Yesterday, March 6, marked Crossover Day 2023, the day by which a bill generally must pass out of its originating legislative chamber to be considered this session by the other chamber. Several important bills passed out of their chamber and are now eligible for approval before Sine Die, the end of Georgia’s Legislative Session. Sine Die 2023 is March 29.

Georgia’s Legislative Session is constitutionally limited to a maximum of 40 days each year, and the decisions lawmakers make between now and Sine Die will affect every Georgian. These decisions will dictate how welcoming we are as a state, what supports are offered to families with low incomes, whether and to what extent we continue to criminalize poverty, which health services are available in Georgia communities and how our public education system serves Georgia’s children and workforce.

Many of those decisions will impact communities of color most directly and either help reverse Georgia’s legacy of structural racism or further entrench historic patterns of racism that perpetuate harm. Earlier this year, GBPI underscored the need to measure the racial equity impact of policies to ensure forward progress toward reversing the harms of racism and the need for the state to enhance both its data collection practices and its responsiveness.

These long-term goals will require consistent focus, year-over-year pressure and a broad package of strategic reforms. This session saw forward momentum through HB 433, providing for racial equity impact statements in particular policy areas related to race, socioeconomics, health and other factors. HB 433 bill did not cross over, but it is proof of concept for what is possible in racially equitable policymaking.

As the Georgia General Assembly concludes Crossover Day and heads into the last leg of session, we offer these thoughts for reflection on how legislators can use their time wisely. Lawmakers need to get this right. They need to think about Georgia’s history and context, what we should leave behind, continue, or begin to do for the first time. They must support policies that not only help families make ends meet, but advance prosperity in every community, and reject proposals that cut into our state’s ability to do its job.

Critical Bills That Crossed Over (And Some That Did Not)

The Budget

Every session, the General Assembly is constitutionally required to pass a budget to fund state government. The budget embodies what’s important to elected officials and reflects their values and priorities. The House passed the Amended Fiscal Year (AFY) 2023 budget. The House did not pass the full Fiscal Year (FY) 2024 budget, missing the Crossover Day deadline for the first time in several years. The AFY amended budget increased funds by $50 million to reflect a three-year phase-in of a premium increase for non-certified school employees participating in the State Health Benefit Plan. This was less than the $100 million the House originally allocated. Total cost to school districts is projected to be at least $457 million per year as monthly per person employer contributions climb from $945 to $1,580 by January of 2026.

Revenue

Textbox about state surplus

Georgia’s year-over-year tax revenues are up through January, and the state has a Revenue Shortfall Reserve with a balance of $5.2 billion and an additional $7 billion in un-designated funding in state accounts. Georgia continues to hold most of its surplus funds rather than invest them in core services to meet the bevy of needs facing Georgians and their communities.

Instead, the state will allocate just $1 billion in surplus funds to provide a one-time tax credit ranging from $250 to single filers to $500 to married couples filing jointly through HB 162, which crossed over earlier this year. Recent polling suggests that Georgians want to see significantly more from state leaders—a strong plurality of Georgians support investing the state’s surplus in programs like health care and public education rather than  giving out one-time rebates. There are more than enough resources for the state to  offer short-term economic relief and address long-deferred needs.

An incredibly risky tax bill that did not cross over is HB 413. HB 413 would establish a program known nationwide as CAPCO but called the Georgia Agribusiness and Rural Jobs Act (GARJA) credit. This bill failed to pass in a similar form last year. Year after year, CAPCO is promoted as an incentive for job creation. However, the program has repeatedly failed to fulfill its promise in eight other states where it has been discontinued. GBPI analyses of similar versions underscore how the state bears most of the risk for GARJA investments. A recent state audit found that it would take at least 72 years for the state to see a positive return on a $60 million investment in the program.

These tax credits are proposed against the backdrop of HB 1437, signed into law last year. HB 1437 eliminated the state’s current graduated income tax structure and shifts Georgia to a flat 5.49% rate beginning January 1, 2024. While revenue triggers could delay the full implementation of the law, the plan will primarily benefit the state’s highest earners at an annual cost greater than $2 billion when fully implemented. The net effect of this law will be an expansion of the racial wealth gap.

