Legislative Update: Uncertainties in the Midst of COVID-19 Epidemic
March 6, 2020
The 2020 legislative session came to an unexpected halt on Legislative Day 29 due to the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus. House and Senate leaders, in consultation with Gov. Brian Kemp, suspended the legislative session indefinitely. Kemp declared a public health state of emergency on March 14 and on March 16 issued an executive order to close all public schools in the state until March 31, 2020. The school closure could be extended beyond the 31st if deemed necessary.
The legislature will be reconvened by Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) when they determine it is safe to do so. When the General Assembly restarts, it is uncertain what their priorities will be in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and whether they will continue working on the legislation already under consideration. The only action lawmakers are required to take is passing the Fiscal Year 2021 (FY 2021) budget.
This PAGE report provides an update on the FY 2021 budget as of Legislative Day 28. However, the state’s financial circumstances may be significantly different when the legislature reconvenes. In comments to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Speaker Ralston acknowledged that the state’s budget will be squeezed as revenues will likely drop and expenditures go up. The budget that ultimately passes will probably look significantly different from the budget proposals initially put forth by Kemp and the House.
The PAGE legislative team provides this report so that members will know the status of education-related bills following Crossover Day. Crossover Day marks the deadline for bills to pass one chamber to remain viable to become law. The team will continue monitoring state and federal developments and report out as needed. When the General Assembly reconvenes, the PAGE team will return to the Capitol to ensure legislators are aware of the needs of Georgia’s educators and the students they serve. Updates will be provided through PAGE Capitol Reports.
Lawmakers voted on a slew of bills on Crossover Day and days prior to it that impact education. Notable bills propose an educator pay raise, a tax cut, and expanding one of Georgia’s two private school voucher programs. This brief describes the current status of these bills and provides a snapshot of the status of other education-related bills.
- Brian Kemp and House lawmakers disagree on a pay raise for educators in the FY 2021 budget. Kemp proposed a $2,000 pay raise while the spending plan outlined in the House budget offers a raise of $1,000. The House added $24 million to increase the number of school counselors and restored some of the cuts outlined in Kemp’s proposed budget.
- House lawmakers approved a tax cut that would set a flat income tax rate of 5.375 percent. This would replace the state’s current graduated income tax rate, which rises from one to 5.75 percent as income increases. The tax cut would reduce state revenues.
- The Senate passed a bill to expand the Special Needs Scholarship program, which is a private school voucher program. The bill would make many students with Section 504 plans eligible for the vouchers as well as students diagnosed with specific conditions by physicians and psychologists. This expansion could result in an additional $51 million in state funds being shifted from public schools to private schools.
Educator Pay Raise
The COVID-19 pandemic will likely decrease state revenue in FY 2021 as well as increase state expenditures. State leaders have noted the strain this will place on the state’s FY 2021 budget, which may lead to a shift in fiscal priorities. The information below reflects the status of budget deliberations as of Legislative Day 28.
Gov. Brian Kemp and House lawmakers disagree on a pay raise for educators in the FY 2021 budget. Kemp proposed a $2,000 raise, which would fulfill his campaign promise of a $5,000 pay raise for educators following the $3,000 salary increase in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget. Kemp also seeks a $1,000 raise for state-funded, non-certified employees earning less than $40,000 annually. The total cost of a $5,000 pay raise would be approximately $891 million. The tab for the $3,000 pay raise in FY 2020 was $529 million, and the price tag for the proposed $2,000 pay raise for educators as well as a $1,000 pay raise for non-certified staff earning less than $40,000 is $361 million.
The FY 2021 budget outlined in House Bill 973 offers educators a raise of $1,000, which has a state cost of $144 million. Under the House spending plan, funds that would have been allocated to the educator pay raise, as well as the raise for state employees earning less than $40,000, are redirected in part to merit-based pay increases for employees in all state agencies.
Pay Raise & Budget Details
Kemp’s proposed raises for educators and non-certified employees earning less than $40,000 would be implemented on July 1. The raise for non-certified employees includes school nurses who are licensed practical nurses but not those who are registered nurses as their salary is above $40,000. In addition, Kemp recommended a five percent pay raise for school bus drivers and school nutrition workers to be implemented on July 1.
Kemp’s proposed FY 2021 budget contains six percent cuts to most state agencies, including the Georgia Department of Education and other child- and family-serving agencies. More information about these cuts as well as cuts to the Amended Fiscal Year 2020 budget is available from PAGE here.
The $1,000 raise offered by House lawmakers, which is outlined in HB 793, would be effective September 1. The state cost of the raise is $144 million under the House plan, lower than the $361 million price tag for the $2,000 raise proposed by Kemp. The House also proposes a two percent pay raise for all school nurses as well as $1,000 raise for all state-funded non-certified staff with September 1 as the effective date. House lawmakers agree with Kemp’s proposed five percent pay raise for school bus drivers and nutrition workers.
