The 2019 Session in Review
By: Sen. Blake Tillery (R – Vidalia)
The General Assembly finally adjourned just before midnight Tuesday evening. Coincidentally, Tuesday was also my and Ashlee Nicole’s third wedding anniversary. She served as the General Assembly’s Doctor of the Day on Day 40, so I may have faked a cough once or twice just to get to see her. Because this was the first session with a new Governor, Lt. Governor, and many new legislators, most, including myself, expected this session to be relatively slow and more of a “get to know each other” event. We could not have been more wrong. Governor Kemp came out of the gate eager and ready to implement the agenda on which he campaigned: putting Georgians first, protecting life, tackling healthcare cost, giving a raise to teachers, and promoting rural Georgia.
What Made the News
Budget– The 2020 Budget is particularly friendly to rural Georgia, specifically Southeast Georgia. Our teachers, school counselors, and other certified staff will receive a $3,000.00 raise which will be included in all future budgets. This raises the salary of a starting teacher to roughly $37,000.00 and raises the average Georgia teacher salary to roughly $58,000.00. Among other items, this budget includes $1,058,000.00 for our district’s airports-the front door for most outside industrial recruitment; funding for new residency positions in Augusta, Valdosta, Savannah, and Macon; funding to continue the four-laning of U.S. Hwy 1 through the heart of our district; and funding for safety improvements at Georgia State Prison in Tattnall County.
Broadband– Senate Bill 2 allows our rural EMC’s like Altamaha, Satilla, Little Ocmulgee, and Canoochee EMC to enter the broadband/fiber business. These companies were instrumental in providing the last-mile of electrical service decades ago. I believe they are uniquely suited to replicate that action with broadband service now. I have already received emails from some of our local EMCs discussing whether they will get involved in helping our community in this way. The EMCs begged for this authority. I’m anxious to see them utilize it. Senate Bill 17 clarifies certain ambiguities and confirms that rural telephone companies, like Pineland Telephone Company, Glenwood Telephone Company and Alma Telephone Company, can also provide this service.
The Heartbeat Bill-HB 481- The General Assembly took steps to implement one of, if not the, most pro-life bills in the Nation. Once signed by Governor Kemp, an abortion in Georgia would be illegal after an unborn baby’s heartbeat is detected. This is typically about 6 weeks into a pregnancy. We have heard this bill will immediately be challenged in the Courts and implementation could be delayed until a judge rules on the issue.
Medicaid Reform– Senate Bill 106 allows the Governor to petition the federal government to revamp our Medicaid program. The possible changes include work requirements, incentives to visit primary care physicians instead of emergency rooms, and the setting up co-pays so those receiving services have skin in the game as well.
Addressing Healthcare/Health Insurance Cost– Senate Bill 106 also allows Georgia to apply for permission from the federal government to employ private sector techniques like high-risk pools and reinsurance programs to drive down the cost of monthly health insurance premiums for all Georgians. More on this below.
Medical Marijuana– HB 324 allows the limited cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes only. This bill split our district. After seeing the families in the hallways who have benefited from this treatment, I voted yes to allow families access to this oil in Georgia. On a personal level, my 15-year-old cousin has autism and epilepsy. She once suffered from multiply seizures daily. After seven failed medicines (in combination with her other medications), doctors tried low THC oil. The seizures have been dramatically reduced. She also was able to come off all her other medications. I am not saying low-THC oil is the miracle drug for everyone, but for some suffering from Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and autism, it is. HB 324 authorizes just over nine acres of production in Georgia. The University of Georgia and Fort Valley State University, our state’s two land grant universities, would be able to apply for federal licenses to grow and convert cannabis oil for research to answer questions about the benefits and harms such treatments may cause.
Human Trafficking– The number of young children being exploited for sex trafficking is astounding. Georgia is ground zero for this activity. Senate Bill 158 continues our assault on this perverse practice that demeans and destroys innocent lives.
Adoption/Foster Care– Many of you know this issue is near and dear to my and Ashlee Nicole’s heart. It’s not simply enough to promote life by limiting abortion. We must put our time and money out to support these children and their mothers as well. Senate Bill 167 and House Bill 453 continue to work toward finding permanence in a foster child’s life.
