What Will the Georgia Legislature Talk About During This Year’s Session?

By Blake Aued and Ashlyn Webb

Photo Credit: Savannah Cole

Brian Kemp, then the governor-elect, talks to UGA President Jere Morehead at the Biennial Institute on campus.

Every other December, the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government hosts state legislators at the Biennial Institute, a three-day crash course on policy issues facing the state. The Biennial also serves as a sneak peek at what legislators will be discussing during the 40-day session that gaveled in Monday, Jan. 14.

Of course, legislators won’t always be discussing the important, but sometimes dry, topics covered at the Biennial. Guns are perennially divisive (see: carry, campus), and one state representative has already pre-filed a bill to let Georgians carry concealed firearms without a permit. New voting equipment is coming, but it remains to be seen whether that means new touch-screen machines or paper ballots read by optical scanners. Expect another fight over the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which could enshrine the right of Christians to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community and discourage corporations from locating in Georgia. House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) opposes such a bill. Unlike former Gov. Nathan Deal, though, Gov. Brian Kemp has pledged to sign it—but only if it mirrors relatively harmless 1993 federal legislation. Would that be enough to satisfy the religious right?

Those debates will play out against the backdrop of an ascending Democratic Party and a GOP that’s tilting further to the right. Democrats came closer to winning the governorship than they have in 20 years, and they picked up a dozen seats in the state legislature. Ironically, that could mean a more conservative government—Republicans still have big majorities in both chambers, and the ones who lost were mainly moderates. The House-Senate rivalry could be exacerbated by former Rep. Geoff Duncan’s ascension to lieutenant governor and senators’ loyalty to former Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, Kemp’s opponent in the GOP primary. Then there’s the question of whether Kemp will govern as the shotgun-toting Trump acolyte he portrayed in the primary or the family-oriented, pro-business conservative he presented himself as in the general.

Inevitably, surprises will pop up, too. But here’s a rundown of a few issues—transit, opioids, a suicide epidemic, college tuition, school safety and others—that the Biennial indicated are sure to land on legislators’ plates. [Blake Aued]

Higher Education

The University System of Georgia’s New Year’s resolutions are to make college more affordable and efficient, and for more students to enter the workforce with college credentials, “keeping Georgia competitive economically,” USG Chancellor Steve Wrigley said.

Public colleges and universities are big business—not only in Athens, but all over the state. Currently, over 328,000 students attend a USG institution, and USG directly and indirectly employs 163,000 people. Overall, USG has made an economic impact of $17 million.

According to a state auditor review, tuition fees in Georgia are 24 percent less than the average for other state institutions, Wrigley said, and tuition has not risen in two of the past three years.

In 2016, the Board of Regents voted to halt tuition increases after state legislators questioned several years of hikes. Those hikes mainly came in response to legislators cutting funding for higher education during the Great Recession. Since fiscal year 2008, spending per student has declined 6.5 percent.

A state audit in December 2016 found the average annual cost of attending a University System of Georgia school increased from $8,361 to $14,791 in 10 years—a roughly 77 percent increase. In 2017, the Board of Regents voted to increase state tuition by 2 percent. In 2018, tuition for USG institution remained the same.

“We feel like we are pulling the line here,” Wrigley said. “We work hard. We are self-conscious about [affordability], and it is a priority for us.”

In addition, Wrigley said USG is working to keep textbook costs at a minimum for students. In 2018, Georgia universities began offering eCore, which includes the entire core curriculum and free online textbooks through Open Education Resources. Overall, students are saving $19 million annually, Wrigley said.

“I actually feel students should be able to get a bachelor’s degree without buying a textbook. With technology the way it is, it makes perfect sense,” he said.

USG is also hoping to educate students on loans. Now, students are able to access a breakdown of monthly payments if they decide to take out a federal loan. The number of students in the federal system borrowing loans has dropped to about 47 percent, Wrigley said. On average, a student borrows $62,000 to cover college tuition.

