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Hailed for his silver tongue, Bill Reilly was elected to his first two-year term as the Georgia General Assembly’s House clerk in 2013 after serving three years as general legal counsel to the late Republican House Speaker David Ralston.
A criminal defense lawyer and juvenile court judge in the Appalachian Judicial Circuit, part of the 9th Judicial District, prior to working at the Statehouse, Reilly, a longtime resident of the north Georgia mountain country near Blue Ridge, is perhaps best known these days for his deep, velvety voice and calm demeanor as he introduces bills at a rapid clip at the podium next to the desk of Speaker of the House Jon Burns.
State Affairs isn’t the first to wonder if Reilly had a previous stint as an opera singer or auctioneer. We sat down with him recently to get the back story. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q. So, are you in a choir, do you do voice-overs, have you been an auctioneer?
A. Not anymore, but I used to be in a choir a long time ago. I sang mostly bass, sometimes baritone. I have done some studying for commercial stuff; I thought I might read audiobooks … but I never really got back to it. You gotta be awfully good for that — keep the same tone for 369 pages. I’ve not been an auctioneer, but I’ve had lots of people ask me that because you have to read the bills so fast. I don’t think I can talk as fast as those guys.
Q. Tell me about your background and career. What led you to this position as the House clerk?
A. I was born and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut. My dad worked at Yale-New Haven Hospital, where he was a budget director there back in the ‘70s. And we lived in Trumbull, which is a little suburb outside of Bridgeport, until 1971. I attended Southern College, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Troy State University and West Florida University. I started as a biology major, pre-med. Organic chemistry sunk me [and] my GPA. …The [U.S.] Air Force [where he served from 1974 to 1977] helped me to get my priorities straight. I finished my undergrad in law and went to law school at Western State University out in Orange County, California. I graduated, and started working for a law firm in Chattanooga. And so [after passing the bar exam] … I decided to go down to Ellijay, which is like 14 miles down the road in Gilmer County, and I opened up a law practice there.
Q. What kind of law practice?
A. In small town practice, you better do everything. And this is before the [Georgia] Public Defender Council had public defenders everywhere. So if you practiced in the mountains, the judges required you to take indigent criminal defense cases. … So that's basically where I learned how to try cases and present myself in court. But the criminal practice kind of took over. Because you got to spend so much time in court and I was doing it in three different counties — in Jasper in Pickens County, Gilmer County in Ellijay and up in Blue Ridge. And along the way, I met David Ralston. We met searching titles in the Fannin County records room. We became good friends. He actually was a groomsman in my wedding.
So I practiced in Ellijay, did a lot of the criminal defense work in the three counties, picked up some probate and divorce work. And then [in 1990] Judge Bobby C. Milam, our circuit judge, approached me about serving as a juvenile judge. I kind of halfway think he did that so I wouldn't be such a thorn in his side on criminal cases, because we were always trying to get them to throw things out or lessen the offense or mitigate damages for the poor guy that you're representing. So I became the juvenile judge up there, and basically walked away from my practice.
Q. So becoming a juvenile court judge happened pretty quickly. What appealed to you about that?
A. We needed a judge up there who would address the issues that we had in that mountain community. Initially, when I came up there, a juvenile calendar would be someone joy riding in mom's car or somebody fishing in somebody's trout pond. I mean, it wasn't big. And then all of a sudden, juvenile court just exploded and kids were being charged with the same things that adults were being charged with. … We had a bad meth problem. We were dealing with, you know, parents, who couldn't take care of their children, and deprivation. There weren't a lot of job opportunities. All the mills were starting to close. Levi Strauss was up there. Almost every woman that I knew that was over the age of 50 had worked at Levi Strauss, the plants up there, and then all that shut down. And there was nothing really to replace any of it. And then the [copper] mines closed over in Copper Hill [Tennessee] where most of the men worked. So it was just kind of a down time. And who knows why drugs take off in a community, but they did in ours. And I think it's still kind of a problem in the mountains.
