By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 16, 2015
ATLANTA—The 40-day session of the Georgia General Assembly ended in the first week of April, and some of the legislative priorities of the Georgia Catholic Conference now await Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature. He can sign or veto bills in the 40 days following the close of the session.
The top legislation passed that had been supported by the public policy arm of the Catholic Church in Georgia had to do with long-awaited help for families and children. Children with autism spectrum disorder will be helped with mandated insurance coverage for testing and treatment. Another key issue provides a “safe harbor” and funding for victims of human trafficking.
The controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act stalled in the House, after passage in the Senate.
Mandated autism coverage
The bill to aid children diagnosed with autism should provide relief to families with expensive bills, in addition to helping a youngster get a better chance of independent living later in life.
“Early intervention is everything in the life of a child. It is such a huge thing,” said Maggie Rousseau, director of the archdiocesan Disabilities Ministries. “We’re doing what’s important for that individual.”
Lawmakers compromised on the insurance mandate. The final bill limits coverage to children 6 years or younger. Payments will be capped at $30,000 a year.
Companies with 10 employees or fewer are exempt. Insurance companies will not be required to offer autism coverage if they can demonstrate it would increase the costs of premiums by more than 1 percent.
One in every 68 children will suffer from some form of autism spectrum disorder. Advocates said the measure gives children with autism a chance to lead independent lives and potentially saves millions of dollars for expensive institutional care later in life.
The measure was important to Catholic advocates. Rousseau testified before lawmakers in 2014 when the measure failed. This year, the bill was highlighted for special attention during Catholic Day at the Capitol.
The disability community is excited for parents who will for the first time be able to benefit from this, Rousseau said. A key feature is the treatment will help train parents on how to better work with their child, she said.
Funding to help children who have been sexually exploited
The Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund and Commission mandate is to protect and provide resources for children who have been sexually exploited.
According to the bill, the commission will be authorized to spend tax dollars to provide care, rehabilitative services, housing, health services, and social services for victims under the age of 18.
Lawmakers authorized starting the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund and Commission. Georgia residents in November 2016 will vote on whether to change the state constitution to ensure the commission’s permanent funding through a court fee on persons convicted of specific sex-based crimes and a 1 percent assessment on gross receipts of adult entertainment facilities.
On the death penalty, lawmakers approved a Senate bill that narrowly provides information from Parole Board records about its decisions to both the victims’ families and the applicants for parole. The public should have more information about the decisions of the board in commuting or preserving death sentences.
Next session will address RFRA
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act will return to center stage in the next legislative session, said Frank Mulcahy, executive director of the Georgia Catholic Conference.
He said the Catholic bishops of Georgia support the measure, as long as it does not pave the way to discriminate against people. Catholic leaders support the bill, he added, as a way to ensure religious believers can get a day in court to contest laws they believe substantially impinge on their faith. After the fallout facing Indiana and Arkansas this spring, Mulcahy said next term he expects Gov. Deal to help a bill to include an anti-discrimination measure.
To learn more about the Georgia Catholic Conference, which is under the direction of the Catholic bishops of Georgia, please visit the website at www.georgiacc.org.