The Legislature’s self-imposed deadline for a bill to clear at least one chamber to have the smoothest path to becoming law has now come and gone.

This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

The daylong voting spree Tuesday yielded its share of controversial bills, like more changes to the state’s voting laws, an attempt to legalize horse racing and a failed push to divert $6,000 from public schools for private school vouchers. 

The day also brought legislative proposals to jumpstart the state’s stalled medical cannabis cultivation program, create a less political review process to compensate those who have been wrongly convicted of a crime, and let voters decide if a legislator pay raise is warranted.

These bills now have until April 4 to navigate the rest of the legislative process in order to make it to the governor’s desk. 

‘We have an obligation to try and make it right’

The House backed a proposal to revamp how the state compensates those who have been wronged by the criminal justice system.

If the bill becomes law, a new review panel that would evaluate claims from exonerees and make recommendations to the House budget committee, creating a more formal process that is meant to bring consistency to compensation payouts.

The current system can put the vindicated person “on trial again,” said Rep. Carolyn Hugley, a Columbus Democrat, a sponsor of compensation resolutions over the years.

“You can never give a person back the time they’ve lost from their family, the time that they were unable to go to mother’s funeral or father’s funeral or see their children grow up,” Hugley said.

“We have a good justice system here in the state of Georgia, but when we are wrong, when the state of Georgia is wrong, we have an obligation to try and make it right,” she said. “And this bill gives us an outline so that each person who was similarly situated will be treated the same.”

The proposal approved by the House Tuesday night is a bipartisan bill championed by the Georgia Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that helped draft the policy.

Georgia is one of 12 states that does not have a law in place to compensate the wrongfully convicted, according to the organization. 

“While missed opportunities and lost time with loved ones can never be recovered, this bill does provide some financial security for exonerees to rebuild their lives in freedom,” said Clare Gilbert, executive director of Georgia Innocence Project.

The bill, sponsored by Atlanta Democratic Rep. Scott Holcomb, passed with a 157-11, with only Republicans voting against it. It now goes over the Senate for consideration.

“Legislative authority is not eroded here,” said Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Dacula Republican who signed onto the bill. “In fact, it’s strengthened because we get recommendations from experts who know what they’re talking about, and we get guidelines of what that compensation should be.”

Two of the kind of compensation resolutions at the center of the measure were also approved Tuesday. One of them would pay $1.23 million to Dennis Perry, a white man who spent 20 years in prison for the murder of a Black couple in a south Georgia church. Perry was exonerated last year.

Another resolution would pay $480,000 to Kerry Robinson, who served 18 years in prison for a 1993 rape in Moultrie he did not commit.

“This is a case that is terribly heartbreaking,” Holcomb said of Robinson. “Eighteen years of his life, gone. We can never truly compensate for that. But we can do something.”

Voters may give lawmakers a raise

A proposal to let voters decide whether to give lawmakers a pay raise comfortably cleared the House.

As a constitutional amendment, the measure needed two-thirds support. The proposal got that with votes to spare, with 136 state representatives backing the resolution. A bipartisan group of 33 lawmakers opposed it. It now moves to the Senate. 

The proposal would strip lawmakers of the ability to give themselves a raise in the future and would set their pay at 60% of the median household income in Georgia, or about the statewide average of $35,000 these days.

Today, a lawmaker’s salary is about $17,000, so the proposal would double their pay. 

“As this General Assembly continues to enact policies that make life better for Georgians, the result would be that the median income in our state would rise,” said the bill’s sponsor, Woodstock Republican Rep. Wes Cantrell.

“Which would result in the compensation of General Assembly members rising proportionally in the same way. As Georgians do better, the General Assembly would do better.”

Cantrell has tried without success to increase lawmaker pay in the past. This year’s proposal takes a different approach by putting the question before voters this fall.

Juneteenth holiday passes House

The House overwhelmingly approved another paid state holiday to add Juneteenth to the calendar to honor the date slavery ended in the United States.

The bill, sponsored by longtime Columbus Democratic Rep. Calvin Smyre, creates a thirteenth state holiday and requires the state to observe federal holidays. It now goes over the Senate for consideration.

There was a push in Georgia to make June 19 a state holiday, but it didn’t gain traction before President Joe Biden signed a bill last summer making June 19 a new federal holiday.

Macon Democratic state Rep. Miriam Paris, who sponsored bills that would make Juneteenth a state holiday in years past, celebrated the vote Tuesday.

“I think today is a good day for Georgians all over this state to be able to have another slice of history,” she said.

Just two Republican lawmakers voted against the bill: Rep. Tommy Benton of Jefferson and Rep. Emory Dunahoo of Gillsville.

Senate passes bill for disability workforce shortage

Advocates have long pushed the state to increase funding to reach more of the thousands of people with disabilities who are awaiting services.

But even if the state were to drastically increase funding, another problem would remain: a shortage of the workers who would provide the care.

Sen. Sally Harrell, an Atlanta Democrat, convinced her colleagues to take a step toward addressing the pay barrier driving the workforce shortage. Direct support professionals are leaving jobs paying about $10 for better paying jobs at big box retailers and fast food restaurants.

Her proposal would require the state Department of Community Health to perform a provider rate study every three years starting in 2024. The last one was done in 2015.

“Our rate study is seven years old so it’s making it difficult to get provider rate increases approved by the feds,” Harrell said.

Her bill passed unanimously and now moves to the House. 

Harrell has pressed her colleagues to commit to fully funding services to cover the more than 7,000 people who are on a wait list.

Lawmakers have proposed increasing the amount of state funds going toward New Option Waiver (NOW) and Comprehensive Supports Waiver (COMP) Medicaid waivers through Medicaid. These waivers are designed to help people with disabilities avoid institutionalization.

The governor originally proposed spending $2 million on 100 new slots in the new spending plan that starts in July. That was raised to $6.6 million for 325 slots in the House last week. The Senate is currently reviewing the budget. 

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing...

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