The 2016 legislative session came to a close about half past midnight on the morning of March 25th. After 40 legislative days of battling over policy priorities, members of the House and Senate ended the year with cheering and tossing torn paper like confetti in the chambers.

Georgia passed a version of the ABLE Act, modeled after the federal version which passed in 2014. The new law provides for tax-free savings accounts to cover qualified disability expenses such as housing, education, or transportation, while also not affecting a disabled person’s eligibility for social security or food assistance benefits.

Tax credits for rural health care:
Modeled after the successful Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides education choice to more than 13,000 students, a new tax credit was created to help provide healthcare in rural Georgia. The new law allows individuals and corporations to receive a credit for donating to a rural health care organization, defined as a nonprofit that must treat patients who are indigent or on Medicaid or Medicare, and must be located in a rural county. Credits are capped at $50 million in the first year (2017), $60 million in year two, and $70 million in year three.

After three years of trying, the General Assembly passed one of their top priorities: a Religious Freedom bill. The bill mirrored language from the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed by President Bill Clinton and adopted by dozens of states, requiring government to prove a “compelling governmental interest” before it interferes with a person’s exercise of religion. It also included a clause saying it could not be used to allow discrimination already banned by state or federal law. However, Georgia’s business community weighed in, asking Governor Deal for a veto, with threats of relocating if it were to become law. Ultimately, Governor Deal vetoed the bill, saying it was unnecessary and did not reflect Georgia as a “warm, friendly and loving people.”

A new law was created with the intention of helping children in the foster care system (or helping them to avoid it altogether). The law prioritizing placing children with family members or kinship caregivers for a short time, when it is in their best interest. It also gives a legal framework for families to grant Power of Attorney to these relatives or caregivers who are temporarily caring for the children.

Governor Deal announced during his State of the State address in January that he was holding off the pursuit of his large education reform package until 2017 to give the legislature and the education community more time to fully vet the proposal. This signaled that it would be a lighter year than usual for education legislation. However, a few bills were introduced and fewer still saw final passage.

All teachers (and other state employees) saw a 3% raise included in the budget.
A bill passed (but has not yet been signed by the Governor) that reduces the percentage of student achievement that factors into a teacher’s evaluation from 50% to 30% and reduces the number of in-classroom observations for some teachers. HB 364l could also make Georgia the only state in the nation with statewide testing in grades 1-12. The Governor has until Tuesday, May 2nd to sign or veto the bill.

A bill to create a new tax credit scholarship program for low/middle income children.
A bill, called “Junior GI”, to give children of military families scholarships for use during K-12 years.
A bill to give children eligible for the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship more flexibility in how they use their scholarship dollars.

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