Q. How many years did you practice as a judge?
A. Almost eight. … And then Sonny Perdue became the governor, and I applied to be the commissioner of DJJ [Department of Juvenile Justice]. It came down to two of us. And Sonny Perdue picked the other guy. And then the other guy [Albert Murray] made me his chief of staff. So that's how that worked. At that time, David Ralston was Sen. Ralston, and then he came back over to the House. He was the Judiciary Chairman. After I left DJJ, I was the lawyer for the Judiciary Committee for a couple of years. And then [Ralston] decided he was going to take on Mr. [ House Speaker Glenn] Richardson, the first time, which didn't bode well for him. And he got banished and was no longer chairman and I was no longer the attorney for the chairman. So I did some private practice again. And I was actually out in Colorado with my wife and son when David called me and said, 'I think I'm gonna win the speaker's election. I'd like you to be my lawyer. Can you be here the day after tomorrow?' Well, I'm in the mountains. He didn't ask which mountains. I was in Colorado, on a ski vacation. And we just got in the car and drove straight back. We were here for the event.
Q. What made you so loyal to Ralston?
A. Well, we were good friends for a long time. I mean, he would come to my house, I would go to his house. We spent New Year's together. We celebrated births. His dad was the clerk of the court down in Gilmer County. And he was a tremendous help to me.
Q. And generally, what does the counsel to the speaker do?
A. Well, when he's a brand new counsel to the speaker, he's wondering if he's doing what he's supposed to be doing. It was kind of a difficult job to learn. Because really, I didn't know what I was doing. I mean, none of us did. He [Ralston] was a new speaker. Everybody was brand new. We stepped on each other's toes quite a bit. I spent a lot of time reading. I mean every bill that got dropped and assigned to committee, I read all of it. And so it had a lot to do with keeping him apprised of what was being filed, talking to his chairmen about what the speaker wanted to see and what direction things should go. It was talking to lobbyists about what were their priorities in their particular pieces of legislation. And so it was very busy all the time. I would help determine if bills were legally sound, or constitutional. Or, you know, is this a good idea for us? Is this a good idea now?
Q. And what aspects of the clerk job appealed to you?
A. You could be nice to everybody. It wasn't partisan. You know, you try to help everybody with whatever problem they have, procedurally. But it was just a step in a different direction from being in the speaker's office and in that kind of political environment.
Q. Your most visible job duty as clerk is to read bills on the House floor, three times. You often read them fairly quickly. Some say that is an antiquated practice. What's most important to you about that aspect of your job?
A. I would use traditional instead of the word antiquated. And it has been tradition. I try to do it better than my predecessor in that I try to enunciate so everybody at least knows what the bill is and who dropped it and whatever committee it's going to. ... So those are functions that have to happen. And they've probably been on the books and happening since the 1800s. We try to dress it up and make it a little quicker. I like the tradition. Nobody's asked me to change it. Members have complimented me on being able to know what the bills are and where they're going. I like that.
Q. Is part of your role helping new members understand how the legislative process works?
A. Yes. We typically after each election have several orientations for the members. But I talk to them about the legislative process, and I preface all my comments to them that the clerk's office door is always open, you probably will have some questions you don't want to ask in front of everybody else, I understand that, just come see me.
Q. What are the kinds of things that trip newbies up?
A. Finally getting one of their bills passed, and being so excited about it, that they move to have the bill immediately transmitted to the governor, which you can't do unless the Senate says you can and unless the House says you can. So we’ve got to kind of say, ‘You know, we can't do that right now.’ But those are the mistakes they make once and never make again.
Q. Do you take any pride when a new member either introduces their first bill or, or gets it passed?
A. New members typically want to have their picture taken with me when they're handing me their new bill. The House, as a matter of tradition, will give a new member — everyone will know that it's their first bill — an exceedingly difficult time in the well while they're there. They'll ask different kinds of questions, embarrassing questions, irrelevant questions. And then when the time comes, everybody votes no. Until the speaker is about to lock the machines and then everybody changes, and then he or she gets a standing ovation. So it is a big deal for the first bill. … I just shake his hand or her hand.