As for efficiency, Wrigley said USG wants to “squeeze every dime out of the [allotted] taxpayer dollars.” Beginning in 2011, USG began consolidating its 35 universities and colleges. Currently, USG has shrunk to 26 institutions. From this, USG has generated $30 million that institutions can now reinvest, such as by offering more courses, Wrigley said.

The system is also consolidating its payroll systems. “Eight or nine years ago, we had 35 payroll systems and 35 institutions,” Wrigley said. Now, USG is in the process of merging them into two payroll systems. By the end of 2019, USG will be on a single payroll system, he said.

Lastly, Wrigley said USG’s “focus is raising attainment levels in our state.” Since 2011, 21 percent more Georgia students have earned a degree. Meanwhile, enrollment has only increased 2 percent. “More students are graduating, and it’s costing [the state of Georgia] less,” Wrigley said.

He noted that, nationally, 50 percent of undecided majors drop out before they select a major, and students who pass English and math in their first year are 10 times more likely to finish their degree. These figures led USG to make two key policy changes: Beginning in fall 2019, students will have to pick a major their freshman year, and remedial English and math classes will have the same curriculum as regular courses, but with more intensive advising and tutoring offered.

USG is also moving forward with the Nexus degree, which was approved this year and is unique in the country. It allows students to pursue a degree designed for a particular business or industry, such as financial technology. Nexus students are required to take an internship worth six credit hours plus 12 hours of curriculum courses. This degree can be a standard degree or earned in conjunction with another degree, Wrigley said. [Ashlyn Webb]

School Safety

The focus of a Senate committee appointed to study school safety centers around crisis prevention, physical security of buildings, facilities and buses, and emergency response, said state Sen. John Albers (R-Alpharetta), the chairman of the committee.

Throughout the year, the committee held meetings in six different school districts and heard from students, teachers, parents, school officials, local and state law enforcement and emergency personnel.

Its first recommendation is to increase state funding for specialized mental health counselors or create legislation that will allow local school districts to spend E-SPLOST sales-tax revenue—usually reserved for construction projects—on hiring trained mental health professionals, Albers said.

Another initiative is to have all Georgia schools PBIS-trained. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is an evidence-based, data-driven framework that is used to reduce disciplinary incidents, increase a school’s sense of safety and support improved academic outcomes, thus improving school climate. In 2018, a total of 1,361 Georgia schools were PBIS-trained. The Clarke County School District is one of 11 school districts that are taking part in PBIS training in fiscal year 2019.

Albers said schools must also foster a positive school climate online, in addition to the classroom, by monitoring threats on social media. One way the committee is hoping to encourage reports of suspicious behavior is through a newly created app, See Something Send Something. The app allows citizens to report any potential threats or suspicious activity to local law enforcement. The committee suggested the app be updated to provide a “single, unified statewide reporting system” that students and faculty can use to anonymously report suspicious online activity.

The committee also recommended that the legislature create a data-sharing system that allows Georgia schools, social services and law enforcement to create and share secure individual student profiles, Albers said.

As for physical security, the committee advised the legislature to require every K-12 public and private Georgia school to conduct a threat assessment of its campus with the assistance of local law enforcement, who would be required to create a “detailed, written emergency response plan.”

In addition to a response plan, the committee advises each school to participate in the Stop the Bleed initiative and regular emergency drills to prepare students and faculty for an attack response. As of now, several schools are lagging on Stop the Bleed, a nonprofit that teaches bystanders to provide medical assistance in an emergency. CCSD teachers voluntarily take part in the program, but it’s not required.

