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Summary: Week 9 of 2022 Session

On Tuesday, March 8, my colleagues and I returned to the Georgia State Capitol for another eventful week of the 2022 legislative session. The Crossover Day deadline is approaching in a matter of days, and as such, this week was one of our busiest and most crucial times of the session thus far. We took advantage of an entire committee work day and spent three long days in the House Chamber to vote on a multitude of bills, including the Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 budget, mental health care reform legislation and several other measures that will impact Georgians.

Fiscal Year 2023 Budget

Before the week was over, the House came one step closer to fulfilling our only constitutional obligation by passing House Bill 911, the FY 2023 budget. The FY 2023 budget is set at a revenue estimate of $30.2 billion, which is a $2.9 billion increase over the FY 2022 original budget, and this budget permanently restores nearly $640 million eliminated from the budget in FY 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the last nine months, the House Appropriations Committee worked strategically to identify how to provide more funding to our public safety and mental health services, and this budget includes more than $65 million to assist these vital agencies. As for our public safety agencies, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) is allocated an additional $18 million, and the Georgia Department of Public Safety receives an additional $4.9 million. Also, $5.5 million is included for the state’s accountability court system to create five new mental health accountability courts, provide raises for accountability court employees and provide additional specialized staff support. An additional $16 million is allocated for additional staff positions and salary increases for the state’s prosecutors and public defenders to assist with recruitment and retention. The Georgia Department of Law also receives an additional $2 million in HB 911 to hire additional staff to focus on prosecuting human traffickers and gang members.

The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) has an additional $9.7 million allocated to fund a new 16-bed and 50 temporary observation chair behavioral health crisis center, as well as $3.8 million to retrofit another facility in Augusta to add eight beds and 16 observation chairs. An additional $6.3 million is budgeted for opening additional bed space at the 18-bed adult medical psychiatric unit at Grady Memorial Hospital. The Georgia Crisis and Access Line is earmarked $2.1 million to prepare for the launch of the national 988 hotline. The budget also includes $6.6 million to fund 325 additional slots for the New Options Waiver (NOW) and Comprehensive Supports Waiver Program (COMP) for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

As always, educating Georgia’s children remains a key priority reflected in the FY 23 state budget, and this budget includes more funding for K-12 education than ever before. The Quality Basic Education (QBE) funding formula for public schools is fully funded at more than $11.8 billion, and we made sure to include an additional $3 million to maintain our charter school facilities.

Finally, the Georgia Student Finance Commission received additional funding for service cancellable loans to boost recruitment and retention among key state employees including state medical examiners, National Guard members, law enforcement officers and mental health practitioners.

Amended Fiscal Year 2022 Final Passage In addition, the Georgia General Assembly gave final passage to House Bill 910, or the Amended Fiscal Year 2022 budget this week, sending it to Governor Kemp to be signed into law. The AFY 2022 budget is set at a revenue estimate of $30.3 billion, which is an increase of $3.08 billion or 1.3 percent over the current budget. This increase will allow our state to provide additional funding during the current fiscal year for many of our priorities, including more than $900 million in onetime expenses for our state’s infrastructure and $950 million to provide salary increases for state employees and teachers.

Mental Health Parity Act

We also passed one of the most important, bipartisan bills of the entire session this week with House Bill 1013, or the Georgia Mental Health Parity Act, to provide comprehensive reforms for our state’s mental health care system and give Georgians struggling with mental illness the resources they need. This legislation, which has been in the making for the last three years, would provide sweeping legislative changes to help improve insurance coverage and the delivery of mental health care.

The Georgia Mental Health Parity Act would require health insurance plans, including our state health care plans, to provide parity for mental health and substance use disorders so that they are treated and covered to the same degree as physical care, as well as extend this coverage to a spouse and dependents covered under the same health plan. This legislation would also establish procedures through the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance and Safety Fire to ensure compliance with mental health parity requirements, address compliance violations, as well as implement thorough reporting requirements for health care entities.

Another provision in HB 1013 focuses on developing our mental health care workforce in a number of ways, including authorizing service cancelable educational loans for Georgia residents for mental health/medical professionals who work in pediatrics, family medicine, psychiatry, mental health and substance abuse care. These loans would be conditional on the student agreeing to practice as a professional within an approved geographical area of the state with the greatest need.

