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State Rep. Ruwa Romman on her 2024 legislative priorities and what it means to be the first Muslim woman in the House
Since the most recent war between Israel and Hamas erupted last month, two of the most prominent voices in the Georgia General Assembly engaging in public dialogue over the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been two freshman Democrats — Rep. Ruwa Romman, who is Palestinian; and Rep. Esther Panitch, who is Jewish. Both have personal ties to the region, and distinctly different perspectives on what’s happening there.
State Affairs spoke to both legislators last week about their concerns over the conflict and its implications at home, as well as about their current legislative priorities. Today we hear from Romman, and on Tuesday we’ll post our conversation with Panitch.
Rep. Ruwa Romman is a freshman Democrat representing District 97, which includes Gwinnett County and her current hometown of Duluth. A Palestinian born in Amman, Jordan, Romman came to Georgia with her family when she was 7-years-old, growing up in Cumming in Forsyth County, then a mostly-white, conservative area of northeast Georgia marked by decades of racial tension and sporadic white supremacist violence.
“This was the kind of place where my teacher pulled me out of driver’s ed class because he overheard somebody mentioned I’m Palestinian and wanted to interrogate me to make sure I'm not part of Hamas,” recalled Romman, who has worn a head scarf since she was young, despite her parents’ fears for her safety.
“I was really proud of who and what I am, and really just going back to the values of justice and the importance of caring for others,” she said. “These were all core Islamic teachings, but I was growing up at a time where people would warp every single Arabic word into some sort of sinister understanding of my faith — that it was violent, that it was barbaric, that it was horrible, and honestly, we're seeing the same thing happening right now about Palestinians, where everything in our culture and language and lexicon is being deemed violent, because we're allowing these organizations like Isis and Hamas to define Muslims and Palestinians, when we all understand that the KKK doesn't represent Christianity.”
As a child Romman said she tried to teach her classmates “about Islam and how literally the root word is ‘peace.’ The idea that this faith has been twisted in this way was unacceptable to me. I'm also the oldest [child], and incredibly stubborn, and so I have a tendency to just be like ‘No, this is wrong. Let me tell you what's right.’ But at the same time, it [having to explain her religion] robbed me of my childhood. It really took away that sort of innocence that a lot of kids had that I lost very early on because I knew that I was representing something bigger than myself. But at the same time it is just really important for me to help people understand my community.”
With the boom in business and residential growth that has developed along state Highway 400 since the 1990s, Forsyth’s demographics have changed dramatically, and now has a population that is 20% Asian, 10% Hispanic and 5% Black. Romman said her sister, who is 12 years younger, “had a great time in high school. Her class is super diverse.”
Romman spent much of the past decade working and advocating for Muslim-American causes and volunteering for Democratic candidates while completing her education. She attended Oglethorpe University, studying politics, and earned a master’s degree in public policy at Georgetown University. She also worked for civil rights organizations for several years, and most recently as a consultant for Deloitte, specializing in government affairs.
She took office in January as the first Muslim woman elected to serve in the state Georgia House of Representatives.
The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. Tell me about your background and what (and perhaps who) led you to pursue public service, and specifically to serve in the state Legislature.
A. So, I grew up here, went to Oglethorpe University. And this was during Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter's campaigns [for U.S. Senate and governor, respectively]. They did a joint type of thing back then and invited students to get politically involved. And as you know, 90% of political work is grunt work. It's the door knocking. It's the phone calling. … And what I learned was we can literally shift our reality one door at a time. And so many of these policy decisions can be changed by engaging people one door at a time.
And thing number two that I learned was that there was little outreach to Muslim communities, Asian-American communities, communities that historically haven't been engaged politically. And so after that I [got involved with] the Georgia Muslim Voter Project and I was so excited about it because it was a nonprofit and all they did was register people to vote and teach them where and how to vote, and I was stoked because that was what was missing.
So I leaned really heavily into the nonprofit space. At one point I worked for Points of Light to learn how to do some of that fundraising. … As an intern at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, I actually got to give tours to people like John Lewis and Ambassador Andrew Young, and they were basically giving me a tour, let's be honest, but it was probably one of the coolest experiences of my life. I got to dig deep into the civil rights movement to learn things. John Lewis was I think 19 or 20 when he started SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. A lot of these folks were young, but they were disciplined and they were committed and they just had such a clear moral understanding of what was required of us. And to get a chance to talk to them and sit with them and ask them questions was probably one of the greatest honors of my life.
