Sine Die 2022: Improvements to Health and Education Affordability Are Coming, But Risky Tax Legislation Passes, too

This year’s Legislative Session finished in a flurry of last-minute votes that extended late into the night on Sine Die, the last day the General Assembly meets each year. GBPI remained focused on our key priorities, fighting against policies that would create or reinforce barriers keeping people of color, rural Georgians and families with low incomes from prosperity while supporting bills that help Georgia families make ends meet and thrive. We saw positive movement in the budget, as well as success fostering a strong workforce and creating healthy communities. However, the passage of risky flat tax legislation and private school vouchers threaten our state’s ability to fund our key priorities. Gov. Kemp should veto these concerning bills or, in future sessions, lawmakers must undo these policies in favor of legislation that centers the needs of Georgia’s people and advances racial equity and economic opportunity in every community.

Georgia’s General Assembly convenes for only 40 days each year (unless there is a special session), and the governor now has 40 days to sign legislation. This was the second of a two-year session, so policy proposals that did not pass must be re-introduced for consideration in 2023.

Dangerous Flat Tax Passes, Without Path to Raise Revenue

Lawmakers claim they want to put money back in the pockets of Georgia families to help them afford necessities, but their plan passed by the General Assembly—the latest version of HB 1437—simply does not add up. Yet again, lawmakers are skewing the tax code so that the wealthy get massive tax cuts and would not have to pay their fair share, but only paying lip service to support for low- and middle-income families. The new version would cost at least $2 billion when fully implemented, more than both the House and Senate bills. While it includes an enhancement to the standard exemption—which, on its own, would be a positive step to rebalancing the tax code—it lacks the state Earned Income Tax Credit proposed by the Senate that would actually deliver meaningful relief to low- and moderate-income Georgia families.

The language includes triggers so that successive tax rate and standard exemption reductions do not occur unless revenues increase by 3 percent every year, but, with no options to raise revenue, there is not a path laid out in this legislation to get there. If Georgia were to somehow fully implement the final flat rate of 4.99 percent, the average annual tax cut for the first 60 percent of tax filers resulting from this flat tax would be less than $200. The top 1 percent of tax filers would see a nearly $10,000 tax cut.

Although the concerning flat tax bill did pass, thankfully, risky legislation to create a program known nationally as CAPCO but dubbed the Georgia Agribusiness and Rural Jobs Act (GARJA) credit did not. CAPCO has been advertised as a job creation incentive, but the program has failed and been discontinued in all other states where versions have been implemented.

Some Budget Cuts Restored, But More Improvements Needed to Support Georgia Families

The General Assembly is required each year to pass a budget. What the state prioritizes and how the money is spent serves as a statement of Georgia’s priorities and values. The FY 2023 budget restores much funding to pre-pandemic levels and adds crucial supports for postpartum Medicaid expansion, pay raises for state employees and teachers, additional funding to remove the Special Institution Fee at state colleges and universities and funding for small amounts of need-based aid known as completion grants. However, the budget does not address the rising costs of goods and services.

Although the year-over-year funding increases in the FY 2023 budget mark a positive step forward, much remains to be done to address the consequences of persistently underfunding core areas of the government such as Georgia’s public education system, which has reinforced systemic barriers to economic opportunity that prevent many Georgians from participating in the state’s prosperity. This trend of underfunding has further entrenched inequities faced by people of color and Georgians with low incomes, and future increases must be targeted to directly address these gaps.

Moreover, last year the federal government approved $4.9 billion in flexible funding for Georgia. Right now, that money sits in the governor’s office, and most of it remains unspent, but Georgians prefer he release the funds to be appropriated in a transparent way.

Increased Vouchers Provide A Blow to Public Education Funding

Georgia has a constitutional commitment to providing an adequate public education to all students. However, lawmakers often advance vouchers, which take public dollars and send them to private schools. Vouchers can cause students to lose out on critical federal protections, and they harm the state’s ability to fund public education even in those areas where students cannot access private schools.

