Decatur lawmakers discuss mental health, education during town hall – Decaturish

Decatur, Georgia — Members of DeKalb’s legislative delegation discussed the events of the legislative session during a town hall on Thursday, April 20. Lawmakers touched on topics such as sports betting, mental health reform, education and housing.

Representatives 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 Tony Powers reminded attendees that there is still work to be done on local legislation. The City of Decatur and Decatur City Schools are working on updating their property tax exemptions. The bills have passed the General Assembly and still need to be signed by the governor.

After Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature, the property tax exemption will be voted on as a referendum in November. Kemp has until May 8 to sign or veto the bills.

“We hope that in November you will all show up and vote because these things matter,” Powers said. “In a time when every vote counts, you never know if your vote will decide whether an elderly person stays in town or moves on.”

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

This year, Oliver is working on a second part of that bill that addresses workforce challenges. House Bill 520 would expand the loan forgiveness program, introduce alternative disciplinary processes for mental health professionals, update some alternative treatment program services stemming from 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 of Representatives but was not voted on in the Senate. It will still be up for viewing in 2024.

A bill that would legalize sports betting also passed the legislature. It didn’t pass this year, but is still alive for the 2024 session. Parent said there is a proposal to legalize sports betting by amending the state constitution.

“It could bring in revenue,” Parent said. “It catches up with all kinds of other issues, including the prohibition of gambling in the Georgia constitution.”

She added that some benefits of sports betting can be additional income for education and need-based scholarships for higher education. But gambling also has downsides, she said.

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

“When the state decided we were going to buy these new expensive voting machines, when they passed the big election rewrite bill, SB 202…it all costs a lot of money all the time for local [election offices] and the state refused to provide that funding,” Parent said during the town hall.

Through SB 222, all grants or donations to county boards must be directed to and distributed through the State Board of Elections, which will decide how best to distribute the funds. SB 222 does not apply to donations of voting seats, services provided by individuals without compensation, or goods having a nominal value of less than $500.

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

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

“My bill didn’t pass, but I agreed to have its text included in another companion bill, HB 538, which is based on the dyslexia bill we passed a few years ago,” Evans said. “The dyslexia bill requires screenings, and this bill, HB 538, would require screenings in K-3 and assessment three times a year to make sure we’re on top of which students aren’t learning to read.”

The state is nearing a deadline to fund dyslexia screening for elementary school children.

“We were able to put some money into that effort this year,” Parent said.

CO 211 also passed and creates a literacy council. The council will consist of 30 people and will come up with other ways to measure improvements in literacy over the next three years.

Crawford has been focused on housing throughout the session. He signed HB 404, which aims to expand renters’ rights.

“First, it prohibits landlords from being paupers. It creates a language of habitability for anyone who rents a home. Second, it prohibits a landlord from receiving or asking for more than two months’ rent as a down payment,” Crawford said.

The third thing the bill does is it prohibits landlords from moving for immediate eviction if a tenant is about to be evicted. This would allow a three-day treatment period to deal with the problem. The bill passed the House unanimously but was not voted on in the Senate.

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