PUBLIC POLICY FOR THE PEOPLE: 2020 Legislative Session Recap
by Charlie Miller, GCDD Legislative Advocacy Director
This has been one of the most interesting legislative sessions we have seen in modern times. Between Governor Brian Kemp’s first installment of recommended budget cuts and the threat of COVID-19, the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD) has been responding through strong advocacy that empowers our community.
As you may know, this year’s session got cut short due to the spread of the coronavirus and also because of the pause in session for budget negotiations. When the session began, we already knew the governor’s recommended budget cuts were coming, as all state agencies and state-funded entities were asked to cut their spending.
From Medicaid waiver funding, to organ transplants for people with disabilities, to employment, many things were at risk for the disability community. But Georgia’s disability advocates were strong and spoke with one voice.
Here at GCDD, we believe in public policies that aim to advance the well-being of all Georgians with developmental disabilities, their families and all who love them. We do this by supporting and advancing policies that create and maintain true community inclusion.
Below we list each of GCDD’s 2020 Advocacy Days, as well as various legislative highlights, under five different sections: state budget, health and wellness, employment, education and transportation.
Coming into this legislative session, we anticipated several interesting budgetary developments. Governor Kemp outlined in his State of the State address in January 2020 that he was looking to cut all state agencies’ budgets by four percent this year and six percent next year in order to accommodate a pay raise for teachers, which would cost the state $350 million.
After reviewing the governor’s recommendations, GCDD was surprised to see they included no new waivers for home and community-based services (HCBS). This greatly impacts the disability community because, over the last 10 years, the governor’s office has always recommended funding for new waivers – often as many as 125 slots per year.
In response, GCDD organized an Advocacy Day focused on HCBS funding. As part of that initiative, the Council recommended at least 100 new waivers be added to this year’s budget to address the 6,000+ person waiting list in Georgia. We know these waivers are vital to helping people with disabilities live in their own communities and have real jobs and get the support they need to lead fulfilling lives. GCDD also worked with advocates around the state to prepare legislative testimony.
As a result, advocates educated and informed their lawmakers to include 100 new waivers in the House budget. And we are looking forward to advocating for more as soon as the session resumes and ensuring the budget improvements make it through the Senate!
HEALTH & WELLNESS
Prior to 2020, Georgians with disabilities could be organ donors, but hospitals and donation organizations were legally able to deny people with disabilities the right to receive an organ transplant, based solely on that person’s disability.
Spearheaded by the Nobles family from White County, Gracie’s Law is named after David and Erin Nobles’ daughter and would eradicate legal organ transplant discrimination based on disability status. Together GCDD, The Arc Georgia and the Down Syndrome Association of Atlanta worked alongside advocates across the state to educate legislators about this important issue. In fact, GCDD’s first 2020 Advocacy Day focused on organ transplant discrimination and Gracie’s Law, also known as House Bill 842.
Gracie’s Law was introduced in the Georgia State House of Representatives by Rep. Rick Williams, who serves as the Nobles’ representative. The bill flew through the House with a unanimous vote of 160-0. The last day of session, before COVID-19 mandated a break in the legislature, Gracie’s Law was assigned to the Health and Human Services Committee in the Georgia State Senate and is waiting to be called for a vote. We are waiting for the session to reconvene so we can pass it out of the Senate and to the governor’s office.
For the past few years, Georgia has been considered one of the top states in which to do business. But sadly, the disability community in Georgia has been left out of the prosperity these businesses promise our state. While people without disabilities are employed at a rate of 73%, Georgians with disabilities are only employed at a rate of 34%. This means that while the majority of people with disabilities report that they want to work, unemployment for people with disabilities hovers between 65% and 70% nationally.1
The disability community has been garnering support from both the House and Senate around this issue, as we believe all people with disabilities have the right to go to work and get paid competitively. To further this support, one of our 2020 Advocacy Days was centered around creating a resolution in the House to put pressure on the Employment First Council, which was formed when Employment First officially became law in 2018. This entity is supposed to help guide the General Assembly on how to ensure Georgia becomes a state that truly implements “employment first” practices, including funding employment supports before and instead of segregated services.