I mean, everything I do is colored by the civil rights movement in some way, shape or form. … A lot of what I learned — how to register people to vote, how to be civically engaged, how to organize, how to do all of that was from Black movement organizers. And I don't think I would know how to do any of this stuff had it not been for the example that they set.
… And then we're in 2015-2016, it was the height of Trump's candidacy and eventual presidency. So that's when the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Georgia chapter was refounded, and I was one of the five original, I guess, like refounders. Basically, we operationalized the idea of a CAIR chapter here as the only Muslim civil rights organization in the state. This was when the Muslim ban was also implemented. So I was spending time at the airport translating for travelers who were stuck but needed somebody to help with Arabic. … And what was really interesting to me about that experience and I think what gave me some of the courage to kind of be a little bit more public about my advocacy was that it was a time of heightened hatred, particularly against Muslims. We were getting death threats. I was assigned a GBI agent. We had state reps taking pictures with militia groups that were attending anti-Muslim rallies, and we were getting death threats to local mosques, things like that. And so I feel like that experience took me up a notch in terms of sometimes the cost of this work and what it means.
Long story short … Shafina Khabani [head of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project] reached out to me and said, ‘We're doing a training for people interested in running for office.’ And I said, ‘Okay,’ and she's like, ‘We really need more people to attend, this is just really important. It's the first of its kind, but we need to have basically more butts in seats.’ And it was on a Zoom call. I was, ‘Fine. I'll do laundry and listen and give you feedback if you're missing anything.’ But a reporter from the AJC was there and she was asking me why should Muslim women be involved politically. Why is it important for this community to stay engaged in the political process? I was like, ‘I love talking about this.’ Her article was published a few months later, on my and my husband’s anniversary, on December 23rd, 2021. And it started with ‘Ruwa Romman is running for office.’
And I was like, I don't even know what district I live in, this is absurd. But the phone calls wouldn't stop and the cajoling wouldn't stop. My Muslim community, my advocacy community, every person who read the AJC that I knew growing up was calling and saying ‘You should run for office.’ And so 15 days later, I launched my campaign.
Q. And besides all that encouragement, what did you think that you might change or move the needle on?
A. I love digging into the policy, and the things I ran on were things like expanding access to Medicaid, and fixing the economic opportunity gap in our state, and making sure that every child has access to high quality, diverse public school opportunities. And voting rights. I did my masters on the Voting Rights Act and I knew that these laws had a real impact on turnout and so as I've tried to tell people as a state representative, I agreed to do this because those were the things that I knew the most about, those were things that I can engage the best on. So there's my constituents in my district and a broader constituency that is the Muslim and Palestinian community. And the reason I distinguish between the two is because the majority of Palestinians in the U.S. are Christian. And so I’m sort of wearing these multiple hats of state rep and all these different communities were looking to me to learn the process and I was hoping to help them as well.
Q. What are the key issues that you're concerned about, working on, and hope to see legislation address in the next session?
A. I would love to see Medicaid expanded. There's no reason why we haven't done Medicaid expansion. Hospitals are closing all around our state, 50% of counties don't have an OB/GYN. We were just ranked as the worst state for health care in the country by Fortune [magazine], the absolute bottom of the bottom of the list. And to be clear, that also doesn't translate to us paying less for health care. In fact, we pay more than a lot of these higher ranking states in our country. And so health care is an absolute big one for me. I grew up with sporadic access to health care. It was always a problem.
… Fully funding education. What all people don't understand is these teacher raises are great, this fully funding the QBE [Quality Basic Education] formula was a phenomenal thing that we did, fully funding HOPE [college scholarships] was a phenomenal thing that we did, but this is at the tail end of almost 10-plus years of austerity measures, and now we need to pay to restore these institutions back to where they were. On voting rights, we've got some really awesome experts in our body, particularly folks like [Rep.] Saira Draper [D-Atlanta] who has been professionally doing this work as well. And like I said, I did my masters on the Voting Rights Act and its impact and repealing pieces of it and its impact on turnout, and I will fight every bill in any way shape or form that impacts peoples’ ability to vote. I think, at the end of the day, there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. It just doesn't exist. I mean we have looked at billions of ballots, we have studied an insane amount of races, and every single researcher agrees that this sort of ballot stuffing is just not real. It's this kind of manipulation everyone’s worried about that doesn't exist.