House members offer other changes in their proposed budget including increases in several education programs. A notable increase is a $24 million boost to fully fund a school counselor to student ratio of one to 450. Under the QBE, gifted students and special education students do not receive funding for school counselors. The House’s proposed budget also restores some of the cuts recommended by Kemp including a portion of the cuts slated for Regional Education Services Agencies and a $2 million cut to state schools. Most of the cuts proposed by Kemp remain in the House’s version of the FY 2021 budget.
The House budget provides funding for merit-based salary increases and recruitment and retention initiatives across state agencies. House lawmakers would eliminate the $1,000 pay increase for workers earning less than $40,000 offered by Kemp.
The Senate Education Appropriations Committee will review the budget proposed by the House.
Proposed Tax Cut
Lawmakers in the House approved House Bill 949, which would institute a flat income tax rate of 5.375 percent. This would replace the state’s current graduated tax rate, which shifts from 1 to 5.75 percent as income rises. If approved by the Senate, the state could lose $383 million in revenue, reducing its ability to invest in education, including educator salaries, and other key supports for Georgia’s children and working families. 
Tax Cut Details
Income tax revenue makes up over half of the state’s total revenue making it the largest source of state funding for public education. The tax cut proposed in HB 949 would be the second tax cut in two years. In 2018, the General Assembly approved slicing the income tax rate to 5.75 percent from 6 percent. The cut is a leading factor in the decline in state revenues in the early months of FY 2020, which resulted in the four percent cut to the AFY 2020 budget as well as the six percent cuts on the table for the FY 2021 budget.
HB 949 has been assigned to the Senate Finance committee for review.
Private School Vouchers
The Senate approved Senate Bill 386, which would expand the Special Needs Scholarship program, one of Georgia’s two private school voucher programs. The bill seeks to enable students with Section 504 plans and some medical and mental health conditions eligible for the vouchers. It also would open the program to students diagnosed by a physician or psychologist with one or more of the conditions but who do not have a 504 plan. This expansion could shift an additional $51 million in state funds from public schools to private schools. 
Voucher Expansion Details
The number of students who would be eligible under the proposed criteria is unknown but could be large. The process and criteria for gaining a 504 plan are much lower than getting an Individualized Education Plan or IEP. Under the special needs voucher program’s current structure, eligibility is limited to students with an IEP. In addition, physicians and psychologists may hold different standards than district staff for establishing a qualifying condition. A detailed analysis of SB 386 is available from the PAGE legislative team.
The PAGE legislative team worked with lawmakers to add increased transparency requirements for participating schools and students in SB 386.
The bill has moved to the House where it will be reviewed by the Education Committee. As highlighted in its 2020 legislative priorities, PAGE opposes expanding both existing private school voucher programs in Georgia as well as creating a new voucher program.
Education Legislation Snapshot
Listed below are bills that passed by Crossover Day, which is day 28 of the 40-day legislative session. Bills are required to pass one chamber by that date to continue moving forward with the possibility of becoming law. Bills that did not pass are also listed.
House Bills that Passed
HB 336, which would allow retired educators to return to the classroom full-time in areas designated as high need by the Regional Education Service Agency of which the relevant local district is a member. Educators would be required to wait a year after retiring before returning to the classroom. More information is available here.
HB 444, was approved by the House and Senate and now heads to Gov. Kemp for signing. It limits state funding for dual enrollment courses to core courses and eligible CTAE courses. The bill also caps total state-funded credit hours at 30. More information is available here.
HB 755, which would require local school boards to provide charter schools they authorize with annual allotment sheets that itemize state, local, and federal allocations for the upcoming school year.
Senate Bills that Passed
SB 302, which would create an evaluation process for state tax expenditures. These include tax credits, deductions and rebates, which carry a big price tag for the state. More information is available here.
SB 349, which would require every middle and high school to make menstrual products available to students.
SB 351, is a non-binding resolution that would allow Georgia voters to determine whether to continue switching between Daylight Savings Time and Standard Time or select one. More information is available here.
SB 387, which would authorize the State Board of Education to provide rules for schools with a culinary arts program to dispense surplus food.
SB 466, which would eliminate the “needs development” rating from the teacher evaluation ratings as well as establish a pilot program to create a new evaluation system. More information is available here.
House Bills that Did Not Pass
HB 476, which would have allowed students who are also entertainers to not be counted as absent when performing during school hours.
HB 1055, which would have allowed homeschooled students to participate in athletic and other extracurricular activities in public schools.
HB 1106, which would have codified the Whole Child work underway at the Georgia Department of Education. It is similar to SB 102, which passed the Senate.
Senate Bills that Did Not Pass
SB 101, which would have required volunteer coaches with youth athletic associations to participate in annual training to reduce injuries.
SB 400, which would have set objectives for student participation in the dual enrollment program and established new reporting requirements.
SB 486, which would have allowed schools to provide a college entrance exam to high school juniors during the school day.
 Kanso, D. (2020). A flat tax is wrong for Georgia. Atlanta, GA: Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Retrieved from: https://gbpi.org/2020/a-flat-tax-is-wrong-for-georgia/
 Owens, S. (2020). Potential voucher expansion leaves students and parents at a loss. Atlanta, GA: Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Retrieved from: https://gbpi.org/2020/potential-voucher-expansion-leaves-students-and-parents-at-a-loss/