A. Well, I knew it was coming. But that was a big day for the state. Still is. I really miss that guy. But that was a special moment. … When he files a bill, and then he gets a [Rep.] Mary Margaret Oliver to sign on, right underneath the Speaker of the House, I know that it's going to be a bipartisan bill, and this is going to happen, alright.
Q. You're the chief administrator of the chamber. You've got a big House body with 180 members. You’re the custodian of official records. You track bills and the attendance of House members. What else are you responsible for?
A. Well, I'm lucky I've got an assistant clerk, her name's Christel Raasch, and she hates it when I say this, but she's been working for the clerk's office since Sherman burned the city. The truth is, she's been here since the Reagan administration, and she's a tremendous help. I think she's got more institutional knowledge than anybody else in this building, really. But yeah, she keeps it moving.
… During session we hire temporary interns and folks to work as runners between here and the floor. And to answer questions of lobbyists, and just folks from the public that come in.
Q. And are you the one actually controlling the voting machines?
A. You mean when the speaker says ‘and the clerk will unlock the machines?' See, I'm letting my secrets out here. No, we don't unlock the machines, we haven't unlocked machines for a long time. All that means is that [Carrie Vick, who is responsible for tallying all the votes] enables the desktops to be able to vote. And then when he says 'the clerk will lock the machines,’” she disables that ability. So that's what lock the machine and unlock the machine means. We're just using terminology that dates from the ‘20s. So we're not really locking or unlocking anything.
Q. I interviewed the speaker recently, and he mentioned that he was happy to see a return to decorum in the House. Have there been times when there's been more passion, less decorum?
A. I think that the return to decorum really began with Speaker Ralston. I've heard some stories about what would go on on the floor. But he wouldn't put up with that. And I think Speaker Burns is doing the same thing. Just you know, the whole world is watching, or at least the state is. Right? We are on TV. I mean, we can't be clowns here. So I think it makes it a lot easier if everyone knows what's expected of them, what they can do, what they can't get away with.
Q. What would you say is the most challenging part of your job?
A. The most challenging part of this job was the session after COVID. I had to call out 180 names [over audio piped into various rooms] because we couldn't have everybody together in the chamber because of the [need for distancing of] six feet, and some members were really concerned about their health. So there was no voting machine. We would just read the list of members over the microphone and they would answer back, yay or nay, and we would mark that, manually. Sometimes we had to do it twice. For every vote. I was hoarse for six weeks after that. So that was a challenging session.
Q. Thinking about your 10-plus year tenure now, what are your favorite parts of the job, or sort of high points for you?
A. Every Sine Die is a high point. When we get through and there haven’t been big issues or there haven't been personnel issues. There haven't been any conflicts with members. That's a good day. … On Sine Die, there's a lot of anxiety everywhere. Is the bill gonna make it? Are we gonna get across the hall? Is my bill back from the Senate? They'll make me crazy with that. It's a normal day that's just really amped up because of the time limitations and the sheer volume of it. … I'm just happy to see the paper go in the air and hear the speaker say ‘Sine Die!’
Q. You're sort of like a witness to history in many ways in your job, all kinds of things happen in that chamber. Can you think of any sort of special moments where you were just glad to be there to see something?
A. I've had some incredibly sad days. It's been a few years back, but when [Judiciary Committee] Chairman Wendell Willard retired, and [Education Committee] Chairman Brooks Coleman retired, real stalwarts of the House, they’d been around forever, and they made their little goodbye speeches, I must admit that I got a bit misty. When you work with people like that for 10 years like that. … I had to read the resolution, the tribute to Speaker Ralston, the session after he passed. I had to keep my composure when I did that. And that was hard. It's still kind of hard talking to you about it, really. Thankfully, they had given it to me a day or two in advance, so I was able to talk myself through it. But it was hard.
Q. If you weren't serving as the House clerk, what else would you be doing?
A. I would teach little children how to ski out in Colorado and Montana. I skied before Christmas and that just seems like it would be such a fun job. I mean, if you've ever skied and see a ski instructor with five little kids like ducks coming down, slow. I mean, how can you not like that?