This session, lawmakers advanced HB 454 to modify the pending tax changes approved under HB 1437. In an improvement from the original legislation, HB 454 reverses a regressive policy change that would have eliminated the state’s standard deduction in favor of a larger personal exemption. Without this policy change, higher-income taxpayers who also claim itemized deductions would have directly benefitted. Under HB 454, taxpayers would be required to choose between either claiming a flat standard deduction of $12,000 for single filers or $24,000 for married couples filing jointly or claiming individual itemized deductions. This provision would take effect on January 1, 2024.

HB 454 weakens the triggers required to authorize future reductions to the state’s income tax rate by shortening the look-back period for state revenue collections from five to three years, heightening the risk of further harming the state’s fiscal position in the event of an economic decline. The legislation also creates a new $300 deduction for taxpayers who itemize and, on average, earn significantly higher incomes than those who take the standard deduction. Lawmakers can improve this legislation by substituting this proposed credit with an Earned Income Tax Credit, or Georgia Work Credit, to prioritize families with lower incomes rather than adding to the multitude of tax benefits already available to those with higher incomes.

HB 1437, as passed during the last Legislative Session, also requires the state to evaluate  all tax credits and deductions from May through December 2023 to help ensure that tax credits deliver benefits to the state. While not clear to what extent that review will address racial equity, it is a step in the right direction to help ensure that special-interest tax breaks, like GARJA, are appropriately evaluated to avoid siphoning additional funds out of state coffers with little return on investment to the people of Georgia.

However, House lawmakers voted to advance HB 581, which would weaken transparency of the state’s tax code by adding new limits to the discretion of legislators to request economic analyses on existing and proposed tax breaks. HB 581 maintains a cap of 10 economic analyses per year but restricts these evaluations to front-load measures with a pending sunset within two years. Making this policy change, while unnecessarily capping the number of annual evaluations at 10 per year, would limit the effectiveness of this process and likely restrict lawmakers from evaluating measures without a sunset, which include some of the state’s largest tax expenditures.

Lawmakers approved, HB 170, a long-standing GBPI priority to extend state and local sales taxes to digital goods and services, beginning in January 2024. In its first year of implementation (FY 2025), state estimators project the legislation would raise approximately $127 million in new revenues. By treating electronic sales in the same manner as those made in brick-and-mortar establishments, this legislation makes Georgia’s sales tax more equitable—helping to bridge rural and urban divides in consumption and  continuing a trend of recent modernizations to  tax electronic transactions fairly.

Economic Justice

The legislature made some positive steps in the direction of economic security, advancing HB 129. The bill crossed over and expanded Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) to pregnant women, and eliminated the TANF family cap, a program feature rooted in historic racism. In contrast, HB 565, another TANF bill, did not cross over. HB 565 allows a family to have one car and exempts a second car (if there is one) valued at $4,650 or less. It increases the savings a family can have from $1,000 to $5,000 and increases the TANF time limit from 48 months to 60 months.

While one beneficial TANF bill advanced, harmful bills related to unemployment insurance (UI) also moved forward. HB 518, reducing employer contributions to the UI trust fund, crossed over, as did SB 160, which also reduces the employer UI contribution. Both bills are bad policies, as Georgia’s trust fund heads toward insolvency. These bills contain irresponsible UI financing choices that reduce the replenishment of trust fund reserves  depleted by the pandemic-triggered economic downturn.

Unfortunately, while bills harmful to workers crossed over, legislation protecting workers failed to move forward. For example, the stalled HB 334 would have provided for record restriction through a petition process for  individuals with a pardon from the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. These kinds of bills help workers overcome criminal record obstacles to obtaining a quality job and livable wage. Sadly, both HB 556 protecting pregnant workers from dismissal and harassment and HB 381 helping to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace failed to cross over.

Fortunately, HB 501 relaxing child labor protections did not cross over. HB 501 lowers the age of individuals who want to work in landscaping. GBPI had strong concerns over this bill given rising violations of child labor laws and what that could mean for recently-arrived immigrant children and unaccompanied minors.

