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Next Tuesday, February 8th, JUSTGeorgia Coalition members will come together with Georgia’s network of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for a “Day at the Capitol.”  This will be a great time to get a quick update on the Child Protection and Public Safety Act, aka the Children’s Code Rewrite bill (which will be reintroduced any day now), meet your elected officials and share with them why this bill is important.

For those that can join us, we will be meeting in the Floyd Room of the Sloppy Floyd Building at 9:30 am for a legislative briefing, followed by a group photo with Governor Deal at 10:45 at the North Wing interior staircase.  After the photo I encourage each of you to visit with your legislators and invite them to join us for lunch back in the Floyd Room at 11:45.  It will certainly be a full day, but worth every effort as we continue the push for an improved children’s code which in turn will lead to improved outcomes for our children.  For more information, click here or email jneighbors@justga.org.  I hope to see you there!

Julia Neighbors, JUSTGeorgia Project Manager

Governor Deal (front and center) meets with community and political leaders from around the world on Jan. 14 at the Georgia Capitol. Polly McKinney, Voices' advocacy director, is to his right.

Although activity at the state Capitol was slowed down this week by snow and ice, by people trying to find new offices and learn new systems, Georgia government, nevertheless, moved forward. A Governor was inaugurated, Senators and Representatives were sworn in, and the new Administration’s plan for fiscal management was delivered. The Senate and House have made committee assignments and dropped a few bills, but overall, it was an especially slow week legislatively. That said, it was a wonderful week in terms of being reminded of the deepest meaning of what Voices is about: advocating on behalf of children.

This morning, a state Senator and I, met with a group of political and business leaders from around the world. As the group arrived at the South Entrance of the Capitol, it occurred to me what a treat it would be for them to have a photo taken with the Governor. Even though it seemed unlikely that Governor Deal would be available on such short notice, we checked with his office, and surprisingly, he was in and happy to come out to meet the guests. After the photo, the Governor asked if he might address the group and take a few questions. As you might guess, I said of course and please!

He spoke of foreign students his family had hosted, and took questions ranging in subject from snow to changing political parties. It was watching Governor Deal, so close, so candid and so kind, that it occurred to me that the most important thing to note this week was the fact that we are living and raising our children in an “Advocacy Friendly” country. As disheartened as we can all get by angry rhetoric, partisan politics, and last week’s tragedy in Tuscon, it is important to remember that few other countries have such amazing access to their government. To be able to call your lawmaker on the phone at the office or at home, to be able to stand in the halls of a capitol or even a grocery parking lot and respectfully present your point of view to an elected official without fear of reprisal is a gift and, because of how our country has grown, a right. That mutual trust, that peaceful transition of power, and that welcomed self-confidence is what allows each of us to be a voice for Georgia’s children. It is what allows us each to raise our children to become voices for the children of the future.

Polly

Polly McKinney
Advocacy Director
Voices for Georgia’s Children

On Monday, August 9th from 2 – 4 pm, SB 292, the Child Protection and Public Safety Act (more commonly known as the juvenile code rewrite bill) will be the subject of a public hearing down at the Capitol. Specifically Article 6, Children in Need of Services (aka CHINs) will be discussed.  Monday’s hearing is particularly noteworthy as it will be the first time we have had a public discussion about this new approach for intervening with kids who are currently considered “unruly” under Georgia law (more commonly known as status offenders). CHINs include children who have committed acts that would not be against the law but for the fact that they are under the age of 18, such as skipping school, running away from home, and violating curfew (status offenses).  CHINs also includes children and youth who are “habitually disobedient” to their parents and place themselves or others in unsafe circumstances through their behavior.

Under current law, court intervention with these kids is similar to intervention in delinquency cases, even though court involvement and responses like detention tend to exacerbate the problems that first led families to seek help.  Current research and best practices now suggest that youth and families in crisis require a faster response than courts can offer and that juvenile justice systems are often ill-equipped to provide the services these youth and families need.  Under Article 6, SB 292 creates a more holistic, service-oriented approach to these kinds of cases.  The CHINs framework acknowledges that these sorts of behaviors happen within the context of the family and school environment that the child is in, and that the involvement of the family and other important people in the child’s life is important to protect the child and help him or her become responsible member of society.  The key is implementing immediate, family focused alternatives to court intervention by referring young people and their families to services in their communities and use the juvenile justice system as a last resort.  Florida, New York and Connecticut have had successful reforms of their status offense systems under this new paradigm.  You can read their case studies in “Making Court the Last Resort:  A New Focus for Supporting Families in Crisis.”   I welcome the opportunity to discuss CHINs and how it can help troubled youth and their families here in Georgia.