What Didn’t Make the News but is Equally Important
Hospital Transparency– Almost 90% of hospitals in Georgia are non-profits, but some of these large “non-profits” have tens of millions in savings and appear to engage in certain anti-competitive practices to the detriment of rural communities. HB 321 requires non-profit hospitals who benefits from tax exempt status be more transparent about where they spend funds, including billions of dollars they receive through Georgia’s Medicaid program.
Healthcare Cost– Senate Bills 16 and 168 will facilitate out-of-state doctors and nurses moving into rural Georgia by recognizing their credentials from other states. Senate Bills 115 and 118 set the authority for providers to be paid for telemedicine visits. With the current capabilities of smart-phones, I believe smart-phone tele-doctors will provide most primary care in the future.
Broadband (again!)– The state will likely be able to begin a rural broadband pilot project this year. The goal is to find the most cost-effective technology for spreading broadband in areas like ours. I have made no secret that our district is best suited to pilot this potentially multi-million-dollar project. I am hopeful we will have an answer this Fall.
Independent Pharmacies Push Back– House Bills 233 and 323 push back against big pharmaceutical companies by ensuring patients have a right to choose their pharmacy and prohibit insurance companies from ordering patients to certain pharmacies.
Bible in Schools– Senate Bill 83 expands the curriculum for teaching the Bible in high school settings.
Incentives for Rural Georgia– HB 224 redesigns our state’s jobs tax credits to make them much more beneficial to rural Georgia communities. While I think the definition of rural is a little high (county population of 50,000 or less), this credit acknowledges Georgia’s growth has not been equal and retools our incentives to attempt to give rural Georgia a leg up on economic recruitment.
These are just a few of the matters we dealt with in this year’s session. You can find a more detailed account concerning particular legislation on my website, www.blaketillery.com, or at legis.ga.gov.
Looking forward Toward 2020
No review should be complete without a look ahead. Here are some things I am watching as we begin preparing for next year:
Economy/Budget– Several indicators raise eyebrows about the continuation of Georgia’s unprecedented economic growth. If the economy is cooling, tax revenues will as well, and our ability to put more money into big budget items like healthcare and education will stop too.
Healthcare and Education– these two areas now make up 77% of all State spending. If two items made up 77% of your family’s budget, you’d understand why these receive such a watchful eye. These are also the two most-rapidly growing areas of our budget- another reason why additions here see such scrutiny.
Healthcare Insurance Cost– While we took a major step in tackling this problem through direct patient-physician contracting and the passing of Senate Bill 106, I believe the cost of medical care to be the single most important issue we can tackle moving forward. When health insurance premiums are as much as a mortgage, middle class America cannot afford both. Until we untangle the web that drives cost, including regulation, insurance issues, and the hidden administrative cost of care, we are will not provide the solution our friends and neighbors deserve.
Ramped-up Polarization Among Political Parties– For years, both sides of the aisle in the General Assembly praised the fact that Georgia avoided the unproductive partisan stalemate of Washington, D.C. This year, we noted a decisive departure from that track and a turn toward a much more divisive, political rhetoric. Long term, I feel this will get worse, and I believe this not to be in the best interest of Georgia.
This year’s pace and issues have made this session difficult. I’m sure we’ve gotten some things right, I’m equally as certain we’ve gotten some things wrong, and the mountain of issues for next year is already accumulating. For now, I’ll be back at my law office on Durden Street in Vidalia for the next few months enjoying the lifestyle and traffic-free pace of our community. However, my cell number and email do not change just because we are not in session. Please feel free to reach out if you have an idea for how I can serve you better. While I’m looking forward to being with you at home, it is a true honor to represent you in Atlanta and thank you again for allowing me to serve you in the Georgia Senate.
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Sen. Blake Tillery represents the 19th Senate District, which includes Appling, Jeff Davis, Long, Montgomery, Telfair, Toombs, Treutlen, Wayne, and Wheeler counties and a portion of Liberty and Tattnall counties. He can be reached at 404.656.0089 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.