Although several voucher bills were defeated, lawmakers did pass HB 517. This bill crossed over in 2021, but the House and Senate did not agree upon a version until Sine Die. At a time when Georgia has only fully funded public schools for two of 21 years, this bill sends an additional $20 million in public funding to private schools, bringing the voucher’s total to $120 million per year. Earlier versions of the bill included a sunset provision, but it was, unfortunately, removed.

Key Legislative Advancements Support Healthy Communities

A true bright spot this Legislative Session comes with HB 1013, the Mental Health Parity Act. This bipartisan piece of legislation will require that insurers cover mental health services as they do physical health services, which will help more Georgians access critical care for mental health conditions and substance use disorders. Unfortunately, during debate, lawmakers stripped out some of the language requiring sufficient support for culturally and linguistically appropriate services. For example, earlier versions of the bill required co-response teams to utilize culturally and linguistically capable personnel or materials when responding to 911 calls involving a person in a behavioral health crisis. Studies show that when providers and patients speak a different language, it impacts the quality of care and patient safety. In the future, lawmakers should maximize the potential of this mental health parity bill to ensure all of Georgia’s immigrants can access adequate care, too.

Lawmakers also passed SB 338, which will boost infant and maternal health. SB 338 extends Medicaid coverage to new parents for one year after giving birth. Georgia currently provides Medicaid coverage for up to six months postpartum; however, more than one-third of pregnancy-associated deaths in Georgia—a majority of which are preventable–happen during the time between six months to one year postpartum. Extending comprehensive postpartum care to a full year postpartum is an important part of preventing maternal mortality and supporting people who give birth. Georgia ranks no. 49 among states for the rate of maternal mortality, defined as deaths related to pregnancy that occurred during or within one year of the pregnancy or birth. The maternal mortality rates for Black women in Georgia were three to four times higher than for white women. Thus, this legislation represents one small but significant step toward advancing health equity.

New Supports Passed for a Strong Workforce in Georgia

Students and workers will also likely see positive developments this year. As of now, Georgia is one of only two states with no state-funded need-based aid program. HB 1435 seeks to create need-based completion grants for students who have completed at least 80 percent of their degree program but face financial hardship. This presents an opportunity for the state to remove barriers that prevent Georgia’s students from accessing the economic opportunity that higher education programs can provide. Completion grants are a meaningful way for lawmakers to help students complete their degree programs when their financial aid options have been exhausted. The current version of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 budget includes an allocation of $10 million for the completion grant program. Last year, Gov. Kemp committed $5 million in federal funds for a pilot program.

Another strong piece of legislation that passed is HB 1390, which provides state protections against workplace harassment to city and city government employees. When signed, the legislation will give legal remedies to employees who experience harassment and discrimination, ensure that employers create formal policies to help prevent it and offer protections to ensure employers do not retaliate against employees who complain of harassment.

In more good news, lawmakers did not pass HB 1045, which would have extended the 2.64 percent employer tax rate that funds the state’s Unemployment Insurance (UI) Trust. Georgia has one of the lowest employer contribution levels in the country, ranking No. 43  among all states in 2021. This low rate incentivizes cuts to UI benefits for involuntary workers to compensate for inadequate revenue in the Trust. On the afternoon of Sine Die, recognizing its flaws, lawmakers tabled this bill, which then did not get a vote.

Lawmakers, unfortunately, did advance SB 331, which would ban local governments from passing laws related to work hours, scheduling or worker output. SB 311 adds another harmful layer of preemption laws, that ban local policy change—often harming workers with low wages because those jobs are allowed to maintain unlivable wage standards, inequitable overtime pay thresholds and are less likely to offer protections like predictive scheduling, where a worker knows in advance when they may be called to work.

Lawmakers Fail to Further Support Thriving Families But Also Do Not Create Additional Harm

In the midst of an ongoing pandemic and as prices rise, lawmakers did little to help families make ends meet, let alone thrive. For example, lawmakers did not advance SB 594, which would have improved Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, or cash assistance) in Georgia. The legislation would have ended the discriminatory family cap, which prohibits parents who become pregnant while receiving cash assistance from receiving additional support for the newborns. SB 594 would have also raised the amount of cash assistance families in poverty receive for the first time in over 30 years. TANF and other safety net programs should be able to provide a foundation for families struggling to make ends meet, but they are woefully under-supported in Georgia.

