Mike Cheokas: weekly report to the people — March Mike Cheokas: weekly report to the people5, 2016

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Monday, Feb. 15 was Presidents’ Day and there’s no better way to spend Presidents’ Day than to be with a former president. I had the opportunity to join hundreds of students at the Plains High School where President Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter shared their experiences on the 1976 campaign to the White House. They answered questions from the students present and via live streaminng over the internet with students around the country. After the program Jason Berggren, Ph.D., sssistant professor of political science at Georgia Southwestern State University, and I discussed bringing some of his students to the State Capitol in Atlanta and seeing firsthand the political process.
Tuesday, Feb.16 was Legislative Day 21. There were three  measures on the Debate Calendar that I thought would be of interest. HB 34 by Rep. Mike Dudgeon, District 25, passed by a vote of 173 to 0. This measure known as the “Georgia Right To Try Act” grants terminally ill patients faster access to investigational drugs, biological products, and devices that have passed Phase 1 of the three-phase FDA Drug Approval Process. It requires full voluntary cooperation with a doctors recommendation, indemnifies the doctors and drug manufacturers, and does not require health insurance companies to pay for the treatment.
HB 592 by Rep. Brett Harrell, District 106, passed by a vote of 169 to 2. This measure will create the “Professional Engineer, Structural Engineer” or “P.S., S.E.” designation within the existing engineering licensing regime under the Board of Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors.
HB 798 by Rep. Joyce Chandler, District 105, passed by a vote of 164 to 7. This measure modifies the Zell Miller Scholarship eligibility to include homestudy students.
Wednesday, Feb. 17was Legislative Day 22. At the 7:15 a.m. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education, we approved the Higher Ed portion of the FY 2017 State Budget.
The University System of Georgia will receive $2,128,556,424 in state funding. The Student Finance Commission will receive $807,031,122 in state funding. The Technical College System of Georgia will receive $351,206,458 in state funding.
Under local legislation HB 945 passed the House by a vote of 164 to 1. This measure was requested by the Schley County Board of Commissioners. It modifies the provisions relating to the appointment of members to the Schley County Utilities Authority.
On the Debate Calendar we passed HB 555 by Rep. Joyce Candler, District 105, by vote of 119 to 55. This measure requires the Clerk of a Juvenile Court to report the number of petitions granted or denied for an abortion without parental consent to the Administrative Office of the Courts on an annual basis. The numbers are for statistical purposes only and the identities are never submitted. We hope that with this information we will be in a better position to address the ongoing problem of teen pregnancies.
Next came HB 762 by Rep. Wendell Willard, District 51, which passed by a vote of 166 to 2. This very solemn measure amends the Code Section relating to the unlawful buying, selling, or offering to buy, or sell human body parts to include human fetuses.
At our weekly Rural Caucus meeting, our program was presented by Second Harvest of South Georgia, the states largest rural food bank serving 30 counties. They explained the new federal tax incentives allowable for food donations.
Introducing our Chaplin of the Day, Pastor Deek Dubberly from Southside Baptist Church in Hazlehurst, was Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, District 169.  Rep. LaRiccia ended his introduction with these inspiring words:
“When the child of God,
Looks into the Word of God,
And sees the Son of God,
He/She is changed by the Spirit of God,
Into the image of God,
For the glory of God.”
Thursday, Feb.18 was Legislative Day 23. HB 847 by Rep. David Clark, District 98, passed by a vote of 140 to 26. This measure updates the Code regarding fraud in obtaining public assistance by moving the Sections criminalizing this fraud from Title 49 (Social Services) to Title 16 (Crimes and Offenses).
I sponsored HR 1349 commending the Georgia Airports Association (GAA) and inviting them to the Capitol for their 4th Annual Legislative Fly-In. Joining me at the podium were GAA  President, Jim Galloway, executive director of Valdosta Regional Airport, and GAA Past President, Mario Evans, executive director of DeKalb Peachtree Airport. President Galloway talked about the economic development benefits that each of the over 100 general aviation airports provide not only in attracting new industry but also in the jobs they create.
Friday, Feb. 19, as Legislative Day 24. The most important measure that the General Assembly will take up this year is the General Appropriations Budget for FY 2017. This massive document accounts for all the expenditures that the State of Georgia will have from July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017.
