Georgia’s 2022 legislative session was defined by the effects of a lingering pandemic and looming elections. Most of our advocacy efforts and each of our three Advocacy Days were virtual. Although “the ropes” at the Capitol were not open to the public, we built on our knowledge gained from nearly two years’ experience advocating during the pandemic and made our priorities known to our legislators. Advocates offered both virtual and in-person testimony at committee meetings, heard from legislators at advocacy days, and sent many, many emails using our new Phone to Action campaigns.
Every seat in the Georgia legislature is up for election in November. We saw an influx of “campaign promise” bills that focused on hot-button issues, from voter fraud to vaccine mandates. This reality informed our advocacy efforts as we worked to determine which bills were introduced primarily to excite voters and which were actually likely to move forward.
As always, we remained focused on bringing about policy change that promotes opportunities for Georgians with developmental disabilities to live, learn, work, play, and worship in their communities.
Home and Community-Based Services
NOW and COMP waivers provide funds for people with disabilities to receive services in their homes and communities, helping them to lead self-directed lives and avoid having to live in a nursing home or other institution. The Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) has advocated for waiver funding for many years, and 2022 was no different. Over 7,000 people are waiting for waivers, but Georgia has been slow to add funding, so this issue remains central to our advocacy efforts.
At our February 26 Advocacy Day, hundreds of advocates emailed their legislators about how important NOW/ COMP waivers are to our community. We also heard from legislators and community members.
Many advocates attended and spoke in a press conference hosted by Sen. Sally Harrell about her within five years, but is subject to available funding. Although it did not pass this session, it served as a talking point and drew attention to this important issue.
Sen. Sally Harrell also introduced SR 770, which creates a Senate study committee to analyze access to NOW/ COMP waivers and waiver services. SR 770 passed on the second-to-last day of session. The study committee includes eight members, including five political appointees, the DBHDD commissioner, the DCH commissioner, and GCDD’s executive director. We hope that this study committee offers an opportunity to continue to address the NOW/COMP issue in substantive ways.
We are excited that our advocacy efforts led to increases in funding for additional NOW/COMP waiver slots in the fiscal year 2023 budget. The House Appropriations Committee included funds for 325 new NOW/COMP waiver slots, and the Senate added additional waivers slots, bringing the total to 513 slots funded by over $10 million.
Although this still leaves thousands of Georgians without necessary services, this is by far the largest number of waiver slots added in a decade—a true testament to the hard work of our advocates!
Pay for Direct Support Professionals
As people move off the waitlist, it is important for them to actually receive the services they are entitled to. Right now, people with waivers struggle to find direct support professionals (DSPs) to provide their services. DSPs receive low pay and few benefits, resulting in high turnover.
Our first Advocacy Day focused on addressing this problem: again, advocates emailed their legislators about this issue and asked them to fund a 5% provider rate increase. Many also offered testimony in Appropriations subcommittee meetings.
In the 2023 budget, the House included $2.4 million to fund a 1% rate increase for providers. This rate increase was removed by the Senate but re-added and doubled by the budget conference committee. Additionally, the final budget bill includes a provision to use $500,000 in funds from the American Rescue Plan to fund a rate study of developmental disabilities providers.
Additionally, SB 610 passed the Senate. It requires the Department of Community Health to conduct a comprehensive rate study for all waiver providers every three years. In addition to NOW and COMP providers, this also includes providers who offer services under several other waiver programs. Rate studies can offer valuable information about how much money direct support professionals should make and offer other workforce insights. We hope that continued study and increased awareness of the workforce issues that exist within home and community-based services will provide a foundation for future advocacy efforts to raise wages.
An additional provision was added to this bill relating to Medicaid reimbursement for mental health and substance use disorder treatment. Advocates are not unified in their views of this addition, but we are glad to report that the original waiver rate study language did not change.
Our final Advocacy Day focused on promoting competitive, integrated employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Following changes in workforce participation rates brought about by the pandemic, many businesses are having problems recruiting and retaining staff. At the same time, only 13% of individuals with disabilities are currently in competitive, integrated employment. Because of this, we believe now is a critical time to explore the systemic barriers that prevent people with developmental disabilities from getting the support they need to successfully contribute to Georgia’s economy by working in competitive jobs. Hundreds of advocates contacted their legislators to request that they address the issue of competitive, integrated employment.
We tracked several bills relating to K-12 education to ensure students with disabilities receive safe, inclusive, and supportive education. We supported Gwinnett SToPP’s efforts to end the school-to-prison pipeline as a part of our new five-year strategic plan. Students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by the school-to-prison pipeline: they are twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions as general education students. Several bills in the legislature were introduced and passed relating to this issue. HB 272 passed the House and changed the jurisdiction of the juvenile court system to include all children under 18. Currently, some 17-year-olds have their cases heard in adult courts, which can lead to harsher sentencing. SB 106 passed the Senate. It requires that students in preschool through third grade are offered wraparound support before they are suspended. Finally, we supported the passage of HR 917 which would create a study committee to research “Too Young to Suspend”—a concept that young students, such as those in pre-k or kindergarten, should not be suspended. None of these bills were able to pass both chambers before the end of session. We hope they still serve as conversation points to encourage movement away from overly punitive school discipline and toward support that helps all students be successful.
