ATLANTA — One Newton County state lawmaker believes proposed changes to increase the level of mental health services may be the single action the General Assembly could take this year that affects the most Georgians.
Some others in the county's legislative delegation said raising teacher pay or suspending ratings of school districts during the pandemic also were actions that could assist the most state residents this year.
This year's second half of the 2021-22 Georgia General Assembly officially began Monday, Jan. 10.
Committees were to begin work in earnest beginning Tuesday on such major items as mid-year changes to the 2022 budget.
District 112 State Rep. Dave Belton, R-Buckhead, said he was hoping to see passage of Gov. Brian Kemp's plans for another $2,000 increase in teachers' annual pay.
The increase would complete Kemp's 2018 campaign promise to give teachers a $5,000 annual increase over four years and cost about $461 million.
“It's incumbent on the governor to fulfill his promise," Belton said.
Kemp said the money could be pulled from state revenues that, through November, were running more than $1 billion ahead of budget.
Belton, a former Morgan County School Board member, said it will affect more than 100,000 teachers, which makes teaching one of the largest single occupations in Georgia.
He said when he moved to the state in the early 2000s Georgia was among the lowest in the country for teacher salaries. It is now 17th for average pay at more than $60,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Belton also said a plan to eliminate the state income tax from military retirement income would affect numerous residents who are either native Georgians or served at one of the state's nine military bases and stayed after retiring.
Belton, who is a retired Air Force and Navy pilot, said the plan will cost about $35 million.
"It's a big ask," he said.
He noted Georgia is among only eight states that place a state income tax on military retirement income.
However, Belton said he believed the General Assembly will approve it and Kemp has said in recent speeches that he also supports the plan.
Kemp said he hoped it would encourage veterans to remain in Georgia after retiring from the military and possibly start new businesses — rather than moving to other states like Florida or Tennessee.
District 109 State Rep. Regina Lewis-Ward, D-McDonough, said the suspension of Georgia school system rating and report cards during school years affected by the COVID-19 pandemic could have a major effect.
She said she has filed legislation, House Bill 329, for the 2020-21 school year and is considering amending the bill to add the current school year, as well.
"School systems across Georgia continue to face unprecedented challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic," she said. "School evaluation standards used in the past do not measure what matters during a pandemic."
Lewis-Ward said HB 329 would relieve pressure on educators and academic administrators as they work to overcome challenges related to the pandemic "and could help schools reevaluate their current educational standards."
"The temporary suspension would not absolve Georgia’s education leaders of the responsibility of finding solutions to help students meet established academic standards," she said.
Lewis-Ward said the bill also seeks to "counteract the effects of COVID-19 on families while they continue to make necessary adjustments."
"School systems across Georgia face another year of uncertainty, and there is still a lot to learn about the full extent of the pandemic’s impact on student learning," she said.
District 43 State Sen. Tonya Anderson, D-Lithonia, said it was "hard to say" what legislation or initiatives would help the most Georgians at this point in the session.
District 17 State Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, said he believed a proposal to reform the state's mental health system will benefit the most Georgians if approved this year.
"I look forward to considering meaningful legislation that will begin the process of rethinking how we handle mental health services in Georgia," he said.
"This problem is not unique to Georgia but I am hopeful that we can be a leader in this nation in addressing this challenge that we have faced for decades."
Lawmakers and mental health advocates have said they would advocate for both funding increases and legislative changes to fix the gaps in mental health and substance use disorder treatment worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Georgia Health News.
A Georgia Behavioral Health Reform and Innovation Commission formed to study the wide range of service levels statewide found that few counties had an adequate number of health care workers.
Strickland is a member of the commission.
A bill the panel reportedly is planning to file this year is designed to compel insurers to cover mental health care expenses at the same levels as physical health.
Among other initiatives, it also could encourage an increase in the number of mental health professionals by offering education loans that could be canceled by working in the field, the AJC reported.