Darlene Taylor

As we returned to Capitol Hill on Monday, March 29 for our final two days of this session, we were prepared for it to be the busiest days of this legislative year, and they were.  

As you know, the last day is commonly referred to as “Sine Die,” which is a Latin term meaning “without assigning a day for further meeting.” During this time, we spent most of our efforts reviewing and perfecting Senate bills, just as they spent their time reviewing our House bills. 

On our last day we worked diligently until shortly after midnight to ensure that significant legislation had every chance to be considered this year.  

One overdue bill we passed is Senate Bill 235. Current law does not allow for the wearing masks for face covering. This bill will add an exception to this misdemeanor crime of wearing a mask for those who wear masks to follow public health guidance to prevent the spread of infectious diseases, something we all have been doing for the last long year!

On Day 39, we unanimously passed one of the most significant and moving bills, Senate Bill 117. It closes a loophole in Georgia law by identifying and creating a new crime for certain entrusted individuals who engage in sexually explicit conduct with minors. This crime would specifically apply to a “person in a position of trust,” such as athletic coaches, educators or any other person whom a parent or guardian has trusted to educate or supervise their child. The penalty for the first degree of the crime would be imprisonment between one to 25 years and a maximum fine of $100,000, and the punishment would increase depending on the age of the victim and the severity of the conduct. 

This bill would also establish increased punishments for a second degree of the crime for “improper sexual contact by a person in a position of trust,” as well as create a felony for subsequent offenses. SB 117 would ensure that these sexual predators receive appropriate punishment for their crimes. The Senate agreed to the House’s version of this bill and sent it to the governor for consideration. 

The House also gave final passage to Senate Bill 105 to reform the probation system in Georgia and streamline the process for those who seek to terminate their probation sentences early as a result of good behavior. Under this bill, offenders may petition to end their probation early if they have fulfilled the state’s required behavioral incentives, including paying all restitution owed, not having probation revoked in the past two years and not being arrested for anything other than a non-serious traffic offense. 

If the offender has met all of those requirements, the Georgia Department of Community Supervision (DCS) would be required to submit such information to the prosecuting attorney and court and the court would be required to schedule a hearing within three months of receiving the DCS’ report, or sooner if possible. This bill would also require a behavioral incentive date for all sentencing orders for certain first-time felony offenders, or a three-year behavioral incentive date would automatically be assigned to these offenders. 

By streamlining this early termination process through this bipartisan bill, our state could incentivize and allow more offenders to move forward in their lives. This bill has also been sent to the governor’s office for his review and signature.  

We and our colleagues also passed legislation last week to extend educational opportunities to some of our most vulnerable student, our homeless and foster children. Senate Bill 107 would allow these students to qualify for in-state tuition at University System of Georgia (USG) as well as at Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG) institutions for up to 10 years or until the student achieves a diploma, certificate or bachelor’s degree. The bill would waive tuition and fees, such as mandatory rooming and board fees, for qualifying foster and adopted students who attend TCSG schools. 

Under SB 117, students would be required to first apply for FAFSA and use any federal aid available before remaining fees or tuition are waived. SB 107 would also encourage USG to adopt the same practice. This bill also awaits the governor’s approval.  

If SB 107 is enacted into law, it could provide a much-needed pathway for homeless or foster students to earn a college degree and, eventually, a career.

Another issue that came before is us this session concerns the hazing of students. This legislation is named after Max Gruver, a college student from Roswell, Georgia who died as a result of a hazing incident involving alcohol while he attended college out of state. In his memory we passed Senate Bill 85, the “Max Gruver Act,” it expands how schools and state law addresses hazing among Georgia students. 

Under current Georgia law, it is illegal for anyone to haze a student in connection with gaining acceptance to a membership, office or other status in a school organization; the penalty for this crime is a high and aggravated misdemeanor. However, this bill would expand Georgia’s hazing laws to include coercing a student through the use of social or physical pressure to consume any food, liquid, alcohol, drug or other substance that would cause the student to become intoxicated or unconscious. This bill would also apply these laws to more student organizations, such as associations, corporations, orders or athletic teams that have students or alumni as its principal members, as well as include prospectively enrolled students. 

Furthermore, SB 85 would require colleges to establish policies to report and disclose hazing incidents among students and student organizations. Hazing within a school organization would be made public within 15 days of the settlement, and schools would be required to post certain details about these incidents on their website, excluding students’ personal information. 

SB 85 will strengthen Georgia’s hazing laws and help prevent hazing incidents in our state that are extremely harmful, and even deadly, for students.

