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How the Forsyth County delegation voted in this year's legislative session
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It was a whirlwind session at the Gold Dome this year before Sine Die, the final day of the Georgia General Assembly’s 40-day legislative session, on Tuesday.

Over the session, legislators approved new rules for low-THC cannabis oil, a bill that limits abortion to the first six weeks of pregnancy and recognizes life beginning at that time, new voting machines and passed the 2020 budget, the only item the assembly is required to approve each year under the state constitution.

Forsyth County News spoke with a few members of Forsyth County’s legislative delegation – District 27 state Sen. Greg Dolezal, who represents the majority of Forsyth County and state Reps. Wes Cantrell, Sheri Gilligan, Todd Jones and Kevin Tanner – to get their takes on how the session went.

Tanner said the session was a little different than in past years with Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a former Forsyth County lawmaker, both being sworn in at the start of the session.

“There’s a lot of feeling things out and getting everyone’s feet on the ground and understanding who to talk to about different issues, so I’m excited about good leadership moving forward,” he said. “Overall, I would say it’s a very good session.”

 

Heartbeat bill

One bill gaining national attention, is House Bill 481, known as the “Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act,” which was supported by all seven members of the local delegation and would outlaw abortion “at the point when a detectable human heartbeat exists,” which is “as early as six weeks.”

“I think with the ‘heartbeat bill,’ what we’re trying to do is a put a recognition of the state’s interest in terms of the protection of life,” Jones, who represents District 25 in south Forsyth and a portion of Fulton County, said. “Whether or not a constitutional scholar, whether or not this is something that sits within you, the fact of the matter is we have an obligation for rights… in terms of our need to protect the unborn.”

Gilligan said a less publicized portion of the bill was that as soon as a heartbeat is detected, parents could list the child as a dependent for state taxes, though not federal ones, and could receive child support.

“The mother can ask for child support for the unborn,” she said. “The mother can list the unborn as a dependent, so it’s a very unique approach, but we’re saying that if you’re going to call it a human, it should be a human, therefore they get their dependent status and you can, indeed, go ahead and file for child support.

 

 

Medical marijuana

Another hotly-debated issue in the legislature was House Bill 324, “Georgia’s Hope Act,” which allows the production, manufacturing and dispensing of low-THC oil in Georgia.

Under current rules, patients can be prescribed and possess oils of less than 5 percent THC concentration and amounting to less than 20 ounces a month but it is illegal to produce it in the state and to bring it across state lines.

While the local delegation generally votes unanimously or mostly the same, of the Forsyth County delegation, only Wes Cantrell voted in favor of the bill, while Gilligan and District 51 state Sen. Steve Gooch voted against the bill, Dolezal and Jones were excused from the vote and District 26 state Rep. Marc Morris and Tanner did not vote.

“I supported it because I support medical marijuana with a very narrow focus and a lot of accountability, especially since it’s in the oil form only and not going to be produced for smoking of any kind,” Cantrell said.

Cantrell said that while he supported this bill, it was as far as he was willing to go in terms of marijuana policy.

“I will vote ‘no’ from now on if they try to expand it. The author of this year’s bill promised us all it was the end once we were able to cultivate in the state so that people could obtain the products legally, that would be the end of it,” he said.

Gilligan said her opposition to the bill was not due to residents issues with access to medicine but was concerned with the federal status of marijuana.

“I still have a lot of concerns with an industry that is regulated by the federal government in such a way that federally-insured banks have a difficult time doing the banking with the industry, which means we have a large cash industry, which is incredibly difficult to regulate,” Gilligan said.

She said the bill could lead to issues with proper withholdings for Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, taxes and other issues and felt the problems could be addressed if the substance was moved from a Schedule I drug at the federal level.

 

Touchscreen voting machines

The assembly also approved $150 million purchase of new electronic touchscreen voting machines that print a paper ballot, through House Bill 316, which was unanimously supported by the delegation.

Systems using electronic ballot markers include touchscreen computers where voters make their selections, then print a paper ballot that’s counted after being scanned. Setups from different vendors vary, but voter selections can either be spelled out in human-readable text, encoded in a barcode or both. Lawmakers hope the machines would be in place by 2020.

“One of the interesting things that I heard during the entire public debate in terms of official committee input was 159 counties out of 159 counties recommended to the state legislature that we use the ballot marking machines and not hand-marked ballots,” Jones said. “Now, I’ve only been in the legislature three years, but I’ve never had all 159 counties agree to anything.”

 

State budget, 5G technology

In the state budget, certified teachers and employees were given raises of $3,000 and the state met Quality Basic Education funding, for the second year.

“I’m very, very happy about that because they need it. We want our teachers to be compensated for what they do,” Gilligan said.

Forsyth County lawmakers also supported or carried legislation for recovery from Hurricane Michael, protecting victims of sex trafficking, increasing technology education opportunities, policies for hospitals to trade credits for how much work is done with charity and indigent patients and setting rules for 5G technology, the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications and is necessary for a number of technological improvements, include autonomous vehicles, homes and medical equipment.

The technology uses smaller cells than traditional cell phone towers, some of which have already been installed in the city of Cumming and Forsyth County.

