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State Sen. Greg Kirk — Week 6: updates, continued

I’m also proud to say that the Senate voted to pass a bill which would allow licensed professional counselors to diagnose patients with clinical mental illnesses. This bill would allow for a greater number of Georgians to be cared for and receive the treatment that they so desperately need. As a licensed professional counselor myself, I can personally attest to the benefit that this legislation will bring to the people of Georgia, particularly those in rural communities that lack access to basic mental health resources.
Friday, the Senate heard, debated and passed HB 757, which is a combination of the Pastor Protection Act and the First Amendment Defense Act of Georgia. The bill would simply allow for preachers not to officiate weddings which go against their own personal, deeply held religious convictions. HB 757 also protects citizens and organizations from government overreach based on their sincere belief in traditional marriage. The bill is a compromise and in no way allows public officials to avoid issuing marriage licenses.
Crossover Day is the 30th day of the legislative session, and it is the last day in which bills originating in the Senate can be passed over to the House and vice versa. Because of this fact, next week we’ll be very busy behind the scenes working on and reviewing pieces of legislation to get everything in line before that deadline. Next week, we’ll be gathering in the chamber Monday through Friday to complete legislative days 25 through 29. Of all the bills still to be considered by the Senate, none is more important than the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The 2017 appropriations bill arrived in the Senate just before we adjourned on Friday. Analysis and adjustment of the budget will begin in the coming legislative days.
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Focused on the issues
The Senate completed legislative days 25 through 29 this week setting up for a busy Legislative Day 30 on Monday. Known as Crossover Day, Legislative Day 30 is the final day for a bill that was introduced in the Senate must pass the Senate in order to be considered in the House before the legislative session ends. The same rule applies for House bills crossing over to the Senate.
Last week, as part of the legislative process, the First Amendment Defense Act was incorporated into another piece of legislation seeking to protect pastors, ministers and other religious leaders from having to perform a marriage ceremony that contradicts their own religious beliefs.
House Bill 757, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Tanner, passed the House unanimously. His legislation works hand in hand with what I am hoping to accomplish in my work on behalf of the religious community this session and, as a combined bill, makes a strong piece of legislation in defense of the right of religious expression.
The legal reality of our country is that the Supreme Court declared that marriage is a right between two people and not necessarily a man and a woman. Personally, I don’t agree with that position, but it is not up to me, the General Assembly or the state of Georgia to address that fact.  It is now upon the shoulders of the state legislature to ensure that all sincerely held religious beliefs that do not violate our laws are protected with the same clarity and consistency.
The goal of this legislation is not to express any anger or judgment towards anyone who does not agree with traditional marriage. The language of the bill actually clearly states that all lawful marriage and definitions of lawful marriage receive the same protections.
Since the passage of the bill, there have been wild accusations about businesses allegedly uprooting jobs from our state. The stories of 373k are grossly misstated. Further, every state touching our border has a religious freedom statute or overriding case law that is much stricter than the deliberate, narrow legislation the Senate has passed. At least 20 states currently have stronger positions than HB 757 on religious liberties with other states working on proposed legislation to defend the freedoms of the religious community.
Georgia’s film industry has voiced some concerns as well. The film industry has become big business in Georgia for one main reason and that is money. Our state gives incredibly competitive tax incentives and has a lower cost of labor than the states we’re trailing in TV and film production. As long as the dollars make sense for the movie industry, they’re not going to leave millions of dollars on the table.
House Bill 757, which is now in the House for their consideration, has a long road yet to final passage. There are still plenty of steps for feedback and discussion on the legislation. It is my hope that opponents and detractors will focus on the issue and not attack individuals. This issue is complicated and full of passion, and I understand that. However, I’ve seen personally and through the sponsors of other bills defending religion that the conversation can quickly deteriorate to “ad hominem” mudslinging.
To all of you who support protections to your religious liberties, I encourage you to remain civil and show the love of Jesus Christ to those who call us names. No matter the outcome of this bill, we are called to love and forgive. The uphill climb for protections to deeply held religious beliefs continues in the General Assembly as we continue towards Crossover Day next week and Sine Die on March 24.
Another issue that several constituents have brought to my attention is the state retirement system, particularly the cost of living adjustments (COLAs) that the Teachers Retirement System (TRS) has received versus the Employees’ Retirement System (ERS). The most discernible answer is that each fund is overseen by its own independent board. Each board has the authority to grant COLAs to those in their system. Given the performance of each fund, the boards may not rule in favor of a COLA because of the cost of the increase versus the performance of their investments. Despite $238.6 million in appropriations into the ERS, it is still not funded at 80 percent of its liabilities and has not recommended a COLA after several volatile years in the market.

Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, represents the 13th Senate District which includes Crisp, Dodge, Dooly, Lee, Tift, Turner, and Worth counties and portions of Sumter and Wilcox counties. He can be reached by phone at 404-463-5258 or email at greg.kirk@senate.ga.gov