And closing the economic opportunity gap includes everything from public transportation to raising the minimum wage to ensuring that people have safe working conditions.
Q. Where do you think you may have some traction or hope to get some things done in the House with a Republican majority?
A. If you look at the results of the vote on SB 233, the school voucher bill that failed, a lot of my colleagues understand that for a lot of their constituents, the only thing they can access is their local public school. There is no private school in the area. There's no better alternative. And so they understand the importance of making sure that schools are taken care of. That if they are crumbling, they get fixed and that we are able to give every child the education that they should be having access to. Things like that. I think the idea of how do we prevent hospitals from closing? That's something we all agree on, right? People don't want to live in an area where they don't have access to a hospital because, God forbid, all of us are prone to accidents, illnesses, and emergencies. These are things that impact us on a human level. Obviously do we disagree on how we fix those things? Totally. But what I've noticed at least working on the House side, we kind of have to learn how to work together better. And I find people are at least willing to engage in the conversation and consider different possibilities. It doesn’t always translate to votes on the House floor, but it has translated into moving some things through committee.
Q. What would you say are the top lessons learned or key takeaways after your first 11 months of being in the Legislature?
A. One of the best lessons I have learned is that even when you can't decide what is coming to the House floor, you can still do a lot of good as a state representative. One of my favorite things is constituent services. I have access to points of contact that most people in the general public don't have, and so when somebody comes to me and says, ‘Hey, this thing is stuck somewhere,’ I can literally help unstick it.
Q. The war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is far away from Georgia, but close to your heart. You've been quite vocal on social media and elsewhere about the conflict. What is important for people in Georgia to understand about this latest chapter in the complex, 75-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
A. So, it's weird because I feel like the personal is the professional right now, and I'm really good about separating the two, and I've been unable to do so. On a personal level, I really am taking it day by day. There are days where I can't sleep, I can't function, but simultaneously I have to anyway, because every single day I'm getting text messages, a phone call, a Facebook post, something from a community member who's lost 10, 20, 50 family members, and I'm not exaggerating here. This is an occurrence that happens every single day for me.
We are seeing the conversation evolve in the way that it has because for the first time there are way more people in the United States that know a Palestinian or somebody impacted by this than ever before. And to give you an understanding, I just held a series of open office hours in my district, mostly to talk about redistricting stuff and what to expect. Naturally people also wanted to talk about what's going on [with Israel and Gaza]. And this was the first time for me as a Palestinian where people understood that this chapter didn't start on Oct. 7. It was a horrible new chapter. It's just distressing in every way for everybody. But it was so interesting to me to hear back from my constituents who were seeing what’s happening in Gaza right now is unacceptable. Some people understand the argument that Israel needs to respond and defend itself, but we've now shifted from defense to a much different and much more sinister … people are recognizing that just as every other country in the world, Israel is currently experiencing a dysfunctional far-right government that is attempting to take advantage of a tragedy for political gain. Israel is not unique here. It's just unique in the fact that this issue matters to so many people outside of the country.
And with that personal piece of so much pain and so much anguish and so much suffering, on the flip side I have to figure out how do I connect what I'm hearing from my community to the people who can actually do something about it, because as a state representative, I have little to no jurisdiction on international issues. And as I've tried to explain to my colleagues, we have a duty to make sure that people who represent us are doing what we need them to do. And 80% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans support a ceasefire. How do we ensure that's happening? And at the same time making sure that those who try to take advantage of this moment are not rewarded for it, because we've already seen it. People are focusing on college kids and college campuses, sometimes completely lying about what these kids are saying … I am currently getting messages from Jewish students, pro-Palestinian allies, you name it, who are getting doxxed right now on their college campuses, and they're getting little to no recourse. But the way the conversation has been happening you would think that only one group of people is misbehaving or only one group of people is acting out or only one group of people is dealing with this and frankly for me, these are college kids, right? Like the idea that anybody would in any way leverage their platforms as fully functioning adults and members of society to target kids is just so out of balance for me.
