The 2015 session is now in its final seven days. Monday, March 23, is the 34th of our 40 legislative days.
As the session nears final adjournment, I hope you will contact me with your views on the issues being addressed at the Capitol, or whenever I can be of service to you.
State Senator, District 41
Senate approves medical cannabis legislation
The Senate voted March 13 to approve legislation that would allow patients 21 and younger with seizure disorders to participate in clinical trials of cannabis oil treatment. The bill also would create a pilot research program of cannabis oil products to be implemented by the University System of Georgia.
Sponsors of SB 185 said they would begin working with their House of Representatives counterparts to consolidate the legislation with HB 1, which would allow the use of cannabis oil for other diseases and disorders, in an effort to reach agreement before the end of the current session.
Last week, the Senate Health & Human Services Committee approved an amended version of HB 1, which includes the provisions of SB 185, and it awaits action by the full Senate.
Senate makes minor changes to 2016 budget plan
The Senate voted March 20 to approve a $21.8 billion annual state budget for fiscal year 2016, making only minor adjustments to the version approved earlier in the session by the House of Representatives.
The Senate-approved budget includes a 4 percent pay increase for Supreme Court justices and Court of Appeals judges and a 2 percent raise for Superior Court judges, which would be the first state salary increases for those judges in more than 15 years. District attorneys would also receive a 2 percent raise, and other state employees would receive a 1 percent pay hike.
Local public school systems would receive an additional $280 million to restore previous funding cuts, with $103 million of that amount designated to continue health insurance coverage for school bus drivers and cafeteria workers. The budget also includes a $
152 million funding increase to school systems to pay for growth in student enrollment.
The budget includes a 3 percent increase for HOPE Scholarships and HOPE Grant awards, and tuition equalization grants for private college students would be raised from $700 to $900 per year.
Transportation-related construction projects in the budget’s $1.1 billion bond package total $200 million, including $100 million for roads and bridges and $100 million for transit systems.
The budget legislation (HB 76) now goes back to the House for its consideration of the Senate changes. If the House disagrees with those changes, a conference committee will be appointed to iron out the differences between the two versions of the budget.
Craft brewer proposal receives Senate approval
On March 13, the Senate approved legislation that would allow craft brewers to provide a limited amount of beer to customers to take a guided tour of their facilities and authorize brew pubs to engage in small package sales of beer.
Georgia is presently one of five states in the nation that does not allow brewers to sell their product directly to the customer. SB 63, which now goes to the House for its consideration, would allow brew pubs to dispense up to 36 ounces of their product for on-site consumption and 64-ounce containers for customers to take with them.
Senate majority approves school takeover plan
On March 5, a majority of the Senate voted to approve a proposed constitutional amendment that would establish an Opportunity School District in Georgia to intervene and take over control of schools failing to meet certain performance criteria.
SR 287 still must receive two-thirds approval in the House of Representatives to be placed on the 2016 general election ballot for necessary ratification by a majority of voters.
The Senate also approved the enabling legislation for the Opportunity School District, which would take effect if the constitutional amendment is successful. Under SB 133, failing schools are defined as those scoring below 60 for three years in a row on the College and Career Performance Index, which is Georgia’s current rating system for school performance.
The Governor would have the authority to appoint a Superintendent of the Opportunity School District, subject to the Senate’s confirmation. Four intervention models are outlined in the legislation, allowing the district to directly manage the schools, close them, partner with local school districts to run them or convert them into charter schools.
As an alternative to the Governor’s takeover plan, Georgia Senate Democrats earlier this session introduced SB 124, the “Unlocking the Promise Community Schools Act.” Under this legislation, Sustainable Community School Operational Grants would be awarded to low-performing schools that apply for conversion to “community schools.” The grant money would be used to provide healthcare services, academic support and tutoring and parental education programs to families living in those communities.
The community school model has worked in other states, including Kentucky, to help remove impediments standing in the way of academic success for students living in poverty. SB 124 still rests in the Senate Education & Youth Committee.
The Senate voted March 11 to establish the week of Sept. 17 as Celebrate Freedom Week in Georgia Public Schools. SB 116 encourages at least three hours of instruction in social studies classes at each grade level to focus on the intent, meaning and importance of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
SB 116 now goes to the House for its consideration.
Other legislation approved by the Senate and sent to the House last week includes:
SB 35, which would expand the criminal charge of cruelty to a child in the third degree to include leaving a child under age 6 unattended in a car under circumstances that pose a risk to the child’s health or safety.
SB 59, which would expand the state’s use of public-private partnerships for highway and other construction projects.
SB 69, which would grant members of the State Defense Force the same re-employment rights as members of the National Guard and Reserves.
SB 130, which would prohibit smoking in a car if a child 15 or younger is a passenger in the vehicle.
SB 132, the “Move On When Ready Act,” which would allow high school students to attend postsecondary institutions for dual credit courses.
SB 134, which would require all speeding fine amounts to be calculated to determine whether a law enforcement agency is using speed detection devices to raise revenue.
SB 138, which would have the director of the Department of Family and Children Services report directly to the Governor, create a DFCS Advisory Board and create a child abuse registry.
SB 143, which would require the State Health Benefit Plan coverage networks to provide access to all Level 1 trauma centers.
SB 156, which would authorize the State Charter Schools Commission to establish a nonprofit corporation.
SB 175, which would make it illegal to import horses, poultry, livestock or birds into Georgia without an official certificate of veterinary inspection.
SB 184, which would prohibit local governments from banning specific breeds of dogs, requiring that breed regulation be done by state law only.