By: Sen. Blake Tillery (R – Vidalia)
At this point in the session, bills are flying back and forth between chambers in a constant state of change. We are in session again tomorrow, which will mark on 32nd day of this year’s session. Rather than my usual list of legislation, I thought you may enjoy a deeper view on one piece of legislation instead. The “40” day legislative session at times gets heated. Some issues are contentious. Oftentimes, we aren’t making decisions about moral issues, but rather picking winners and losers between doctors and nurses, used cars dealers vs. new car dealers, or even foresters vs. the concrete industry. Sometimes tempers flare. Sometimes the surface issues are facades for underlying disagreements and molehills are turned into mountains. On some occasions though, usually because of the patient persistence of a certain individual, the stars align and good legislation is produced. It happened earlier this year with Rep. Bert Reeves (R-Marietta) and House Bill 159, the adoption bill. It also happened recently on a lesser known but equally important issue, House Bill 831, because of our neighbor and friend, Rep. Bill Werkheiser (R-Glennville).
HB 831, brought by Rep. Terry Rogers (R-Clarkesville) seeks to reduce the barriers to employment faced by Georgia citizens with disabilities. People with mental and physical disabilities flooded the Capitol to lobby in support of this legislation. Their stories were overwhelmingly compelling. Some spoke of how holding a job gave value to their life. Others smiled from wheelchairs about how they were able to support themselves financially without government assistance. One, Joshua Wells from Newnan, told the committee about his three jobs. These individuals did not allow intellectual or physical disabilities steal their joy. And they brought joy to all around them.
As sometimes happens, turf wars developed as some well-meaning groups became concerned with how HB 831 may impact the current model of providing disability services. The chairman of the House Industry and Labor Committee tasked with bringing these groups together was Tattnall County’s Bill Werkheiser.
The move toward consensus was agonizing. I watched over a several-week period as Chairman Werkheiser worked to protect and alleviate the concerns of our community-based behavior health centers while advancing a bill he knew could help many of our most vulnerable. Despite his efforts, after numerous office meetings and several committee and sub-committee meetings, it appeared no agreement could be reached.
A week before the all-important Cross-Over Day, the day by which a bill must pass one chamber to remain available for consideration this session, many in the Georgia House were ready to toss in the towel. The interested parties retreated to their corners to regroup for another try in 2019. Chairman Werkheiser requested the House leadership give him one more chance to find consensus. Because of his work ethic and reputation at the Capitol, they agreed.
On the final week a House bill could be voted out of a House committee, Chairman Werkheiser assembled the parties and his committee one last time. He stressed the value of this legislation to Georgians and its promotion of the principles of self-determination and individual responsibility. Through a combination of his sheer grit and divine intervention, HB 831 passed committee. In a classy move that mirrors his compassion, Chairman Werkheiser asked Joshua from Newnan to join the committee on rostrum to make the motion advancing the bill forward to where it eventually passed the entire House of Representatives.
This Tuesday, we voted this same bill out of the Senate Economic Development Committee where I am a member. The same joy filled the stories shared there. Barely a committee member had a dry eye. The usual hustle in and out of committee meetings stalled as we all kept our seats to hear these individuals share with us their joy.
I just passed Rep. Rogers in the hall here at the Capitol, he unequivocally told me, “Blake, this bill clears a path where employment is the preferred option for our citizens with disabilities who wish to do so. You got to see the icing on the cake yesterday [in committee], but none of this would have been able to happen without Bill’s work for weeks before.”
We get things wrong at times in the legislature. We spend time each session fixing issues we unintentionally caused the year before. There are times we wish we could change our vote or objection when the smoke and fog of session has cleared. But Tuesday, we did something right. And we would never have had the chance had it not been for the workhorse our area has in the State House, Bill Werkheiser.
If you would like to see the recordings of these committee meetings and hear the stories of these amazing individuals yourself, visit this link to watch the Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee meeting: https://livestream.com/accounts/25225487/events/7946935/videos/171155776
And visit this link to watch the House Industry and Labor Committee meeting: https://livestream.com/accounts/19771738/events/7993504/videos/170535842
You’ll be glad you did.