The resolution would compel the Employment First Council to fulfill its mandate and hold public hearings that inform recommendations to the General Assembly regarding how to implement best practices, including how to eliminate the use of subminimum wages across the state. As of now, the plan for a resolution is on hold as the session has yet to reconvene.
On the education front, the governor’s proposed cuts impacted the budget allocation for inclusive post-secondary education (IPSE) programs in Georgia. Since some funding for IPSE is allocated as a line item in the state budget, it is subject to the governor’s budget cuts this year and next.
To address these concerns, GCDD worked with the Office of Planning and Budget to find a way to cover the cut this time. But legislators need to understand how impactful IPSE is to the disability community. To help show the impact to legislators, students, staff and supporters from all nine IPSE programs in Georgia joined GCDD at its IPSE Advocacy Day. Over 150 students, parents, professors and community advocates came to the Capitol to educate and inform lawmakers about the importance of post-secondary education for students with disabilities.
In addition to IPSE, Senate Bill 386 was introduced – but not without some concerning issues. This bill would expand the Special Needs Scholarship, which allows students to transfer to a private school in hopes that school can provide different supports. Specifically, it would expand access to the Special Needs Scholarship to students who have a 504 plan. A 504 plan is a plan developed to ensure that a student who has a disability is receiving the right supports and services needed to make them successful in school.
GCDD was concerned about certain aspects of the bill, namely the rights parents and students using the scholarship would be asked to relinquish. Families using the scholarship would lose their rights, provided under Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act. These rights serve to protect against discrimination against a student with a disability. Essentially, this would allow discrimination and bullying based on disability.
The bill was voted favorably out of committee and passed in the Senate with a vote of 33-22. The Senate made some changes to the bill but did not correct the concerning language about relinquishment of rights. Fortunately, GCDD remained in close communication with the bill author and sponsors, who assured us that changes would be made to the bill while in the House. With the suspension of the session, no legislation can be voted into law until our senators and representatives return after the pandemic.
Just like all people, Georgians with disabilities use many different modes of transportation – from planes to trains to automobiles. In addition to these common modes of transportation, there are several other mechanisms that provide mobility, like elevators, that many of us may take for granted. Unfortunately, elevators are often broken, closed for repairs or otherwise inoperable, especially in high-use areas like public transit stations.
According to the laws in Georgia, all elevators should be inspected every six months. But a new bill coming out of the Senate is looking to change that. Senate Bill 377, authored by Senator Burt Jones from Jackson, GA, aims to change mandatory elevator inspections to only every 12 months. GCDD researched other states and found that many states only inspect elevators every 12 months.
However, we wanted to use this opportunity to make necessary improvements to the way our elevators are maintained in Georgia. We know that many of our advocates rely on elevators to get around, and we also know firsthand how frustrating broken elevators can be. We worked with members of the state Senate to include language that organizations can be fined if their elevators break often.
Although the session is currently suspended due to COVID-19, the public policy department at GCDD is working around the clock to make sure that the needs of our community are identified and addressed. We are actively monitoring any news regarding when the session might restart and will make sure you all are in-the-know!
GCDD is standing by for the state legislature to reconvene for a special session, as is mandated by Georgia’s state constitution.
In the meantime, advocates can continue meeting with their legislators in their communities – especially since this is an election year. Policymakers should hear from the people they serve as frequently as possible. You don’t need the legislature to be in session to advocate, so now is the time to write to, speak with and meet your elected officials about the issues important to you.
For resources and additional information related to COVID-19, please visit GCDD’s resource page. If, like me, you prefer your legislative updates in video format, check out our 2020 Legislative Recap Video!
1 Winsor, J., Timmons, J., Butterworth, J., Migliore, A., Domin, D., Zalewska, A., & Shepard, J. (2018). StateData: The national report on employment services and outcomes.