Bills to expand hospitals, de-escalate traffic stops and inject religion into public education on the move

Rep. Yasmin Neal, D - Jonesboro. (Credit: Georgia House)

Conservative lawmakers in the Senate presented a slew of bills igniting culture wars and First Amendment concerns this week. Meanwhile, bipartisan bills passed in the House would make interactions between motorists, law enforcement and some judges less stressful. 

Here’s a rundown of notable bills moving through the General Assembly this week:

In the House

Dueling hospital expansion bills. The House now has a bill to modify Certificate of Need requirements that govern how and where new hospitals and medical facilities can be built, legislation that will compete with a similar measure under development in the Senate (not yet filed) that would largely repeal CON regulations altogether. 

Rep. Butch Parrish, R-Swainsboro (Credit: Georgia House)

Sponsored by Rep. Butch Parrish, R-Swainsboro, HB 1339 would allow hospitals that have maintained occupancy of 60% for a previous 12-month period to increase their bed capacity by up to 20% without needing CON approval. The bill would also exempt other facilities, including facilities in rural counties that agree to serve as a teaching hospital, train medical residents, operate as a trauma center, provide access to behavioral health services, and provide indigent and charity care that represents at least 5% of their gross revenue. 

New or expanded psychiatric and inpatient addiction treatment programs serving Medicaid patients, and some facilities providing new obstetric services, would also be allowed to sidestep existing rules that require new medical facilities to prove their services are needed in the community. 

The bill also proposes to create a study committee to look at Medicaid expansion, meaning legislation to expand health care to uninsured Georgians will likely not move this year.

Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta. (Credit: Georgia House)

Cheap prescription meds. The House passed HB 1072 to expand a mail-order pharmacy program that, as bill sponsor Rep. Sharon Cooper put it, “redistributes pills that were going to be destroyed.” The bill permits pharmacists to supervise two additional pharmacy technicians to help sort the drugs collected from nursing homes and other institutional donors that are made available on goodpill.org, a discounted prescription drug site that offers a 90-day supply of many drugs for only $6. The Marietta Republican said the program is aimed at uninsured and low-income patients, but works on an honor system. The pharmacy has filled 796,000 prescriptions with a value of $64 million since it launched in 2018, said Cooper. The House passed the bill 165-1. 

Traffic court no-shows can keep their licenses. People who fail to appear in court for a traffic ticket or other misdemeanor would no longer have their driver’s licenses indefinitely suspended if a bill sponsored by Rep. Matt Reeves, R-Duluth, is enacted. In presenting the bill to the House Judiciary Non-Civil committee, Reeves said the purpose of HB 926, called the “Second Chance Workforce Act,” is to allow people who’ve committed a low-level offense and missed a court date to be able to continue working, given that “if you lose your driver’s license, you’re probably going to lose your job.” 

Atlanta Municipal Court Judge Gary Jackson spoke in support of the bill, which he said would address a huge backlog of failure to appear cases in his court, and give some people who deserve it a second chance. 

“What gets in my craw,” Jackson said, is that current law and the several weeks or months it takes to get a new court date induce some people to plead guilty or no contest and to forgo their day in court “just to get their license back” so they can get to work, or take their kids to child care without breaking the law.  

The committee approved the bill unanimously.

The House passed two other driver-friendly bills: 

No jail for refusing to sign a ticket. When a driver gets a traffic citation and refuses to sign it, current law directs law enforcement to arrest that person and take them to jail. HB 1054 would allow the officer to “say no problem … make a note of it, and send them on their way,” said bill co-sponsor Rep. Yasmin Neal, D-Jonesboro, a former Clayton County police officer. “No more arguments, no more fights, no more instances of officers risking their lives … Everyone gets home safe at the end of the night.” Co-sponsor Rep. Matt Reeves, R-Duluth, noted that the bill de-escalates conflict on a roadside “but doesn’t compromise public safety or guilt or innocence of the defendant.” The bipartisan bill passed 156-10.

Digital driver’s licenses more widely accepted. The House passed HB 1001, which will expand usage of digital driver’s licenses on smartphones. Rep. Clay Pirkle, R-Ashburn, said current law allows him to use his digital driver’s license at the Atlanta airport “to get on a plane to anywhere in the world,” and he’d like to be able to use it more broadly. His bill directs law enforcement to accept a digital license during traffic stops and other interactions. Pirkle noted that a screenshot of a driver’s license would not suffice; only one produced on the Department of Driver Services website will comply. The bill passed in the House 168-1.

