In line with his criminal justice reform agenda, Governor Deal issued an executive order to improve employment opportunities for individuals with a criminal history. The order lays the groundwork to prohibit the use of a criminal record as an automatic bar to state employment. Positions of a sensitive nature will be exempted from the executive order.

The policy is commonly known as “banning the box,” a reference to the check box often included in employment applications that asks whether applicants have a criminal record.

Governor Deal’s executive order makes Georgia the fourteenth state to improve public employment opportunities for persons with a criminal record and the first in the Deep South.  The City of Atlanta and Fulton County have similar policies in place already.

The movement to improve employment opportunities for those with criminal records has gained significant traction in recent years. In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission endorsed “banning the box” as a best practice. Six states including Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Rhode Island have extended the policy to apply to private employers, as well.

This may not be the last civil rights issue we see come up with respect to state employees. Karla Drenner’s HB 323 would extend nondiscrimination protections to state employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

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Morning Reads — Feb 24

February 24, 2015 7:55 am

by Will Kremer · 18 comments

It’s cold. I hit black ice this morning. Be safe, folks.

Georgia

The cannabis oil bill moves forward.

#ByeFelicia… or gray fox.

Related.

God is angry.

Governor Deal is going to save rural hospitals!

Related: If you didn’t already read this, do it.

National

Jeb Bush is basically harvesting Chris Christie’s soul.

Homeland security battle isn’t stellar for Republicans

Important

Meep may have died in the third episode of American Horror Story, but the actor passed away yesterday. RIP.

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Those of us who work in politics are a close knit community, no matter which side of the aisle we work on. We got sad news from State Senator Curt Thompson, a Norcross Democrat, who lost his home in a house fire today. While he is safe, casualties include several family pets. The Senator also lost all his personal belongings.

A GoFundMe page has been set up for those wishing to help Curt get through the next few weeks.

We wish Senator Thompson the best in recovering from this tragedy, and ask you keep him and his family in your prayers.

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House Majority Leader Larry O'Neal and Rep. John Carson listen to Speaker David Ralston expliain the More Take Home Pay Act  Photo: Jon Richards

House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal and Rep. John Carson listen to Speaker David Ralston explain
the More Take Home Pay Act. Photo: Jon Richards

A proposal for a significant change in the way the state of Georgia collects taxes was introduced by House leadership late this afternoon. Called the More Take Home Pay Act, the measure would create a single income tax rate of 4%, down from the current 6%, increase the state sales tax from 4% to 5%, and rid the tax code of a number of current exemptions.

The 87 page bill, which became House Bill 445 when it was first read in the House Momday morning, is sponsored by Rep. John Carson of Marietta. Rep. Carson explained the bill and what it would do in a late afternoon press briefing, which you can listen to below.


 
Rep. Carson and Speaker David Ralston emphasized that the proposal is designed to close tax loopholes, especially those that don’t lead to job creation and growth. The goal of the plan is to lower taxes for all Georgians, with Carson estimating that a family with the average income of $48,000 would save around $400 per year under the plan. Another goal is to make Georgia more competitive with surrounding states. Undeer the plan, a 4% income tax rate would be lower than all other Southern states except Florida and Tennessee, which have no income tax. A sales tax rate of 5% would be lower than all but Alabama, Louisiana and North Carolina.

In a prepared statement, Carson said,

Georgia’s tax system is long overdue for commonsense reform. The More Take Home Pay Act empowers Georgians to make more personal choices with their hard-earned income, shifting the power away from the state and toward the kitchen table. Ultimately, this bill answers the need for an updated tax system that is flatter, fairer, and puts our families first.

Speaker David Ralston added,

“Representative Carson is continuing one of the General Assembly’s most important discussions and I look forward to an open, inclusive debate on this proposal. We need a tax structure that encourages families to save and businesses to invest so that Georgia can remain competitive with our neighboring states. This bill will go through the committee process and, as always, constructive input is welcomed.

While many tax breaks and tax expenditures would be zeroed out, consumers would see new sales taxes on a number of items, including groceries, digital goods (think iTunes and other downloadable items sold online), and cable and satellite TV. Cigarette taxes would go from the current 37 cents a pack to 65 cents a pack under the plan.

The bill, introduced on Day 20 of this year’s legislative session, is not designed to pass this year. Speaker Ralston emphasized that the need is to get tax reform right, rather than do do it quickly, noting that the last round of tax reform in 2012 took three years to accomplish. Rep. Carson’s bill, along with a separate bill introduced today will be part of that discussion going forward

Leadership has requested a fiscal note, which should be available over the next week or so.