The committee did not recommend arming teachers, as some conservatives have proposed but educators generally resist. Albers suggested the legislature explore allowing and incentivizing certain veterans, military reserve members, law enforcement officers and first responders to undergo training to act as “school safety coaches” within schools. [AW]

LegislativePreview-NancyDensonAndHoustonGaines-SavannahCole.jpg
Photo Credit: Savannah Cole

Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens) with his mentor, former Mayor Nancy Denson. Gaines, who defeated Democratic incumbent Deborah Gonzalez in November, is one of two new members of the Athens delegation, along with Rep. Marcus Wiedower (R-Watkinsville).

Health Care

In November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that U.S. life expectancy has declined, and the trend is driven by drug overdoses and suicides.

The number of Georgians who have died from an opioid overdose has more than doubled since 2010, according to the Georgia Department of Health. In 2017, 1,043 people in Georgia died from an opioid overdose, compared to 928 in 2016, said Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD).

“We cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” said Nelly Miles, spokeswoman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. That’s why the GBI will continue to take a multi-disciplinary approach with the help of prevention, treatment, health and law-enforcement partners.

The GBI has formed a Multi-Stakeholder Opioid and Substance Use Response Plan. Miles said the first part of the plan is to look at every opioid overdose as a homicide investigation. The second is tracking opioid trends in the GBI Crime Lab. In 2016, the GBI saw heroin laced with fentanyl, an opioid, for the first time. “That there becomes our major threat,” Miles said.

Today, the GBI has discovered 10 different forms of fentanyl analogs—chemicals that are similar in makeup. Makers of these analogs attempt to skirt around existing state drug laws, Miles said. These analogs are also being found in counterfeit pills, as seen in a Middle Georgia fake Percocet outbreak in 2017. Since January 2015, the GBI has examined a total of 556 different forms of counterfeit pills.

Combining these opioids and opiates has also become a concern for the GBI. For instance, the combination of heroin, fentanyl carfentanil and U-47700 create a deadly heroin cocktail named “Gray Death Heroin.”

Now, the focus for law enforcement and health-care providers is prevention, treatment and recovery. For the past two years, DBHDD has received the State Targeted Response grant of $11.8 million per year. Beginning in April, that grant will be replaced by the State Opioid Response Grant, which gives $19.9 million to DBHDD annually for the next two years. SOR’s goals will be to provide additional treatment providers, transitional housing and outreach.

DBHDD and other state programs have also turned their focus in recent years to suicide prevention, especially among teens. Since 1999, Georgia has seen a 30 percent increase of suicides. Even more concerning, suicide has become the leading cause of death among Americans ages 10–34. In Georgia, 43 children committed suicide in 2017—a decrease from 2016, when a total of 51 children committed suicide.

DBHDD suicide-prevention efforts include holding suicide-prevention education summits for teachers and school personnel and providing training, community support and awareness. Other initiatives include the Garrett Lee Smith Youth Suicide Prevention Grant and the Strategic Prevention Framework.

In a majority of U.S. suicide cases, the individual did not have a documented history of mental health issues, which may have existed but gone undiagnosed and untreated. Fitzgerald said the biggest challenge for prevention in the state is the shortage of mental health professionals. Clarke is one of 150 Georgia counties facing a shortage.

With this, the Georgia Crisis and Access Line has become even more vital, Fitzgerald said. The 24/7 hotline provides access to mental health services. For immediate access to routine or crisis services, call GCAL at 800-715-4225. [AW]

Transportation

There’s good news and bad news for Athens on the transportation front: While we aren’t getting the long-awaited “Brain Train” to Atlanta anytime soon, a private company could step in to fill the void.

In November, Brightline, which recently started commuter rail service between Orlando and Miami, announced that it’s changing its name to Virgin Trains after a major investment by Virgin Atlantic airline founder Richard Branson. At the same time, the company announced that it’s planning high-speed passenger rail lines in other parts of the country, including one between Atlanta and Charlotte. That line would pass through Athens, according to state Sen. Brandon Beach (R-Alpharetta), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

“I’m all in favor of any rail that connects industry and education and so on,” Beach told Flagpole. “We just need to look at it from a cost standpoint and an economic development standpoint. I think all ideas are on the table.”

