Georgia House Chamber on the 1st day of the 2023 Legislative session

Legislation on abortion, school funding, could see daylight in Statehouse this session

Georgia legislators on Monday descended on Atlanta for the opening of the 157th General Assembly. For the political veterans, it’s a chance to get back to hobnobbing in the halls of the Gold Dome, as the Statehouse is fondly known; to attending committee meetings, drafting bills and building coalitions, if not consensus.

The next few months will be a swirl of lobbying and legislating. It’s early yet, but we’ve identified several measures in the making that could be introduced this session, including new abortion restrictions, changes to school funding and hospital regulations, help for the homeless and a bill to clear the way for people with criminal records to move on with their life and advance their careers.

New abortion restrictions

Expect another round of abortion-related legislation in Georgia even as the federal government makes it easier for people to get access to abortion medication by mail and in pharmacies.

Activists are looking to get a ban on mail delivery of abortion pills in Georgia. And one Georgia legislator is attempting to financially help women who carry their unwanted pregnancies to term.

Democratic Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, District 93, prefiled the Pro-Birth Accountability Act, or  House Bill 1  (HB 1). The bill would compensate women who carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. Compensation would range from prenatal to postpartum care to living, medical, legal and psychiatric expenses. Meanwhile, Georgia’s abortion law — known as the Heartbeat bill because it would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected — is still in legal limbo. Last summer’s Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade cleared the way for Georgia’s law, which had been hung up in court, to take effect. The law has since been volleyed back and forth through a series of legal disputes.

While the SCOTUS decision overturned a half-century of federal protections for women seeking abortions, it didn’t ban abortion pills. Only the state has that power, and here in Georgia that remains to be seen. During the last legislative session, lawmakers considered a bill that would make it illegal to provide abortion-inducing drugs via courier, delivery or mail service. It failed to get a vote.

Earlier this month, the Justice Department cleared the way for the U.S. Postal Service to deliver abortion drugs to states with strict limits on ending pregnancy. The department also relaxed a federal law that criminally prosecutes people for such mailings.

And for the first time, the Food and Drug Administration allowed abortion pills to be sold at pharmacies, which could expand access to abortion through medication.

School funding formula

How Georgia’s public schools are funded is a complicated, confusing process involving a mix of state and local money. The formula — known as the  Quality Basic Education Act (QBE)— hasn’t had a major revision since it was created in 1985.

The state funds kindergarten through 12th-grade education via a “formula” that determines how much to pay districts for teachers’ salaries and health insurance, school programs and other expenses based on the total number of full-time students in each district. The formula deducts what the state believes a local district should contribute from its own coffers.

Poorer schools,  which tend to be in the state’s urban and rural areas, tend to get short shrift under the current formula. Critics also claim, frankly, that the current formula is outdated. 

“This thing is pretty critical,” committee member Sen. Billy Hickman, R-Statesboro, told State Affairs. “It really is affecting our ability to recruit, hire and retain teachers and support workers like cafeteria workers and  maintenance people.”

Since K-12 education is Georgia’s largest expenditure, totaling $11.6 billion, or 43% of the state’s general fund budget, updating the school funding formula is a Herculean task.

State lawmakers have been studying the issue since August although the Senate Committee to Review Education Funding Mechanisms has yet to issue a final report with suggestions on revamping the formula. Efforts to reach committee chair Sen. Mike Dugan were unsuccessful.

When asked if legislation addressing the school funding formula is likely to emerge, Hickman responded: “It all depends on whether we have a report.”

Updating the school funding formula could create better-run, more efficient schools, newly installed Rep. Long Tran, District 80, told State Affairs. Tran said updating QBE will be his first priority. “I want to look into how tech for schools is funded — what schools get laptops and make that standardized across the state,” said Tran, a father of 10- and 14-year-old sons.

Occupational licensing for people with a criminal record

A bill to make the pathway clearer for people with criminal records to obtain occupational licenses will be introduced this session.  

According to the Georgia Justice Project (GJP), 1 in 7 jobs in Georgia require an occupational license. And 38% of adult Georgians have a criminal record. Currently, every person with a criminal record could face denial of their license application after investing years and thousands of dollars to advance their careers, even if their criminal records are old, pardoned or expunged.

GJP is drafting a bill that would create a mandatory preclearance process for state licensing boards to follow so that people with a record get a chance to find out what their prospects are to obtain a license in their chosen field before they pursue training for it. It would also create a process to help boards determine what convictions and charges are “recent and relevant” when approving or denying an occupational license.

Certificates of Need for health care facilities

At least two lawmakers intend to introduce legislation to repeal Certificate of Need (CON) requirements that determine whether a new or expanded medical facility or service is needed in a given area of the state. The Department of Community Health said it makes those calls in an effort to avoid duplication of services and to keep health care within communities cost-effective.  

Some community leaders and health care providers think that CONs stymie competition and prevent new hospitals, desperately needed in rural areas across the state, from opening and upgrading their services. 

Sen. Colton Moore, R-Trenton, is among them. “A hospital shouldn’t need permission from the government to set up shop,” he said.  “My constituents would clearly love for multiple hospitals to be in the district, all competing against one another, which will end up providing better service at a cheaper price.”

Rep. Charlice Byrd, R-Woodstock, will be introducing “a bill mirroring mine” in the House, said Moore.

Homelessness

Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, said that in light of the state’s record budget surplus, she would push to increase appropriations to the Housing Trust Fund for the homeless, which she said has shrunk from $5 million to $3.2 million during her 36-year tenure. She also plans to advocate for funding to nonprofits providing shelter and housing to the homeless.

The final report of the Senate Study Committee on Unsheltered Homelessness that wrapped in December noted that homelessness in Georgia decreased over 10 years through 2020, but increased during 2022, in part due to the shrinking stock of affordable housing and sharply increased home prices and rental rates.  It included recommendations to increase funding in many areas, including providing more money to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities for mental health services, substance abuse disorder treatment and housing vouchers for homeless people. The committee also called for an increase in appropriations to the Housing Trust Fund. 

Affordable housing/tenants’ rights

Fair housing advocates plan to push for a repeat of House Bill 408 (HB 408), which didn’t pass last session. It requires landlords to provide a seven-day notice to people before evicting them and to give them a chance to pay their rent during that time. Enterprise Community Partners said the bill also staves off the consequences of an eviction filing on a tenant’s record, “which can reduce or nearly eliminate quality housing opportunities in the future.”

Contact Tammy Joyner on Twitter @LVJOYNER or at [email protected], and Jill Jordan Sieder on Twitter @JOURNALISTAJILL or at [email protected] 

Twitter @STATEAFFAIRSGA

Facebook @STATEAFFAIRSUS

LinkedIn @STATEAFFAIRS

Header image: Members of the Georgia House of Representatives are sworn in by Chief Justice Michael P. Boggs on Jan. 9, 2023. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

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