Legislation that will exacerbate local reliance on fines and fees also crossed over. HB 348 and HB 301, related to school traffic cameras, offer expanded methods of producing local revenue through fines and fees,  potentially exacerbating entanglements with the criminal legal system. SB 63 and SB 100 will grow the web of fines and fees by increasing the number of offenses that are mandated for cash bail. These bills expand mandatory cash bail for those charged with missing, in the last ten years, any court date  related to a minor traffic offense.

HB 462, raising the age at which individuals are treated as adults in criminal proceedings from 17 to 18, also crossed over. The bill does this by changing the jurisdiction of the juvenile court to include certain children who are 17 years of age. In its current form, this bill excludes 17-year-olds from minor classification if they are designated as street gang members, further minimizing rehabilitative opportunities for that subgroup.

Fortunately, HB 136, requiring the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) to prominently post sensitive information about foreign-born individuals in GDC custody, made it out of committee amid disturbing testimony but failed to cross over. This bill has strong echoes of SB 452, which was defeated in 2018 by a coalition of nonprofits, law enforcement leaders and private businesses.

Immigrant Communities

HB 333, which would have provided driver’s licenses to undocumented individuals did not cross over. This bill remains important as Georgia’s spending on public transit in 2017 ranked 27th in the nation, and families must rely on driving to get to work, take their children to the doctor, and buy groceries. Although Georgia now has fewer 287(g) jurisdictions, a major mechanism by which undocumented drivers were detained and deported, licensing undocumented drivers remains an important step in protecting immigrant communities.

SB 132 passed out of the Senate, and HB 452 passed out committee. SB 132 would have prohibited any nonresident alien from being able to purchase land 25 miles from a military base. The original version of the bill prohibited nonresident aliens from “countries of particular concern” from purchasing land; however, the bill was amended to “foreign adversaries.” Regardless of the amendment, this bill is an example of anti-immigrant sentiment that continues to show up year after year.

Health

Consistent with past years, Georgia lawmakers squandered another opportunity to pass full Medicaid expansion, despite its clear cost savings and ability to cover almost 500,000 Georgians. Full Medicaid expansion in Georgia would have yielded results far superior to those of the proposed Pathways to Coverage Program. With several Medicaid expansion bills up for consideration this session, such as HB 38 and HB 62, Georgia lawmakers should follow North Carolina’s example and the will of Georgians, 71.4 percent of whom support Medicaid expansion. HB 226, which would expand Medicaid to Georgians living with HIV and earning incomes up to 100% of the federal poverty level, also failed to cross over.

The Georgia General Assembly continues to build upon the momentum of the bipartisan passage of 2022’s Mental Health Parity Act with HB 520, which crossed over. Primarily, the bill authorizes studies and task forces focused on a range of issues from workforce to homelessness—the results of which will guide future legislation and appropriations to strengthen Georgia’s behavioral health system. In addition, the bill authorizes a student loan repayment program for mental health or substance use professionals; however, the Governor’s proposed FY24 budget only includes $850,000 to establish the repayment program and reduces the previous years’ service cancelable loan program by about $1.6 million. Lastly, the bill authorizes the Department of Community Health to request approval from the federal government to use Medicaid funds to address health-related needs through housing, employment and nutrition supports.

Language access provisions in HB 520 remain weak, with the bill outlining a study to identify ways to modernize licensing requirements and provide a pathway for foreign-trained practitioners to gain licensure. The bill would also identify gaps and challenges in the availability of culturally and linguistically responsive services. However, the bill now allows the state licensing board to collect data on languages spoken by the health care professional, making it easier for communities to identify a practitioner who can meet their language access needs. As it stood, the Mental Health Parity Act of 2022 failed to adequately serve diverse language groups. Policymakers need to do more to serve Georgia’s immigrant communities in the area of access to behavioral health services.