On our final night and shortly before adjourning Sine Die, the House fulfilled its only constitutional obligation by adopting the conference committee report on House Bill 81, the state’s Fiscal Year 2022 (FY 2022) budget. This budget for the next fiscal year begins July 1, 2021, and is set by a revenue estimate $27.2 billion, which is an increase of $1.34 billion, or 5.2%, over the original Fiscal Year 2021 budget that was passed last June. 

The state’s fiscal position has exceeded expectations since last year, and as a result, we were able to allocate approximately 90% of the new revenue for the FY 2022 budget to Georgia’s education and health and human services agencies. The upcoming fiscal year budget also restores 60% of the reductions made to K-12 education, as well as preserves and increases funding for our other top priorities, such as expanded mental health and crisis intervention services, rate increases for health and human service providers, access to health care and salary increases for critical state workforce positions.  

Governor Brian Kemp will now review the budget bill before signing it into law.

The House also voted to give final approval to several other important bills last week, including House Bill 146, which would extend paid parental leave to many of our state employees. HB 146 would provide up to 120 hours, or three weeks, of paid parental leave annually to eligible full-time state employees and local board of education employees for qualifying life events, such as after the birth of their child and after an adoptive or foster child is first placed in their home. 

Another significant bill we addressed on Sine Die, House Bill 479, repeals Georgia’s antiquated citizen’s arrest law. In addition to repealing citizen’s arrest, HB 479 would clarify certain instances in which law enforcement officers may make arrests outside of their jurisdiction, as well as authorize retail stores, food service establishments and certain licensed private security professionals to detain someone if they reasonably believe an individual is committing a crime. 

We also adopted a conference committee report for Senate Bill 6, or the “Tax Credit Return on Investment Act of 2021,” will establish opportunities to examine our state’s tax revenue structure, as well as review tax incentives for several industries to help economy. 

We also gave final passage to Senate Bill 195 to increase the responsibilities of the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission and allow licensed low THC oil producers to partner with universities and colleges, such as Georgia’s historically black colleges and universities, for joint medical research. 

House Bill 154 also received final approval and would reform several of Georgia’s adoption and foster care laws, including lowering the age at which a person is allowed to petition for adoption from 25 to 21 years old. These bills will also undergo consideration by the governor, as well as several other pieces of legislation.  

Of importance to our region, Senate Bill 255, will task the OneGeorgia Authority with administering the Border Region Retail Tourism Development Program. This program would award grants to applicants to assist with retail and tourism development within 25 miles of the state border to compete with neighboring states. To honor our military and some of our allies we passed two bills specialty license tag bills; Senate Bill 237 will create a specialty license plate to support members of the U.S. Army Rangers and Senate Bill 225, honor our allied veterans, including those who fought as our ally in the Vietnam War.  

As we closed out this year, we realized this was a very different session, COVID testing twice a week and House members were spread throughout the Capitol building.  One other thing noticeably different this year was that there were fewer visitors. So, when we had folks from South Georgia it was especially nice to see them.  

These last couple of weeks were busy but we were happy to see and be able to spend time with Brandon Phillips of Whigham and Whit Whitfield of Mitchell County.  Though all of the Family Connection Directors could not get to the Capital this year, we were pleased share some time with Ronnie Burke from Bainbridge.  

Thanks to all those who work so hard helping people, all year long though our Family Connections Offices.

We did receive some great news last week for Cairo and Grady County. The State Transportation Aviation Programs is preparing an airport contract with the City of Cairo to construct a fuel facility at the Cairo-Grady County Airport.  Total project cost is estimated at $341,309.09. The contract with the City of Cairo is for a maximum of $324,221.90 of which $306,092.34 are federal funds and $18,129.56 are state funds. Great project.  Congratulations. 

Now that the 2021 legislative session has come to an end, Governor Kemp has 40 days to review all legislation that received final passage in the House and Senate. The governor can sign or veto legislation over the next 40 days, and any legislation that has not been signed or vetoed will automatically become law. 

With this session behind us, we will be spending more time in our district, where we look forward to continuing to serve you and your family. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions regarding bills that passed this session or suggestions for future legislation. 

You can reach Representative Taylor throughout the year at her Capitol office at (404) 656-7857 or email at darlene.taylor@house.ga.gov. Also, since she will be spending more time in the district now, feel free to contact her locally at (229) 225-9943.  

You can reach Representative John LaHood at (404) 656-0188 or by email at john.lahood@house.ga.gov.  Representative Sam Watson at (404) 463-2246 and his email is sam.watson@house.ga.gov.

As always, thank you for allowing us to serve as your representatives.

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