2015 Legislative Session: Week Seven
Monday, February 23 marked the half-way point of the 2015 legislative session. Among the bills passed this week was one of the most crucial pieces of legislation of the session, the Fiscal Year 2016 (FY 2016) budget. The Fiscal Year 2016 budget is the only piece of legislation that the General Assembly is required to pass, according to the Georgia Constitution. The 2016 budget, or House Bill 76, is the initial guide for all state spending from July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016. This year’s budget was set by a revenue estimate of $21.7 billion, a 4.5% increase from the Fiscal Year 2015 budget.
With the increase in state revenue, the House was able to fund a number of priorities in the FY 2016 budget including:
- Enhanced funding for education
- Maintaining State Health Benefit Plan coverage for non-certificated school employees
- Support for Georgia’s rural hospitals
Of the new revenue in the FY 2016 budget, 60% of those funds are budgeted for K-12 education expenses. K-12 education funds, totaling $571.9 million. This will help:
- Fully fund enrollment growth
- Allow for additional training for teachers
- Provide charter system grants and State Commission Charter School supplements
- Increase opportunities for agricultural and career/technical education
- Distribute more dollars to local school systems in hopes of eliminating furlough days and raising salaries for teachers
Additionally, the House version of the budget takes a strong stance on continuing the State Health Benefit Plan coverage for non-certificated school workers and includes additional funds to continue coverage for these valuable school workers.
Just as transportation has been a major topic under the Gold Dome, funding for state transportation projects was also set as a key priority in the FY 2016 budget. HB 76 includes an infusion of $55 million in state dollars and $210 million in bonds to improve our roads, rail, airports, bridges and cargo. This appropriation includes
- $3.9 million in prior-year funds
- $2 million to match federal funds for traffic management and control projects
- $9.6 million for the State Road and Tollway Authority, with $7.6 million specifically dedicated to funding projects through the Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank
- $17.1 million in debt service for $200 million in bonds for bridge repair and rehabilitation and transit projects statewide
Maintaining and repairing our roads and bridges is vital to every part of our state, and it is our duty to ensure that our roadways continue to be safe for Georgia drivers.
The FY 2016 budget also funds a variety of health initiatives. HB 76 includes
- $3 million to improve the financial health of struggling and closing hospitals in rural Georgia to leverage technology to improve patient outcomes
- $250,000 start-up grant for a community health center in Wheeler County
- $50,000 to support the Georgia Comprehensive Sickle Cell Center at Grady Memorial Hospital.
Additional investments were also made in our future doctors, with:
- An increase in funds for both Mercer and Morehouse Schools of Medicine
- Funding for 11 additional primary care residency slots
- The establishment of a rural clinical rotation for primary care students in Sandersville
- $200,000 to revive a rural dentistry program that provides debt relief with a service commitment to practice in a rural or under-served area.
With these dollars, we hope to not only prepare a future generation of doctors, but to also address the shortage of health care in rural areas. The Fiscal Year 2016 budget, HB 76, will now go to the Senate for their review and consideration.
In addition to passing the FY 2016 budget, my colleagues and I passed an extremely valuable measure to improve the quality of life for Georgia’s children and adults. HB 1 was passed overwhelmingly in the House and would decriminalize the possession of medical cannabis oil in Georgia for individuals with certain medical conditions who have obtained cannabis oil legally in another state. Qualifying conditions under HB 1 include cancer, multiple sclerosis, seizure disorders, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, mitochondrial disease, sickle cell disease, and fibromyalgia. These individuals would only be allowed to possess cannabis oil with a maximum of 5% THC and a maximum amount of 20 fluid ounces of cannabis oil. HB 1 would also require that potential patients register with the Georgia Department of Public Health and be placed on the “Low-THC Oil Patient Registry.” These individuals would then receive a registration card to indicate that they are legally in possession of this oil, thus exempting them from prosecution in Georgia as long as the oil has been legally obtained in another state and meets the aforementioned requirements.
Because we realize that this legislation is merely a starting point, the bill also creates the Georgia Commission on Medical Cannabis to examine the possibility of future policies related to medical cannabis oil in our state. This commission will be charged with making a recommendation for the potential regulatory infrastructure for the creation of an in-state growth/distribution model of medical cannabis, and must make its recommendations to Governor Deal by December 2015. The members of the commission will include the Director of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, the Director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Director of the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, the Commissioner of Agriculture, the governor’s executive counsel, members of the General Assembly, medical professionals, law enforcement officials, and pharmacists. With the work of this commission and the other measures in House Bill 1, we hope to eventually ensure that no Georgian will ever have to move to another state to obtain medical cannabis oil to treat a debilitating illness.
Another bill passed to improve Georgia’s healthcare this week was House Resolution 304. This legislation encourages Georgia’s technical schools, colleges, and universities to include education on gerontology and dementia in their academic curriculum. Georgia’s elderly population is increasing four times faster than the younger population. In fact, the state’s population over the age of 60 years old is expected to increase by 65.8% between 2010 and 2030. As the elderly population continues to rise, healthcare professionals will begin to see more patients with dementia and other health issues related to aging, and our healthcare professionals must be prepared to handle these cases. HR 304 addresses this potential issue and puts Georgia at the forefront of gerontology care.
Finally this week, we passed House Bill 70 to recognize the white tail deer as Georgia’s official state mammal. The idea for this legislation came from first-graders at Reese Road Leadership Academy in Columbus, Georgia who learned that Georgia is one of only three states that does not have an official state mammal. The children brought this to the attention of lawmakers and leaders of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and it was ultimately decided that the white tail deer become Georgia’s official state mammal. According to DNR, white tail deer bring in more than $800 million per year in
- Hunting license fees
- Sporting equipment sales
- Land leases
Therefore having a significant economic impact on the state of Georgia. This legislation, however, does not grant the animal any protection from hunters or change hunting laws in any way. I am glad that HB 70 helped teach some of Georgia’s youngest learners about the legislative process, while also recognizing an animal that has been an important economic and recreational resource for Georgians.
Now that we have passed the half-way point for the 2015 legislative session, we will soon begin to work even longer hours and vote on more legislation under the Gold Dome. I hope that you will contact me, so that I can apply your ideas and opinions to these last few weeks of lawmaking. You are always welcome to visit or call my office at the State Capitol. The number is 404-656-0213. I look forward to hearing from you.