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Charlie and Alex have each had posts today on the difficulty of financing our healthcare system. Allow me to make it a trifecta by calling your attention to a story that ran in the AJC over the weekend detailing the struggle that Riverdale’s Southern Regional Medical Center is having in staying open in a county where demographic changes are greatly increasing the number of patients who can’t pay, insurance providers are reducing payments, and competition is forcing the hospital to compete for profitable patients.

Last May, Clayton County pumped $50 million into the facility, largely to pay off bond debt. In fiscal 2014, the hospital provided $21.6 million of care for which it wasn’t paid. And maybe that’s reasonable for a facility that handles over 74,000 emergency room visits per year. In the past, much of the shortfall would be made up for by patients whose procedures were covered by traditional insurance. However, competition has reduced the number of those patients:

Day surgery centers opened in the market after the state in 2008 passed a law allowing them to skip the state’s certificate of need process if they are limited to a single specialty. A new orthopedic center was a particular blow, Southern Regional officials said. Doctors who had used the hospital in the past began sending their patients to the outpatient centers, cutting into Southern Regional’s admissions.

Legislation also allowed Cancer Treatment Centers of America to open, 25 miles to the south. And insured patients have their choice of Piedmont Fayette Hospital to the west and Piedmont Henry to the east.

Between 2007 and 2012, Southern Regional reported more than a 50 percent drop in admissions covered by third-party payers, such as private insurance.

There is some good news for Southern Regional. An affiliation with Emory Healthcare and new hospital CEO Kim Ryan, who previously oversaw the growth of Snellville’s Eastside Medical Center, and before that guided Tulane Medical Center through Hurricane Katrina, plus an improving economy provide rays of hope.

For those of us in Atlanta, it’s easy to think of the issues with rural hospitals as something far away that won’t make any difference to us. Yet the difficulties at Southern Regional and the fact that Grady Hospital was recently eliminated as an in-network facility by Blue Cross / Blue Shield make clear that determining the most effective way to deliver healthcare is an issue that should conceern all Georgians.

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Prior to 2013, Medicaid paid doctors on average nationwide only 59% of what Medicare would pay for primary care services, which itself pays less than what doctors typically bring in from private insurers. With the goal of increasing access to health care in mind, the Affordable Care Act provided a federally-funded temporary bump for Medicaid to 100% of Medicare primary care reimbursement rates from 2013 to 2014.

These boosted payments have now expired, and the AJC reports that doctors are concerned about the impact this will have on access to care for Georgia’s Medicaid patients. Since 1.8 million Georgians, including 43% of Georgia’s kids, get their health insurance through Medicaid, this is no isolated problem. Senator Renee Unterman (R-Buford), chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, supports addressing this payment drop-off and will be holding a hearing this Friday on the issue.

“We’re not just talking about poor people here. We’re talking about insurance holders who won’t be able to find doctors in their county because the doctors will have left,” Unterman said.

If the state does not act, Medicaid primary care payments will drop by 35% back to what Georgia paid to doctors in 2012: 65% of the amount that Medicare pays. Neighboring states Alabama and South Carolina have filled this funding gap, so it’s not inconceivable that Georgia could act. Keeping the boosted rates would cost just over $60 million in state dollars in FY 2016, which would bring in over $125 million in federal funds.

A recent fiscal note shows that raising the tobacco tax by $1.23 to the national average would bring in around $570 million annually, and at least one health care lobbyist has pointed to this potential revenue source as a way to boost provider payments. A rough estimate based on this fiscal note shows that only $0.13 more per cigarette pack (and its tobacco equivalents) would allow the state to eliminate this funding drop-0ff. This means there’s room for a tobacco tax hike that solves this problem while leaving plenty of new revenue for other state priorities.

 

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The Future is Coming Soon

February 23, 2015 11:30 am

by Teri · 2 comments

Transportation! Economic development! Driverless cars! Jobs!

These are issues of importance to most of us, and the Atlanta Regional Commission agrees. They recently released phase two of a three-part survey:

Last fall, we asked you to help us identify and prioritize the biggest challenges facing metro Atlanta in the next 25 years. More than 8,000 of you told us what you thought.  Now we would like to hear more.  Help us consider: autonomous vehicles, mobile workplace technology, regional job growth, and regional transit expansion.

Input from this survey will be used to help ARC develop The Region’s Plan that will guide public policies and investments related to issues of transportation, land use, water quality, workforce development, aging and health resources. This survey is an important opportunity for the community to have an impact on this regional vision.

It took me about five minutes to complete the survey, and you should consider taking a few minutes to do the same. The ARC aims to address needs that impact everyone in the region, and if there’s one thing that TSPLOST taught us (much in the same way an anvil to the head can teach us), it’s that there are a lot of different opinions of how we, as a region of county and municipal fiefdoms, should approach job creation and retention, transportation, transit, and – seriously – driverless cars. No one in Georgia benefits if leaders in metro Atlanta approach these issues with a “me and my friends” mentality, so please share how you and your friends feel.