While state leaders and the Atlanta suburbs have long resisted transit, businesses have forced Republicans to change their tune in recent years. CEOs are demanding good transit and walkable neighborhoods to satisfy their millennial employees. “They want Uber. They want Bird. They want transit,” Beach said. “They want to walk to get coffee, or a beer, or pizza, whatever.”

But transit in metro Atlanta is disjointed, with 10 agencies providing service. Last year, state lawmakers formed The ATL, a new organization that will coordinate MARTA and other transit authorities in the region. “There are issues that can be resolved just by better connecting the existing network,” said Chris Tomlinson, executive director of the State Road and Tollway Authority, which operates express buses to downtown Atlanta and manages toll roads and toll lanes.

Beach found that out when he tried to use transit to get from Kennesaw State University to an arena in Duluth. The trip took four hours and 15 minutes. “I could have flown to Los Angeles faster,” he said.

Transportation officials are also expanding their definition of transit to include ride-hailing apps, e-scooters and bike-shares. “Transit is anything people are using, other than driving, to get from where they are to where they want to be,” Tomlinson said.

During his presentation, Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry threw up a photo of Marietta in 1905, depicting a city street filled with people on foot, mules, horse-drawn carriages and newfangled automobiles all mingling together. “I’d say we’re in the same place with current technology,” he said.

Of course, GDOT is still building old-fashioned highways. Future projects relevant to Athens include widening 441 with a bypass around Bishop and turning signalized intersections on 316 into safer (and faster-flowing) freeway-style interchanges. GDOT has already completed two such projects in Gwinnett County, is working on one near the Barrow Crossing shopping center and is about to start another at Highway 11. [BA]

Looking Ahead to 2020

Since the early aughts, Georgia has been a deep red state—“as red as Melania Trump’s Christmas trees,” University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock told state lawmakers. But now, Bullock said, the state is turning pink or purple and leaning more left than ever.

“Going into 2020, we are going to be one of the major toss-up states,” Bullock said. He added that Georgia’s airwaves could resemble those of Florida’s—“just covered up with political ads.”

In years past, Georgia has largely been ignored by federal candidates and national media, since it was assumed Republicans would win. However, the 2018 race was much tighter than in recent years, with Kemp beating Stacey Abrams by less than 2 percentage points.

Republicans may hold the majority in the state House and Senate, but Democrats are gaining, as seen in November. Democrats picked up one congressional seat, with Lucy McBath winning the 6th District, two state Senate seats and a net gain of 11 state House seats.

Democrats won a total of 14 House seats but lost three: one in Americus and two in Athens, with Republicans Houston Gaines and Marcus Wiedower winning in districts 117 and 119 against Reps. Deborah Gonzalez and Jonathan Wallace.

Bullock said the leftward shift stems from the evolving demographics in the state. Georgia’s population is becoming more racially diverse, Bullock said. This trend is reflected in the makeup of the electorate, since people of color tend to vote Democratic, while whites lean Republican. In 1996, about 77 percent of Georgia voters were white. According to the estimates from last year’s exit polls, 60 percent of votes were cast by whites, Bullock said.

Unsurprisingly, Kemp did best among white evangelicals—even better than Deal. Bullock said Kemp’s strongest supporters also live in rural areas, are 45 or older and have a high-school degree or less education. Abrams’ strongest supporters were black, urban, between the ages of 18–44, received an advanced degree or have lived in the state less than 10 years, he said.  

In addition, the change is also due to the “nearly presidential turnout” during the midterm election, Bullock said. Abrams and other Democrats worked to mobilize voters who typically did not cast a ballot in previous midterms.

The GOP’s advantage is getting smaller, Bullock said: In 2018 alone, Republicans lost three-quarters of their margin of victory. [AW]

https://flagpole.com/news/news-features/2019/01/16/what-will-the-georgia-legislature-talk-about-during-this-year-s-session