Q. Is there anything I haven't asked you about being the House Clerk that you would like to mention?
A. Just that I love all my members, and I love some of them more than others.
the bill reilly file
Position: Clerk, Georgia House of Representatives
Birthplace: Bridgeport, Connecticut
Current residence: Blue Ridge
Education: Bachelor of Science in law and Juris Doctor from Western State University in California.
Career path: Was both pre-med and pre-law as an undergrad, punctuated by a three-year stint in the Air Force. Settled on law and began his career as a general practitioner in Blue Ridge, where he gravitated to criminal defense law. Served as a juvenile court judge in the Appalachian Judicial Circuit, and then as chief of staff for the Department of Juvenile Justice. In 2010 he served as general legal counsel to Speaker David Ralston, and then took on the role of House Clerk in 2013.
Family: Wife Franny, who is now retired from the labor department, and son Michael, 31, who works as a health care lobbyist and is frequently at the state Capitol.
Hobbies/passions outside work: Snow skiing in Colorado and Montana, hiking and motorcycle riding in the north Georgia mountains. An avid Boston Red Sox fan.
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Bills to track illegal immigrants, oust squatters, boost film industry make the cut on Crossover Day
A controversial religious freedom bill cleared the Senate Thursday despite heavy criticism from some lawmakers who said the bill would open “the floodgates to discrimination” against the LGBTQ+ community.
Senate Bill 180 was among dozens of bills Thursday that will now face another round of discussions and debates in the opposite chamber. SB 180 now heads to the House.
It’s part of the Georgia legislature’s midsession ritual known as “Crossover Day,” the last chance for bills to pass at least one chamber in the General Assembly. A succession of bills underwent rapid-fire discussion, debate and votes throughout the day.
Here’s a look at some of the bills that have made it across on Leap Day and a few that emerged as wildcards.
What happened in the House
COURTS and PUBLIC SAFETY
- HB 1105, the “Georgia Criminal Alien Track and Report Act,” would require Georgia law enforcement to work with federal immigration officials in reporting and, in some cases, detaining suspected illegal immigrants who have been charged with crimes. Failure of sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies to comply with the law could result in the loss of state and federal funds, and misdemeanor charges.
- Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, the lead sponsor, said the bill does not target all foreign nationals but focuses on those who commit crimes. The bill gained steam in the House this week following the death of nursing student Laken Riley in Athens allegedly at the hands of a Venezuelan immigrant who entered the country illegally. During a 1.5-hour debate, the bill was vehemently opposed by many Democrats, who said it would terrorize undocumented immigrants and unfairly defund the police.
- Rep. Sam Park, the House minority whip, said the bill “won’t promote public safety, but it will lead to discrimination against people of certain ethnic backgrounds.” Rep. Pedro “Pete” Marin, D-Duluth, said it’s “yet another attempt to politicize fear and hatred. It is tempting during an election cycle to target immigrants to score political points.” Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, said, “Fixing policy in the face of unspeakable tragedy is not politics.” The bill passed 97-74.
- HB 1017, also known as the “Squatter Reform Act,” makes it easier to remove an intruder from private property, charge squatters with criminal penalties and issue them fines. Sponsor Devan Seabaugh, R-Marietta, said, “There are no more free homes in Georgia. If you are currently in a home you don’t belong in, leave now.” It passed 167-0.
WORKFORCE and ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
- Several bills related to occupational licensing reform have moved through the House. HB 839 creates an interstate compact agreement to allow social workers and massage therapists licensed in Georgia or any of the several states in the compact to practice in those states without having to obtain a new license. HB 1190 requires professional licensing boards housed in the Secretary of State’s office to review and issue licenses to professionals who meet requirements within 60 days of application. If that doesn’t happen, the license must be issued by the office immediately after the 60-day point.
