Legislators representing parts of Cobb County have their eyes focused a range of bills from adoption and elder abuse to texting while driving during the upcoming 40-day session, which begins Monday.
State Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, will take another crack at a major bill on adoption that got tangled up in the Senate during the last session. Last session, Reeves introduced a 100-page bill that included changes intended to modernize the state’s adoption code. The last time the adoption law was updated in Georgia was in 1990, and Reeves said that has caused adoptions here to take longer and require more red tape than in other states.
As a result of the outdated process, Georgia leads the country in the growth of its foster care population over the last five years, growing from about 7,000 to about 12,000 or 13,000 over that period, Reeves said.
The bill cleared the House and seemed poised to pass with bipartisan support in last year’s session, until state Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, added language allowing adoption agencies to refuse adoptions based on religious beliefs.
Critics said that would open the doors for discrimination against same-sex couples, and the bill did not pass.
House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said moving that bill forward quickly should be a priority.
“I don’t see any reason why it can’t be done,” Ralston said Thursday. “You know, Rep. Reeves worked on that bill for two years and went through a very, very thorough process in the House last session, and it got over to the Senate. Their committee worked on it to some extent. I think the bill’s ready to be passed, and I would encourage them to do that. It would set a good tone for the session if they can get that done quickly.”
Reeves said the original bill, minus the controversial Ligon addition, has a good chance of becoming law this term.
“The Speaker of the House has spoken about this issue many times over the off-season,” Reeves said. “He has consistently said this is one of the highest priorities of the House of Representatives, and I know the Governor feels the same way — those two remain, in the same way, very much for the bill and offering whatever they can to help get it across the finish line this year. I really do believe it’s going to happen.”
Should the adoption bill pass, Reeves said he plans on taking further action to help reduce the number of children in foster care in the state.
Ralston said those children have been harmed by the bill’s failure in the Senate last year.
“By failing to pass that bill then, we lost an opportunity to modernize and expedite our process here in Georgia and get kids out of the foster system and into permanent, stable, loving homes quicker,” Ralston said. “We lost that year, and I think that’s just so unfortunate that we lost that time, so I hope our colleagues across the hall will recognize that that’s something that we need to do and do it quick.”
State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-east Cobb, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said she will prioritize protecting older citizens through measures fighting elder abuse.
“We are an aging state, growing at about four elderly people for every young person, and abuse, often by family members, is just rampant,” Cooper said.
Cooper said she is considering legislation to protect seniors from those who would take them in for their Social Security checks and then neglect them.
State Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-east Cobb, a physician by profession, said she will focus primarily on matters of health. One of her top goals is to address the opioid crisis.
“The big idea is to increase access to treatment and recovery facilities. … How that’s going to be implemented, I’m not sure yet, and how the funding is going to show up for the mental health piece of it, I don’t know that either, but there are a lot of people who are finally on the same page or getting on the same page about it, and I think that’s key,” she said.
State Sen. Michael Rhett, D-Marietta, a retired Air Force master sergeant, said one of his top priorities is designed to help veterans who work for state government. It would allow them to apply their service toward the state retirement system, up to five years.
“What we’re trying to do is reward veterans who work for the state and also attract veterans to come and work for the state,” he said. “So that’s one of the major issues we’ve been working on this year to be passed next session.”
As part of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s health care task force, Rhett said he will also concern himself with medical issues, including finding funding for PeachCare for Kids and rural hospitals.
Rep. John Carson, R-northeast Cobb, who chairs the House Study Committee on Distracted Driving, has indicated he may introduce a bill to outlaw the use of handheld electronic devices by drivers. He has a press conference scheduled for Wednesday on this subject.
Reeves praised Carson for his work on the issue.
“I think there’s a significant chance that there will be a bill filed this year to address this issue in Georgia,” Reeves said. “I’ve been talking about this for a couple of months now as I’ve been going around, and none of us know what this bill is going to look like, but just, generally, I haven’t gotten a lot of negative pushback from the concept. … John has done a lot of good work and found a lot of relevant information.”
Smyrna passed a similar ordinance last week, and city officials say they will wait to see how the state proceeds before deciding how to implement their ordinance.
Success! An email has been sent with a link to confirm list signup.
Error! There was an error processing your request.
Harvard’s School of Public Health, for example, is developing a new push based on the effective designated driver campaign it orchestrated in the United States beginning in the late 1980s. Candace Lightner, the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, has helped found a new group this year, Partnership for Distraction-Free Driving, which is circulating a petition to pressure social media companies like Facebook and Twitter to discourage multitasking by drivers, in the same way that Ms. Lightner pushed beer and liquor companies to discourage drunken driving.
The most provocative idea, from lawmakers in New York, is to give police officers a new device that is the digital equivalent of the Breathalyzer — a roadside test called the Textalyzer.
It would work like this: An officer arriving at the scene of a crash could ask for the phones of any drivers involved and use the Textalyzer to tap into the operating system to check for recent activity.
