Georgia state legislators who represent Hall County took questions at the Greater Hall Chamber’s Eggs and Issues forum at Lanier Technical College Thursday, discussing a range of topics from education and mental health to transportation and legalized recreational marijuana. Rep. Soo Hong, R-Lawrenceville, and Rep. David Clark, R-Sugar Hill, who each represents a portion of Hall County, did not attend Thursday’s forum.
Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, talked about the passage of House Bill 1013, which requires insurance companies to “ensure parity between mental health care and physical health care.” The legislation, signed by Gov. Brian Kemp in April, also enables the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) to “coordinate initiatives to assist local communities” in minimizing the incarceration of those who struggle with mental illness.
Asked what further steps could be taken to address mental health needs in Georgia, Hawkins called for closer examination of mental health issues as a whole as well as accessing more funding.
“When you talk about mental health, you talk about a disease that lingers for a lifetime for most folks – it’s not something that’s cured quickly,” Hawkins said. “…we’re luckily going into a future of new medications and new types of treatments. Also, we’ll be looking at new funding sitting in the budget…things will come up that will increase the dollar-cost for the programs, but we’re going to do that. We’re going to treat these patients. We’re going to get them out of jail, and we’re going to put them in institutions they deserve and can treat them.”
Rep. Derrick McCollum, R-Gainesville, who said his son suffers from mental health challenges, weighed in on the issue by comparing unmet psychological needs to untreated chronic diseases.
“We see people on the side of the road suffering from (mental health),” McCollum said. “If you think about somebody that’s a diabetic…and we just let them not have insulin or anything like that to help them. Mental health is the same thing. We’re not giving them any tools to help them.”
A question was directed to Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, regarding starting teacher pay in Gainesville and Hall County, which is an estimated $47,000. Asked how to make the region more attractive to current and future teachers, Dubnik touted progress he believes state leaders have already made to ensure teachers are fairly compensated.
“If you look at the 13 southern and southeastern states, Georgia has the second highest starting teacher salary out of all those states,” Dubnik said. “Through Gov. Kemp’s leadership, we’ve added $5000 in teacher pay raises over the last few years.”
Dubnik expanded on the issue, highlighting what he described as a “concerning” shortage of teachers in the state and offering solutions beyond additional funding.
“It’s not just teacher recruitment but it’s teacher retention,” Dubnik said. “The number of teachers that are leaving the profession within the first five years is fairly alarming…we always hear that pay is the great equalizer – throw money at the problem. I’m not saying that teacher pay is not at the top of the list, but I think we’ve also got to look at different ways to tackle that…(such as) loan forgiveness (and) tax credits for teachers who pursue advanced degrees.”
State Sen. Shelly Echols, R-Alto, a former teacher, followed Dubnik’s remarks by lauding programs and initiatives to attract younger educators to classrooms across the state.
“I also would like to see programs – like what UNG is doing – to get student-teachers in the classroom. As a teacher in that capacity, I’d love to see that program expanded throughout the state.”
State Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, said there needs to be a stronger push for greater accessibility to technical education, stressing trade schools as fundamental to the workforce in the 21st century.
“When companies looking to relocate ask about infrastructure – they’re not just talking about roads and bridges,” Hatchett said. “...they’re talking about a trained workforce, and I think the future of Georgia is going to rest on the backs of technical education. I’m going to do everything I can to help technical schools.”
Violence against healthcare workers
At the end of November, according to Carter, Northeast Georgia Health System “experienced 368 assaults (on healthcare workers) since the same time last year.” Hatchett, who served on a study committee during the last legislative session which sought to assess such instances said that he believes House Bill 1013, the mental health bill, was able to alleviate the problem to some extent.
“We looked at several issues…one of the proposals they brought to us was to increase the punishment for violence against healthcare workers from a misdemeanor to a felony...(around) 75-80 percent have mental health issues,” Hatchett said. “After (House Bill) 1013, now we have a code responder who’s trained – who can help issue a 1013 and get that person the treatment they need.”
Twenty three states have legalized recreational marijuana. Lawmakers were asked whether they would support a measure to decriminalize marijuana in Georgia.
While the board of legislators expressed unanimous opposition to the legalization of recreational use marijuana, Hatchett spoke about the various benefits of medicinal forms of the THC, like cannabis oils.
“The cannabis oil can make such a huge impact,” he said. “When you hear the stories about individuals who were addicted to pain medications…this medicinal use of cannabis oil can change their lives. I’m in favor of medicinal use of marijuana, not recreational.”
Dubnik agreed with Hatchett’s stance on the issue, calling for additional legislation and “getting access” of medicinal forms of the drug for “families and children in need.”
Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gillsville, said the state and the nation is “behind on transportation.”
“We’re going to be looking a lot at the electric cars – the vehicles, the trucks,” Dunahoo said. “...sometimes, we get the horse behind the cart. What we do is approve and approve and approve, but we really do not sit down and look at the infrastructure – at what apartments or houses or what’s going into this area…I do believe, in the future, we’re going to be speaking more and more about transportation.”
Echols, who said “the only way (most) local projects can be accomplished is through a TSPLOST, described transportation as vital pending the completion of the Northeast Georgia Inland Port, which is expected to bring an influx of growth to the region.
“We’ve got some major projects happening in Hall County,” Echols said. “We’ve got the Inland Port coming, and there are going to be some transportation implications because of that…we’ve got to get moving and not play catch-up with that. I’d like to be a little more offensive, instead of defensive, on that.”