Legislature Working Together On Quality Of Life Issues
This week’s Courier Herald column:
Forty days of the Georgia Legislature could easily be summed up by paraphrasing Charles Dickens. It is the longest time; it is the shortest time.
When the General Assembly stood at ease at the end of Thursday March 9th, they had already completed 31 of the 40 days allowed for legislative business this year. Day 40 is scheduled for March 29th. “Crossover Day” – when all bills other than the budget must pass one chamber to be considered by the other this year, occurred on March 6th.
Thus, the playing field of bills that may become law has been narrowed. A lot of work remains to be squeezed into nine days over the next three weeks. In the bills that remain active and moving, a theme has emerged.
A series of bills, many “under the radar” of significant news coverage, are aimed at Georgians’ quality of life. Special emphasis in these proposals is on citizens who are in groups considered most at risk.
Georgia has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the nation. House Bill 129, sponsored by Representative Soo Hong (R-Lawrenceville), aims to allow pregnant women to seek financial assistance from the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The bill passed Georgia’s House 173-1, and was sponsored in the Senate by Senator Mike Hodges (R-Brunswick), where it passed 50-1.
As both Representative Hong and Senator Hodges are floor leaders for Governor Brian Kemp, it can be expected that the bill, now on the Governor’s desk, will receive his signature. This follows legislation from last year that extended postpartum Medicaid benefits from 6 months to 12 months, which received federal approval from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services in November.
House Bill 538, sponsored by Representative Bethany Ballard (R-Warner Robins), takes aim at Georgia’s early childhood literacy rates. Her bill would require the State Board of Education to approve “high-quality instruction materials” for grades K-3, “ensure the use and reporting of universal reading screeners” for public school students in those same grades, and require the Professional Standards Commission to ensure those receiving teacher certification have the skills to teach reading.
Reading skills in grades K-3 are critical, as this is the window when children learn to read. After 3rd grade, students must be able to read in order to keep up with their lessons. This has become an even more critical window in time after years of pandemic shutdowns, with many at risk students in early grades suffering “learning loss”. This is the industry term for “missed critical time in the classroom and now has a deficit that must be made up, or risk falling behind forever.” Ballard’s bill passed the House 174-0, and awaits action in the Senate.
Also building on legislation signed into law last year, Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns put his endorsement at the unveiling of House Bill 520, addressing the shortage workers and facilities in Georgia’s mental health treatment network. The bill would expand student loan forgiveness programs for mental health workers, as well as create new crisis stabilization units in the Atlanta area, Columbus, and Dublin.
The bill was sponsored by Representatives Todd Jones (R-Cumming) and Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur). It passed the House 174-0 and also awaits post-crossover day action in the Senate.
Another note should be made about each of these bills, and the legislative process in general. For those who consume political “news” as entertainment from their favorite left or right leaning cable network or internet site, they might be surprised to see that the votes on these bills were nearly unanimous. They may also find it surprising that Democrats, such as Representative Oliver, have strong roles in shaping and passing significant legislation.
This is actually more routine than not, and one of the many ways state legislatures often differ from the chambers of Congress that look the same, but often operate very differently. Georgia has a citizen legislature, filled with experts in their own field. Legislators get to know each other quickly, and figure out who understands the problems at hand, then vet proposals to fix them.
Consensus doesn’t generate outrage, and outrage is what generates viewership and internet clicks. While most observing “politics” remain transfixed on the Washington generated fight du jour, Georgia’s representatives are tackling real problems – often working across the aisle to do so. Then, they return home knowing that there will be more challenges to face next year, and they’ll return ready to do it again.