Rep. Terry England, District 116, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee went to the “Well” with three bottles of water to make his lengthy and detailed presentation. He said, “HP 751, the FY 2017 Budget, has a revenue estimate of $23.7 billion – an increase of $673.9 million, or 2.9 percent over the amended FY 2016 Budget. Almost half of the increase from the original 2016 Budget is the result of HB 170 (Transportation Act 2015) and dedicated to transportation infrastructure improvements. This budget is all about infrastructure. Infrastructure is defined as ‘the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.’ The obvious, traditional infrastructure winner in FY 2017 is transportation with the infusion of $825.6 million in new funding and $106.8 million in bonds to repair and re-habilitate.  The state also made enormous infrastructure investments in public safety with $159.8 million going to the Department of Community Supervision and $23.3 million going to the state-wide Accountability Court System.
“Education infrastructure accounted for 62 percent of the bond package or $557 million, economic development accounted for 20% of the bond package totaling $183.7 million. But the priority in this year’s budget is the much-needed investment in Georgia’s human infrastructure. While the investment in physical infrastructure is important, it is human capital that operates this infrastructure and makes it a success. This budget contains an additional $57,677,748 in funding for the people in provider groups that make up the work force in the state of Georgia. This builds on the $539 million pay package the Governor proposed which included a 3 percent merit increase for most state employees as well as the market increases to jobs with high turnover rate’s or high private sector competition, together this compensation package for working employees totals over $596 million in FY17. There is also a one time benefit payment of 3 percent to eligible members of the Employees Retirement System (ERS).”
It was obvious that Chairman England and House Budget Office Director, Martha Wigton and their staffs had spent months preparing this budget. Chairman England’s presentation was so thorough that there were no questions. HB751 passed by a vote of 167 to 1. Great job !
Visiting me from Americus this week was Sumter County Board of Commissioners Chairman, Randy Howard. He came to participate in workshops presented by the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG).
Monday, Feb. 22 was Legislative Day 25. Monday’s Debate Calendar had over 10 measures. As we approach Legislative Day 30, commonly known as Crossover Day, which is the last day legislation can be passed out of one chamber and still have time to be voted on in the other chamber, our days become longer and the pace picks up.
Receiving the most debate was HB 859 by Rep. Rick Jasperse, District 11, which passed by a vote of 113 to 59. This measure will allow Georgia firearms license holders to keep their weapon on their person within a school safety zone located on a technical college, university, college, vocational school or other institution of post-secondary education. Weapons will not be allowed at athletic events or student housing including sorority and fraternity houses. This measure applies to Georgia firearms license holders only, who have to be 21 years of age, fingerprinted by law enforcement and have undergone a background check. This measure reaffirms Georgia’s commitment to the Second Amendment rights in our Constitution.
I had the honor to present HP 965 which passed by a vote of 166 to 0. Few times we as legislators are able to point at legislation we sponsor and make the claim that this legislation saves lives. And that is exactly what I said from the “Well” when I introduced HB 965. Currently some insurance companies require that a patient follow a certain protocol for cancer treatment whereby they must fail primary drugs before coverage begins for additional treatments. This legislation provides that, should a doctor recommend an FDA approved advanced cancer treatment drug for a patient with Stage 4 advanced metastatic cancer, the patient will not have to have taken and failed previous cancer drugs. This measure only applies to Stage 4 advanced metastatic cancer, which means the patient is running out of options and the cancer is spreading. I named this measure the “Honorable Jimmy Carter Cancer Treatment Access Act.” Last year,  President Carter announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer, and several months later after receiving the most advanced treatment, he revealed that he was cancer free. My hope is that all Georgians will have access to the most advanced cancer treatment available.
In the Gallery during my presentation was the Southland Academy seventh-grade class. They were accompanied by Rusty Tondee, Susan Welch, Jennie Stapleton, and Mike Gurley. Rep. Tom Weldon, District 3, a former Southland Academy student, stopped by the north steps of the Rotunda for a visit.
Tuesday, Feb. 23 was Legislative Day 26. HB 856, by Rep. Barry Fleming, District 121, passed by a vote of 152 to 0. This measure increases the surety bond held by probate judges to $100,000 and was drafted at the request of the Probate Judges Counsel.
