre in Parkland, Fla., and school shootings elsewhere in recent years demand action. The Georgia General Assembly carved out $17 million for security measures last year, “a pittance,” agree members of our local legislative delegation.

Members from both parties will push for significantly more dollars for school safety this session.

For the legislature, education funding resembles a multiple choice test with nothing but right answers. Unfortunately, “all of the above” won’t likely be an option.

Editorial: Legislature must take action on elections items

The tick of the countdown clock to Election Day 2019 is deafening for those in the Georgia General Assembly.

The legislature opened its annual session Monday, 295 days out from the next General Election date. The fast approach makes choosing a replacement for the outdated touch-screen machines arguably the most pressing matter on their agenda.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger wants the new system in place by the Nov. 5 vote. Any delay pushes the introduction of the process into the 2020 primary, which promises strong turnout — and mass confusion.

Tick tock? More like a gong being struck over and over again.

A study commission appointed by our now governor, Brian Kemp, issued a recommendation last week. The group proposes a machine that records voter choices in a similar fashion to the technology in use since 2002. Once the ballot is completed, however, the machine prints out a paper copy of the record that is then filed by optical scanner, with the paper record then placed in a lockbox as a back-up.

Commission members broadly supported the recommendation. Even one of the three who voted against it, Savannah’s own Sen. Lester Jackson, did so not because he disapproves of the machines, but because he wanted the commission’s guidance to be binding. “This is a case where you don’t want everybody entering their ideas when a commission has been looking at it for a year,” Jackson said.

Yet some are pushing for an alternative, including the study commission’s lone cybersecurity expert, Georgia Tech’s Wenke Lee. He favors a hard-marked paper ballot, which like the machine-printed record would be filed via optical scanner.

Then there are the cost considerations: the machine-and-printed-ballot option is estimated to cost more than $100 million; while the hand-marked paper alternative is projected at approximately $30 million.

The varying views are sure to drive debate, stretch out the decision-making process and shorten the window for purchase, distribution and training.

Not having the new system in place for a dry run this November would be a disservice to Georgia voters.

Voting rights to be discussed

Beyond the process of casting ballots, the legislature must at least discuss other election-related issues.

The 2018 midterms caused consternation. Some Georgians, particularly Democrats and supporters of gubernatorial loser Stacey Abrams, alleged voter suppression and challenged the validity of the results. Many statutes and processes put in place ostensibly as safeguards contributed to the controversy.

Expect Democratic legislators to push for changes to exact match requirements and the voter roll purging process. Overhauls are unlikely, however, as Republicans widely agree these measures are vital to election integrity, and the GOP controls both legislative chambers, as well as the governor’s and secretary of state’s offices.

The leadership will likewise be reluctant to take action on precinct problems. County election boards decide the number and location of polling places, as well as how many machines are at each precinct. Critics last year questioned precinct closings, and long wait times were issues around the state.

Some have suggested the state play a larger role, but as two members of the Savannah-area delegation said, Georgia residents have long favored local control.

Those issues are secondary to taking action on the voting machines. Our local leading Democrat, Sen. Jackson, favors earnest debate about the other issues, but “if we have the right device for the public, a lot of the other questions about who is and who is not eligible will work themselves out,” he said.

As our legislators address election-related issues, we encourage them to remember that voting is a right, not a privilege. The legislature should strive to make voting as easy as possible without jeopardizing the integrity of the election.

Sen. Ben Watson appointed Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services

Sen. Ben Watson (R – Savannah) was recently appointed to serve as Chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and to serve on several influential committees for the 2019 Legislative Session by the Senate Committee on Assignments.

“I am humbled to be named chairman of this committee and eager to get to work on the many issues that the healthcare industry faces,” said Sen. Watson. “I believe that healthcare, or lack thereof depending on where you live, is our state’s largest shortcoming. However, I know that by thoroughly vetting legislation and considering new solutions to increase quality and access to care will help our citizens live longer, healthier lives. I look forward to this opportunity to use my experience as a doctor to bring change that will benefit all Georgians.”

