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Belton: Newton County legislation wraps up season
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First, while I do not speak for my fellow legislators, I feel I must address the new form of government for Newton County that will create a strong County Manager and a weak Commissioner Chairman.

Legislative Delegations normally do NOT take up measures that are brought to them without a unanimous vote by the local leaders. As you know, the new charter came to us with a much divided vote -- one third were opposed -- putting us in a very difficult position.

Most Legislative Delegations would not have taken up the matter after such a split vote, but we knew how hard the Charter Committee worked and how much the citizens wanted this fixed so we listened to the will of the people and reverted back to the original recommendations of the Charter Committee, which were so well received by the public through 13 open meetings. The changes we made were slight and in accordance with best practices throughout the state and what the Charter Committee recommended. We also instituted a few cost saving and accountability measures that will reduce the tax burden of you, the voter.

The bill passed both Chambers and will be enacted in January 2017.

The last week of Session produced two very influential bills. The first is the Religious Freedom/First Amendment Compromise that you will hear a lot about in the media. But perhaps just as significant is the new Teacher Evaluation bill (SB 364) that I have been working on for two years.

As you know, the House passed the Preacher Protection Act a few weeks ago by a unanimous vote – even the Democrats supported it. The Senate passed a First Amendment (FADA) bill that many thought had discriminatory language. After much deliberation, the RFRA/FADA compromise was reached and passed along party lines (104-65 in the House).

There are a few things I’d like to make clear. First, Georgia cannot change federal law. What we are talking about is protecting religious freedom from Georgia state laws or any local laws in Georgia. The second is that the infamous example of the baker in Oregon does NOT apply to Georgia - before or after this law - because Oregon has different laws than Georgia. In Oregon, municipalities wrote laws that affected that baker. Georgia does not have these kinds of laws and will not have these kinds of laws with the enactment of this RFRA/FADA bill.

So what does it do? First, preachers cannot be forced to participate in rites they deem contrary to their religious convictions. Second, no business can be forced to open on Saturday or Sunday. Third, no faith-based organization is required to provide services to people that violate their religious beliefs and do not have to employ people whose religious beliefs are not in accordance with that organization. Finally, the language mirrors - word for word - the 1993 Federal RFRA law enacted by President Clinton which states that government shall not burden a person’s exercise of religion unless it has a compelling reason to do so (like child abuse, for example.)

I don’t like to talk about politics in this column, but I feel I must in this case. The Right should be happy at this comprehensive law. The Left is understandably hurt as they feel that even though President Clinton signed the same language back in 1993, that was 23 years ago when the mood of the nation was quite different. To be fair, the language of this bill actually states that nothing in this bill “shall be construed to permit invidious (‘irrational’ for us non-lawyers) discrimination”. I will also note that half of states already have a RFRA law and half of the Super Bowls were played in states that had a RFRA.

On a more bipartisan note, I am very excited that SB 364 passed by unanimously in the House and the Senate. This is a huge win for our teachers and parents who are tired of too many tests.

I’ve been saying for years that teacher morale is dangerously low. I attempted to enact most of SB 364’s provisions early last year, but my efforts were killed before I got to committee. Over the summer, however, a DOE survey came out that proved what I was saying – teachers are extremely frustrated and angry. Believe it or not, we’ve lost 7000 teachers in the last few years as we gained students in record numbers.

Armed with this new data, I was able to join a few other members in leading the charge for this needed change. SB 364 (sponsored by the Senate Education Chairman, whom I worked with extensively) mirrors the language I suggested, giving more control to the local School Boards, re-empowering the creativity of our teachers in their classrooms, and lessening our emphasis on standardized testing. Specifically, it reduces the amount of high-stakes testing from 32 to 24 and reduces the teacher evaluations based on testing from 50 percent to 30 percent. It also helps fix the SLO’s (Student Learning Objectives) problem (a convoluted way to measure student progress in classes like art or music) and reduces unnecessary hand-holding of our veteran teachers by half. Everyone enthusiastically supports the idea, including the Speaker, who actually endorsed the bill from well of the House. (That is unprecedented.) Finally, my School Transparency bill (HB 659) passed both Chambers as well, ensuring better accountability of the $16 Billion we spend on schools every year.

I hope you’ll continue to pray for me, and contact me with your constructive comments at or 706-372-4114.