ATLANTA – Crossover Day in the General Assembly began March 12 under a coronavirus cloud, with unusually empty hallways and whispers of an early close to the session. Within hours the rumors became truth with the decision to suspend the 2020 session until further notice to limit exposure and spread of the virus.
In the waning hours on Crossover Day, legislators went to work winnowing down the long list of pending legislation, selecting those that will remain viable this session.
Legislative rules require bills to pass their originating chamber – House or Senate – by end of Crossover Day to be considered for passage in the current session. The day generally occurs on the 30th day of the 40-day session.
Bills which fail to pass on Crossover Day could still find relevance as amendments attached to active bills – known as “Christmas tree” bills.
Among the high-profile bills that “crossed over” was Senate Bill 386 which expanded the special needs voucher to more students. The law, first passed in 2007, allows parents of eligible students with special needs to receive a tuition voucher for a private school.
SB 386 would allow any student who has a plan in place that allows special accommodations in the regular classroom, commonly referred to as a 504 plan, to be eligible for a voucher.
Education advocates across the state rallied against the bill, noting a 504 plan is relatively simple to obtain, and the law would allow state tax dollars to subsidize a private education with limited guard rails.
“At a time when we are cutting dual enrollment, REACH scholarships, the supplement to new math and science teachers, etc., why would we expand an entitlement to private school?” asked Angela Palm, legislative director for the Georgia School Boards Association.
Last year the special needs voucher directed $33 million in public funds to private schools for tuition, she noted. In addition, the state provided $100 million in income tax credits from donations to student scholarship organizations tied to private schools.
“For fiscal year 2020, the state is spending at least $321 million to provide school choice for parents [and] $133 million of that went to private schools,” Palm said. “And now [legislators] want to expand this entitlement.”
Another prominent bill that successfully navigated Crossover Day is SB 423, “The Max Gruver Act,” which increases the prison time for anyone involved in the death or serious injury of a Georgia college student. It was dedicated to Gruver, a Roswell resident, who died last year during a hazing event at a Louisiana university.
Bills that were not able to muster the support to make the crossover deadline included:
SB 343 – Raises the age of mandatory education from 16 to 17
SB 398 – Prohibits the assignment of graded homework for students in grades K-2
SB 486 – Requires all public schools to administer the SAT or the ACT to students in grade 11
HB 1055 – The “Tim Tebow” Act which allows home study students to participate in extracurricular and interscholastic activities in the student’s zoned public school.
The 2020 session had been set to end on April 2, but that date will likely be moved to the middle of the month at the earliest. Complicating matters is the upcoming primary election on May 19 in which every House and Senate seat in the Georgia General Assembly is on the ballot.
State law prohibits legislators from fundraising while in session, although their challengers are free to do so. Of the 180 House seats, 114 are contested races. Among the 56 Senate seats, 41 are challenged.