In addition to serving as Chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, Sen. Watson will serve as a member of the Public Safety and Appropriations committees, as well as an ex-officio member of the Veterans, Military and Homeland Security and Insurance committees.

“I am incredibly excited to work alongside Sen. Watson and the entire Health and Human Services Committee during the upcoming session of the Georgia General Assembly,” said Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan. “The committee process is extremely important to producing sound public policy and we’re confident that Sen. Watson’s leadership as a committee chair will be an invaluable asset to the Georgia Senate. We’re excited for the opportunity to serve and look forward to delivering on reforms that benefit Georgians in every part of our state.”

Once a piece of legislation is introduced in the Senate, it is assigned to a committee, depending on its topic. If the committee gives the legislation a “do pass” recommendation, then the proposed law is sent to the Rules Committee for consideration. The appointed chairs will oversee the operation and order of Senate committee meetings, including calling for action on bills, resolutions or other matters assigned to that committee.

The first session of the 155th Georgia General Assembly convened on January 14, 2019, at the Georgia State Capitol.

Rep. Jesse Petrea column: Lawmakers look to ‘create a better Georgia’

On Monday, Jan. 14, we will convene the 2019 Georgia legislative session in Atlanta. This year I have multiple bills I am working on to create a better Georgia. Today, I would like to explain my two legislative priorities for 2019.

First, I will attempt again to accomplish something that I have sponsored since my first term in the legislature. I have pre-filed House Bill 7 which would eliminate the state income tax on military retirement income. This is the right thing to do for the men and women who protect this country with a career of military service. Never in our history has a smaller percentage of veterans protected so many in our country.

Further, it will level the field to attract disciplined and skilled men and women to live and work in Georgia. Our industries and businesses desperately need this workforce. Many veterans retire at 40 to 50 years of age and are ready for a new career. They have the skills, discipline and work ethic that our employers so desperately need. However, currently, our neighboring states offer them huge cost savings. In Florida, Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina, these veterans can save 5.75 percent of their income because these states do not tax this income as we do in Georgia.

Since being elected, I have made public safety my primary focus. So this year my second priority is to sponsor the Georgia Illegal Immigration Protection and Public Safety Act. Currently in Georgia prisons are some 1,360 criminal aliens. These are criminals convicted of serious crimes. For example, 193 for child molestation, 65 for aggravated child molestation, 134 for murder, 103 for armed robbery, 98 for rape, 42 for statutory rape, 61 for kidnapping, 45 for manslaughter and 18 for vehicular homicide. All 1,360 of these individuals had at least one Georgia victim. All of these 1,360 crimes were avoidable. Had our federal government done its job, none of these illegal immigrants would have been present to commit these crimes.

My bill does the following:

• Requires law enforcement officers, who receive verification from the federal government that a suspect is an illegal alien, to alert the prosecuting attorney of that illegal status.

• Requires discovery, before sentencing, if the federal immigration authorities (ICE) have placed a detainer request for the illegal alien and notify the court before the prisoner is released into Georgia communities.

• Requires all Georgia law enforcement agencies to honor ICE detainers. There would be legal penalties for officials who violate these rules. Importantly, the law would be enforced regardless of race, religion, national origin, etc., and will protect witnesses to crimes.

• Requires the State Department of Corrections to make public a list of the total non-citizen prison population, their home countries and their immigration status, and update the list every 90 days.

Only federal courts can deport criminal illegal aliens. However, it is our common sense duty to report crimes to ICE.

I ran for office to offer ideas and to support policies that improve Georgia. I am excited about the opportunity to do so again during this 2019 session.

Rep. Jesse Petrea (R-District 166) is entering his third term in the Georgia House of Representatives and represents most of Chatham County’s island communities.

Sen. Lester Jackson column: Relationships rule at Georgia Capitol

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Army]
The only constant in politics is change, and the 2019 session of the Georgia General Assembly is no exception. We have a new governor, a new lieutenant governor, a new Senate majority leader and 40 freshmen legislators.

