2015 Legislative Session: Week Four
On Monday, February 2, 2015, we returned to the Gold Dome for another busy week. My colleagues and I spent much of our time reviewing various pieces of legislation that have been introduced in the House. The House and Senate went into a joint session on Wednesday in the House Chamber for the State of the Judiciary Address, from Chief Justice Hugh Thompson, who was appointed to the Supreme Court of Georgia in 1994 and was elected by his peers to a four-year term as chief justice in 2013.
Georgia’s judicial system is sound and strong, according to the Chief Justice and head of the state’s judicial branch of government. In his address, Chief Justice Thompson recognized the successful expansion of specialty courts in Georgia. A specialty court, also known as an accountability court or problem solving court, is a cost-effective criminal justice alternative for non-violent offenders. Specialty courts, such as drug and mental health treatment courts, hold offenders accountable through court-supervised treatment programs. In his speech, Chief Justice Thompson shared success stories from some specialty courts in our state. He recognized Superior Court Judge Reuben Green, who oversees a veteran’s court in Cobb County that matches participants with supportive volunteers who are dedicated to keeping our veterans out of jail and mentor them through the program. I was pleased to hear that the 116 Georgia specialty courts have helped more than 5,000 Georgians avoid incarceration.
While Chief Justice Thompson shared the state’s judiciary achievements over the last year, he also spoke of the challenges that lie ahead. One challenge we face in Georgia is providing access to justice. He reminded us that six counties in Georgia are without a single lawyer, and 20 counties have fewer than five lawyers. As a result, judges are seeing a growing number of people who come to court without a lawyer and attempt to represent themselves, which usually results in an unfavorable decision, as the judges do not have the information they need to make just decisions. All Georgians deserve to have access to justice, regardless of their place of residence, or socioeconomic status. To address this challenge and expand access to justice in our state, Chief Justice Thompson asked for support of newly introduced legislation to encourage attorneys to work in underserved rural areas of Georgia. This legislation would create a pilot program in which a small number of law school graduates would receive college loan payment assistance for agreeing to work in an underserved county for at least five years.This bill was introduced in the House this week as HB 236 and will now make its way through the legislative process.
In addition to the State of the Judiciary Address, we saw several bills pass out of their respective committees this week.
- The House Education Committee voted ‘do pass’ on an important measure in House Bill 62. This legislation waives certain residency requirements so that children of active duty military personnel in Georgia have the ability to receive special needs scholarships. Military families are often required to relocate across the country, and these children should not be denied educational opportunities.
- House Bill 65 was considered also, which would increase transparency in local school boards by requiring the boards to hold at least two public meetings before adopting any budget. This would give parents and taxpayers the opportunity to see how their education dollars are being spent and to provide input.
Both HB 62 and HB 65 will now be sent to the Rules Committee before making their way to the House floor for a vote.
While the House Education Committee was busy passing bills, our colleagues in the Senate passed a bill that will strengthen our education system.
- Senate Bill 2 passed the Senate unanimously and would provide high school students with alternative ways to earn their high school diplomas. Students can earn their high school diplomas and start their post-secondary degrees simultaneously. Now that this legislation has passed the Senate, it will go through the committee process in the House as my colleagues and I review the details of the bill.
- Finally, we received some exciting news out of Washington D.C. about the future of The Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. In his 2016 budget proposal, President Obama requested that Congress designate $42 million for dredging the river channel that cargo ships use to reach the Port of Savannah. This funding, in addition to the $266 million from the state of Georgia, will help the expansion stay on schedule to be completed by 2020, which will bring jobs and boost our economy.
I wanted to share with you some information about House Bill 244, also known as Safe Harbor/Rachel’s Law Act. The bill is named for Rachel, a young lady who was forced into prostitution by her so-called boyfriend at the age of 17; Rachel is now 20 years old and recovering. Members of the state House and Senate are teaming up to provide more protection against child sex trafficking. Safe Harbor/Rachel’s Law Act will do several things: provide resources for the victims of child sex trafficking and penalize pimps and other people who take part in the sexual victimization of children. I believe this bill will help victims recover and help the fight to end child sex trafficking.
Here are some recent press articles to further familiarize yourself with Safe Harbor/Rachel’s Law Act.
- Bills seek to help sex trafficking victims, penalize pimps
- State lawmakers to propose stronger sex trafficking laws
- New effort by state lawmakers to go after child sex traffickers
- Georgia lawmakers pursue stronger effort against sex trafficking
In the coming weeks, we will be reviewing even more pieces of legislation in committees and on the House floor. If you have concerns or questions about proposed legislation, I hope that you will contact me. I am always eager to hear from you, so that I can better understand what issues are most important to you and your family. Please stop by and visit me at the Capitol if you are in Atlanta during the legislative session, or call my office at the State Capitol and let me know what I can do for you. The phone number is 404.656.0213.