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Legislators shine spotlight on 2019 General Assembly session
Sen. Jack Hill (from left), Rep. Bill Hitchens and Rep. Jon Burns confer with Effinigham College & Career Academy CEO Barbara Prosser before the start of the April 10 Eggs & Issues Review. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff

RINCON — Before discussing positive developments during the recently completed Georgia General Assembly session, Rep. Bill Hitchens expressed concern about a highly negative one.

While speaking at the Eggs & Issues Review at Effingham College & Career Academy on April 10, Hitchens said the shrill nature of national politics has reached Atlanta. The capitol was awash in protesters willing to deliver offensive messages, he said.

“I guess some of the bills that we had brought that forward,” Hitchens said. “Some of them we very mean spirited — to be honest. I regretted that you couldn’t hardly walk into the hall out there without being accosted and people yelling and screaming at you about certain issues.”

Hitchens, joined at the event by Rep. Jon Burns and Sen. Jack Hill, said some protesters were armed with distasteful signs.

“The Georgia State Patrol removed a lot of people from the capitol one day because of the vulgarity of some of the signs they carried,” Hitchens said.

The protesters were able to return, however, after a short court battle. They were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Because of the presence of pages who ranged in age from 12 to 18, House officials responded by roping off the entrance to the House chamber and turned the pages’ desks around so that the signs were out of their view.

“I’ve always enjoyed my time up there but — I think Jon and Jack would say the same thing — it was difficult up there this year,” Hitchens said. “Some of the bills were difficult but there were things that we thought had to be addressed and we did it, and I don’t take a backseat. I thought we did the right thing.”

Much of the contentiousness was brought on by House Bill 481. Known as “the Heartbeat Bill,” it would ban most abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Some celebrities, Democrats and abortion-rights activists have threatened economic boycotts if Gov. Brian Kemp signs the measure into law.

Hitchens relayed a personal story about his beliefs on the matter. His wife was stricken with cancer while pregnant in 1975.

“The doctors wanted us to abort the pregnancy and we decided against it, and we had a set of twins — twin girls who will turn 43, here pretty soon,” he said. “The result is three grandchildren ...”

Hitchens was deeply involved in two measures that drew wide support during the session. One, House Bill 530, came as a result of the horrific deaths of missing teens Elwyn Crocker Jr. and his sister, Mary, who had been kept naked in a cage in her home. Both were 14 when they died.

The Crockers’ bodies were discovered late last year in the backyard of their residence at Rosebud Place in Effingham County. Five people have been charged with murder in the case, including their father, stepmother and step-grandmother.

The bill Hitchens authored originally required more reporting from parents who home school their children. It ran into resistance from the Georgia Home Education Association, which argued that more home school regulation would not result in less abuse.

After intense negotiations and numerous rewrites of the bill, the final version simply directs schools to contact the Department of Family and Children’s Services when parents of children who have dropped out of school don’t file a notice of intent to home school them within 45 days. It passed 135-28.

“I tried to get a more stringent law but, you know, as things work out in the legislature you always have to amend it and work together,” he said.

Hitchens was also instrumental in House Bill 62, which passed 166-1 in the House and unanimously in the Senate. It would require a healthcare facility conducting mammograms to tell a patient if dense breast tissue is detected.

“If you have the most dense tissue, when you get your mammogram, many times it doesn’t show tumors or lumps, because of the density of the fibers that are already there,” Hitchens said. “A doctor told me it was kind of like looking for a golf ball in a snowstorm.”

The bill is known as “Margie’s Law” in honor of Effingham County’s Margie Singleton. She received a breast cancer diagnosis just six months after undergoing a mammogram. The cancer was detected via ultrasound.

“There are other treatments that can better identify it,” Hitchens said.

Hitchens turned the floor over to Burns, who addressed several issues, including school safety. He said $69.4 million was added to the budget to enhance security at the state’s 2,314 schools.

Burns said a bill that will require schools to conduct threat assessments and devise approved safety plans also passed.

“... I think a lot of schools already have that in place. We are just making sure everyone has that,” Burns said.  

Burns also touted $3,000 raises for Georgia’s teachers. Non-certified employees are also in line for pay hikes, he said.

The House Majority leader said progress was made in the area of expanding broadband access across the state. He also said an extra layer of legal protection was added for Georgia’s monuments.

“It allows treble damages if any monument is damaged,” he said. “We feel like that is good legislation. It just strengthens those protections.”

Burns also referenced the Georgia Hope Act, which will pave the way for in-state cultivation of medical marijuana. 

“This is strictly a medical product that has a record of helping lots and lots of people,” he said. 

Burns closed by telling the audience that Savannah Technical College’s Effingham Campus has been awarded $5.6 million for the construction of a conference center that will seat more than 200 people for banquet-style events and more than 500 for standing events. CDL driving school additions are also in the works, he said.

Hill broached the state budget, which includes nearly $50 billion, including $27.5 billion in state funds.

“Our budget only grew about 2.3 percent this year,” the senator said. “If you consider the fact that we are a growing state with growing K-12 enrollment and all the areas of population growth and other things, that is a very conservative budget. I would defend that to anyone.”

A budget highlight, Hill said, is the $1.9 billion in fuel fees OK’d for transportation use. 

“When you look around the state and see those orange barrels, and see the work that will be starting soon on the I-16/I-95 interchange — these huge projects like that would not happen had we not addressed transportation funding,” Hill said.

He said the Effingham County Board of Education also received $3 million is new equalization funding, raising the total to $13.4 million.