In my 20 years in the legislature, I’ve served when the Democrats were in charge, then through a transition to Republican rule, then to when the Republicans held nearly a super majority and now this year, when Republicans remain in control but Democrats have picked up seats.

One thing has remained the same: Legislating is all about relationships. It’s more than just party and geography. I have a tendency to work across party lines while keeping my Democratic values. I’m a strong leader in my party, but I do know that we must all work together to reach consensus. Our local delegation has long done that and it has contributed to great growth in our local economy.

We are more than just colleagues; we are friends. That’s not to say we agree on everything. The beauty of our delegation is that we are willing to talk through issues and work through our differences. We understand that the decisions we make are not just for the benefit of the eight of us personally but for the benefit of our communities. We’re all at the Capitol for the same purpose — to represent the citizens of the Savannah area.

That said, we will see a bit of a shakeup on the Senate side. The new lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan, and the Republican leadership has talked of moving committee chairs, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but will require some adjustments early in the session. Everybody has to find and settle into their new roles. But I’m confident that once we get down to business the focus will be on taking care of our constituents and moving the state forward.

As for legislation to be tackled over the coming months, we have several local priorities that we will focus on. But our delegation will also be very active in terms of broader priorities, particularly as it pertains to replacing our voting machines, the debate over destination resorts, increasing our state’s Medicaid reimbursement rate and establishing a needs-based scholarship for students from low-income families.

Adopting new voting machines is perhaps our state’s most pressing need. I have served on the Secure Accessible Fair Elections, or SAFE, commission tasked with crafting a working document for the legislature, a good baseline to work from in identifying a vendor.

However, the legislature is free to deviate from the recommendation, which could complicate our ability to achieve results. We need to secure the necessary funding and get the correct vendor so that every legal vote is counted. Our new machines must include a paper backup, and both the machines and paper trail must both be auditable. I intend to take the Democratic lead on this initiative.

I would encourage all Savannah-area residents to stay up to date on what your elected officials are working to accomplish. I look forward to helping to improve the lives of all Georgians.

Sen. Lester Jackson (D-District 2) is a 20-year veteran of the Georgia General Assembly and is the leader of the Democratic Black Caucus.

Viewpoints: Georgia legislature readies to address full agenda


[Photo from Wikimedia Commons]
Georgia lawmakers go “under the gold dome” as the 155th session of the Georgia General Assembly opens at the Capitol in downtown Atlanta.

Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston will welcome the 236 legislators as they begin approximately three months of work. Duncan will preside over the Senate, the first time in 12 years someone other than Casey Cagle had that role. Ralston, meanwhile, enters his ninth year leading the House.

Legislators, including our eight-member local delegation, will address a range of issues facing the state, with bills and resolutions that pass both chambers moving on to new Gov. Brian Kemp to be signed into law. Kemp is expected to present his agenda, including his first budget, during the session’s opening week.

Pressing matters for the legislature include school safety, the state’s voting system, healthcare coverage for the uninsured and support for rural hospitals, education funding and spending, gaming and gambling, gun rights, immigration reform and rural development initiatives.

Our local delegation will be among the leaders at the Capitol. Chairmanships won’t officially be awarded until the session begins, but both our local senators, Lester Jackson and Ben Watson, are expected to lead committees, and Jackson is the head of the Democratic Black Caucus.

On the House side, Reps. Ron Stephens and Bill Hitchens expected to head committees while Reps. Carl Gilliard and Jesse Petrea are considered strong candidates.

The local legislative priorities include continued support for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, funding for a Savannah Convention Center expansion, extension of a historic preservation tax incentive, dollars for funding for facilities and programs at our area public colleges and universities, and pushing for a study on replacing or elevating the Talmadge Bridge.

“All I’ve ever seen in my time in the Georgia General Assembly is a delegation that works together and for the most part a legislature working together,” Rep. Jesse Petrea said. “I’m sure that will continue.”