The full press release on the survey is below the fold.

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A bill that would reduce Georgia’s top income tax rate to 5.25% from the current 6% was read for the first time in the House this morning. House Bill 435, sponsored by Reps. B.J. Pak of Lilburn and Brett Harrell of Snellville is the first of two tax related bills to be introduced this week. The other bill, which is expected to propose moving the state more towards a consumption tax, will be introduced by Rep. John Carson of Marietta at a 4:30 PM press conference.

In order to make the Pak/Harrell bill revenue neutral, there would only be two allowed itemized deductions: charitable contributions and home mortgage interest under $20,000. That would mean the elimination of many current deductions, including property and state income taxes paid, medical and dental expenses, casualty losses, and many miscellaneous deductions. While no fiscal note has been issued, Harrell says that research prior to the start of the 2015 session points to the tradeoff between fewer deductions and a lower rate as revenue neutral.

He also points out that the bill is designed to be have a small impact on most taxpayers, except for the tax benefit. Most taxpayers, of course, claim the standard deduction, and wouldn’t be affected at all. And as far as the limit on mortgage deductions, even if the interest rate rises to 8%, only mortgages over $250,000 would be affected.

Neither this bill nor the Carson bill to be introduced this afternoon are expected to pass this year. Instead, they are meant to start a conversation that could lead to real tax reform by the end of the session in 2016.

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2015-02-23 09.27.13

Even us technology pros still have paper books and manuals around.
Image by Nathan Smith

Jessica mentioned on her Facebook about SB 89, deemed the “Digital Classroom Act”, which would require public schools to go to a totally digital classroom by the year 2020 (that’s only 5 years away for those keeping score at home…ok, 5 years and 5-ish months since the Act would go into effect July 1, 2020).

I’m sure y’all know by now that I’m a technology professional, and I love playing with tech. However, just consider the time frame in which we are asking all of our school systems to provide the infrastructure (think of docking stations, power, and bandwidth), the security, and the tablets and/or laptops for the students. The task would be a challenge to a fully staffed IT department in any company. It becomes an even more monumental task for more rural districts who may have only one or two IT professionals that provide services for the whole district (I don’t know that for a fact, but I’d be willing to bet that smaller school districts only have a few IT staff members).

Tablets/laptops/e-readers can potentially have issues: batteries dying, software problems, network problems, authentication problems, hardware failure, etc. Textbooks can be torn, become waterlogged, and other destructive things, but it’s generally robust and fairly user-friendly. The main problem with some textbooks is that some of the material becomes outdated fairly quickly. In our fast-pace technological society, I can see why there is a want to have our classrooms become digital. It makes it more flexible to teach with up-to-date material…..of course, that depends on the textbook vendor. As Jessica mentioned, some college textbooks had no significant difference between the paper and electronic copies. I can attest to that when I saw the electronic copies of some of my college textbooks were roughly the same as the paper copy ten years ago.

I’m not saying the idea of a digital classroom is bad. It’s not. In fact, it would be an opportunity to provide students with a richer education experience: supplemental videos, tutorials that can learn what the student really knows and provide instruction materials based on that knowledge, and other interactive things that engage the student. The issue I can see with this the price tag and passing that responsibility to the local school districts.

To my friends in the senate, I’d like you to ask yourself a few questions before pressing the big green or red button today: If you believe it’s a good idea, will you be willing to allocate funds to local school districts to ensure the successful deployment? How will we get those funds? Are you willing to ask your local school districts to raise property taxes or use an E-SPLOST to provide that funding?  Remember, it’s not just buying the hardware and digital materials, it’s also making sure you have enough people on staff (or contracted out) to make sure the stuff works on a daily basis.  It’s the whole IT infrastructure mantra of “we make sure the lights stay on and that the trains run on time”.

It’s an admirable idea, but it’s not something that needs to be half-baked.  If the state wants it, then the state needs to stand behind the idea and not just pass the buck to local school districts and their respective boards.

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This week’s Courier Herald column:

Healthcare has been the dominant political issue for the past five years, with the battlefield and marching orders coming almost exclusively from Washington DC. Democrats managed to use absolute majorities in Congress and the White House to implement the Affordable Care Act, a/k/a “Obamacare”. Republicans managed to use the overreach to take the U.S. House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. Democrats, however, were successful in re-electing President Obama in 2012.

Thus, in the battle over healthcare we now have the customary DC gridlock. While Republicans may manage to get a bill through Congress to repeal the ACA, it is highly unlikely that the President will repeal his signature legislation during the final two years of his term. The only real hope to break the gridlock is a pending Supreme Court ruling that will decide if citizens that did not set up their own healthcare exchange are eligible for premium subsidies.