To help keep Georgians with mental illness from entering our correctional system and enhance resources for frontline responders, a network of local coresponse teams, comprised of behavioral health professionals and peace officers, would be established to promote pre-arrest diversion. These teams would respond to emergency calls and connect those that come into contact with law enforcement with community-based treatment services. HB 1013 would also modify how our law enforcement officers interact with individuals in a mental health crisis who may require involuntary treatment so that these individuals can receive an emergency evaluation without being charged with a crime first, as well as establish mobile crisis teams to ensure the person’s initial safety and security during the evaluation. This legislation would also create a task force specifically designed to help communities coordinate activities that would keep patients with severe mental illness out of jails and detention facilities. DBHDD would oversee a statewide technical assistance center to share information across counties and distribute grant funding to help local authorities implement these deterrent initiatives. This legislation would also authorize the state’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to create a grant program to fund accountability courts that serve mental health and co-occurring substance use disorder populations in order to implement gender-specific trauma treatment, hire a technical assistance employee for these courts and pay for emergency transportation costs associated with these courts. Furthermore, the bill would allow the Office of Health Strategy and Coordination (OHSC) to partner with our state’s correctional and juvenile justice agencies to evaluate mental health wraparound services for the state reentry plan, as well as partner with the Department of Community Supervision to share mental health data between agencies to facilitate tracking and treating people under community supervision who receive community- based mental health services.

HB 1013 would also promote greater opportunities for mental health treatment options by creating a three-year grant program that would help increase the number of outpatient treatment care facilities in our state. Overseen by the DBHDD, this grant program would establish an overall assisted outpatient treatment model in Georgia and measure the effectiveness of such facilities.

The Georgia Mental Health Parity Act also includes several provisions to improve access to child and adolescent behavioral health care. Under the bill, the OHSC would be charged with overseeing the coordination of behavioral health services for children, adolescents and adults by monitoring ways to expand access to children’s behavioral health services across the state. The DBHDD would be required to provide annual reports to the OHSC, including nationally available research and best practices for schools and practitioners; complaints regarding behavioral health services; housing placements and needs; and programs for disabled infants, children and youth, among others. The Department of Community Health (DCH) would also create a task force to examine a postpartum Medicaid coverage extension, Medicaid billing codes for behavioral health services for young children, mental and behavioral health care support for children and vulnerable populations, as well as community behavioral health service reimbursements. By October 2024, the state would be required to implement a statewide data sharing system between our agencies to protect and better care for Georgia children.

Finally, this bill would also task the Georgia Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission and its subcommittees with continuing their vital work through 2025. The commission’s Mental Health Courts and Corrections Subcommittee would be authorized to submit recommendations to DBHDD to help expand the state’s co-response program and continue exploring community supervision strategies.

Of the nearly 10.8 million people living in our great state, approximately 10 percent of Georgians have been diagnosed with a mental illness. I hope this legislation will serve as a reminder to Georgia families and individuals who are in crisis that they are not alone and that help is on the way. But, our work will not stop with this 80-page bill; the Georgia Mental Health Parity Act is only the cornerstone of our work to overhaul a broken mental health care system, which we will continually improve in the coming years. Improving Private Adult Residential Mental Health Programs The House passed another crucial bill to establish the regulation and licensing of mental health treatment and recovery programs in our state. House Bill 1069 would prohibit private adult residential mental health programs from operating in our state without a valid or provisional license, and this legislation would implement substantial penalties if these unlicensed facilities continue to operate. Further, the DCH would conduct regular on-site inspections of licensed adult mental health programs and create minimum quality standards for these private programs, such as admission criteria, patient confidentiality, training standards, the dispensing of prescribed medications and more. By establishing a pathway to licensing and overseeing these facilities through HB 1069, our state could better protect families who have entrusted these centers with the care of their vulnerable loved ones. Georgia Tax Reduction and Reform Act

The House also passed House Bill 1437, or the Georgia Tax Reduction and Reform Act of 2022, to cut income taxes for Georgians starting in 2024. HB 1437 would eliminate personal income tax brackets and replace them with a single, flat rate of 5.25 percent. This legislation would also create a standard exemption of $12,000 for single or head-of-household filers and a $24,000 exemption for married couples who file jointly. HB 1437 would also allow taxpayers to elect to apply the sum of the taxpayer’s charitable donations used in computing the taxpayer’s federal taxable income in lieu of the personal exemption. Proponents of this bill estimate that Georgians would save an estimated $1 billion per year when the cut goes into effect.

