Members of the Georgia General Assembly returned to the State Capitol for our last full week of the 2022 legislative session on Monday, March 28, 2022. My colleagues and I spent time both in the House Chamber and in our respective committees this week, resulting in several key votes on House and Senate legislation on the House floor. With the end of session drawing near, this was undoubtedly our busiest week yet as we worked tirelessly to ensure crucial legislation that serves the citizens of Georgia crossed the finish line before Legislative Day 40.
First, I am excited to announce that the House gave unanimous final passage to House Bill 1013, the Mental Health Parity Act, shortly after the bill was unanimously passed by our Senate counterparts this week. A foundational provision of this legislation would require parity for mental health coverage to the same degree as coverage for physical care to make accessing mental health care services significantly easier for Georgians. Additionally, this legislation would authorize workforce development initiatives for mental and behavioral health professionals, such as creating cancelable student loans for mental health care professionals who invest in underserved areas of our state. The Mental Health Parity Act would also expand transparency and accountability mechanisms for consumers and enhance resources and tools for frontline responders and communities. This bill would also encourage interagency collaboration and would allow state agencies to collect important data to evaluate the effectiveness of these comprehensive changes. We’ve heard the cries and frustrations of Georgia families who have nearly given up hope on finding treatment for their loved ones, and I want to assure you that this legislation would usher in much needed reform for our state’s mental health care delivery system. If this legislation is signed into law, Georgians could feel the positive impacts of HB 1013 starting this year, and my “yes” vote will certainly remain one of my proudest moments as a state representative.
My colleagues and I unanimously passed Senate Bill 403 to encourage law enforcement partnerships with mental health professionals to improve the handling of situations in which an individual is experiencing a mental health crisis. Under SB 403, Community Service Boards, which provide services for mental health, intellectual/ developmental disabilities and addiction, would be directed to establish co-responder programs that would work with local law enforcement agencies responding to emergency calls involving people in a behavioral health crisis. Local law enforcement agencies could collaborate with co-responder programs, and Community Service Boards would provide licensed behavioral health specialists to be available in person or virtually during related emergency calls to assist officers in determining where to refer the individual for further treatment and care. This bill also outlines legal protections for the co-responder teams when they act in good faith. Additionally, the Mental Health Parity Act includes a funding mechanism to allow the General Assembly to appropriate funds to support these co-response teams. This bill not only seeks to enhance public safety in our state, but it would also ensure that individuals in crisis receive the appropriate response and treatment that they need.
In addition, we passed Senate Bill 361, the Law Enforcement Strategic Support Act or LESS Crime Act, to establish a tax credit for Georgians who make contributions to 501(c)(3) law enforcement foundations that support local police agencies across the state. With these donations, law enforcement foundations could use those funds to issue bonus payments or training for law enforcement officers, pay for equipment for officers or cover costs of a co-responder program comprised of law enforcements officers and behavioral health specialists, as mentioned above. This tax credit program would have an annual statewide cap of $75 million, and each law enforcement agency would be capped at $3 million per year. Taxpayers would be allowed a 100 percent income tax credit for qualified donations to law enforcement foundations, and this bill would cap the credit at $5,000 for a single individual or head of household; a married couple, individual who is a member of a limited liability company, a shareholder of a Subchapter ‘S’ corporation or a partner in a partnership could receive a credit up to $10,000. This bill would also cap credits for corporations at 75 percent of the corporation’s income tax liability. SB 361 would create an innovative way for citizens and businesses to come together and give back to their local law enforcement agencies as they work to keep our communities safe.
The House also passed Senate Bill 87, the Senator Jack Hill Veterans’ Act, to provide a simple way for Georgians to donate to college scholarships that are only for our veterans. With SB 87, taxpayers would have the opportunity to use a portion of their income tax return to make a voluntarily contribution to the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) Foundation, which would be able to expand its efforts to support veterans who are seeking technical degrees. Specifically, the funds received by the foundation would be used exclusively to award scholarships to veterans with service-connected disabilities to attend TCSG programs. Starting in January 2023, taxpayers would have the option to dedicate all or part of their refund when filling out the state’s income tax return form. This legislation would allow Georgians to support our disabled veterans who are looking to transition to sustainable, long-term careers, which would, in turn, also help bolster our state’s workforce for high-demand technical careers. This bill was aptly named in honor of our late colleague and veteran, State Senator Jack Hill, whose legacy will live on through this legislation.