… It's uncomfortable to deal with the fact that our [America’s] policies and tax dollars are causing mass suffering and it's almost like people are just so much more comfortable with what's trending. They would just much rather talk about college kids on campuses versus literally what's happening around the world in a way that a lot of us haven't ever been exposed to before. There are people in Gaza whose main priority is keeping their cell phones going because they want to document what's happening. We've never seen that before. We've never seen young content creators who are all under the age of 30 and who are calling the world, they are so desperate for people to believe them and believe their suffering, but they're prioritizing that over everything else, and I think that has dramatically shifted the conversation in a way that even as a Palestinian, I'll be honest with you, I didn't expect it. But there are places and rooms that I enter where I expect people to be hostile or unkind and sure, I've gotten the hate messages, but for every hateful message, I've received 10 in support. And it's from around the district. People have been beyond kind and they have been more willing to listen than I've ever seen in my entire life.
Q. What does it mean to you for Gov. Brian Kemp to announce that he was sending an additional $10 million to support Israel's defense, and flying the flag at half staff in the wake of the Hamas attack?
A. There's nothing wrong with mourning with people who have experienced loss. I want to be very, very clear on this. I refuse to lose my humanity as we go through all of this, as if I don't care. It is hard and it is awful. Is there a power imbalance here? Absolutely, but that doesn't change the fact that if people are mourning with others and they are showing empathy and sympathy for something that's horrible, that is a good thing. We need more of that. We need more people to do that.
What I personally struggle with is this sort of unequivocal support for a foreign government on top of all of that. We are sending Georgia taxpayers’ funds while our hospitals are closing and when we can't afford to give people health care and where schools are really struggling right now, and we're constantly being told that we can't pay for something, we don't have it in the budget. From my understanding one of the line items that we had that the governor vetoed was for free lunches and breakfast. And the cost of that was about $10 million. … and we’ve now done [total] bond purchases of $50 million [for Israel]. And so my question is if my only job as a state representative is the budget, then what does that say when something like that can happen without our consent as a legislative body? So not only are we engaging on this in a way that is for me as a Palestinian incredibly unfair, and I think harmful, but on top of that we are also simultaneously telling Georgians that ‘I'm sorry. We can't afford to give you things like food and health care.’ That is infuriating to me on so many levels, because I'm a Georgian. I live here. I want my communities to thrive and what you're telling me is on top of the position you've chosen to take on this, you're also going to take money that my communities needed away. So it was really upsetting. I was also particularly upset at the fact that it doesn't seem to me like he's [Kemp] willing to say the word Palestinian. He had done an interview, and he said my thoughts and prayers go out to Israelis, Americans and ‘other people.’
So, this is infuriating. I actually know Palestinians here in Georgia who are massive business owners, very wealthy, that have raised a ton of money for this man and supported his campaign and made sure he got elected. And he won't even meet with them. He won't even engage with us. He won't even say that we're Palestinians, and it's maddening because I know this is personal for a lot of people. I know it's a really hard conversation but part of our jobs isn't to make complicated an already-complicated conversation. Is it to further muddy the waters? Our job if we take it seriously is to take care of the people that we have a responsibility to, and not only are we not doing that, we are actively hurting a large constituency in Georgia.
The coalition that’s emerging on this, I've never seen anything like this in my entire life, and I'm talking about Jewish allies who express incredible solidarity … I literally had a Jewish family attend one of my office hours who just wanted to engage in dialogue and they were genuinely open to the conversation and actually understood what I was trying to tell them. It's multiracial, it's multifaith, it's multigenerational. I cannot begin to fully express that in my 30 years of life I’ve never seen anything like this before and I think it would do us good to understand that shift and lean into it because there are some clear moral positions here, right? We can say killing children is bad. We can say killing innocent people, including the men who are currently trying to pull people out of the rubble with their bare hands – is wrong. We are now seeing entire families are being wiped off the face of the Earth. We can collectively say these things are bad and that is not an extreme position and it is one that is accepted by the majority of people in our country.
Q. If HB 30 is revived, or if we have another bill aimed at defining antisemitism introduced in the next session, what are the key elements that such legislation should include or perhaps not include and why?
