Rockdale delegation reviews 2013 legislative session

CONYERS -- In a recap of the 2013 session of the General Assembly on Thursday morning, members of Rockdale County's legislative delegation shared their thoughts on education, juvenile justice reform, health care funding and more.

Speaking at the Conyers-Rockdale Chamber of Commerce Post Legislative Breakfast at Rockdale Medical Center, State Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, D-Lithonia, said the General Assembly passed two key pieces of legislation related to education.

"We are doing a lot trying to revamp education ... in the state of Georgia," said Dawkins-Haigler. "One of the things we did was the HOPE Grant, which specifically deals with technical colleges. The next thing we did was deal with teacher performance and school ratings."

HB 244 establishes an evaluation system for teachers, assistant principals and principals that is linked to student performance as determined by testing. The bill creates a statewide evaluation system that will provide feedback to educators and identify which educators are the most effective.

The evaluation system is to be developed no later than the 2014-2015 school year.

HB 372 reduced the GPA requirement for the HOPE Grant from 3.0 to 2.0 after it was increased two years ago due to budgetary reasons. The HOPE Grant goes to students in the technical college system.

State Rep. Pam Stephenson, D-Atlanta, said the General Assembly completed an effort that began three years ago to reform the juvenile justice system.

"The governor has been a pioneer in criminal justice reform, and this year we finally passed the juvenile reform package," she said.

Stephenson said HB 242 provides for alternative sentencing for minor offenses and gives Juvenile Courts greater discretion in sentencing.

The bill designates $5 million to create a voluntary grant program that gives communities incentives to offer judges more nonconfinement sentencing options, according to Gov. Nathan Deal's office. The legislation also allows judges to take into account the severity of the offense as well as assess the level of risk posed by the juvenile offender.

State Sen. Rick Jeffares, R-Locust Grove, who served as one of the governor's floor leaders during the session, touted extension of the hospital provider fee bill for another two years.

"If we hadn't agreed to authorize that bill, we would have had to come up with $750 million to help cover Medicaid," he said, adding that some hospitals in south Georgia would have likely closed without the extension.

Jeffares was a co-author of the bill.

Stephenson said the stopgap measure was necessary, but said that the state must come up with a model that improves the provider payment system.

"We did what we should have done, because it was the right thing to do this year," she said. "(But) we must look to the future on how we are going to fund care for patients and how we are going to pay providers that provide that care."

The bill authorizes the board of the Georgia Department of Community Health to implement the hospital provider fee, according to the governor's office. This per-bed fee provides the state matching funds needed to draw down federal Medicaid dollars critical to the survival of hospitals that serve the state's most vulnerable populations.

State Rep. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia, reviewed her efforts to pass HB 188, which assists veterans in transitioning back into the workforce.

Under the legislation, veterans may be granted licenses in five skilled trades based on their military training, skills and testing.

In response to a question from the audience, State Rep. Tom Kirby, R-Loganville, said he supports parimutuel betting in Georgia, noting that the thoroughbred industry could generate thousands of jobs in the state. Kirby said it is likely that the state's political parties will be asked to sponsor a ballot referendum on parimutuel betting.

Kirby also promoted legislation that he introduced at the end of the 2013 legislative session that would abolish the state income tax. Kirby said the Georgia Fair Taxation Act would boost economic development and make Georgia more competitive with states like Tennessee and Florida, which have no state income tax.