- After 12 years of trying, Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, persuaded his colleagues to pass HB 349, a bill to allow mobile barbering. Williams said the bill “lets Georgia move into the 21st century. Poodles have been able to get mobile service. You can buy food of any description, get a tooth pulled, get an x-ray, give blood on a mobile truck. And finally, Georgia, for those of you who still need it, you can get a haircut.” The bill passed 165-1.
- After passionate debate, lawmakers voted 131-34 to pass HB 1180, which makes changes to Georgia’s Film Tax Credit, providing tax breaks to the state’s $1.9 billion film industry. The bill limits the state’s total annual obligation on film tax credits to $900 million, keeps a minimum investment by film businesses at $500,000 to qualify for the credit, and adds some new incentives to earn a 10% higher credit amount, including filming outside of metro Atlanta and using Georgia musicians, crews, studios and postproduction houses.
- HB 1125 phases out payments below the minimum wage to people with disabilities. Rep. Sharon Cooper said some programs that hire the disabled have been operating “like sweatshops,” offering pay as low as 22 cents per hour. It passed 160-0.
- HB 583 allows cottage food industry businesses to sell their products via third-party vendors such as restaurants and grocery stores instead of just direct to consumers. Rep. Leesa Hagan, R-Lyons, said it allows people “to see if their business is viable before putting a lot of investment in a commercial kitchen.” The bill passed 166-1.
- HB 1146 allows the Environmental Protection Division to issue water permits to private companies in areas where no public water service can be provided. It was prompted by problems providing water to the massive Hyundai electric vehicle plant near Savannah and workforce housing under construction in the counties around it. Many lawmakers expressed concerns over allowing private companies to control access to water and what it will cost communities over time. The bill passed 105-58.
- HB 1341 makes wild Georgia white shrimp the state’s official crustacean. The bill passed 171-0.
- HR 780, which would put the question on the ballot to amend the Georgia Constitution to allow only U.S. citizens to vote in Georgia elections, received a vote of 98-61 and failed to pass because it didn’t receive a two-thirds majority vote required for a constitutional amendment.
- HB 1335, sponsored by Rep. John LaHood, R-Valdosta, sets up a medical emergency alert system and requires a minimal level of staffing in senior care facilities, including personal care homes, assisted living communities and memory care centers.
- The House passed HB 1410, which creates the Stable Housing Accountability Program, a voluntary program to help homeless people with addiction issues to secure stable housing while participating in programs that help them “get back on their feet, be gainfully employed and self-sufficient,” said Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Auburn. It will be funded by the State Housing Trust Fund for the Homeless and private sources.
- HB 1361, an unusual hybrid bill, creates the offense of criminal trespass for entering the cage of a wild animal and creates a criminal offense for distributing obscene material depicting a child using computer or artificial intelligence technology. It passed 164-1.
What happened in the Senate
- SB 395 authorizes schools to have opioid antagonists such as Narcan on hand so they’re readily available for teachers and others to treat fentanyl overdoses at school. Currently, only nurses can administer opioid antagonists, and sometimes schools are understaffed. The bill passed 54-0.
- After a lengthy debate, the controversial SB 390 — which prohibits the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia and certain libraries from using taxpayer or privately donated money on any materials services or operations offered by the American Library Association — passed by substitute by a 33-20 vote.
- SB 198, which creates the Georgians With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Innovation Commission, passed 50-2. It has five years to complete its work.
- There are 40,000 incidents of domestic violence each year. Senators passed SB 407, which would require documenting certain information in incidents of family violence. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta, passed 52-1.
WORKFORCE and ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
- SB 460, which revises the number of advanced practice registered nurses and physician assistants a doctor can supervise at any one time, passed 40-11. Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, said the bill will help rural hospitals “survive in the current medical climate.”
- SB 480, which would repay student loans for mental health and substance use professionals serving in certain capacities, passed 44-1.”
- SB 420, prohibiting foreign investors from buying agricultural land or land near military bases, passed 41-11 . The bill also would make it a felony for investors to purchase farmland if they have ties to any countries considered adversarial by the Department of Commerce.
- SB 180, known as the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” is intended to protect people’s religious rights from state and local government intervention, but critics say it will lead to greater problems for the gay community.