“5G technology is the next wave of cell phone technology, and the developers of the technology said, ‘Hey, we don’t want to go to 600 cities and municipalities and have to get individualized sets of regulations for that,” said Dolezal, who served his first term this session. “So, they worked with [Georgia Municipal Association] and [Association County Commissioners of Georgia] with agreed upon places and procedures for 5G, so that technology would be available as quickly as possible.”

While members of the local delegation applauded the work that was done this session, there were some issues with the process.

While Dolezal applauded having a citizen legislature – which he said brings a variety of viewpoints and expertise from those in different industries – that meets for a short time, the last 20 days of the session were much more hectic than the first 20.

“The last couple of days are crazy,” he said. “I don’t even know how many bills we voted on Day 40, but it’s not the best way to pass policy, that’s for sure, in this hurried fashion. I did my best to keep up with and heard a lot from our constituents, people who were happy with it and had concerns with what we were doing, and we tried to respond to all of them.”

Gilligan said she was not able to move forward any legislation this year after signing a letter calling for state House Speaker David Ralston to step down amid new reports he has used the position to postpone court dates for clients in his job as an attorney.

“The legislation that I was carrying died the day I signed a resolution admonishing the speaker,” she said. “I was able to get other people to address it, but we were not able to get anything through. I was very disappointed with that. The one that I really wanted more than any of the others was recognizing Sept. 1 as Childhood Cancer Awareness Day.”



How they voted

A look at how Forsyth County’s state Representatives and Senators voted on some of the most significant bills during this most recent Georgia General Assembly legislative session.

 

HB 186

Summary: Relaxes regulation known as certificate of need that is aimed at protecting nonprofit hospitals from competition.

Yes – Wes Cantrell, Greg Dolezal, Steve Gooch, Marc Morris, Kevin Tanner

No – Sheri Gilligan

Excused – Todd Jones

Not Voting – None

 

HB 228

Summary: Increases the minimum marriage age from 16 to 17 with parental consent.

Yes – Wes Cantrell, Greg Dolezal, Steve Gooch, Todd Jones, Marc Morris, Kevin Tanner

No – Sheri Gilligan

Excused – None

Not Voting – None

 

HB 282

Summary: Requires sexual assault evidence to be preserved until crimes are solved.

Yes – Wes Cantrell, Greg Dolezal, Sheri Gilligan, Steve Gooch, Marc Morris

No – None

Excused – None

Not Voting – Todd Jones, Kevin Tanner

 

HB 316

Summary: Replaces the state’s electronic voting machines with a $150 million voting system that uses touchscreens, printers and optical scanners.

Yes – Wes Cantrell, Greg Dolezal, Sheri Gilligan, Steve Gooch, Todd Jones, Marc Morris, Kevin Tanner

No – None

Excused – None

Not Voting – None

 

HB 324, “Georgia’s Hope Act”

Summary: Provide for the production, manufacturing and dispensing of low THC oil in Georgia.

Yes – Wes Cantrell

No – Sheri Gilligan, Steve Gooch

Excused – Greg Dolezal, Todd Jones

Not voting – Marc Morris, Kevin Tanner

 

HB 346

Protects renters from eviction when they complain to landlords.

Yes – Wes Cantrell, Marc Morris

No – Sheri Gilligan, Greg Dolezal, Steve Gooch

Excused – Todd Jones

Not Voting – Kevin Tanner

 

HB 481, “Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act”

Summary: Outlaws abortions after “the first detection of a human heartbeat in the womb.”

Yes – Wes Cantrell, Greg Dolezal, Sheri Gilligan, Steve Gooch, Todd Jones, Marc Morris, Kevin Tanner

No – None

Excused – None

Not Voting – None

 

SB 15, “Keeping Georgia’s Schools Safe Act”

Summary: Requires public and private schools to perform certain threat assessments, and provide the Georgia Information Sharing and Analysis Center in its role of “preventing, discovering, responding to, and recovering from threats, warnings, and developing situations regarding any public or private school.”

Yes – Wes Cantrell, Greg Dolezal, Sheri Gilligan, Steve Gooch, Marc Morris, Kevin Tanner

No – None

Excused – Todd Jones

Not Voting – None

 

SB 17

Summary: Allows telephone cooperatives and their broadband affiliates to provide broadband services.

Yes – Wes Cantrell, Greg Dolezal, Sheri Gilligan, Steve Gooch, Todd Jones, Marc Morris, Kevin Tanner

No – None

Excused – None

Not Voting – None

 

SB 48

Summary: Requires schools to provide for screening for dyslexia for all kindergarten students and provide for teacher training.

Yes – Wes Cantrell, Greg Dolezal, Steve Gooch, Todd Jones, Marc Morris, Kevin Tanner

No – None

Excused – Sheri Gilligan

Not Voting – None

 

SB 83

Summary: Expands options for Bible-related elective courses in high schools.

Yes – Wes Cantrell, Greg Dolezal, Sheri Gilligan, Steve Gooch, Todd Jones, Marc Morris, Kevin Tanner

No – None

Excused – None

Not voting – None


SB 106, “Patients First Act”

Summary: Allows Georgia to request a Medicaid waiver and an ACA insurance market waiver from federal government.

Yes – Wes Cantrell, Greg Dolezal, Sheri Gilligan, Steve Gooch, Todd Jones, Marc Morris, Kevin Tanner

No – None

Excused – None

Not voting – None