We tracked several bills, including SB 587, SB 589, SB 601, HB 60, and HB 999 that would have expanded school choice in Georgia by allowing students to receive state dollars to attend private schools. We were concerned that these bills did not include adequate protection for students with disabilities who choose to use these scholarships. In public schools, federal and state laws prohibit discrimination and mandate that all students receive an education that is appropriate to their needs and abilities. Private schools are not subject to the same laws, so students do not have the same protection. None of these bills passed this session, although education and school choice could come up again in future sessions.
Our education advocacy also extended to post secondary programs. We advocated for continued funding to Georgia’s eight (soon to be nine) Inclusive Post Secondary Education (IPSE) programs and used our Phone to Action campaign platform to let legislators know about how important these programs are.
Disability in All Policy
Outside of our policy priorities that we continue to advocate for year after year, we also tracked legislation related to a wide range of issues to ensure that the needs and desires of people with disabilities are included in all types of policy issues. This session, many of these issues were determined by the “campaign promise” bills and other priorities of legislators.
House Speaker David Ralston prioritized mental health legislation this year. Along with Reps. Todd Jones and Mary Margaret Oliver, he introduced HB 1013, the Mental Health Parity Act. This bill aims to increase access to mental health care in Georgia by requiring insurance coverage and strengthening the provider workforce. GCDD submitted suggested language to make sure that people with disabilities are included in these efforts. In addition, our partner organization, the Georgia Advocacy Office, worked to modify concerns about mandated treatment and patient registries. Additional protections were added to the mandated treatment provision and registry language was removed in the final version. HB 1013 passed the House and Senate unanimously and has been signed into law by Governor Kemp.
Last year, voting was a focus of the legislative session that culminated in the passage of omnibus voting bill SB 202. Although Republican leaders in the General Assembly stated that they were not interested in revisiting the issue of voting this year, several voting bills were introduced. We tracked several bills that would have reduced voting access by banning dropboxes, which are especially helpful for voters with disabilities. The legislature did pass a controversial last-minute voting bill SB 89 on day 40, but it does not include any provisions relating to dropboxes.
Last year, HB 290 was introduced. It would prohibit hospitals, nursing homes, and similar institutions from enacting policies that limit patients’ ability to receive visitors during a public health emergency like COVID-19. It makes this a necessary condition to obtain or maintain the permit necessary to operate a hospital or nursing home. During the committee process, language was added that would have changed laws about guardianship. GCDD and other groups advocated against this last year and continued to track HB 290 this year. The guardianship language was removed, but afterward, the bill did not pass.
We tracked SB 345, which was introduced this session by Sen. Jeff Mullis. Originally, this bill would have banned public institutions from requiring any type of vaccine. This created concerns that schools would no longer be able to require many vaccines that have long been proven effective at preventing disease. In response to these concerns, SB 345 was modified to focus only on COVID-19 vaccines.
Other Important Legislation
We tracked several bills that were not part of our original policy priorities but addressed issues that are important to people with disabilities.
HB 1008 made some administrative changes to STABLE accounts, which allow people with disabilities and their families to save and invest money without affecting social security eligibility. We tracked this bill’s progression through the legislature to make sure that it did not include any provisions that would affect the availability and accessibility of STABLE accounts. Under the bill, these accounts will be under the authority of the same board that oversees Georgia’s Path2College 529 Savings Plans. Legislators and advocates are hopeful that this change increases awareness and use of these accounts among Georgians with disabilities and their families. HB 1008 passed with strong majorities on day 40.
SB 360, also known as Colton’s Law, amended an existing law to require harsher punishment for people convicted of cruelty against a minor who has a disability. It passed the Senate unanimously but lacked momentum in the House and never passed out of committee.
SB 108 creates the Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired. It also transfers supervision of the Georgia Industries for the Blind from the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency to the commission. Despite having only Democratic sponsors, SB 108 passed the Senate with a strong majority.
SR 613 was introduced by Sen. Donzella James and passed the Senate with strong support on Crossover Day. It urges the Georgia Building Authority to develop a plan to make Georgia’s Capitol Building more accessible for people with disabilities in alignment with the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a historic building, the Capitol was not designed for accessibility. We are excited about the possibility of this resolution to make the processes of democracy more accessible to both legislators and constituents.
We are proud of the successes we were able to achieve this year with the invaluable help of our partners and advocates. We had hundreds of advocates send over 1,500 emails to their state legislators over the course of our three Advocacy Days. Our efforts contributed to the addition of tens of millions of dollars to the state budget
that will support the needs of many Georgians with disabilities. However, our work is not done—advocacy is an ongoing process. We look forward to building on our progress over the coming days, months, and years. There are many advocacy steps that can be taken during the legislative off-season.
- Continue to build relationships with your legislators by reaching out about important issues and finding opportunities to invite them to community events. Legislators have more time when they are not in session, so it is an ideal time to start educating them about the issues that will be important later and thank them for their work this session.
- Attend state agency board meetings, including the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency (GVRA), and others. These meetings are a good chance to learn about agency work year-round.
- Reach out to the governor’s office to share your thoughts on what should be included in next year’s budget. The budget process takes place year-round. Work on the fiscal year 2024 budget begins almost as soon as the fiscal year 2023 process is over.
- Stay connected to GCDD for additional “off season” advocacy opportunities. Off-season events might include community gatherings to build relationships, opportunities to share thoughts at public comment sessions, and trainings to become better equipped to advocate year-round.