By Zoe Seiler, Decaturish
Atlanta, GA — State Sen. Elena Parent (D – Senate District 42) and state Reps. Becky Evans (D – Atlanta) and Mary Margaret Oliver (D – Decatur) held a legislative town hall on Sunday, Feb. 5, at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church.
The DeKalb legislators outlined the beginning of the legislative session and the issues they are working on including mental health, gun safety, education, and housing.
During the last legislative session, Mental Health Parity Act passed. The law provides for a significant amount of first steps in mental health reform, Oliver said.
“We have a long way to go, and we’re subject to an ongoing Justice Department Civil Rights complaint in relation to the hospitalization of the developmentally disabled, so we have a long way to go,” Oliver said. “I am very pleased that the first step was taken by a unanimous vote in the House and the Senate and covered six to eight different major issues.”
She has been working on step two of the legislation, which includes addressing a variety of crisis intervention issues.
Regarding gun safety, Oliver said that of all the issues she had dealt with throughout her political career, the most partisan issue is guns.
“That was not true when I started my career, and it’s true today,” Oliver said. “I want to have at least, at a minimum, a bipartisan discussion about gun safety, and particularly the question I’m asking…what is your personal responsibility as a gun owner?”
Lawmakers, including Parent, have introduced legislation that would allow for a person to be charged with criminal negligence if they have not secured a loaded firearm, or have left the gun in a place where a child could access it.
“This is a bill that I filed for the first time maybe two years ago when I got really frustrated when a mom ran into the house, up in North Georgia, to get something that she forgot, and left a loaded gun in the compartment between her front seats. One of her children grabbed in the few minutes and killed the other one,” Parent said. “I was very frustrated that we don’t have a statement in Georgia law that what you did was actually an act of negligence, actually a crime. At that time was when I first drafted and filed that bill.”
Frustration with gun violence is the highest it’s ever been, the debate is more partisan than it’s ever been, and the No. 1 cause of death among children is firearms, Oliver added.
Parent also addressed education concerns and the state budget during the town hall. She is on the Senate Education and Youth Committee, which has had joint session with the Senate Higher Education Committee to discuss that state’s low literacy rate. Parent said the literacy rates for elementary students is “unacceptably low.”
Gov. Kemp has proposed a $32.5 billion budget, and the state has a surplus of about $7 billion. The governor has proposed spending $1 billion on roads and bridges, and $1 billion in one-time tax rebates for taxpayers. Parent suggested some of that surplus money could be invested in education.
She is looking forward to the Senate having conversations about the state’s literacy rates.
“Estimates range depending on which testing measure you use, but sometimes it’s about a third of Georgia third and fifth graders read at proficient or grade level. Sometimes it will be higher than that, depending again on the metric used, but suffice it to say it has been unacceptably low for many, many years, and also we’re well below the median of states in terms of how well Georgia kids are reading,” Parent said.
She added that lawmakers have also been hearing about the science of reading and how many teachers aren’t taught to teach by that method.
“Say you were interested in a push to try to have your teachers coming out of teaching schools understand the latest in the research and the brain science and the methods to teach by which 95% of children can be taught to read,” Parent said. “Well, that is an investment in teaching universities, it is an investment in teachers themselves, it is an investment in retraining teachers.”
In terms of housing, Georgia is in a housing crisis, Rep. Evans said. She added that the state could invest some of its surplus revenue into the housing trust fund for the homeless. Funds put in the trust fund don’t lapse.
“We need more safe and affordable housing,” Evans said. “One of the key things we’ve heard is we need more capital for affordable housing.”
She added that some legislation could aim to provide protections to tenants and provide oversight on investors.
“We have a lot of outside investors,” Evans said. “This is particularly true in the southern part of our county where big institutional investors have bought homes, so we need to have more oversight over them.”