Legislative Session 2023 finished in the usual flurry of maneuvers and votes that lasted until the final minutes of Sine Die—the 40th and final day that the Georgia General Assembly meets each year.
Throughout Sine Die, GBPI remained focused on our key priorities. The team and many partners pressed forward policies that support rural families, individuals with low incomes and communities of color. This Session, the students and teachers of Georgia achieved a major win with the ultimate bipartisan defeat of the voucher bill in favor of dedicating our public funds to public schools.
Harmful bills that did pass, such as proposals that drain the unemployment insurance trust fund can still be fixed. These bills drain state coffers and advance irresponsible tax schemes that offer Georgians little return on investment and reinforce historical and systemic racial inequity. The Governor should veto those bills over the next 40 days, or lawmakers can repeal these policies next year and choose legislation that more equitably prioritizes the needs of Georgians.
All the decisions lawmakers made up until the end of 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 communities and how our public education system supports the future, our children and our workforce.
This was the first year of a two-year session in Georgia. Bills not passed or voted down can continue to move in 2024.
Critical Bills That Passed (And Some That Did Not)
House Bill (HB) 19, the fiscal year (FY) 2024 budget passed by the House and Senate, had encouraging developments, including funding the HOPE scholarship at 100 percent of tuition.
Approximately $11 million was added to the budget so the Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) can hire up to 450 eligibility caseworkers and promote 75 supervisors to help the state prepare for the Medicaid Unwinding. While we are grateful for this addition, it is insufficient given that DFCS caseworkers are generally overworked and underpaid, and eligibility caseworkers must potentially process millions of redeterminations in 14 months. GBPI’s experts worked closely with lawmakers, partners and advocacy groups to raise awareness about the potential fallout of Georgians losing critical health care. We will continue our work to propose solutions that help minimize harm imposed during the unwinding process.
The budget provided an additional $27 million to help recruit school counselors and fully fund the Quality Basic Education formula. The budget also provided $229 million to help school districts pay for a 67 percent increase in the employer contribution of per-person monthly premiums for classified employees.
The state has a Revenue Shortfall Reserve with a balance of $5.2 billion and an additional $7 billion in undesignated funding in state accounts. In addition, Georgia’s net tax collections were up 5.9 percent year over year through February compared to Fiscal Year 2022. The state plans to release just $1 billion of its unrestricted reserves to cover the costs of the non-refundable income tax rebate approved in HB 162, which provides one-time payments of up to $250 for single-income tax filers and up to $500 for those who are married filing jointly.
Fortunately, an incredibly risky tax bill that failed to pass was HB 413. Although an effort was made to move the language to a separate bill that crossed over, that bill also failed. HB 413 would have established a program known nationwide as CAPCO but referred to here as the Georgia Agribusiness and Rural Jobs Act (GARJA) credit. This bill also failed to pass 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.
A package of imperfect but largely positive tax changes was passed through Senate Bill (SB) 56 (formerly HB 454 and HB 170), which modifies the pending tax changes approved under last year’s 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 more extensive personal exemption. Without this policy change, higher-income taxpayers claiming itemized deductions would have directly benefitted. Under HB 454, taxpayers must 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.
GBPI has championed moving the state standard deduction in line with its counterpart at the federal level as a first step to creating a fairer tax code. The legislation also shortens the revenue lookback period, in which the state must record positive revenue growth to implement future cuts to the personal income tax rate from five to three years. On the positive side, SB 56 also included the provisions of what was formerly 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 $86 million in new revenues (fiscal note on LC 43 2745S). 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 consumer divides and continuing a trend of recent modernizations to tax electronic transactions fairly.
GBPI was disappointed that attempts to raise the tobacco tax, for which Georgia ranks 49th in the country, did not advance. Neither HB 191, raising the tax on each pack of cigarettes from 37 cents to 57 cents, nor HB 192, raising the tax on cigarettes and vaping products, was successful. In addition, HR 43, which would have established a joint study committee on the costs and effects of smoking, also failed to advance.
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 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.
This evaluation also presents an opportunity to examine proactive measures to make the state’s tax code fairer and more equitable. Rather than redistributing resources from Georgia families to out-of-state corporations, the state could redirect those tax expenditures toward providing resources to target fundamental issues like child poverty and helping families afford necessities. Members of the General Assembly should weigh the effectiveness of costly tax credits against the benefits of measures that directly put money back in the pockets of hardworking Georgians. Proven policies with demonstrated impact in Georgia (at the federal level) and nationwide include the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit and the Child and Dependent Tax Credit.
The General Assembly made some positive steps toward economic security by passing HB 129. The bill expands Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) access to pregnant women and eliminates the TANF family cap, a program feature rooted in historical racism. In addition, the General Assembly passed SB 61, which lifts the sunset on the Family Care Act and allows workers to use sick leave to care for family members.
Unfortunately, SB 62, which passed, would prevent localities from establishing a policy allowing for encampments of unhoused individuals in public spaces or prevent a locality from not enforcing a ban on encampments. It would also require an audit of all public monies available to address homelessness.