- SB 542 — which allows the public the right to use all navigable streams for passage on boats, including kayaks and canoes, and for hunting or fishing — passed 51-0. It does not allow for passersby to recreate on private property along such streams.
Other key bills that have already crossed over this session:
- HB 1339 changes Certificate of Need regulations and determines where and how new hospitals and medical facilities can be built.
- HB 881 provides standards of conduct and rules governing the Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission, which is empowered to oversee, discipline and remove state prosecutors.
- HB 1037 creates the Georgia Commission on Maternal and Infant Health.
- SB 465, also known as “Austin’s Law,” would charge anyone who illegally sells or distributes fentanyl that results in an overdose death with aggravated involuntary manslaughter, a felony.
- SB 421 is an anti-swatting measure that would make it a felony to make fake or unlawful calls or requests for emergency services.
- SR 155 creates the Senate Truck Driver Shortages Study Committee.
Why it matters
It’s a somewhat frenzied process, but the flurry of activity at the Capitol on Thursday sets the course for how lawmakers want to govern the state going forward. It’s a time when laws and policies are introduced or updated.
That said, it’s ultimately supposed to make the lives of Georgia’s 10 million-plus residents easier.
All of the bills that crossed over to the other chamber will be assigned to committees in the House or Senate. Lawmakers have until March 28, the last day of this legislative session, to consider, discuss, debate and vote on these bills.
This story has been updated to reflect the final legislative action on Crossover Day.
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As the General Assembly prepares to put its stamp on the fiscal year 2025 budget proposed by Gov. Brian Kemp, school transportation officials and education advocates are praising, some a bit warily, the governor’s large and long-awaited increase to student transportation funding.
Two decades of continuous disinvestment by the state in the cost of transporting students to and from school has left many school districts with aging bus fleets and insufficient funds to hire and retain bus drivers.
Following a series of State Affairs stories charting the plight of children stuck with poor transportation, Kemp proposed in late January doubling the state’s share of the student transportation budget in 2025 with an additional $210 million for busing operations and $20 million for 227 new buses.
“It’s huge, extremely huge,” said Pat Schofill, assistant superintendent of operations for Jackson County Schools, who was director of pupil transportation for the state Department of Education from 2016 to 2022.
“What these funds are going to do for a growing system like Jackson County is significant,” he said. “Where we’re now getting $1 million for pupil transportation, the state will provide maybe $2 million of our $11 million budget. This will allow us to invest in salaries for bus drivers and technicians, training initiatives and upgrades to buses like GPS technologies, seat belts and other safety features.”
Better yet, Schofill said, the extra state funds “will allow us and many other districts to offset some of our local funds on initiatives we’ve been trying to work on,” such as building new schools and hiring more teachers and mental health counselors.
“When we heard the numbers they were tossing around, we were excited,” said Jason Ayers, transportation director for Barrow County Schools. “But we know we have to wait and see what the actual allocation looks like.”
Still, Ayers and his team are already looking at hiring more staff and increasing pay for bus drivers and bus mechanics, who both start at about $16 an hour, hoping that more competitive salaries will help to fill some long-standing vacancies.
“The reason you don’t have anybody applying for transportation departments is because they can go other places and make more money,” he said. “Anything that moves the needle on helping us to compete with trucking companies and bigger school districts is a big deal.”
Ayers said about 60 buses in his fleet of 200 are 15 or more years old, the age when most buses are considered beyond their useful life. With new buses costing about $120,000 each, “you make that bus last as long as you can. But then there comes the point where it’s just so old it’s not even practical to fix it anymore. We’ve got a lot of ground to gain with upgrading our fleet. This new funding will allow us to invest in infrastructure and operations across the board.”
Richmond County school bus driver Yolanda Brown told State Affairs last year that buses are plagued with mechanical problems and regularly break down, causing students to arrive late to school. Some miss out on breakfast as well as their first-period classes.