Rural Health Care Workforce Shortages We also passed two important bills this week to attract more health care providers to rural communities. First, my colleagues and I passed House Bill 1042 to create a new grant program under the OneGeorgia Authority, which issues grants and loans for economic development initiatives in rural Georgia. This program would provide up to $200,000 in grant funding to eligible development authorities seeking to establish primary care, dental or mental health care medical facilities in health professional shortage areas. Once the One-Georgia Authority selects its grant recipients, the pending grant awards would be approved by the governor and the DCH’s board, and the authority would consider extensive requirements when making its determinations. Additionally, we passed House Bill 1371 to create the Rural Health Advancement Commission, which would collaborate with educational institutions and health care facilities to address long and short-term workforce shortages in rural Georgia. These two bills would support our efforts to address this dire shortage by exploring new workforce development solutions and incentivizing health care providers to invest in our rural communities. Recruiting and Retaining Educators

The House passed several measures this week to bolster teacher recruitment in both our primary and secondary education systems. House Bill 1043 would create the Georgia Endowment for Teaching Professionals to usher in public-private partnerships that support postsecondary teaching professionals in high-demand studies within the Technical College System of Georgia. The objective of this endowment is to support the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s education efforts and improve public postsecondary education in Georgia. Under this bill, funds from the endowment could not be used until contributions from private donors total $50,000 and funding and grants from public sources total $50,000. If this minimum is not met by December 31, 2024, the endowment would be discontinued on July 1, 2025. Finally, this bill outlines how this endowment would be managed and operated. Next, we passed House Bill 1295 to remove the “needs development” rating as a punitive measure from the state’s teacher performance evaluation ratings. Schools are often hesitant to use these ratings during evaluations because teachers can lose their certifications if they receive two “needs development” ratings within five years. Therefore, this bill would allow schools to issue such ratings without risking a teacher’s certification, as well as ensure a teacher’s ability to obtain creditable service hours needed for the state’s minimum salary schedules. Additionally, HB 1295 would allow the Department of Education to create a new assessment pilot program for teachers. The House also passed House Bill 1357 this week to help certify more teachers and address turnover rates, especially in our rural schools and in STEM subject areas. To expand our certification programming, HB 1357 would require that the Professional Standards Commission remain neutral when considering alternative routes to professional teacher certification that are provided by for-profit or not-for-profit entities. The commission would also consider certification teacher programs outside of the state that meet accreditation and certification requirements. Our schools across the state have suffered a shortage of educators throughout the pandemic, and these three measures would help to retain and develop qualified teachers in our state.

Georgia Stands with the Nation of Ukraine Since the Russian invasion began, our state government immediately took steps to express its desire to end these hostilities, including divesting all state investments in Russian-associated equities and other assets. This week, my colleagues and I unanimously adopted House Resolution 920 to formally show our solidarity with Ukrainians, as well as strongly condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and call on Vladimir Putin to end this unprovoked aggression. This resolution commends Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine who have courageously sought to defend their nation. In this resolution, the Georgia House of Representatives also calls on both President Biden and the U.S. Congress to continue to take prudent actions to bring about a peaceful and timely end to this conflict. I proudly voted “yes” on this measure that puts the Georgia House on record that we are against Putin and his government’s horrific acts against the sovereign nation of Ukraine and its people.

Gas Tax Suspension

On Friday evening, we passed critical legislation to provide relief to Georgians at the gas pump. The price of gas has skyrocketed since the Russian invasion into Ukraine, and we expect gas prices to continue to rise, especially since President Biden halted the import of Russian oil into our country. We appreciate the president for taking a stand and putting this economic pressure on Putin. However, Georgians are experiencing the fallout of this critical ban on Russian oil. As such, we passed House Bill 304 to allow the governor to suspend the state motor fuel excise tax through the end of May 2022. We will continue to closely monitor how the Russian invasion will continue to impact us here at home, and we anticipate that our colleagues in the Senate will also pass this legislation so our governor can sign it into law as quickly as possible.

The House will return next week to reconvene for Crossover Day. Known for being one of the longest days of the session, Crossover Day is the last day that a bill can pass out of its chamber of origin. Please continue to reach out to me with any questions or concerns you have about legislation, policies or issues that impact our community. My Capitol office number is 404-656-0188, and my email is robert. [email protected]

As always, thank you for allowing me to serve as your state representative.

As the State Representative for District 149, Robert Pruitt serves Dodge County, Telfair County, Wheeler County, Cadwell, and Hazlehurst. During the second week of the 2021 Legislative Session, Rep Pruitt was appointed to serve on the Industry and Trade, Economic Development, and Small Business committees for the next two years. Robert and his wife Kelly have been long time residents of Eastman.

By Rep. Robert Pruitt (District 149)

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