The 10th Annual Legislate THIS! took place on Thursday, February 23, 2017. In celebration of the momentous 10th annual session, SPARK invoked Kimberlee Crenshaw’s work on Intersectionality, and called on our communities to carry on in the tradition of grassroots leaders who believe that we can speak truth to power and hold our elected representatives accountable through the collective power of Reproductive Justice.
SPARK is incredibly honored to have had Jennifer Barnes as the Keynote Speaker who, among many things, recently delivered an unflinching indictment on the state’s negligent housing practices at our hearing with the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus on the HIV epidemic in this state.
Georgia House Bill 151, a measure seeking to eliminate the practice of shackling of pregnant women in Georgia correctional facilities, did not move forward in the legislative process after being assigned to the committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. The bill, which received bipartisan support, the support of the of the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, and the support of senior staff at the Department of Public Health, was unsuccessful in securing a hearing that would have allowed advocates like Spark, and legislators supporting the bill an opportunity to express their opinions on the legislation, debate the merits of the legislation, and provide and up or down vote.
HB 151 simply was not a priority of the State Representative Alan Powell, chair of the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. Rather than holding a hearing on this legislation, which the Chair has expressed support for, he prioritized bills that were being carried solely by republicans lawmakers on his hearing scheduling.
Modeled after legislation introduced and signed into law in California, Spark worked collaboratively with Representative Park Cannon to draft and introduce Georgia House Bill 454, a measure that would require that information about PrEP and PEP be shared with a client if they received an HIV negative test result. The legislation only impacted facilities receiving HIV prevention and treatment dollars from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) and is intended to increase awareness about PrEP and PEP, two proven and effective methods of preventing HIV infections.
The bill had bipartisan support and was led by Rep. Cannon with the support of several republican lawmakers who served as co-sponsors of the bill. The bill, which was referred to the Committee on Health and Human Services, received a hearing. It is important to that for Rep. Cannon, a freshmen democrat and queer identified black women, to receive a hearing on legislation concerning progressive HIV policy in Georgia is a monumental victory.
At the hearing, some republican legislators deliberated over whether DPH was currently engaging in these tactics and methods HB 454 called for and if this bill would create unnecessary and redundant policy in state law. DPH Director of Government Affairs, David Bayne, testified before the committee that while DPH strives to adopt the policy called for in HB 454, however informing people about PrEP and PEP after a negative HIV test result is not a uniformed policy across all of their funded facilities and grantees. Director Bayne also stated that DPH was supportive of the bill in its current form.
The republican Chair of the Committee on Health and Human Service, Rep. Sharon Cooper, raised the question on whether the desired outcomes of the bill could be accomplished via a DPH administrative or regulatory ruling rather than using HB 454 as the method to accomplish the goals of PrEP and PEP awareness. During his remarks, SPARK lobbyist, Devin Barrington-Ward, conceded that while administrative or regulatory ruling using the same or similar language of HB 454 could accomplish the goal of ensuring people who test negative for HIV receive information about PrEP and PEP, but also made it clear that SPARK believes that the vehicle should be our legislation introduced by Rep. Cannon, because if successfully passed with bipartisan support and signed by the Governor, that it would significantly elevate PrEP and PEP in Georgia and increase public awareness. Following his remarks, several democratic lawmakers echoed Devin’s sentiments in their statements that legislation on PrEP and PEP was a much better vehicle for change rather than a regulatory or administrative ruling.
After debate on the legislation concluded, a republican lawmaker motion to table the legislation which was seconded by the Chair of the committee, all of the democrats and surprisingly, two republicans, voted against tabling the bill and expressed they would like to see the bill receive a favorable vote from the committee. After losing the vote to table bill and seeing the support for the legislation, the Chair used the procedural power granted to Committee Chairs in the House to not allow a final vote on the bill. The chair reiterated that she felt administrative and regulatory ruling was the best approach and also was concerned that the bill would die in the Rules Committee. She instructed David Bayne with the Department of Public Health (DPH) to immediately being drafting the administrative and regulatory ruling the day after the hearing and if everything went smoothly the DPH rule and regulatory change based HB 454 would be ratified and adopted by June of 2017.
Chairwoman Cooper also stated her commitment to HIV issues and said that she would like to see Rep. Cannon and advocates come back in 2018 with an appropriation bill calling for more funding for HIV prevention and treatment related activities. An on-the-record admission like this by a republican committee chair is a major success and puts SPARK and our partners working on HIV issues at the general assembly in a great place to advocate for desperately needed funding.