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Decatur legislators discuss mental health, education during town hall

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Decatur legislators discuss mental health, education during town hall

(L to R) State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, Sen. Elena Parent, Rep. Omari Crawford and Rep. Becky Evans discussed the legislative session and answered questions during a town hall on Thursday, April 20, 2023, at First Baptist Church of Decatur. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

Decatur, GA — Members of the DeKalb legislative delegation discussed the happenings of the legislative session during a town hall on Thursday, April 20. The lawmakers touched on topics such as sports betting, mental health reform, education, and housing.

Reps. Mary Margaret Oliver (D – Decatur), Omari Crawford (D – Decatur), Becky Evans (D – Atlanta) and Sen. Elena Parent (D – Senate District 42) hosted the town hall. 

Decatur Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers reminded those in attendance that there is still work to do on local legislation. The city of Decatur and City Schools of Decatur are working on updating their homestead tax exemptions. The bills passed the General Assembly and still must be signed by the governor. 

Upon Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature, the homestead tax exemptions will be on the ballot as a referendum in November. Kemp has until May 8 to sign or veto bills. 

“Hopefully, come November, you all show up and cast your ballot because these things matter,” Powers said. “In a time where every vote matters, you never know if your vote’s the one that’s going to decide whether a senior stays in the city or moves on.”

Last year, the General Assembly unanimously passed House Bill 1013, which reformed the state’s mental health system. The Mental Health Parity Act expands access to affordable mental health treatment and behavioral health services across Georgia, according to WABE

This year, Oliver worked on part two of that bill, which addressed workforce challenges. House Bill 520 would expand the loan forgiveness program, introduce alternative disciplinary processes for mental health professionals, update some services under alternative treatment programs coming out of accountability courts, and fund more psychiatric beds. 

“It was a good bill. It was a good second step,” Oliver said. 

The bill passed the House, but was not voted on in the Senate. It would still be up for consideration in 2024. 

A bill that would legalize sports betting also made its way through the Legislature. It did not pass this year but is still alive for the 2024 session. Parent said there is a proposal to legalize sports betting through a state Constitutional amendment. 

“It can bring in revenue,” Parent said. “It catches up all kinds of other issues, including the Georgia Constitution’s prohibition on gambling.” 

She added that some pros to sports betting could be additional revenue for education and needs-based higher education scholarships. But there are cons to gambling, she said. 

Parent noted that Senate Bill 222 passed the General Assembly. The bill ensures that all costs and expenses relating to election administration are paid for with lawfully appropriate public funds, and prohibits certain local governments and individuals from soliciting or accepting donations or other things of value to support election administration, according to a previous press release. 

“When the state decided that we were going to buy these new expensive voting machines, when they passed the big omnibus election rewrite bill, SB 202…all of this costs a ton of money on an ongoing basis for the local [election offices] and the state has declined to provide that funding,” Parent said during the town hall.

Through SB 222, any grants or donations to county boards must be directed to and allocated through the State Board of Elections, which will decide how best to allocate the funds. SB 222 does not apply to the donation of locations for voting purposes, services provided by individuals without remuneration or goods that have a nominal value of less than $500. 

“What really makes me very angry about the whole thing is it is a very different thing trying to run elections in our big urban counties versus in small rural counties,” Parent said. 

Some education bills that passed address literacy concerns, as about one third of students in Georgia can read proficiently by the end of third grade, Evans said. She sponsored HB 537 that would have required the Georgia Professional Standards Commission to require that teachers be certified in evidence-based literacy instruction. 

“My bill didn’t pass, but I agreed to have language for it put into another companion bill, HB 538, which builds upon the dyslexia bill that we passed several years ago,” Evans said. “The dyslexia bill requires screeners, and this bill, HB 538, will require screeners in K-3 and assessment three times a year to really make sure we’re on top of which students aren’t learning to read.” 

The state is coming up on the deadline to fund dyslexia screening for elementary school kids. 

“We did succeed in getting some money teed up into that effort this year,” Parent said. 

SB 211 also passed and creates a literacy council. The council will comprise 30 people, and it will come up with other ways to measure improvements in literacy over the next three years.

Crawford was focused on housing throughout the session. He signed onto HB 404 which aims to expand tenant rights. 

“One, it prohibits landlords from being slumlords. It creates habitability language for anyone who is renting a home. Two, it prohibits a landlord from receiving or asking for more than two months of rent in a down payment,” Crawford said.

The third thing the bill does is it prohibits landlords from moving for eviction immediately if a tenant is about to be evicted. It would allow for a three-day curing period to address the issue. The bill unanimously passed the House but was not voted on in the Senate.

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