In March 2020, we experienced the world come to a glaring and hard stop. Now in 2021, things are slowly opening back up, including the Georgia State Capitol. Legislative session feels, looks and is different for everyone this year. We are meeting via video conference and greeting one another with elbow bumps and smiling eyes as mouths are covered by masks. The capitol steps, lobby and meeting rooms are clear of advocates due to restrictions, inaccessibility or hesitancy of inadvertent exposure to COVID-19. But the work remains the same, and it is more important than ever.
Tracking Session Developments
Session started out very slow. During the first month, we followed fewer than 20 bills. As Crossover Day (i.e., the last day for a bill to move from one chamber to the other) approached, we found ourselves working feverishly to keep up with the new bills being introduced; identifying which committee had the bill; and then racing the clock to announce action alerts to comply with the short turnaround time until the committee hearing. If there is ever a time to push controversial policies through, it seems on the heels of a pandemic is the perfect time. The environment in which we find ourselves due to the pandemic makes it much harder for advocates to be included in the democratic process, which also means there are limited opportunities for a bill to be challenged or scrutinized. Unfortunately, the barriers also help legislators avoid difficult questions and escape accountability because they do not have exposure to as many advocates as they typically would in prior sessions.
Partnership and Collaboration
Advocacy by one is good, but to be truly informed and successful, advocacy efforts during legislative session require a multitude of organizations to join hands, hearts, phones and computers to keep up with bills that are being introduced. They must dissect and decipher verbiage and then unite and conquer to mobilize advocates to give testimony as to why their legislators should support or oppose a particular bill. Without support from partners like the Georgia Advocacy Office and many others, the work would be nearly impossible to complete. The connections, collaborative calls, ingenuity, tenacity and reach of these grassroots tentacles are the backbone change agents needed to maintain and build integrated communities.
Due to the special elections flipping Georgia to a “blue” state with regard to our choices for US Senators (meaning most Georgians voted for democratic candidates), we anticipated there to be a lot of voting bills introduced. Several were introduced quickly, and we were watching a handful at the beginning of the session. By Crossover Day, there were over 70 bills we were watching and a few omnibus bills. An omnibus bill combines different subjects and packages into one document, making it large in size and scope, which makes it difficult to scrutinize and debate with such limited time.
Throughout session, the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) alerted advocates to, and publicly testified against, many concerning voting proposals, such as ending no-excuse absentee voting, prohibiting drop boxes, and requiring a state-issued ID number to receive an absentee ballot, and have sent out multiple action alerts as the proposals were removed, modified and placed in other bills. The process ended with Senate Bill 202 rising to the top in terms of priority, passing on March 25 and being quickly signed into law by Governor Brian Kemp on the same day.
GCDD released a statement regarding the bill, including what is and is not included in the legislation. You can read our summary of Senate Bill 202 here.
Although much of our advocacy efforts focused on the numerous voting bills introduced, GCDD also tracked the following bills and resolutions:
HB 128 (Gracie’s Law):
GCDD has supported this bill since it was originally introduced in 2020. This bill would prohibit discrimination of potential organ transplant recipients based on disability status. People with disabilities have been denied life-saving organ transplants due to some healthcare providers’ discriminatory ideas regarding the abilities and quality of life of people with disabilities.
We are thrilled to announce that Gracie’s Law passed out of the House and Senate, meaning it now awaits Governor Kemp’s signature to officially become law in Georgia! Gracie’s Law was amended in the Senate to include language stating a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order cannot be issued for a minor patient without parental consent.
Next Steps: Thank your state representative and senator for supporting Gracie’s Law, and call Governor Kemp’s office to share your thoughts on House Bill 128 becoming law!
HR 372 (Georgia’s Employment First Council):
This is an Urging Resolution for the Employment First Council to develop recommendations to transition practices from paying below minimum wage to providing competitive and integrated employment options for people with developmental disabilities – GCDD worked with Rep. El-Mahdi Holly to introduce this resolution in conjunction with our third Advocacy Day on competitive, integrated employment.
Given the limited time left of session when HR 372 was introduced, it was unable to make its way to passage this year; however, we just finished up the first year of our biennial, meaning we have one more year for bills and resolutions to pass without having to be reintroduced. We are looking forward to continuing our advocacy efforts around this important House Resolution next year!
SB 208 (End the Waitlist in Five Years):
This bill directed the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) to end the NOW/COMP waiver waitlist within the next five years, subject to funds being available. The bill also indicated that new waivers cannot be funded by cutting services to already existing waivers. This bill serves as a priority statement, and GCDD would like to see all senators and representatives supporting the vision of SB 208 by signing on and ensuring sufficient funds are directed to DBHDD’s budget during the appropriations process.
Although Senate Bill 208 did not pass this year, on March 30, State Senator Sally Harrell held a press conference with advocates, calling on legislators to fully fund the waitlist within five years, and GCDD looks forward to working together to make sure this important bill sees movement next session.
