It’s been a unique a year for all parts of life, and that includes for the local lawmakers representing Forsyth County.
Due to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Georgia General Assembly legislative session ended in late June rather than the regular time of around early April, but that was far from the only change.
The plan coming into the year was to pass a reduced budget, and the assembly voted to approve $2 billion budget, including $2.2 billion in cuts.
Lawmakers also approved a new hate crimes bill, new rules for surprise medical billing and provided funding for a number of local projects.
Despite the unique circumstances, lawmakers, including District 25 state Rep. Todd Jones, said they were proud of what had been accomplished this session.
Jones , who represents South Forsyth and North Fulton, is vice-chair of the House’s governmental affairs, judiciary and science and technology committees and a member of the appropriations, budget and fiscal affairs oversight, code revision, economic development and tourism, education, industry and labor and special committee to access on quality healthcare committees.
Here’s what the had to say about the session.
Obviously, this has been a unique year, so how do you think the session went despite the circumstances?
“The challenge presented from COVID is unprecedented from a budgeting standpoint. In a matter of 90 days, we experienced a greater tax receipt deficit, nearly $3B, than we did in the entire four years of the Great Recession. The House passed its budget prior to the suspension of the legislative session (~March 15th) and that budget was essentially thrown away and redone from the bottom up incorporating the reduction of $3B when we returned in mid-June.
“Removing about $3B in services from the budget was the key driver of the session and that kept a majority of the discussions focused on ensuring limited disruptions to the delivery of K-12 and higher ed, provisioning of healthcare services with a focus on mental illness and expanding Medicaid support for new mothers and their infants, stabilizing our rural healthcare system and maintaining all 84,000 Georgia Pre-K slots.”
Did you introduce any legislation, and if so, what was the result?
“Two bills of note that I would like to discuss. The first is Senate Bill 402 that I carried in the House. It was focused on public safety and changed three key provisions in today’s law to increase transparency for all Georgia citizens as it relates to individuals charged with several types of felonies: a) changed Signature Bonds to Unsecured Judicial Release because Signature Bonds connoted surety or cash was placed by the individual when in fact that was not the case, b) specific felonies, like murder, rape, aggravated assault and similar felonies may not be released from jail or prison via an Unsecured Judicial Release and c) any bond that purports a dollar amount shall only be issued by an elected judge or a judge sitting by designation ensuring the judge answers to his or her constituents on why an accused felon was released on bond.
“The second was the biggest disappointment of the legislative session. I sponsored a bill to conduct a two-week test in 2021 to determine if a market-based system could be utilized to provide no-cost healthcare to Georgians at or below 200% of the federal poverty line. No state in the Union provides this type of benefit above 138%. This would have potentially, if the testing was successful, put Georgia on path to be the nationwide leader in providing healthcare to those in need.
“After five committee votes with bipartisan support in each, the Democrats locked down as no votes on the floor – including the Democrats who had voted yes up to five times for the bill in committee. I mention this not to inflame an already divisive political climate but note the action taken that took away a chance for Georgia to lead the country. This was a test, not a change in policy. Every business in Georgia tests, conducts a beta or executes a proof of concept on a nearly weekly basis. Government should take this approach when it comes to big policy changes and unfortunately politics stopped a good idea from Georgia taking a small step to changing the lives of about a million Georgians most in need of healthcare assistance.”
What are your thoughts on some of the big items of the session, such as school funding, the state budget, surprise billing and the hate crimes bill?
“Constituent feedback consistently tells us that education, healthcare, the economy and transportation are critical to Forsyth and North Fulton counties. The budget supported these four initiatives by holding education cuts around five percent versus an overall ten percent, maintaining key healthcare initiatives in rural and indigent healthcare, delivering money for enough inspectors to foster agriculture sector growth, our largest industry and critical transportation infrastructure initiatives. Second, two pieces of healthcare legislation including the elimination of surprise billing in planned procedures and greater transparency of how pharmacy benefit managers must allocate the rebates provided by drug companies back to individual Georgians to reduce the overall cost of prescription drug prices.”
Were there any other items of interest to Forsyth County residents during the session?
“I have been privileged to represent the citizens of Forsyth and North Fulton counties for nearly four years. I break my responsibilities into three buckets – a) constituent services, b) policy development and c) working with other federal, state and local elected and appointed leaders. Frankly, the first two are my favorite because I get to interact with my constituents almost daily. During COVID though, the first focus, constituent services, has definitely been elevated. We are a geography of great gifts, highest district net worth, per capita income, education attainment and the list goes on. But for the first time in my elected commitment, calls, emails, text messages and social media outreaches weren’t about opening a business, helping with an education question or chatting about a potential change in policy.
“No, for the past four months the calls have been primarily about unemployment benefits, both state and federal, outreach for suicide and mental health assistance and so many more life altering issues. Life during session changed the trajectory of how I define constituent services. I feel blessed that I can help in a small way to ensure a family has food, a single parent can cover rent and a teenager has a resource for the serious depression he or she is facing.”
Since it has been a few weeks since the session ended, do you have any thoughts on some issues that have developed since, including Gov. Kemp’s response to the COVID pandemic, suing cities over mask mandates and school reopenings?
“Constituent reaction to COVID has been mixed, about 50/50, on mask requirements, social distancing and other proposed or enacted mandates. However, feedback has been overwhelming on keeping businesses open and not rolling back to phase one. As a matter of fact, I would guess that in totality, preference runs about 80 to 85 percent for maintaining commerce. Unfortunately, I am hearing from a number of small and medium business owners telling me how they barely survived the first shutdown and could not, even with more federal assistance, remain solvent through a second. This is a challenge that we as Georgians must face daily during this crisis – what is the right balance to ensure safety yet not put the economy on a negative trajectory. Further, I have heard from workers imploring us not to shutter businesses but continue to explore limitations that work.
“Finally, school reopening opinions vary from complete shutdown to open with no restrictions. In terms of Forsyth County, I credit the Board of Education, Superintendent and staff for striking a balance for all Forsyth County residents to make the decision that best suits their family needs. For the Jones family, our youngest of four is entering her junior year at South and will be there in-person; that works for us and we hope all decisions on virtual or physical work for each family.”