A. The unfortunate reality is that there are some people taking advantage of every situation to push a political agenda, and I want to be very clear about this because I've seen a lot of news coverage about all the awful things that are happening in Cobb County and in Atlanta with the [antisemitic] flyers and the really hateful messages and full-on Nazi flags are being flown in front of synagogues. That is important and disgusting. I want that on every record everywhere humanly possible. My concern with these bills is that they don't actually address those things because first the person has to commit a crime and a lot of these things are happening in public places.
… So every time you see a headline where it's like this thing happened and that's why we need [legislation], by the sponsors’ own admission during committee hearings, it will not address those things. What it will do is it will criminalize speech as it relates to criticism of the state of Israel because it conflates anti-Israel sentiments with anti-Jewish sentiments. And are there times where that could happen, 100%, if you're going after a synagogue that the only reason you've gone after it is because it's a synagogue. And if you're collectively punishing a group of people for the actions of another government, that is a bad thing to do and people should not be doing it. But if somebody for example counter-protested an event for the state of Israel, are they doing it because they're antisemitic? Or are they doing it because they believe that what Israel is doing is wrong? Those things are complicated and we have to parse them out.
And so what I look for in this legislation is one, does it conflate anti-Israel sentiments with antisemitism? If so, I’m not going to support it. … I know this is much more difficult for the Jewish community, because people interpret Zionism in very different ways. And what I've tried to explain to people is that the first Zionists I ever met were Christian leaders from a megachurch in Forsyth County. I hadn't met Jewish Zionists growing up until much later in my lifetime. And so when you conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, I really struggle with that and I've been very clear about this growing up as a Palestinian. My grandfather always taught us that our problem was not with the Jewish people. He had Jewish neighbors. There is no Holy Land without Judaism or the Jewish community being in the Holy Land. His problem was the idea that somehow he does not have a claim to the land and that somehow he is less than anybody else who has a claim to the land.
And that ideology of supremacy is what so many of us have a problem with. It’s already complicated, right? It’s already difficult and to be very clear, antisemitism is on the rise. There are people pushing this bill who do see criticism of the state of Israel as antisemitic, period full stop. It is a Jewish homeland and they see criticism of it [as you] hate the Jewish people. And as I've explained to people, my family didn't lose everything because of Jewish people. They lost everything when they were kicked out of their homeland. It's the action and it's the policy, not the faith and ethnicity. It's really, really important to distinguish between those two things.
Q. Your work as a legislator can impact many people's lives and must feel consequential and perhaps even stressful at times. When you're not working, what do you do to unwind, free your mind and conjure up some joy?
A. Right now my focus is to get more sleep and eat better. But I've really gotten into running — long, slow runs that have become meditative for me. It's almost like it unravels my mind for the day and helps me just organize my thoughts. As everybody knows, I'm a huge Swiftie; it’s been my thing, since I was 12. It has become part of my brand. … “Miss Americana” is my favorite song and it’s a political allegory all tied up into a high school story. And so one of my favorite things to do when I have time for it, is to put on some Taylor Swift and cook a nice meal and just take a beat. But even when I can't, just getting an option to engage in something that is less serious has been just really awesome. I also love reading.
The ruwa romman file
Position: Representative, District 97 (D-Duluth/Gwinnett County)
Birthplace: Amman, Jordan
Current residence: Duluth
Education: B.A. in politics from Oglethorpe University, Masters in Public Policy from Georgetown University
Career path: Worked for nonprofits including the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and Points of Light; advocacy organizations including the Council on American-Islamic Relations,Georgia chapter and the Islamic Speakers Bureau, in communications and strategic roles; and most recently, as a consultant for Deloitte, specializing in governmental affairs.
Family: Husband Shahzaib Jiwani, two cats (Itsy and Olive), and two dogs (Balto and Riley).
Hobbies/passions outside work: Reading, running, Taylor Swift.
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Correction: This story has been updated to correct that Romman said Gov. Kemp said his thoughts and prayers go out to "Israelis, Americans and 'other people',” not “Israeli-Americans, and 'other people',” as published in a previous version. The story is also updated to correct the anniversary date of Romman and her husband, which is Dec. 23, not Dec. 21.
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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