Brown said the problems still exist and the district still has 40 vacancies among its 176 driver positions, and many drivers have to do double routes on crowded buses. “Frustrations are running high” among drivers, students and parents, she said.
But Brown, who is president of the Transport Workers Union Local 239 of the AFL-CIO in Augusta, said she’s cautiously optimistic about the influx of new funding the governor has proposed.
“It’s a good thing he’s doing,” she said. “I’m a little concerned about how the funds will reach the local level, but I think it will filter down.” She said the district’s chief financial officer and superintendent “are finally looking at revamping employee pay,” which for bus drivers starts at $14.06 an hour. “Hopefully that will slow down the constant turnover we have.”
Paul Abbott, senior director of transportation for Richmond County schools, is more positive about the future.
“It’s going to be a boon for us,” he said. “We don’t know the dollar amount yet and exactly what it will allow us to do, but we’re planning to give a nice bump on starting pay, which is what we’ve needed to get people in the door.”
Why it matters
Until the mid-1990s, the state, which by law is required to support the cost of transporting kids to public schools, covered about half of school districts’ total cost for student transportation. But over the years, Georgia’s investment has steadily dropped — amounting to about 17% of the total $1.1 billion cost in 2023.
This drop has put a strain on many school districts, which have had to cut other educational expenditures to keep bus operations going. And many districts have not been able to find enough funds to maintain bus fleets adequately and pay personnel a livable wage. Many career bus drivers and mechanics have quit or retired, and schools are finding them hard to replace.
Kemp’s proposed fiscal year 2025 budget would cover about 31% of school districts’ total costs for transportation. And instead of a one-time grant, Kemp’s move to put transportation funds in the education formula funding part of the budget signals “that schools can count on this level of funding every single year,” said Stephen Owens, education director at the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute.
“This will do real good in schools, to have these funds baked into the budget,” Owens said. “If the General Assembly approves it … this will be a huge jump in formula funding that will allow school districts to plan on not only to replace school buses, pay bus drivers and bus monitors a better wage, and make sure that we have safer buses on the road, [but] … they can recommit the funds that they’ve been taking from other areas of school to support instruction in other ways.”
While “this is an incredible step forward,” Owens said, “if we treat this like the last thing we needed to do to support schools, in four years we’re going to be right back in this position where we have a similar amount of underfunding for school districts.” Owens estimated the total cost of student transportation for school districts increases about $200 million every four years.
“So this can’t be a one-and-done,” he said. “It needs to be a regular part of the way the General Assembly moves towards fairness between districts and the state. There’s still a wide gap until we get to true parity.”
House and Senate leaders have expressed strong support for Kemp’s proposed fiscal year 2025 budget, which includes $1.4 billion in new education spending. Besides the increase in student transportation, the education budget includes raises for teachers and new funding for school security measures and expanding pre-K programs.
Over the next month, budget writers in the House and then the Senate will review and propose changes to the 2025 budget. The changes must be approved in both chambers and then submitted to the governor by March 28, the last day of the legislative session. The governor will then sign or veto the bill. He can also choose to reject certain line items within the budget. Georgia’s fiscal year 2025 begins July 1, 2024.
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It’s do-or-die week at the Capitol as lawmakers race to get bills to the finish line if they’re to become law. Crossover Day, which happens this Thursday, is the last day a bill can clear its originating chamber and move to the other chamber for consideration. A bill introduced in the Senate must pass the …
Georgia student’s death spurs Gov. Kemp and lawmakers to push state solutions for ‘failed federal policies’ on immigration
Anti-immigration proponents on Monday may have gotten the necessary fuel they needed as Gov. Brian Kemp blamed “failed federal policies” for last week’s death of a Georgia college student allegedly at the hands of a man who had immigrated illegally.
Kemp told the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce at a breakfast meeting that Augusta University nursing student Laken Riley’s death “is a direct result of failed policies on the federal level and an unwillingness by this White House to secure the southern border.”