Other health bills to watch that have crossed over include SB 65, which creates an advisory board or committee to provide recommendations on the creation of a state-based health insurance exchange and SB 99, which exempts rural acute care hospitals from certificate of need requirements, giving rural hospitals more leeway to expand or create new facilities. There is also SB 140, which prohibits hospitals from providing gender-affirming health care procedures or therapies to Georgians younger than 18 years old and makes physicians who provide this care administratively accountable to the Georgia Composite Medical Board.

Education

Several gambling bills have moved through the General Assembly this session with the promise of raising substantial revenue for the lottery or need-based higher ed funding. One in particular, HB 380, did not cross over, but, with a 25 percent privilege tax rate on sports betting income, could offer substantial benefits to support Georgia’s Lottery for Education account and free up additional monies to support need-based aid. Another legislative measure also failed to cross over—a combination of constitutional amendment SR 140 and enabling legislation SB 172—which would provide for a bifurcated tax rate of 20–25 percent on sports betting income. HB 380 was the preferred bill—SB 172 had a lower tax rate than HB 380, and SB 172’s implementation would likely also be delayed to allow for the constitutional amendment to be put before Georgia voters.

In addition to these gambling bills, HB 249, which crossed over, lowers the threshold of courses that must be completed for a student in need to receive a “completion grant” to finish their degree. Under HB 1435 passed last year, individuals must have completed 80 percent  their degree requirements. HB 249 lowers that threshold to 70 percent for individuals in a four-year program and  provides that individuals in a two-year program complete  45 percent of their courses  to qualify for a completion grant. HB 249 also raises the maximum award per eligible student from $2,500 to $3,500.

For  the ninth year, a concerted effort was made by advocates and legislators to pass tuition equity, providing more affordable tuition to recipients of Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA). Unfortunately, HB 131 did not make it out of committee, representing a missed opportunity to advance educational equity for immigrant communities and provide a boost for Georgia workers.

In K-12, SB 233, a voucher bill which threatens to drain millions of away from public schools to private education, crossed over. With no fiscal note to help estimate cost, SB 233 needlessly risks precious public school funding at a moment when school districts are wrestling with an aging bus fleet, teacher and staff turnover, and have been forced to pay for skyrocketing State Health Benefit Plan costs. With no cap on how many students can attend, and eligibility open to virtually every Georgia student, if just two percent of Georgia students used this voucher, the state is looking at about $210,106,560 lost each year.

SB 233 has echoes of SB 601, which failed in 2022 amid similar cost concerns as those raised above. SB 233 and 601 both amount to a private school handout at the expense of a public school system that equitably serves all Georgia students across urban and rural areas.

In addition, HB 101, another voucher bill, crossed over. This is a “Christmas tree bill” combining tax credits related to rural hospitals, mortgages, and private schools. HB 101 would increase the annual limit on the Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit to $130 million from $120 million. Like SB 233, HB 101 threatens to drain millions of dollars away from public schools—at a cost of $70.6 million each year.

Both SB 233 and HB 101 are fiscally irresponsible and come at a time of surging public support for increased funding for public school transportation, children in poverty, and more. Lawmakers should listen to Georgia voters and vote NO on these two.

Looking Ahead

The bills mentioned above must still pass through the other legislative chamber before they become law. This is the first year of a two-year Legislative Session, which means that bills that do not cross over can be considered again in 2024. Lawmakers can also, in this session, append language from bills that have not crossed over to other, relevant legislation.

Legislators should pause and consider whether the policies they vote on after Crossover Day truly serve Georgians. GBPI also encourages lawmakers to take seriously the racial equity dimensions of their job and ask themselves whether and how the policies in front of them dismantle systemic racism or reinforce it. Lawmakers must consider the broader transparency implications of their work and what macro-level state practices can make government more honest, ethical and responsive.

In this vein, policymakers should  explore innovative process ideas such as policy-area-specific racial equity impact statements, like those suggested in HB 433, and work to further enhance state data collection practices. These steps will help ensure  progress toward reversing the harms of racism.

While we did not get all we wanted on Crossover Day, GBPI will advocate for movement this session on other priorities, including:

A full list of GBPI’s policy priorities is available here.

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