However, the Legislature also did not move forward a harmful bill that would have contributed to food insecurity among unemployed adults. SB 557 would have required unemployed adults not living with children to quickly find work or sign up for a work program, which the state does not adequately fund and would need to spend millions of its own dollars on to create enough slots. Additionally, research finds that these work requirements are not effective policy to connect people to meaningful, well-paying jobs, but do kick more individuals off assistance. Furthermore, the legislation would have taken away the state’s flexibility to protect unemployed adults in regions with few jobs from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) time limit. The whole bill would have made it much, much harder for individuals to afford food and maintain stability.

Little Progress Made to Foster Welcoming Environment for Immigrants

Even beyond the fact that lawmakers stripped out some language support services from the mental health parity bill, little was done to support the immigrant families that call our state home. There are opportunities for lawmakers to better support immigrants next session. For example, lawmakers could extend in-state tuition to more immigrant students to help boost college affordability. They could also expand access to driver’s licenses to immigrants of all statuses to help them access employment opportunities, visit the doctor and engage in their community.

In recent years, lawmakers have advanced bipartisan criminal legal system reforms. This year was no exception thanks to the passage of SB 10, which creates judicial discretion in the suspension of a driver’s license when the driver fails to appear in court for certain traffic violations. Allowing judicial discretion in license suspension provides minor relief to many Georgians with low incomes who often experience spiraling hardships that lead to unpayable court debt when facing driver’s license suspension. Difficulties include transportation barriers to gaining or maintaining employment, which leave them unable to afford reinstatement fees and often force them into impossible choices that lead to incarceration. This is particularly true for people of color because racist policies and practices have both led to the over-policing of Black and Brown Georgians and to economic barriers that make it more difficult for people of color to earn higher incomes.

In other good news, SB 504 did not pass. This bill would have required bail for all Georgians charged with a felony and thereby would have expanded the criminalization of poverty.

Unfortunately, SB 257, which would have supported Georgians who were incarcerated and seeking employment by allowing for certain records to be expunged, did not get a vote. Finding employment opportunities can be difficult for justice-involved Georgians, but strong employment prospects can help reduce recidivism.

Conclusion

Due to the relentless advocacy of GBPI and our partner organizations, several strong bills were passed this year. At the same time, many bills that could have exacerbated inequities or otherwise harmed Georgians were defeated or did not pass. Still, lawmakers voted for many bills that will erect barriers to opportunity and prosperity for Georgians in every community, ranging from the policies we’ve outlined here to a bill that could bar transgender girls from competing in Georgia’s school sports. More must be done to ensure economic success is within reach for all Georgians, particularly Georgians in poverty, Black and Brown Georgians and those in rural parts of the state. The governor still has time to veto some of these dangerous bills. This is the second of a two-year session, which means bills that do not cross over cannot be considered again. However, lawmakers are able to introduce new proposals for 2023 that can include similar language.

GBPI will advocate for movement this year or next on other priorities, including:

  • Passing a state-level Earned Income Tax Credit, the Georgia Work Credit, which would reduce the amount of income tax owed by low- and middle-income families
  • Restructuring Georgia’s cash assistance program, also known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, by eliminating racist barriers that prevent families in deep poverty from accessing and keeping cash aid.
  • Creating and funding an Opportunity Weight that provides additional money to educate students living in poverty.
  • Fully expanding Medicaid to cover more than 500,000 Georgians.
  • Creating a need-based financial aid program.
  • Advocating for the expansion of access to driver’s licenses for all Georgians regardless of legal status.
  • Deprioritizing spending increases in law enforcement, jail and prison construction, instead funding alternative strategies to further rehabilitate, reintegrate and preserve criminal legal system-involved Georgians within the workforce.

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

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