Additionally, my colleagues and I passed two bills this week to combat heinous human trafficking crimes in our state and protect vulnerable survivors of human trafficking. To support victims of human trafficking, we passed Senate Bill 565 to allow a victim to vacate his or her sentence through a petition that could be filed immediately or at any time following a misdemeanor or felony conviction that was committed due human trafficking. If a sentence is vacated, any court fines or fees that the victim previously paid for the sentence would be reimbursed through the Georgia Crime Victims Emergency Fund. Hopefully, this bill would allow more survivors of human trafficking to avoid long waiting periods when filing these petitions so that they can focus on healing and getting their lives back. We also passed Senate Bill 461, which would add human trafficking-related crimes to the list of crimes that are not eligible under law for an unsecured judicial release, meaning these criminals could not be released from jail without paying bond. With SB 461, human trafficking offenses would only be bailable before a superior court judge, which would make human trafficking offenses equal to other severe crimes within Georgia. These two measures build upon the comprehensive work we’re doing under the Gold Dome to address human trafficking, and Governor Brian Kemp and First Lady Marty, who work with the GRACE commission to fight human trafficking, also support these measures.
Another bill that passed in the House this week would help identify causes of maternal mortality and improve maternal health outcomes across our state. Senate Bill 496 would require a medical examiner’s inquiry in cases where a pregnant woman dies or when a new mother dies within a year of having her baby to help determine if these deaths were postpartum related. This requirement would be waived in cases when a woman dies as the result of a car accident or other causes that are clearly known and not linked to pregnancy. Coroners or medical examiners notified of such deaths would be required to order these inquiries through a regional perinatal center determined by the Georgia Department of Public Health. My colleagues and I have been dedicated to lowering maternal mortality rates in our state in recent years, and this legislation would help our state determine the cause of death if a mother passes away following giving birth, and consequently, help find ways to prevent similar deaths from occurring in the future.
Senate Bill 610 was also passed on the House floor this week to improve how we fund programs that support Georgians who are enrolled in Medicaid, including individuals living with disabilities and those who struggle with mental health conditions. The first portion of SB 610 would require the Georgia Department of Community Health (DCH) to conduct comprehensive reviews of the Medicaid rates set for certain state programs that many Georgians with disabilities benefit from. Every four years, the DCH would study provider reimbursement rates for these home and community-based waiver services and programs, as well as propose rate models, policy changes and fiscal projections. The second part of this bill would instruct the DCH to submit a waiver request to the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services to allow private mental health institutions to qualify for Medicaid reimbursement, which would allow these Georgians to receive more affordable treatments at these facilities. SB 610 exemplifies just one more way the state legislature is working to expand access to affordable health care for these vulnerable populations.
The House also gave unanimous passage to Senate Bill 562 to prohibit companies owned or operated by the governments of Russia or Belarus from working with our state government. Under this bill, any company that submits a bid or proposal for a state contract would be required to certify that it is not owned, operated or affiliated with these governments, and a company’s false certification would result in civil liability, termination of contract and ineligibility for future contracts. Our state leaders recently announced that Georgia would divest any state investments in Russia, and SB 562 would further reinforce our state’s condemnation of the Russian government as Putin continues to senselessly murder and violate the sovereign rights of the Ukrainian people, including women and children.
On Monday, April 4, we will reconvene for Legislative Day 40, which will be the last day of the 2022 legislative session. Day 40, also known as “Sine Die,” will surely be the busiest day of the entire session as we will work diligently to finalize and pass bills in the House Chamber before the clock strikes at midnight. I urge you to contact me if you have any questions, concerns or input on any measures that I shared with you so far this session. I can be reached at my Capitol office at 404-656- 9210 or by email at gerald. email@example.com.
As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your state representative.