Pulling over for a funeral procession. You may already consider this a societal norm, but it will become a legal requirement to pull over to the side of the road to let a funeral procession pass, if HB 907 succeeds in the Senate. The House passed the bill 169-1. 

In the Senate

Help for military vets. The Senate passed a package of bills this week intended to address the educational, mental health and housing needs of Georgia’s military veterans. Here’s what they do:

  • SB 375 adds the commissioner of Veterans Service to the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council.
  • SB 385 expands degree options for Georgia Military College.
  • SB 398 reforms the Georgia Joint Defense Commission to help grow Georgia’s defense industry.
  • SR 527 creates a Senate Study Committee on Veterans Mental Health and Housing. 

Chaplains as school counselors. A bill that would allow faith-based chaplains to replace school counselors narrowly passed out of the Senate Committee on Government Oversight by a vote of 6-5. The bill would let schools hire chaplains or bring them in as volunteers. The issue has caused an uproar in the counseling profession which is seeing a shortage of school counselors.

Opponents of SB 379 said while corporations are relying on chaplains, many do not have proper certification or training to deal with school children of different backgrounds and religions. 

“They’re not trained to the standards that counselors are and they just wouldn’t be able to support all students,” Isabelle Philip of the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition told State Affairs.

Library restrictions. Some Georgia lawmakers want to restrict school libraries from obtaining material that shows sexual intercourse or arousal. There’s a push to get school libraries to cut ties with the American Library Association because of the organization’s president’s alleged Marxist beliefs. On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Government Oversight cleared a bill out of committee that limits libraries from taking ALA donations. SB 390, with some tweaks, passed the committee in a 6-5 vote. 

Here are some other bills that would limit student access to educational materials being considered: 

SB 365 would notify parents of public school students each time they check out a book or other school library materials. 

SB 394 would determine what would be considered “harmful materials.”

“This session, things are really heating up,” Philip said. “There's so many good opportunities to actually put funding towards our public schools and support young people at this time, but all the bills we're seeing that are being pushed through committee are very damaging and just completely getting in between students and teachers and their parents.”

The Ten Commandments in every school? A controversial bill requiring Georgia public schools to display the Ten Commandments passed out of committee Wednesday, but not before about a half dozen members abruptly left without voting.

Democratic members of the Senate Committee on Government Oversight walked out of the meeting just as Senate Bill 501 came up for a vote. The bill, known as the Foundations of Law Act, calls for public elementary and secondary schools in Georgia to display the Ten Commandments as a means of recognizing its importance in American history. 

“To be ignorant of the Ten Commandments is actually to be uneducated, because they are a foundation of all law,” said Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, the bill’s sponsor.

But critics don’t see it that way and believe it flies in the face of the nation’s growing religious diversity, and violates the separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution.

Arrivals & Departures

Rep. Penny Houston, R-Nashville (Credit: Georgia House)

After 26 years in the legislature, State Rep. Penny Houston, R-Nashville, announced this week she will not seek reelection to the House of Representatives after 26 years of service.

“I feel like it’s the right time to retire, spend more time with family and find new ways to contribute to my community,” Houston said in a statement. “I am so grateful that the people of South Georgia, who first gave me the opportunity to represent them 26 years ago, have entrusted me with their support ever since.”

Rep. J Collins, R-Villa Rica, announced Thursday that he will not seek reelection to the House of Representatives after eight years of service in the House, and 20 years of public service.

Rep. J Collins, R-Villa Ricca (Credit: Georgia House)

Collins said in a statement, “It has been the honor of my lifetime to serve my friends and neighbors in Carroll County in House District 71 for nearly a decade in the House of Representatives. … I would like to thank my constituents for placing their trust in me as their state representative for these last several years. I am proud of the great work that we have accomplished under this Gold Dome. But it is time to turn the page and allow someone new to represent our community’s values and interests at the State Capitol.

“I look forward to continuing to spend more time with my family, tending to my funeral home and serving our community in new capacities,” Collins said.

The Senate welcomed a new member this week. Tim Bearden will represent District 30, which encompasses Carrollton. Bearden was sworn in on Wednesday as his wife Triska and daughter, Reagan, looked on. The Republican won 59% of the votes in a special, four-person race held Feb. 13. This is Bearden’s second time in the legislature. He previously served seven years in the House. Bearden succeeds Sen. Mike Dugan who vacated the seat in January to run for U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson’s seat. Ferguson, a four-time incumbent, said in December he would not seek reelection.

Read this related story:

https://stateaffairs.com/georgia/healthcare/senate-wants-medical-centers/

Have questions? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on X @journalistajill or at [email protected] and Tammy Joyner on X @lvjoyner or at [email protected].

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