Georgia Legislature Launches Working Families Caucus
(APN) ATLANTA–The Georgia Working Families Caucus (WFC) is the Georgia General Assembly’s newest legislative caucus, having officially formed this session “in order to develop and promote legislation and policies that invest in workers, families, and communities,” Atlanta Progressive News has learned.
The Caucus is composed of over 20 members from around the state and meets every Thursday at noon during the Legislative Session to outline Caucus positions, discuss issues, and hear briefings from experts and advocates. The Caucus is also working closely with the Atlanta/North Georgia AFL-CIO and the labor community in Georgia.
“We do not have any Republican members yet but we have opened the invitation to all members,” Rep. Brian Thomas (D-Lilburn), a Caucus Co-chair, told Atlanta Progressive News in an interview.
Rep. Thomas, Rep. Pam Stephenson (D-Atlanta) , and State Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta) are the three Co-Chairs of the Caucus.
Caucus members extend invitations to the Thursday meetings to all their colleagues in the Legislature.
After operating informally for two years, the Caucus has now officially adopted a Constitution and By-laws at the beginning of the Session and has made it their goal to lobby support for better education, health care, higher wages, workers’ rights, and more.
“[We are] strongly in support of raising the minimum wage,” Rep. Virgil Fludd (D-Fayetteville), a Caucus Vice Chair, told Atlanta Progressive News.
The Caucus also “opposes cuts in PeachCare” and has taken a “tough stance against payday lending,” Fludd added.
One legislator told Atlanta Progressive News there hasn’t been a WFC until now is because Democrats controlled the Legislature in Georgia for several years, and thus, working families’ issues had always been an assumed priority. Now with Democrats in the minority, the WFC is a needed mechanism to ensure that working families’ issues remain on the forefront and legislators are organized.
RAISING THE STATE MINIMUM WAGE
The first bill the Caucus voted to support was SB 13, a bill to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour by January 1, 2008.
The bill also would have indexed increases in the minimum wage to increases in the cost of living and expanded the categories of workers eligible to receive the minimum wage, according to a separate press release obtained by APN.
The Caucus held a press conference and rally at Atlanta City Hall February 10, 2007 to rally support for the legislation. The bill also was promoted in a rally at the Capitol the following week for Poor People’s Day, as covered in APN. The Insurance and Labor Committee at that time delayed consideration of the bill.
However, SB 13 failed to pass out of Committee.
“[We are] not giving up on that by any stretch of the imagination,” Jones said of SB 13. “We’re going to have to find incentives to make it advantageous for the other side” to support it.
“I don’t know if there is cause for optimism on the minimum wage bill this session,” Orrock told Atlanta Progressive News. “We’re going to work on that issue.”
Orrock believes the bill will pass if it can reach the floor.
POSSIBLE RETURN OF PAYDAY LENDING
The Georgia General Assembly voted in 2004 to outlaw payday lending. This kind of lending system “preys on people who need money who cannot pay back money in a timely manner,” Thomas said.
HB 163 would have brought back payday lending with “so-called protections,” Thomas added.
“The Caucus concluded that the working families of this state deserve continued protection against loan sharks that prey on low income working families,” according to the press release.
House members voted 82-77, March 27, 2007, to approve HB 163, but 91 votes were needed to send it to the Senate, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper (AJC). The first attempt to send the bill to the Senate last week resulted in a tie vote.
“I am more than pleased” that this bill did not move on, Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur), another Caucus Vice Chair, told APN.
“The bill would have created more of a burden for people that need help the most,” he added.
“It [was] a real win for Georgia,” Sen. Orrock said of the bill’s defeat. “We’re very pleased that the coalition of forces opposing the bill was successful.”
PEACHCARE UNDER ASSAULT
PeachCare is Georgia’s program for providing health care to children of low-income families. Currently, there are 308,000 children covered under the program, according to The AJC.
The House voted 101-63, on March 27, 2007, to pass HB 340, a bill crafted by House Speaker Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram).
HB 340 would make fewer families eligible for the program and enrollees would also have to pay extra premiums for dental and vision coverage.
Richardson assured opponents no child covered now would be dropped from the program. The Speaker also claims this measure removes illegal immigrants from coverage but House Minority Leader DuBose Porter (D-Dublin) said current law already bars illegal immigrants from the program, according to The AJC.
“Why are we reducing benefits for those that need it most?” Jones asked.
“The success of the Speaker’s bill was a real blow to working families,” Orrock said. “We’re going to work hard to oppose its passage in the Senate. There will be a lot of pressure to hold the line and protect working families.”
“I’m not surprised the bill passed the House considering it was the Speaker’s bill,” Jones added. The bill was written and passed “purely for political purposes.”
The Caucus supports HB 620, one bill that could help offset gaps in federal funding. The bill would allow for the recovery of federal Medicaid funds to make up for other federal PeachCare funding that may not be available.
The House has not yet voted on HB 620. HB 340 now moves to the Senate for consideration.
“I would urge people to call their Senators and let them know they need to do right by Georgia’s children,” Orrock added.
CAUCUS WEARY OF TAX LIMIT AMENDMENT
SR 20 calls for “an amendment to the Constitution so as to provide for limitations on state government taxation and expenditures.”
It passed the Senate on March 20, 2007, and is now under consideration in the House. The Caucus made SR 20 part of their weekly discussion March 29, 2007.
“A bill like that would limit programs that benefit working people,” Thomas said.
This resolution “artificially restricts and limits what you can do with revenues that come in that exceed budget levels from prior years,” Orrock said.
Orrock called SR 20 a dangerous measure because it “continues to spread a view that any government expenditures are not in the interest of citizens.”
THE OFF SEASON AND BEYOND
The work of the Caucus will not end when the Legislative Session ends.
“Now that we’re structured formally, we’ll be able to meet regularly,” Thomas said. “[The] Steering Committee will communicate regularly when the Legislature is not in Session.”
“We would like Republicans to join us [but] some see the group as too liberal,” Jones said.
“The door’s open to everybody,” Fludd said.
Jones told APN because this is not an Election year, the Caucus will have more chances to meet and prepare for next Session. He added that the minimum wage legislation and protecting PeachCare will remain his top two priorities.
Orrock said there are myriad issues needing attention including education, the care of senior citizens, and the care of the mentally disabled, issues that are sure to get the attention of the Caucus in the off-season and beyond.
About the author:
Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer with Atlanta Progressive News. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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