If there is something Cobb lawmakers from both sides of the aisle can agree on, it’s that the budget they approved could have been a lot worse.
“I’ll be the first person to say, the budget that ended up passing on Friday was not nearly as catastrophic as we thought it was going to be when we went back to the Capitol two weeks ago,” said state Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna.
Anulewicz, Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-west Cobb, and Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, joined the MDJ by conference call this week to discuss the 2020 legislative session, which ended Friday.
One thing they could all agree on, Reeves said, is that they worked hard.
“We did in two weeks time what we normally do in probably three or four week’s time.”
BUDGETGov. Brian Kemp signed a $26 million budget Tuesday featuring 10% across-the-board reductions to state agencies. Agencies were initially asked to cut 14%, but Kemp reduced that when tax revenues fell less quickly than projected.
Before the session began in January — before coronavirus and the havoc it wrought on government finances, before thousands of Georgians took to the streets to protest racism and police violence — Cobb lawmakers predicted the budget would be the biggest issue of the session.
Despite a strong economy, Kemp had asked for deep cuts to spending, which Democrats were quick to criticize.
Reeves said the governor’s request was fortuitous given lawmakers were left with little choice but to cut the budget after the economy was briefly shut down to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Reeves also said the budget the General Assembly approved spared some of the state’s most critical functions. He sits on the state’s subcommittee for appropriations for human resources, which funds mental health and addiction recovery programs.
“We were able to restore many of those programs where there will be very, very little change,” he said. “And I think that’s really important because I think that that’s the state government as a whole recognizing that we just — these programs are too important and we cannot cut these programs and we’re going to figure out a way to make sure that we’re providing the services.”
Anulewicz and Wilkerson both voted against the budget, saying the state erred in not raising its tobacco tax, which is among the lowest in the nation.
“I do feel like we did leave a lot of money on the table,” Anulewicz said.
Meanwhile, Tippins said he was disappointed lawmakers did not put the state’s tax credits on the table.
HATE CRIMESThe General Assembly passed a number of bills, one of the most consequential being the much-discussed hate crimes bill, said Cobb lawmakers.
The bill imposed additional penalties on those who are found to have committed a crime against someone on the basis of the latter’s race, religion, gender, disability, nationality or sexual orientation.
“Without hesitation, but for the budget, the hate crime still was the single-most important piece of legislation that we passed,” Anulewicz said. “Now, I will say that the House of Representatives knew that it was an important piece of legislation when we originally passed it almost 450 days ago. … Because we had a series of tragedies in Georgia and in the United States, the rest of the General Assembly became aware that, yes, this hate crimes bill was indeed something that was absolutely critical to pass.”
Reeves, a floor leader for Gov. Kemp, agreed.
“I absolutely agree that the hate crimes bill was very important in light of what’s going on,” he said, as was “the value in Georgia making the statement that it made as far as how we feel in our law about crimes motivated by race and bias.”
Tippins, who opted not to vote on the bill, said it was, if nothing else, the most-discussed of the session. Its real-world impact, he added, was still an open question.
“I think in the past, I think we have all agreed from (how) the history has played out that zero tolerance bills are not a deterrent to bad behavior,” he said.
There was less agreement on a companion bill lawmakers approved.
Senate Bill 838 is effectively a hate crimes bill protecting police and firefighters.
The ACLU of Georgia said there could be unintended consequences based on the bill’s wording.
The bill could, the organization said, lower the penalty for killing police officers and “chill every Georgian’s First Amendment freedom of speech and the right to protest to redress grievances.”
Anulewicz described such consequences as “a really good example of why you don’t want to throw legislative packages together in about 24 hours time.”
Yet Reeves, an attorney, said such fears were unfounded.
“I don’t understand how the ACLU could have possibly come out with that recommendation or press release, but frankly, they obviously did not do their research before they did so,” he said.
Wilkerson, who chairs the Cobb Legislative Delegation, said his issue with the bill concerned its timing.
“I had tears in my eyes,” Wilkerson said, recalling a speech he gave in the chamber when lawmakers were discussing the bill. “I spoke from the chamber that this was the worst piece of legislation that I’ve seen since I’ve been down there. Only from the standpoint of timing, and what the message it sends as a legislative body. I have never been that emotional on the floor. And it was purely because I am truly concerned what that message sends to the people that I work with, the officers that I support, the community that I support, and so I just want to make sure that this is not about black people killing black people, white people killing white people. This is purely about the fear, the fear that young African American males have when they leave their house and the fear that their parents have, that they may not return home because they went to the wrong neighborhood or stopped in the wrong convenience store.”
Medical billingAlthough few bills were subject to such heated debate, several will likely have a big impact on Georgians.
Tippins and Wilkerson lauded the decision to end the practice of surprise medical billing, in which patients treated at a hospital in their insurance network later learn the doctor who treated them was not in that network, leading to astronomical out-of-pocket costs.
The lawmakers also touted reforms to the state’s laws regarding adoptions, prescription drugs and elder care.
LOCAL LEGISLATIONSome legislation was Cobb-specific.
Kennesaw State University will be getting about $5 million from the General Assembly for a learning center and science lab, Tippins said. The budget will also provide funding for a Georgia Veterans Career Transition Resource Center in Cobb County. The budget allocates $2.25 million in state funds to renovate part of Chattahoochee Technical College’s Marietta Campus, outfitting the technical school for veteran-specific training programs.
Given the governor’s request for budget cuts heading into the session, Reeves figured it would be something to tackle next year. But sitting next to Cobb Chamber of Commerce Chairman John Loud at a dinner earlier this year and hearing his vision for the center, Reeves was inspired.
Despite a behind-the-scenes push to make it happen, Reeves wasn’t sure whether it would pass until the session was almost over.
“It’s really, really, really neat to see this happen when there were frankly several things that kind of made us believe it may not happen this year,” he said. “You just can’t quit until the gavel comes down. And if you don’t quit till the gavel comes down, sometimes you can make things happen.”