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Sen. Ben Watson: Education and health get priority in Senate
Ben Watson
Sen. Ben Watson

Sen. Ben Watson

Guest columnist

The Georgia General Assembly returned to the State Capitol for the final two days of the 2023 legislative session this past week and then, on Wednesday, March 29, the session came to an end as the House and Senate completed Legislative Day 40, which is also known as “Sine Die.” During these two eventful days, my colleagues and I worked late into the night to vote on legislation that will impact communities across our state. I will share some of the bills that we voted on from the Rules calendars, as well as highlight a few House bills that received final passage this week. Now, all of the bills that received final passage before we adjourned Sine Die will go to Governor Brian Kemp for his final consideration.

The state legislature approved a Conference Committee Report for House Bill 19, or the Fiscal Year 2023-24 (FY 2024) budget, fulfilling our one constitutional obligation of the session. Effective July 1, this final version of the FY 2024 budget is set at a revenue estimate of $32.4 billion. More than 50 percent of this state budget is dedicated toward funding our state’s K-12 and higher education systems and includes $13.1 billion to fully fund the Quality Basic Education program for our local grade and high schools and an additional $50.2 million in lottery funds to bring the HOPE factor rate for scholarships and grants up to 100 percent of last year’s tuition costs. I am also excited to announce that certified teachers and school employees would experience a $2,000 increase to the state base salary schedule through this budget.

Nearly a quarter of the FY 2024 budget would go toward health and human services, and within this crucial budget area, we within the past seven years would not be eligible for an unsecured judicial release.

Many of the bail problems we are seeing are from progressive district attorneys. To that end, we passed Senate Bill 92, creating the Prosecuting Attorneys Oversight Commission (PAOC), comprised of an investigative panel.

The investigative panel would examine any district attorney (DA) or solicitor general (SG) who demonstrates mental or physical incapacity, willful misconduct in office, willful and persistent failure to carry out duties, conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude or conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. The bill would also add an additional duty for DAs/SGs, requiring them to review each individual case to determine whether probable cause for prosecution exists, as well as make a prosecutorial decision based on the facts and circumstances of that case.

For our soldiers and their families, the legislature passed the “Freedom to Work Act,” Senate Bill 195, which will require state licensing boards to issue an expedited license by endorsement to active-duty members of the U.S. military or their spouses if they meet certain criteria.

The licensing board would be required to issue these licenses within 30 days from the date of receipt of the application rather than 90 days.

Also positively affecting our soldiers, veterans, and families, we passed House Bill 414 to create the Veterans Mental Health Services Program, a grant program that would fund behavioral health services to service members, veterans or family members through non-profit community behavioral health programs; the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities would administer this competitive grant program.

Next week I will discuss the bills that are the some of the most important legislative initiatives that passed the legislature and explain how they may impact all Georgians.

Thank you for your continued interest in the General Assembly session.

As your public servant, feel free to visit me at the Capitol or to reach out to me by phone or email. I am in 325-A Coverdell Legislative Office Building. My office phone number is (404) 656-7880, and my email is ben.watson@senate. I look forward to continuing to serve you.

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