University of Georgia Police have charged Jose Antonio Ibarra, an immigrant from Venezuela, with kidnapping the 22-year-old while she was jogging on campus and murdering her. Ibarra, who authorities said entered the country illegally in 2022 and has since had a series of brushes with the law, had just been released from jail in Georgia a month ago and spent time in jail in New York City, reportedly for letting a child ride a scooter with no helmet.
“That is a failure of our system on multiple levels and at multiple times, and it resulted in a young woman’s death,” Kemp said. “That’s inexcusable.”
Kemp’s impassioned speech comes as state lawmakers are considering a slew of last-minute measures that must pass from one chamber to the other by Crossover Day, which is Thursday.
Outrage among Kemp and Republican lawmakers over Riley’s death is fueling a late-breaking push on legislation related to immigration and oversight of state prosecutors in the General Assembly.
On Tuesday, a House Public Safety and Homeland Security subcommittee is expected to take up Republican state Rep. Jesse Petrea’s House Bill 1105, also known as the Georgia Criminal Alien Track and Report Act. The bill would require the state Department of Corrections to track the immigration status and criminal offenses of inmates who are not U.S. citizens and penalize sheriffs who don’t coordinate with federal immigration authorities.
“This tragedy is as lamentable as it is maddening,” House Speaker Jon Burns said in a statement over the weekend. “And while our state continues to mourn Laken’s loss, over the coming days, the Georgia House will be looking at ways to strengthen the security of our state, enhance public safety, and act where the federal government has failed to do so.” He added that House leadership “will be pressing for answers over the coming days as to why exactly the suspect and his brother continued to roam freely in the Athens area.”
Republicans have long been critical of so-called sanctuary cities whose laws limit local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement efforts in order to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation or prosecution. Atlanta, Clayton County, DeKalb County and Athens-Clarke County are considered sanctuary cities.
Senate President Pro Tem John Kennedy condemned sanctuary cities in a statement about Riley’s death, saying they “embolden criminals and endanger Georgians at the expense of the taxpayer.”
“Policies that shield criminal aliens from federal immigration authorities undermine our legal immigration system and prevent law enforcement officers from doing their job,” Kennedy said.
Senate Bill 232, which would give the state broader powers to discipline or remove state prosecutors, passed the Senate and will be heard in a House committee today. Republicans sponsoring the bill have cited the policies of Athens-Clarke County District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez not to prosecute some low-level offenses, including misdemeanor marijuana possession, or to jail some undocumented immigrants found to be in the U.S. illegally, as impetus for the legislation.
While Riley’s death has elicited an outpouring of sympathy and outrage, it’s also evoked criticism from those who fear some will use her death as a political or campaign tool.
“And while there’s a lot happening around the country, we can’t allow ourselves to look at everything solely through a biased electoral lens or partisan or party lens,” said Alejandro Chavez, the grandson of the legendary civil rights and labor movement organizer Cesar Chavez.
“We also have to remember that the rhetoric that has been said out there is actually scaring and attacking and intimidating students who are Latin, documented and undocumented citizens and immigrants across the board,” said Chavez, who is working to get more Latinos elected to office in Georgia.
“We should not use this young woman’s tragic death as a reason to create more terror in the community. I don’t think one person represents an entire culture or an entire group of people. What he did has nothing to do with his status. It had to do with him as a person. We have to remember that,” Chavez said.
Kemp also flexed his anti-immigration stance earlier this month when he and other governors went to the Texas border in support of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s efforts to combat illegal border crossings. Kemp, who has been to the southern border five times, bolstered his support, saying he plans to send additional Georgia National Guard members to the region. Kemp blamed Biden for the influx of fentanyl seizures at the border over the past year and warned that “drugs, weapons and dangerous criminals that aren’t stopped at the border head to other states, like ours.”
“We’re already putting more and more resources into public safety, including raising the pay of state law enforcement to retain and attract talented men and women who will keep our streets safe,” Kemp said in a statement. “All of these measures and more are designed with the same goal: to keep Georgians like you safe, and to keep your neighborhoods, schools, and businesses safe. Because everyone should feel secure in their own community.”
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify where Laken Riley attended college. We regret the error.
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