HB 93 by Rep. John Pezold, District 133, passed by a vote of 152 to 2. This measure will require law enforcement agencies that collect data through Automated License Plate Recognition Systems to purge and destroy that data after 12 months unless there is a violation. It also exempts license plate reader data from open records requests. I had the honor of recognizing the Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia and welcoming its members that were seated in the Gallery. Our probate court judges administer wills and estates, issue marriage licenses and fireworks permits, and process the applications for weapons carry licenses. Many probate courts have criminal jurisdiction over misdemeanors, handle traffic offenses, and serve as the local custodian of vital records. Their work is integral to the success of our justice system. Judge Judy Reeves from Americus and Judge Mitzi Way from Ellaville were at the Capitol for this occasion.
Wednesday, Feb. 24 was Legislative Day 27. HB 381 by Rep. Andy Welch, District 110, received a great deal of discussion and was eventually taken off the debate calendar and recommitted to the Rules Committee for further review. This measure completely rewrites Chapter 17 of Title 45 relating to notary publics.
In an effort to stem the growth in street gang violence, Rep. Burt Reeves, District 34, presented HB 874 which passed by a vote of 106 to 60. This measure revises anti-street gang laws to expand the witness intimidation law, clarify admissible evidence, and enhance penalties for violations that include the use of telecommunication devices by prison inmates to commit criminal gang activity and those that smuggle the contraband cell phones into prisons, specifically prison guards by creating mandatory sentences.
HB 838 by Rep. Shaw Blackmon, District 146, passed by a vote of 145 to 17. This measure requires insurance companies that sell health insurance plans through an agent in Georgia to compensate the agent with a minimum of 5 percent commission of the collected premiums.
Tommy Carroll, executive director of the Southeastern Wood Producers Association, was our program at the weekly Rural Caucus meeting.
Thursday, Feb. 25, Legislative Day 28 begin with the sad news that Rep. Bob Bryant, District 162, had passed away early that morning. Rep. Bryant and I were elected the same year and shared an office suite for two years. He was not only my friend but a friend to all the members of the legislature. A veteran of the Vietnam War, a family man and a role model to many, he served his district with dignity and dedication. Rep. David Ralston, District 7, Speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, was the first one to go to the “Well” to memorialize Rep. Bryant. He called him a true friend and a person of integrity, who stood by his principles in the face of adversity. Speaker Ralston said that he was moved to tears when he received the sad news of Rep. Bob Bryant’s passing. He talked about his strength of character and his quiet determination. Before he finished we were all moved to tears. Others speaking from the “Well” included the Minority Leader, Rep. Stacey Abrams, District 89; the Majority Leader, Rep. Jon Burns, District 159; Rep. Al Williams, District 168; and the Dean of the House, Rep. Calvin Smyre, District 135.
In an effort to provide some financial relief to our struggling rural hospitals, Rep. Geoff Duncan, District 26, presented HB 919 which passed by a vote of 137 to 30. This measure provides $100 million in tax credits to individuals and corporations who donate to rural healthcare organizations that participate both in Medicaid and Medicare, provide healthcare to primarily indigent patients, and receive at least 10 percent of their gross revenue from the treatment of indigent patients.
HB 911 also by Rep. Geoff Duncan, passed by a vote of 165 to 0. This measure makes changes to the Georgia Agricultural Tax Exemption (GATE) program.
Visiting me at the Capitol were Sumter County Prison Warden Jimmy Colson, Sumter County Board of Commissioners Chairman Randy Howard, and his son Lumpkin Police Chief Randy Howard Jr.
With two Debate Calendars and over 30 bills, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016, Legislative Day 29, was by far our busiest day. In an effort to protect our hospital emergency room personnel from acts of violence, retired Superior Court Judge, Rep. Johnnie Caldwell, District 131, brought forth HB 979 which passed by a vote of 147 to 6. This measure increases the penalty for this felony offense which is punishable with imprisonment from 5 to 20 years.
HB 654 by Rep. Sandra Scott, District 76, failed to pass by a vote of 76 to 78. This measure would have required tattoo studios to post warning signs for patrons informing them that visible tattoos would disqualify them from military service. It also created fines for those studios that failed to comply. Rep. Jodie Lott, District 122, went to the “Well” to speak against the bill. She felt that this measure would create an unnecessary burden on small business owners.
HB 951 by Rep. Chad Nimmer, District 178, passed by vote of 127 to 22. This measure renews the annual Back-To-School Sales Tax Holiday on July 30-31, 2016, and the Energy Efficient Products Sales Tax Holiday from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, 2016. It also provides for an economic development sales and use tax exemption to be used to attract championship sporting events to our state.
Thank you for choosing me to represent you in Atlanta at the State Capitol.