Last week, we looked at the performance of Savannah-area lawmakers during the latest session of the Georgia legislature, and compared it with the priorities they spelled out before it convened.
Now it’s your turn.
When readers of The Current were asked before the session’s start to rank your top legislative preferences from a list of nine candidates, you rated “climate resilience” and “education funding” as your top priorities.
That was followed — in order — by “rural health care access,” “mental health beds and staffing,” and “revising runoff, ballot access law.”
With the latest session of the Georgia General Assembly now in the rearview mirror and with the results of that informal, unscientific survey in mind, we now look back and ask: How did lawmakers do on the issues you said you cared most about?
As our previous recap of the legislative session suggested, local lawmakers, with a few notable exceptions, had little success in achieving their declared legislative priorities or making headway on them.
Much the same, it seems, can be said of how the legislature fared when it came to the priorities that those Current readers who responded to our survey deemed most important. Here’s a roundup of the actions they took during the session related to your top five priorities. Appended to it is a detailed description of the survey and its results.
Measures that boost “climate resilience” — and prevent environmental degradation, in general — stumbled during the legislative session.
A bill to protect the Okefenokee Swamp from mining never received a vote by the House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Rep. Lynn Smith (R-Newnan).
Co-sponsors of the bill included Coastal Georgia Reps. Darlene Taylor (R-Thomasville), Jesse Petrea (R-Savannah), Ron Stephens (R-Savannah), and Bill Hitchens (R-Rincon), but mining supporters hinted at a lawsuit if lawmakers passed the bill.
A resolution to establish a study committee to evaluate the value of the Okefenokee as the continent’s largest blackwater swamp also failed.
Boosted by $135 million allocated to Georgia under President Biden’s Infrastructure Law to help cover the costs of installing charging stations, Gov. Brian Kemp says he aims to make Georgia the electric mobility capital of America.
That caused environmentalists to scratch their heads after the Republican-dominated legislature approved a bill to charge taxes on electricity for charging electric vehicles.
A Senate bill proposed by nine Democratic state senators that would ban plastic bags at grocery stores and convenience stores went nowhere, as did a bill that would address how Georgia Power compensates residential solar customers for the electricity they put onto the grid from their solar panels.
Under the headline “Georgia’s Education System Second to None,” House Speaker Jon Burns (R-Newington) authored an op-ed in The Effingham Herald in November urging support for bills expanding civics education, parental rights, and transparency of school board proceedings.
It’s unclear whether he anticipated budget cuts to higher education. Nevertheless, the $32.4 billion budget approved by the House and Senate included $66 million in cuts to Savannah State University, Georgia Southern, and the 24 other schools that comprise the University System of Georgia. Chancellor Sonny Perdue called the cuts “incredibly disappointing.”
A bill backed by Kemp and Burns that would have established a $6,500 annual subsidy for students who left a low-performing public school for a private school or for home schooling won decisively in the House but lost by an 89-85 vote in the Senate, with 12 Republicans joining Democrats in opposing the measure.
Supporters of the bill said it served to expand school choice; the Georgia Budget Policy Institute, which opposed the measure, said it “threatened to funnel money away from public schools at a moment when school districts are wrestling with an aging bus fleet, staff turnover, and skyrocketing State Health Benefit Plan costs.”
Two other bills that also would serve to subsidize private schools also foundered.
One sought to raise the cap on a tax credit-funded private school tuition subsidy program to $200 million but never got a hearing. Another passed the House but stalled in the Senate. It would have raised the current $120 million cap by $10 million.
One education-related bill survived the legislative gauntlet and was sent to the governor’s desk for his signature: literacy.
Co-sponsored by Rep. Carl Gilliard (D-Savannah), the Georgia Literacy Act would require schools to revamp how they teach reading in kindergarten through third grade, and it would overhaul teacher certification and training. A related measure would establish a 30-member council of political appointees to help implement it.
‘Rural health care access,’ ‘mental health beds, staffing’
A bill addressing the shortage of mental health workers and the lack of information-sharing among agencies that deal with clients with mental illness overwhelmingly passed in the House but failed to get a vote in Senate Health and Human Services Committee, chaired by Sen. Ben Watson (R-Savannah). Lt. Gov. Burt Jones said some senators recoiled at the estimated $72 million it would cost to implement the bill.
The bill fell victim in a struggle between Jones and House leaders over a measure he supported to pave the way for more hospitals to be built in less-populated counties that could have financially benefited his family’s business. He ultimately abandoned his effort to pass that legislation this year.
Wrote Jones in an op-ed in The Atlanta Journal Constitution: “Local control and access to healthcare are two topics that seem to be a priority for those serving under the Gold Dome, that is, unless special interests and crony corporations get involved.”
‘Revising runoff, ballot access law’
A measure to end runoffs failed, leaving Georgia one of only three states in the nation, along with Louisiana and Mississippi, that requires runoffs when candidates fall short of winning a majority in general elections.
But the Republican-led legislature pushed through legislation that bars local officials from seeking nearly all third-party funding to help cover the costs to cash-starved local jurisdictions of running elections.
The bill’s supporters called outside funding a “scheme” to privatize elections; critics called it unnecessary. “Some Republicans have argued, without evidence, that money given to elections offices has improperly influenced electoral outcomes,” GPB’s Stephen Fowler writes.
Lawmakers also approved a bill that overhauls the Ware County Board of Elections — a move that voting rights groups say could result in Black voters losing representation on the board and establish a worrying precedent for state intervention in the actions of election boards elsewhere in the state.
However, there was little controversy over a bill that ensures that employees can take time off to vote during early voting or on election day. It easily passed both the House and the Senate.
The unscientific survey asked The Current’s newsletter readers to rank nine issues on a scale of one to seven, with seven indicating a top legislative priority and one indicating “not a big deal now.” The issues to be ranked were “education funding”; “state taxes”; “legalized gambling”; “rural health care access”; “public safety”; “mental health beds, staffing”; “electric vehicle charging access”; “revising runoff, ballot access law”; and “climate resilience.”
Current readers also were given an opportunity to write in their priorities that weren’t on the list. A substantial number of readers (33) took that opportunity, identifying as a priority “expanding Medicaid”; “improving roads, bridges, and other infrastructure”; “school choice”; “term limits”; and “maternal health care.” One reader’s top priority for Georgia lawmakers was uncomplicated: “Simply telling the truth.”
“Climate resilience” was the preeminent concern of most respondents, with 53 out of 82 respondents giving it a seven, the highest possible rating.
That was followed by “education funding” (43 out of 83 respondents); “rural health care access” (42 out of 83 respondents); “mental health beds, staffing” (33 out of 83 respondents); and “revising runoff, ballot access law” (31 out of 82 respondents).
Less important were legalized gambling (six out of 81), state taxes (eight out of 83), and electric vehicle charging access (15 out of 83). Public safety hovered in the middle of the list, with 28 out of 81 respondents ranking it as a top priority.
A slightly different picture of readers’ priorities are ranked according to those that received a five or above, mental health was a top priority (72 out of 83 respondents), followed by rural health care (69 out of 83 respondents), and education (68 out of 83 respondents). Environmental issues were close behind (63 out of 82 respondents).
It’s noteworthy that the drop-off for those who gave “climate resilience” a seven versus those who gave them a six was a whopping 47%. That suggests that if respondents ranked environmental issues at all, they usually gave them the highest possible ranking — an indication of just how passionate many readers of The Current are about the environment.
The Tide brings regular notes and observations on news and events by The Current staff.