The technology could determine whether a driver had used the phone to text, email or do anything else that is forbidden under New York’s hands-free driving laws, which prohibit drivers from holding phones to their ear. Failure to hand over a phone could lead to the suspension of a driver’s license, similar to the consequences for refusing a Breathalyzer.
The proposed legislation faces hurdles to becoming a law, including privacy concerns. But Félix W. Ortiz, a Democratic assemblyman who was a sponsor of the bipartisan Textalyzer bill, said it would not give the police access to the contents of any emails or texts. It would simply give them a way to catch multitasking drivers, he said.
“We need something on the books where people’s behavior can change,” said Mr. Ortiz, who pushed for the state’s 2001 ban on hand-held devices by drivers. If the Textalyzer bill becomes law, he said, “people are going to be more afraid to put their hands on the cellphone.”
If it were to pass in New York, the first state to propose such an idea, it could well spread in the same way that the hands-free rules did after New York adopted them.
Ms. Lightner said the intensifying efforts around distracted driving “are the equivalent of the early ’80s” in drunken driving, when pressure led to tougher laws and campaigns emphasizing corporate responsibility.
Distracted driving “is not being treated as seriously as drunk driving, and it needs to be,” she said.
“It’s dangerous, devastating, crippling, and it’s a killer, and still socially acceptable,” she added.
The safety administration plans to release the final fatality numbers as early as Thursday but previously announced that the numbers appeared to be up sharply.
Jay Winsten, an associate dean and the director of the Center for Health Communication at Harvard’s School of Public Health, said, “We’re losing the battle against distracted driving.”
Dr. Winsten is developing a distracted-driving campaign based on designated-driver efforts that were ultimately backed by major television networks and promoted by presidents, sports leagues and corporations.
He said the new campaign would urge drivers to be more attentive, rather than scold them for multitasking, and would encourage parents to set a better example for their children.
The campaign, though still in development, has already garnered support from YouTube, which has agreed to recruit stars on the website to create original content involving the message. Dr. Winsten said he had also been in talks with AT&T, Nascar, a major automaker and potential Hollywood partners.
Dr. Winsten said the new campaign could be a kind of carrot to encourage better behavior by drivers, but he added that a stick was also needed.
While the Textalyzer raises potential privacy concerns, it might help enforce texting bans that have so far proved ineffective, he said.
“Right now, we have a reed, not a stick,” Dr. Winsten said, adding that the Textalyzer would “make enforcement that much more credible.”
Now, the police can obtain a warrant for cellphone records, but the process takes time and resources, limiting the likelihood of investigation, Mr. Ortiz said. But those protections are there for good reason, according to privacy advocates, who oppose the New York bill.
“It really invites police to seize phones without justification or warrant,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
A unanimous decision by the Supreme Court in 2014 ruled that the police could not search a cellphone without a warrant, even after an arrest, suggesting an uphill fight on the New York legislation.
But the bill’s authors say they have based the Textalyzer concept on the same “implied consent” legal theory that allows the police to use the Breathalyzer: When drivers obtain a license, they are consenting in advance to a Breathalyzer, or else they will risk the suspension of their license.
Matt Slater, the chief of staff for State Senator Terrence Murphy of New York, a Republican and a sponsor of the bill, said the constitutional concerns could and should be solved. “It’s monumental if we can get this done,” he said.
Mr. Slater said he hoped it could happen this session, which ends in June, but, he added, it may take several tries and may require broader public support.
“We’re facing the same hurdles we faced with drunk driving,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure safety and civil liberties are equally protected.”
Fourteen states prohibit the use of hand-held devices by drivers, and 46 ban texting, with penalties ranging from a $25 fine in South Carolina to $200 fines elsewhere, and even points assessed against the driver’s license.
A handful of states have strengthened their original bans, including New York, which in 2014 adopted tougher sanctions that include a 120-day suspension of a permit or a license suspension for drivers under 21, while a second offense calls for a full-year suspension.
Deborah Hersman, the president of the nonprofit National Safety Council and a former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said she liked the Textalyzer idea because it would give the police an important tool and would help gather statistics on the number of crashes caused by distraction.
She said the Textalyzer-Breathalyzer comparison was apt because looking at and using a phone can be as dangerous as driving drunk.
“Why are we making a distinction between a substance you consume and one that consumes you?” Ms. Hersman said.
The Textalyzer legislation has been called Evan’s Law for Evan Lieberman, who was asleep in the back of a car on June 16, 2011, when the vehicle, driven by a friend, lost control.
Mr. Lieberman, 19, died from his injuries, and his father, Ben Lieberman, spent months trying to gain access to phone records, which ultimately showed that the driver had been texting.
Ben Lieberman became an advocate for driving safety, and in December, looking to develop the Textalyzer concept, he approached the mobile forensics company Cellebrite, which was involved in helping the government find a way into a locked iPhone, and which works with police departments around the country.
Jim Grady, the chief executive of Cellebrite U.S.A., said that the Textalyzer software had not been fully built because it was not clear what a final law might require, but that it would not be too technologically challenging.
“I hope it will have the same effect as the Breathalyzer,” he said.Continue reading the main story