State Sen. Ben Watson, MD, Guest writer
The 2022 convening of the Georgia General Assembly has been one of the best legislative sessions in my memory for the people of Georgia. Tax cuts, a tax rebate, increased funding across the board, and plenty of projects for our universities and the trade center expansion were all major advancements for our community and state.
As for my priorities, I took care of the two points of concern: a fresh look and remedy to assist in mental health and the expansion of care for post-partum health. Of course, having a solid economy and keeping our state open for business during the Covid pandemic allowed for record tax receipts for state government. Several positive changes happened with mental health reforms, including House Bill 1013.
The legislation seeks to improve Georgia’s struggling mental health system including requiring that health care insurance plans that provide coverage for mental health treatment for substance abuse disorders do so in accordance with the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. This includes a requirement that state health insurers providing coverage for mental health and substance use disorders do so to the same degree as the treatment for a physical illness. With Georgia being one of the worst states for post-partum mortality rates for mothers, we expanded Medicaid coverage for new mothers from six-months to a full year in an effort to help low-income mothers and save lives. As a physician, I recognize that Georgia must address the heartbreaking fact that many new mothers struggle with troubled deliveries and don’t have insurance to cover the problems from their delivery.
We also passed H.B. 1437, The “Tax Reduction and Reform Act of 2022,” which provides for the largest tax cut in Georgia history. The tax cut eliminates the personal income tax brackets and replaces them with a flat tax rate of 5.49 percent. The bill increases personal exemptions from $2,700 to $12,000 for single and head of household taxpayers and from $7,400 to $18,500 for married taxpayers filing a joint return. It also increases the amount of earned income allowed to be included in the retirement income exemption from $4,000 to $5,000.
Many taxpayers will also see the first tax rebate ever. The passage of H.B. 1302 creates a one-time tax credit for taxpayers who filed a return for both 2020 and 2021 taxable years. Single filers would be eligible for a tax credit of $250, those filing jointly will be eligible for a credit of $500 and those filing as a head of household would be eligible for a $375 credit. We also passed an incentive for former military retirees to stay in Georgia by passing H.B. 1064, which adds a new income tax exemption of up to $17,500 of military retirement income for individuals under 62 years old, as well as an additional $17,500 exemption for individuals under 62 years old who have at least $17,500 of earned income.
With a strong budget, we passed a bond sale for state funding of $83 million for the completion of the Savannah International Convention Center. This legislation allows the build-out of the facility to be finished and the ability of the greater Savannah-area to attract bigger conventions and their economic largess. The bill also includes $7.5 million for the construction of a new physical plant at Savannah State University and $2.8 million for a Science Center Lab at the Georgia Southern campus in Savannah. The budget also contains a Medicaid Waiver adding $139.8 million to implement the state’s reinsurance program and healthcare exchange. S.B. 106, called the “Patient First Act,” would effectively change the coverage for those seeking the state-funded health program from 100% of the federal poverty level to 137%. This is an effort to meet federal requirements for funding Medicaid to assist the neediest of our citizens.
We also sought to protect the rights of parents in the education of their children. House Bill 1178, also known as the “Parent’s Bill of Rights,” codifies that no state or local government entity, local board of education, or any officer, employee, or agent thereof may infringe upon the fundamental right of a parent. This includes the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the moral and religious upbringing of their minor child, as well as the right to review all instructional materials intended for use in the classroom of their minor child. In the same vein, we passed H.B. 1084: The “Protect Students First Act,” which prevents the use of and reliance on curricula or training programs in state public schools which espouse “divisive concepts” such as that one race is inherently superior to another race, or the United States of America is fundamentally racist. The bill also provides that if an athletic association determines that it is necessary and appropriate to prohibit students whose gender is male from participating in athletic events that are designated for students whose gender is female, then that athletic association may adopt a policy to that effect, and that policy shall be applied to all the association’s participating high schools.
Thank you for your interest in the General Assembly session. My office phone number is (404) 656-7880 and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.