Julia Neighbors, Project Manager-JUSTGeorgia

Children need lobbyists.  I’ve blogged about this before.  Individuals and nonprofits that care about children’s issues should storm the state capitol every January.  We must do so, in order to give the interests of children a fighting chance for the attention and commitment of lawmakers. (YES, non profits can lobby legally!  Just follow the IRS rules.  The Alliance for Justice will tell you how.)

But lobbyists for children, whether Moms, Dads, volunteers or nonprofits, rarely have the resources for the tickets, restaurants, trips and entertainment that often are offered by lobbyists in the corporate sector.  I don’t believe that most legislators “sell” their votes.  But the familiarity, even friendship, that develops over a good meal, cheering the Braves, walking the links, create pressures.  We all experience it, not just in politics but in organizations, neighborhoods, anywhere.  It doesn’t mean that legislators don’t care about kids or other social issues.  But the kids’ lobbyists don’t get the same amount of face time, nor time that breeds a sense of obligation. 

This is why the opinion piece by Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver today in the AJC makes sense.   In speaking to your representatives about the rules on gifts from lobbyists and other ethics legislation, you are asking for a level playing field for all the interests addressed by our elected officials.  I’m asking for it for children. 

Pat Willis, Executive Director

Voices for Georgia’s Children

Sine Die can’t come soon enough for those of us who are weary from the longer than usual legislative session.  Yet, the General Assembly still has a full day ahead, and the 40th day can be a dangerous time as  troubling amendments can be attached to seemingly innocuous bills.

Most of my day will be spent watching out for amendments to bills that can affect kids.

The major item that the House and Senate must pass is the FY 11 conference committee report on the budget.  Based on tonight’s conference committee meeting, I expect that House and Senate leadership will congratulate each other tomorrow on the work that they did together to ensure that core state services are funded.  They will state that the budget process this year was transparent, that legislators in both chamber came together to make hard decisions in tough budget times, and they will state that the primary objective of the budget is to help strengthen Georgia’s economy.  Then, they will pass the budget.

But, tomorrow is also expected to be a day on which some of the most controversial social issues, including guns and abortion, are debated on the floor.  A conference committee is expected to meet to work to ensure that provisions on graduated sanctions are included in a juvenile justice bill.  The House could take up a bill that would base teacher salaries on student performance.  And the House and Senate must reach agreement on bills banning texting while driving.

And, throughout the day, we’ll learn who is filing to run for office and who is opting to retire as election qualifying week continues and legislators take the well to tell their colleagues that this will be their last sine die as members of the House or Senate.  Many members are retiring or leaving the legislature to run for other office.  The last number of empty seats expected was 21.

Voices will be at the Capitol all day and will share news about legislation relevent to children’s advocates.

Mindy Binderman

Director of Government Affairs and Advocacy

www.georgiavoices.org

The Conference Committee on FY 2011 Budget held a public meeting tonight to sign the conference committee report that will be presented to the House and Senate tomorrow.  I waited all day for news of the meeting and had returned home when I received notice that the conferees would be meeting at 9 pm. 

It was worth the drive back downtown to hear a little good budget news.  So far, based on comments at the meeting and discussion with the always helpful, calm, knowledgeable and gracious budget staff afterwards, I have be able to confirm that the conferees:

  • Rejected the Senate’s proposed additional $727,000 cut to school nurses;
  • Provided $10 million for a new needs based HOPE scholarship (the Senate had proposed $52 million while the House had originally included nothing)
  • Cut by about half the Senate’s proposal to reduce DJJ funds for a regional principal, an assistant principal, and 17 certified teaching positions and replacing them with 15 GED instructors;
  • Rejected the $3.1 million in DJJ funding proposed by the Senate which would have eliminated summer school in 18 Secure Detention Facilities (RYDCs).
  • Included Peachcare Premiums in the amount proposed in the House Budget and attached budget language proposed by the Senate;
  • Fully funded Medicaid,  and
  • Included funds for programs for foster care families without a specific reference to Project Embrace.

 

I did not get details about Babies Born Healthy or specific items in the Department of Education budget which, according to comments from Chairman Harbin, may have been spared some cuts and hope to have more information in the morning.

