Hello Advocates! How in the world are you doing? My name is Charlie Miller and I am the Legislative Advocacy Director for the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD). We are excited to bring you this edition of Public Policy for the People.
Fall is in the air, the leaves are changing, holidays are right around the corner and my favorite time of the year is almost here. That’s right, the legislative session! From the second week of January to mid-March or later in the spring, Georgia State legislators come together at the state capitol, or what we like to call “the Gold Dome,” to work on the state budget for the upcoming year and pass laws that affect Georgians like you and me.
Preparing for the Next Legislative Session
The upcoming regular legislative state session is the second year of the biennial, which means any legislation that did not pass last year still has an opportunity to pass during next year’s session. Bills we are watching include Senate Bill 4, which is the ‘Blind Persons’ Braille Literacy Rights and Education Act. This bill will require an evaluation of a blind or visually impaired student in public schools to determine the student’s need for braille instruction. This will significantly increase the opportunities of a student who would need braille to be successful in the classroom.
We are also eagerly watching House Bill 122. This bill will move Georgia’s ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) account, also known as STABLE, out of the oversight of the Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund and into the board of Georgia’s Higher Education and Savings Plan. This will allow a change in the current maximum amount of contributions ($235,000) allowed per beneficiary to be increased to what the new board decides.
Before the legislative session begins this January, keep in mind that there is a chance that there may be a special session which can happen at any moment. A special session is a time when the governor calls for all state senators and representatives to come back to the capital to tackle a specific issue. This will most likely impact some of our state Senate districts and our federal House districts. We will make sure to keep everyone up to date if there are changes in a district’s representatives.
Advocacy Before the Upcoming Session
Advocating during the legislative session is always needed to help push the disability issues you care about, and advocating before the session is just as important. During this off season, GCDD has been working hard to advocate at Legislative Study Committee meetings, and having meetings with individual legislators to make sure disability issues are a top priority for lawmakers.
One big issue we have been advocating about is the Direct Support Professional (DSP) workforce crisis. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia’s DSP workforce was already declining because of low pay wages. Once the pandemic began, DSPs in Georgia and across the country were further negatively impacted which affected their livelihoods.
The federal government was able to pass the American Rescue Plan Act which allowed the state to qualify for a program called Appendix K. This allowed more flexibility on how Georgia used its New Option Waiver Program (NOW) and Comprehensive Support Waiver Program (COMP). This also increased Georgia’s DSP rate to a more meaningful wage.
The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) had been working on a new rate study for DSPs to help increase their wages to a livable income but that was held up when Governor Kemp gave instructions to the General Assembly to disregard the rate study to allow more time to understand how the state of Georgia would pay for this.
Since then, GCDD has been working hard talking with advocates, community partners and legislators about the significant impact this has on the disability community. Our advocacy is paying off and we continue to build our relationship with the Governor’s Office, helping them understand the need for the new rate that the study came out with. We must continue to advocate during the off-season and especially during the upcoming legislative session.
How You Can Advocate
Before the legislative session begins in January, it is critical to understand who represents you and who you should be advocating to. As I am writing this article, none of your legislators have changed since last year. If you do not know who your representative is, visit Plural Policy, formerly known as Open States. When you go to the website, use the “Find Your Legislator” tool and enter your address. Once you find your legislators, feel free to reach out to them in person or by phone, email or letter to introduce yourself to them as one of their constituents. If you are able to meet them in person, that is great! Additionally, when you speak with your representative on the phone or in an email, you have the chance to educate them more and more on issues that matter to you.
Reaching out to your representative about disability issues will also help them understand that these issues regularly affect you and the thousands of people they serve. They might not be well informed on disability issues, and that’s OK. You can help teach them and tell them how this impacts our community.
Understand that legislators work part-time, which means they also have other jobs that they do regularly. It also means they are more involved in the community when they are not at the capitol during the off season.
GCDD is Here to Help You Advocate
Personal relationships make a big impact on legislators when you’re talking about these issues. If you feel nervous or need some help connecting with your legislator, always feel free to reach out to GCDD. We are very happy to help you advocate.
A great way to learn how to advocate is to join GCDD’s Advocacy Days. Each year during the legislative session, GCDD, community partners and self-advocates go to the state capitol to advocate and meet with state representatives about issues affecting the disability community. This past session, hundreds of people participated during our GCDD Advocacy Days. This is a great opportunity to come and meet and connect with other people in the disability community, while also meeting your state representative in person.
The disability community will be called on during the legislative session to help advocate for funding and other issues important to our community. Stay informed of activities, events and any upcoming news that GCDD offers by joining our Public Policy for the People Zoom call which is every Friday during the legislative session. Register here for the Public Policy for the People meetings.