HB 272 (Raise the Age Act):
This is a bill to raise the adult criminal age from 17 to 18 years of age, thus including people who are 18 years old in juvenile court. Although House Bill 272 did not pass this year, there is still a chance for it to pass next year during the second year of Georgia’s biennial session.
HB 43 (Vehicle Registration Note):
This bill would provide an opportunity for a person to note if they have a mental, physical or neurological condition that impacts their communication on a vehicle registration form. This information would then be available to law enforcement when they submit a vehicle tag inquiry.
House Bill 43 passed the House and Senate and is on the governor’s desk for his signature. Contact the governor’s office to let him know your thoughts on the bill.
SB 80 (Ensuring Transparency in Prior Authorization Act):
This bill aimed to improve access to care by requiring insurers to be transparent about their prior authorization procedures and to notify providers in advance of denying coverage for a service. GCDD signed on to support this bill with a group of health advocate organizations.
Senate Bill 80 passed unanimously out of the House and Senate, meaning it moves to the governor’s desk for his signature. Thank your representative and senator for their vote, and call the governor’s office to share your thoughts.
SB 47 (Special Needs Scholarship):
This bill is an expansion of the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, making students with a 504 plan eligible to apply to the program. GCDD had concerns last session given the rights that parents were being asked to waive for their children, and we worked with advocates in favor of the bill to amend the language.
Senate Bill 47 passed both the House and Senate and is now at the governor’s desk. Call his office and let them know your thoughts on the bill.
HB 290 (Hospital & Nursing Homes):
This bill was originally a visitation for hospital and long-term care facility bill but was changed in the House while in the Committee on Human Relations and Aging to include “legal representative” language. GCDD opposed this bill due to the addition and confusion about the role and privileges of said “legal representative.” The Senate Health and Human Services Committee removed the concerning language, and the bill passed the Senate as amended. The House attempted to reinsert the concerning language but the bill was ultimately tabled in the Senate, meaning it will remain on the table until the next legislative session.
As always, a large portion of our attention and advocacy is placed on the appropriations, or budget, process. Budget decisions are critical to ensure funding is available for the necessary services and supports for people with disabilities. Last year, state agencies endured steep budget cuts due to the impact of COVID-19 on revenue. There were some concerns before the start of this session that there might be additional budget cuts related to COVID; however, due to reopening decisions and federal relief, there were actually savings identified in the amended FY21 budget, which allowed funds to be directed to one-time bonuses for state employees earning less than $80,000 annually.
Regarding the FY22 “big budget” (starting July 1, 2021 and ending June 30, 2022), the following items were included to support the disability community:
Information current as of April 9, 2021
Items supporting the disability community in the FY22 “BIG budget”
- 100 new NOW/COMP waiver slots
- Approximately $12.3 million to provide a five percent provider rate increase, subject to approval by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
- Approximately $4.7 million to restore the family support funds that were cut during last year’s budget cuts
- Approximately $1.5 million for respite services with priority for rural communities
- A total of $67,157 to restore GCDD’s one-time cut to the inclusive post-secondary education budget
- Language to direct DBHDD to provide a report to legislators by December 1, 2021, which will include how the agency plans to continue serving the 188 families impacted by the recent proposed changes to the COMP waiver
Although the 2021 legislative session has ended, our advocacy does not stop. The need to advocate is still important, and the time is now. Here are four things you can do in the “off season:”
- Sign up to join our advocacy network
- Contact the governor’s office to let him know your thoughts on the bills that passed (Note: he can still veto a bill or sign it into law)
- When you speak with the governor’s office, make sure to let him know you would like him to prioritize the needs of the disability community during the drafting of his FY23 budget proposal, which begins to take place during the summer
- Schedule an appointment to meet with your legislator during off season; find your legislator(s) here
A View from the Inside
by Naomi Williams, GCDD Public Policy Fellow
I am a health educator, systems navigator and parent of a child with chronic and complex medical conditions and assigned a medical label of profoundly disabled.
Years ago, before I was a parent, I worked for an organization that addressed disparities in maternal and child health. I had the opportunity to advocate and meet with my federal legislators in Washington, DC during the legislative session. It was a small and short introduction into government and public policy.
This year is the first time I have participated in legislative session and Advocacy Days in Georgia. To say it has been enlightening and eye opening is an understatement.
The further the session progressed, and the more engrossed in the details I became, the harder – mentally and emotionally – it was to keep up and process what I was learning, seeing, hearing and living.
As the parent and primary caregiver for a person with disabilities (my son), it became difficult to focus, compartmentalize and detach from the biases attached and implications and consequences that would result if certain bills passed.
To see the work being done by GCDD, self-advocates and parent advocates like me, gives me the confidence to know that the disability community is working hard to be heard, and shows why it’s even more important to advocate where the bills are introduced and signed into law.