This ruling, expected this Summer, will most likely come after Georgia’s General Assembly has gaveled to a close in early April. As such, while many realize much of Georgia’s healthcare delivery system is fundamentally broken, the state has only minor control over what can be accomplished locally. And yet, we have a crisis in rural areas with critical access hospitals.

Four rural hospitals have closed in the last 15 months. 15 hospitals are on the brink, with six considered operating “day to day”. Misty Williams of the Atlanta Journal Constitution recently took an in depth look at the problem, noting that rural hospitals lose money on 80% of the patients they see. They would need to make 300% of costs on their private pay patients just to break even. [click to continue…]

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Atlantans got some….rather sobering… numbers about the new Streetcar project in Atlanta. 

Let me start this by saying I am generally not a fan of the Streetcar. I think it can (and very well may) become a boondoggle. That said, some of the numbers are worth putting into context and there is a little glimmer of hope for the Streetcar.
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National
John McCain: I’m ashamed of my country
Are American malls at risk?
Walker feeling the heat
Red carpet at the Oscars

Local
Private probation legislation returns
How will MCSD use $34 million?
2 deputies shot in Habersham County
Annexation vs. cityhood: My law is stronger than your law

Sports
Lagano earns 1st Daytona 500 victory
Hawks back on the winning track
Remembering the Miracle on Ice

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Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee listen to the testimony of Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality.  Photo:  Jon Richards

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee listen to the testimony of Jeff Graham of Georgia Equality.
Photo: Jon Richards

Senator Josh McKoon had likely hoped he could get SB 129, the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act, through the Judiciary Committee quickly on Thursday. After all, he’s the bill’s sponsor as well as the committee chairman. But, after an hour of testimony by witnesses and discussion among committee members, his bill ended up being tabled after he refused to allow consideration of an amendment because it wasn’t presented in a timely manner.

After hearing from more than a dozen witnesses who were fairly evenly divided in their support or opposition to the bill, the committee began its internal deliberations with Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert saying he would support the bill. He added that Senator McKoon had taken some unfair criticism for his bill, and that McKoon had no intention to discriminate. And indeed, the substitute bill McKoon brought to committee added an additional finding to the first section of the bill saying that government has an overriding interest in eliminating discrimination. However, a legislative finding that government is opposed to discrimination does not have the force of law. For that to be the case, appropriate wording would need to be inserted into Section 50-15A-4, where the list of other things the bill doesn’t apply to lies.
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Four Senate Democrats have introduced a bill to raise the mandatory school attendance age to 17. Senators Lester Jackson (D-2), Steve Henson (D-41), Horacena Tate (D-38) and Freddie Powell Sims (D-12) have sponsored Senate Bill 56, which has been assigned to the Education and Youth Committee where Senator Tate and Senator Powell Serve.

Georgia is one of 23 states with a minimum attendance age of 16; the other 27 set the bar at 17 or 18. States with a minimum of 16 years include perennial best-in-show northeast states like Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont, while Southern neighbors like Alabama and Mississippi have already raised the minimum to 17, suggesting that older mandatory attendance is a reaction to– rather than answer for– failing education systems.

Massachusetts first introduced the policy in 1852. Designed to supplement the private religious instruction the Commonwealth had boasted since Plymouth Bay, mandatory school attendance amounted to a rebirth, if not the essential creation, of American public schooling. New England claimed the nation’s best education systems and has ever since.

Proponents of compulsory education argue that it prevents dangerous behavior among adolescents, like teen pregnancy (by  4.7%) or crime, while decreasing the drop-out rate by up to 25%. Curiously, these changes are most pronounced among urban whites.

Opponents argue that mandatory attendance makes schools more dangerous and less effective for students who do want to learn, and that the whole “mandatory education” thing is a bit creepy. As always, Japan is a frequently cited non-sequitur.

For students under the mandatory attendance age, the main consequence of truancy is the denial of a drivers license by the Department of Driver’s Services. If the law passes, the stay may see more students in school and more unlicensed drivers on the road.

Republicans may object to the increased onus the bill will put on counties– as well as the associated spending increases. The bill’s sponsors will need to prove that an additional year of mandatory education has tangible benefits beyond day care for at-risk teens.

But perhaps any statewide panacea that doesn’t involve tax hikes revenue increases looks pretty good.

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Today we’ll be on location for WGST Peach Pundit Radio at Marietta’s Red Hare Brewery.  Rich Sullivan, Mike Hassinger and myself will be discussing political topics of the day, and possibly reviewing a beverage or two.  Possibly.  I’m guessing the proposed bill to allow craft brewers to sell on site may come up.

You can listen live at 640 on your AM dial, or just click this little link right here.

 

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