We can’t forget that, in context, the FY 11 budget, as well as the FY 10 amended budget, contain deep, potentially devastating cuts to child welfare programs, education, and benefits eligibility workers.  Most of the conference committee actions for kids reduce but do not eliminate program cuts. Yet, the conferees deserve our thanks for trying to alleviate a bit of the harm that a few specific cuts may have inflicted.

The conference committee report will be delivered to the House and Senate tomorrow- just in time for Sine Die.

Mindy Binderman

Director of Government Affairs and Advocacy

www.georgiavoices.org

The House and Senate agreed to a new adjournment resolution today.  The schedule for the last 5 days of the legislative session is as follows:

Monday, April 19- Day 36 ( the Senate is scheduled to take up HB 1085, the Fostering Connections Bill)

Tuesday, April 20- Day 37

Wednesday, April 21- Day 38

Tuesday, April 27- Day 39

Thursday, April 29- Day 40 SINE DIE

After several hours of debate and a delay to allow the Senate to pass HB 1055 which raises certain user fees, contains the hospital bed tax and phases in property tax cuts and income tax cuts for seniors, the House passed the FY 11 budget today.  The budget now goes to the Senate.

In response to Georgia’s continuing fiscal crisis, the budget passed by the House contains deep cuts to K-12 education and child welfare workers, furloughs of state workers, reduction in the number of case workers and benefits workers.  Yet, Voices was pleased that the House has endorsed two Voices funding priorities.

The House’s version of the FY 11 budget contains the necessary state match for the implementation of the Planning for Healthy Babies Medicaid waiver program.  When it implements the waiver, the Department of Community Health can pull down 90 cents from the federal government for every 10 cents of state funds spent to provide women under 200 percent of the federal poverty limits with health services targeted to ensure healthy pregnancies and decrease the number of very low birth weight infants in our state. Not only does this promote better child outcomes but it is also projected to bring significant savings to Georgia.

In addition, Voices has also spoken against the Governor’s proposed cut to the lottery funded pre-k Resource Coordinator program which provides vital services to empower parents to become engaged in their child’s education.  We are happy to note that the House version of the FY 11 budget, reduces the size of the cut to Resource Coordinators by 50% while also funding 2000 new pre-k slots.

We’ve passed an important hurdle and will continue to work with members of the Senate to ensure that amendments to these items are not made in the Senate’s version of the FY 11 budget.

Mindy Binderman

Director of Government Affairs and Advocacy

www.georgiavoices.org

Yesterday was the most drama-filled day at the Capitol that I have experienced in my nearly 4 sessions of lobbying in Georgia.

The focus of the day was the Senate’s scheduled vote on HB 307 which will temporarily raise needed revenues for Medicaid.  HB 307 implements a three-year, 1.45 percent provider fee on hospitals to generate $169 million in net new revenue. These revenues fund Medicaid services and provider reimbursements, helping to fill a gap in Medicaid funding due to the recession.

HB 307 has been the subject of controversy for most of the session since it was proposed by Governor Perdue.  Originally, hospitals, with the support of key leaders in the House, strenuously opposed the measure.  Yet, when the governor stated that if HB 307 does not pass, the Medicaid program will face severe cuts to provider reimbursements and the Senate refused to consider a tobacco tax increase, the hospital association changed its position and agreed to support the bill.

Yesterday, the Senate recessed twice so that leadership could work to convince members to vote for HB 307.  The Democratic Caucus, in the meantime, resolved to vote against the measure. In the end, the measure passed with an amendment that would eliminate health insurance premium taxes sometime in the future.

 The AJC’s account of the vote gives an accurate picture of what happened yesterday and today’s aftermath in which House Speaker Ralston has said that he will reject the Senate’s amendments and send the bill back to the Senate.

From the beginning of the 2010 session, Voices has spoken out for the need to fill the Medicaid hole and avoid reimbursement rate cuts that would have a devastating impact on the health care infrastructure of Georgia.  We have urged that all options, including the hospital fee and the tobacco tax be considered.

The political drama continues, yet, what remains clear is that the legislature must work together to resolve the looming Medicaid crisis by approving new revenue sources.

Mindy Binderman, Director of Government Affairs and Advocacy

Voices for Georgia’s Children

www.georgiavoices.org

The House unanimously passed SB 206, the tax transparency bill today. The bill, which requires a regular accounting of tax breaks to bring more transparency and accountability into tax decisions, will now go to the Governor for signature.

Voices, along with a host of other groups, supports SB 206 because good government provisions like this that provide accurate and timely information for advocates ensure better outcomes for children.

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