Having had time to reflect on the recently completed 2014 session of the Georgia General Assembly, it is with great regret that I have to say it was the most embarrassing performance by your state legislature that I can remember.
The Republican majorities are in firm control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as the governor’s office. Far too often during this session, the leadership of both houses put partisan politics ahead of the needs of the people of Georgia. The only recourse those of us in the Democratic minority had was to engage in debate, vote our conscience and hope for the best. But we were outvoted time after time.
Here are a few of the majority’s “achievements” for 2014, all of which were pushed through by party-line votes:
• Health-care denial: House Bill 943 will prohibit state employees or agencies from using state resources to promote and carry out provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act, thus denying access to affordable health-care coverage for Georgians who need it.
The Republican leaders apparently would rather send a message to President Barack Obama than help fellow Georgia residents get health insurance.
Meanwhile, Senate Bill 98 will prohibit Georgia’s Health Benefits Plan from covering the costs of abortions for state employees and teachers. This legislation discriminates against women simply because they work for the state and makes no exceptions for cases of rape or incest.
• No Medicaid expansion: House Bill 990, which might as well be called the “Rural Hospital Closure Act of 2014,” prohibits the expansion of Medicaid in Georgia except upon action by the General Assembly, thus changing the current policy that gives the governor authority to make that decision. This likely will prevent Georgia from receiving billions of dollars each year in federal funding to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Such an expansion would provide health-care access to approximately 650,000 uninsured Georgians, help struggling rural hospitals keep their doors open and create tens of thousands of new health-care jobs in the state.
• Drug-testing the poor: House Bill 772 forces applicants for food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to pay for and undergo a drug test if there is “reasonable suspicion” that they are using illegal drugs.
This bill caught the eye of Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent, who wrote, “… being poor or unemployed isn’t hard enough already, so why not add a little extra dose of humiliation to the mix? That’ll get those losers to tug on their bootstraps. And in a prudent bit of fiscal responsibility, the Georgia bill requires the applicant to pay the cost of the drug test, up to $17.”
A similar law in Florida was declared unconstitutional, and even the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Josh McKoon, said this action has no chance of withstanding a court challenge.
• Punishing school workers: House Bill 714 will prevent some school-bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other non-teaching employees from seeking unemployment compensation outside the school year. This will adversely affect some 64,000 of our state’s lowest-paid workers and drive Georgia families deeper into poverty.
Is this really how we want to treat the people we trust to safely transport our children to and from school and prepare and serve their meals at school? Why are our legislative leaders so intent on kicking Georgians when they are down?
• “Guns Everywhere”: House Bill 60 will allow guns to be carried in more public facilities than presently allowed, including k-12 school buildings, as well as in bars and churches. But the bill’s most dangerous provision might be the one that expands the “Stand Your Ground” law, and we are all aware of the disastrous results of that policy in our country.
• No help for children: Meanwhile, House and Senate leaders failed to agree on legislation (House Bill 885) that would have allowed doctors to use a specific strain of cannabis oil, a derivative of marijuana, in the treatment of children with seizure disorders. Also, Senate Bill 397 would have guaranteed insurance coverage to treat autism in children ages 6 and younger.
Fortunately, there were a few good pieces of legislation passed during the session, some of which were Democratic-sponsored bills that received bipartisan support.
House Bill 697 restores full tuition assistance under the HOPE grant program for students in our technical colleges who carry at least a 3.5 grade-point average.
Senate Bill 383 ensures that the personal items of a deceased person are returned to the family instead of being retained by the coroner or discarded.
House Bill 405 increases training requirements for members of charter-school boards.
Also, the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed House Bill 1080, which authorizes the placement of a privately funded statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the grounds of the state Capitol. But considering all that took place under the Gold Dome this session, I have serious doubt as to whether Dr. King would want his statue anywhere near that building.
Williams, D-Midway, represents District 168 in the Georgia House. Contact him at 511 Coverdell Legislative Office Building, Atlanta, GA 30334; by phone at 404-656-6372; or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.