Missing from the budget were funds to boost workers’ pay in the Department of Children and Families Services above the $2,000 cost-of-living adjustment provided for in the Governor’s proposed budget. These additions could have helped reduce staff burnout and turnover in the agency and reduce unnecessary loss of children’s health coverage during the Medicaid Unwinding. The budget also did not include additional resources for Child Care Services above the Governor’s initial proposal of $1 million, which could have provided more child care subsidies and more support to child care providers.
On the worker justice front, SB 160, which reduces the Unemployment Insurance (UI) contribution, was passed. This bill is bad policy, pushing Georgia’s trust fund further toward insolvency. This bill contains irresponsible UI financing practices that impede the replenishment of trust fund reserves gutted during the pandemic-triggered economic downturn. GBPI was the only data and research organization assessing the long-term implications of the state’s underinvestment in the UI Trust. Our experts will continue to educate lawmakers on the importance of protecting workers and ensuring the state has sufficient resources in case of another recession.
Unfortunately, the General Assembly also failed to pass a positive bill, SB 157, which did not make it out of the House Rules committee to receive a final vote. This bill focused on occupational licensing for formerly incarcerated individuals and included language to expand record restrictions for individuals struggling with criminal legal system entanglements. SB 157’s promising bipartisan support offers momentum for passage during the 2024 session.
Criminal Legal Systems
Several harmful criminal legal system bills were introduced, modified, or placed within separate bills during this session’s final days. For example, SB 100, one of two bills dealing with cash bail, was placed within SB 44, which passed and awaits the Governor’s review. Originally introduced as a bill providing mandatory minimum sentencing for minors charged with gang recruitment, SB 44 is now carrying language from SB 100, which mandates cash bail for anyone with an existing bench warrant for failure to appear for non-traffic related court dates in the past five years.
These provisions could be layered upon an already abusive reliance on criminal fines and fees revenue associated with traffic offenses. Georgians of color are disproportionately targeted for traffic stops and citations for traffic offenses. For those who have also missed a court date due to economic hardship, mandatory cash bail under SB 44 could exacerbate their spiral into debt associated with the criminalization of poverty. SB 63, which would have drastically expanded the crimes for which cash bail is required, failed to pass.
In addition, HB 301 and HB 348 began as bills modifying speed camera usage in school zones and on school buses and altered the guardrails of enforcement against those speeding offenses. However, in the final days, their language was placed and passed under SB 217. While the language that would have allowed local governments to override school superintendents’ authority over speeding cameras in school zones was rejected, this legislation exacerbates local government dependence on fines and fees. It maintains monetary sanctions that will disproportionately harm Georgians experiencing poverty and reduce resources that could otherwise be directed to already-underfunded public schools.
Further, the bill language originally introduced in SB 11 and SB 12 was placed in HB 301, which no longer contains speed camera and school zone language. While the latest version of HB 301 failed to pass, its language from SB 11 and SB 12 would establish the crime of “domestic terrorism” and give the Georgia Bureau of Investigation the option of acquiring jurisdiction over cases that local law enforcement deems to be domestic terrorism. HB 301 seems to be overly broad, reduces local governance and covers peaceful protest activities, as well as more violent ones. This risky legislation could criminalize constitutionally protected behavior and hinder free speech.
Other harmful criminal legal systems bills include those like SB 92, which passed out of the House this week, and awaits Governor review. This bill threatens local prosecutorial discretion through excessive and unnecessary oversight of prosecutors and district attorneys, who are already held accountable under existing law and through the elections process.
Although there is no Georgia legislative committee specifically assigned to immigration, the Georgia legislature can still propose bills that impact the immigrant community. The beginning of this Legislative Session felt promising, with renewed hopes of in-state tuition for DACA recipients with HB 131 and broader in-language support for people with limited English proficiency seeking mental health services with HB 520.
Yet, as the legislative days went on, those hopes got dimmer. HB 131 received a hearing in the higher education committee that brought out several advocates speaking in support of the legislation. Even with all this support, it was never voted out of the committee. HB 520 made it to Sine Die but was stalled by opponents fearing the growth of government.
Unfortunately, the bills that did go the distance were those that sought to villainize the immigrant community. HB 136, which was stopped in the House Rules Committee, would have forced the Department of Corrections to publicize, on their website, the immigration status, country of origin and crime committed by any non-citizen. Even though this information is already readily available, and immigrants are less likely to commit crimes, this bill sought to spotlight non-citizens unfairly.
Another pair of discriminatory bills, HB 452 and SB 132, both sought to prohibit people, who are non-residents, coming from countries considered to be foreign adversaries from buying property. These bills perpetuated a long-standing and harmful stereotype against Asian immigrants as foreign threats. Fortunately, HB 452 did not get a chance to cross over, and SB 132 made it to the House Rules Committee, where it missed its opportunity to be presented on the House floor and died.
