Sunday Reads – April 10, 2022

Today we see if the legislature’s work met your priorities, give the statehouse press corps a round of thanks and find hope in an old story and one that’s still unfolding.

Georgia State Capitol

Put a gold cap on this session

As the 2022 Georgia Legislature opened, we offered Sunday Reads users a poll to get an idea of priorities you would set for your elected representatives. Here’s the original question: These are priorities already on the table for some legislators. Tell us if they match yours. On a scale of 1 to 7 (7 means you agree that it should be a top priority; 1 means it’s not a big deal right now).

Lower scores equal lower priorities, higher…well, how did the results match your priorities on those 9 items?

  • Mental health: The Reads poll participants gave it an average score of 5.72 out of 7 points and the second highest total points. The Mental Health Parity Act, House Bill 1013, passed and has already been signed into law. It will increase the number of mental health professionals and require insurance companies to cover mental health the same ways they cover physical health. The new budget also holds a number of items for funding mental health programs. Rep. Don Hogan of Coastal Georgia was a sponsor for 1013.
  • Looser controls for carrying guns: 2.03 average and the lowest number of points. Clearly the legislature didn’t agree with the poll’s priority ranking. HB 218 passed and will allow anyone to bring their firearm into Georgia if he or she has a permit to carry a weapon. Senate Bill 319 passed and will allow Georgians to carry a concealed handgun without a permit. From Coastal Georgia, Sen. Sheila McNeill signed on as a co-sponsor.
  • Legalized gambling: 2.31 This issue took a bit of debate, but two bills — one for a statewide vote to strip the Georgia Constitution of gambling prohibitions and one to legalize online betting if that happened — didn’t make it out this session. The discussion did go on right up to the last day but other topics had more consensus in the end.
  • Rural health care access: 5.89 average from the highest number of points. The legislature got a start by passing HB 1041 for a tax credit increase for rural hospitals, and HB 1042 to create a grant program to help establish and staff primary care facilities in areas where there are shortages. The Rural Health Advancement Commission, HB 1371, passed in the House, but died when it did not pass in the Senate. SB 338 will extend maternal Medicaid for low-income mothers from 6 months to a year. Rep. John Corbett, who represents lower Camden County, was a sponsor for 1041, 1042 and 1371. Sen. Ben Watson was a sponsor for 338.

We’ll combine the next two items:

  • Higher pay, training for law enforcement: 5.32 Rising crime rates: 5.02 these are addressed in a variety of ways, but there are pieces in the mid-year budget and the new one for 2023. The budget funds new SWAT troopers for Georgia State Patrol and a pay raise for GSP officers in metro Atlanta. Georgia Bureau of Investigation gets 68 new positions for a range of work, especially around the processing of evidence. The budget includes more game warden positions, as well. The new state budget will give private prison operators more money to pay corrections officers. SB 361, “Law Enforcement Strategic Support Act” or “LESS Crime Act” allows for an income tax credit for donating to police foundations in order to raise pay and fund other expenses. Sen. McNeill was a sponsor for 361.
  • Raises for teachers: 5.54 The mid-year budget will include $2,000 bonuses for teachers and school workers, and $5,000 cost-of-living raises for most state and university employees. The bonus becomes permanent in the 2022-2023 budget.
  • Parameters on teaching race and history in schools: 2.99 Not the highest priority from the poll, but HB 1084, passed a ban on the teaching of “divisive concepts” in schools. Lawmakers added language just before the session ended to create a school athletics oversight committee to consider whether transgender students should be allowed to play high school sports.
  • Availability of ballot drop boxes: 5.38 SB 411 was originally written to clarify jobs and record-keeping duties across the state courts and criminal justice system but late on the 40th legislative day, it was rewritten to include an allowance for the GBI to launch election investigations but was stripped of most other changes to voting process or availability. As of this writing, the new legislation had not been posted to the legislature’s web site. There is a copy of the substitute bill attached to this story about the move from the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

While the budgets and mental health parity bills have already been signed, others await Gov. Kemp’s signature.

House lawmakers toss paper into the air on April 4, the last day of the 2022 legislative session, a tradition when the chamber adjourns Sine Die. Credit: Riley Bunch/GPB News

Covering the legislative work

The tight 40-day session for the Georgia Legislature is a fast-moving time for reporters, too. They have to keep up with changes in wording for bills and follow the innumerable back room negotiations as the legislation moves between chambers. We are grateful for the dedicated coverage and knowledge these reporters bring to the work we share with you. New research by the Pew Research Center finds that full-time coverage of statehouse news across the country continues to decline and is increasingly provided by nonprofit news sites like The Current‘s news partners in the statehouse. This year, more than 20% of statehouse reporters in the U.S. and Georgia write for nonprofits, and nonprofit reporters dominate in 10 states and provide the second-highest number to capitol beats in 17 others. Newspapers still retain a slight edge of reporters overall and in 21 states. According to the Pew study: In Georgia in 2022, there are 43 statehouse reporters, up 5 from 2014. Of those 43, only 20 cover the capitol full-time, 4 less than in 2014.

That’s news of interest because reporters for nonprofit organizations provide nearly all of the state capitol news we share with you. Our nonprofit partners include Georgia Recorder, part of nonprofit States New Service; GPB News from Georgia Public Broadcasting; WABE, an NPR station serving metro Atlanta; Georgia Health News, a project of the Kaiser Family Foundation; and Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation. The point here: This dedicated news that holds elected representatives accountable is funded by people just like you who believe transparency and factual information about their state government is crucial to democracy.

Left, Virginia Kiah’s house as it was years ago. On the right, the house in December 2020. Credit: Eric Curl/Savannah Agenda

Finally – Hope for the Kiah House

We’ve been following the decades-long saga of the historic home owned by the late artist, Virginia Kiah, through the reporting work of Savannah Agenda editor, Eric Curl. Last week brought a new and hopeful turn for the preservation of the decaying house, at 505 W. 36th St. in the Cuyler Brownville neighborhood. Kiah turned it into a community museum in the late 1950s where it became a gathering place for Black Civil Rights activists, artists and athletes at a time when there were few options for Black visitors to Savannah. Since she died in 2001, the home has been sitting, waiting on court processes and distant heirs to allow a sale for preservation. Click here to read about the long-awaited sale to the Historic Savannah Foundation for the rescue and preservation of the quickly deteriorating structure that’s the legacy of Kiah’s work as an artist and a African-American community stalwart.

Credit: Marjan Blan/Unsplash

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