Finally, immigrants were not spared the typical Sine Die maneuvers when SB 63 got a last-minute amendment that would have eliminated the bond forfeiture exemption for a person that failed to appear due to deportation. That amendment would have severely hurt low-income immigrant and mixed-status families, but luckily the legislature ran out of time before the measure could cross the finish line.
Even though the hope has dimmed, it is not extinguished. Next year, lawmakers can provide a pathway forward to making Georgia better for immigrants.
Despite beneficial federal financial incentives offered under the Affordable Care Act and the American Rescue Plan, the state legislature failed to pass legislation that would fully expand Medicaid. This decision does not reflect the will of the people—a recent GBPI poll conducted by the University of Georgia found that 71 percent of Georgians support Medicaid expansion—and that majority holds among Republican voters.
Two health-related bills that did pass were SB 140 and SB 65. SB 140, which the Governor has already signed into law, bans the provision of gender-affirming care to Georgians under 18 and opens the door to criminal liability for health care providers who perform gender-affirming surgery or who provide hormone replacement therapy to trans youth. SB 65 moves Georgia toward creating a state-based health insurance exchange, which will impact the almost 850,000 Georgians enrolled in health insurance plans through the federally-run Healthcare.gov website.
Although certificate of need reform is a long-standing priority of the lieutenant governor, SB 99, which would have modified certificate of need requirements for certain health care facilities in rural counties, failed to pass out of committee in the House. SR 279 and HR 603 create separate study committees to explore the modernization of certification of need requirements and may help inform future negotiations around full Medicaid expansion, which North Carolina recently passed.
HB 520, a bill that builds upon the momentum of last year’s bipartisan passage of the Mental Health Parity Act, also failed to pass. Although the bill passed quickly and nearly unanimously through the House, it stalled in the Senate partly due to misinformation about its impact and tense negotiations with the House around SB 99. One bill provision related to cross-agency data-sharing was added to SB 23, and other provisions are reflected in the budget language in HB 19. However, the remainder of this behavioral health reform legislation must be taken back up next session.
On a positive note, HB 19, the FY24 budget legislation, includes a line item that directs the Department of Community Health to amend the Medicaid state plan and remove the five-year waiting period for Medicaid-eligible pregnant women and children who are lawful permanent residents. Twenty-four states have removed the five-year waiting period for pregnant women and children; 10 states have removed it for children only; and one state that has removed it for pregnant women only. During a time when Georgia faces staggering maternal mortality rates and a recent upswing in infant mortality rates, this small investment will have a critical impact.
In higher education, HB 249 passed. This legislation lowers the threshold of courses that must be completed for students needing a “completion grant” to finish their degree. Under HB 1435, which passed last year, individuals must have completed 80 percent of 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.
HB 380, a sports betting bill later became HB 237, also failed to pass. This bill, with a 22 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 help need-based aid and expansions in Pre-K public education by requiring the state to responsibly spend-down lottery reserves, when the balance of the account is more than 50 percent of the program’s revenues. These provisions were drafted because the state’s lottery reserves now stand at $1.9 billion, with $1.1 billion considered un-restricted reserves.
In addition, HR 281 would create a House study committee on lottery reserves, revenues and educational programs funded through the lottery. This resolution was initiated and received a committee hearing but failed to pass. Georgia’s unrestricted lottery reserves currently stand at $1.1 billion, and the study committee could help lawmakers inform their policy agenda for need-based financial aid. Investigating the best use for the lottery is critical as Georgia remains one of two states that does not offer need-based financial assistance to students pursuing post-secondary education.
In K-12, the GBPI team invested in deep partnership work to pull back the curtain on the impact of the SB 233 voucher bill. Our team’s in-depth bill analysis and data map helped defeat the bill, which threatened to funnel millions of dollars away from public schools. This measure, designed to push families toward private education, failed to pass with bipartisan opposition. With no fiscal note to help estimate cost, SB 233 needlessly risked precious public school funding at a moment when school districts are wrestling with an aging bus fleet, staff turnover, and skyrocketing State Health Benefit Plan costs. GBPI analysts were able to raise the alarm about the lack of funding in the initial budget proposal for the mandated increase in employer contribution toward non-licensed staff health insurance.
SB 233 was drastically changed from its original version when it would have applied to all Georgia public schools, not just those that score in the bottom 25 percent on the state’s accountability measure, the College and Career Readiness Performance Index. In addition, the voucher amount was raised from $6,000 to $6,500.
GBPI will continue to press for positive movement on priorities both this year and next:
- Passing a state-level Earned Income Tax Credit, the Georgia Work Credit, that 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.
- 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
- Advocating for expanding access to driver’s licenses for all Georgians regardless of legal status.
- Fully expanding Medicaid to cover nearly 500,000 Georgians.
- Minimizing the harm of the upcoming unwinding of the Medicaid continuous coverage requirement by boosting pay for eligibility workers and activating community-based organizations.
- Creating and funding an Opportunity Weight that provides additional money to educate students living in poverty.
A complete list of GBPI’s policy priorities is available here.