The following is reprinted from the Oconee County Observations blog
By Lee Becker
Georgia Democratic State Rep. Spencer Frye told Oconee County Democrats last year that he expects the legislative session that starts in Atlanta on Monday will include renewed discussion of school vouchers, which he opposes.
Republicans were unable to get enough votes to pass a voucher program in the last session, Frye noted.
Republicans Houston Gaines and Marcus Wiedower, who represent Oconee County as well as parts of Clarke County in the State House, voted in favor of the voucher bill last year, as did Republican Sen. Bill Cowsert, who represents Oconee County in the Senate.
The Oconee County Board of Education opposed the bill.
“I have heard that they may have the votes,” Frye said. “That’s going to be a big deal.”
Frye said he also expects discussion of Certificate of Need, which hospitals currently must have in order to open new facilities.
Frye also said believes tort reform will get a lot of attention in the session, as well as consideration of plans to deal with what he said is a housing shortage in the state.
Frye In Oconee
Frye is the only Democrat to represent Athens-Clarke County in the General Assembly in Atlanta because of how the Republican dominated legislature has carved up the heavily Democratic county.
He also is the only Democrat in the General Assembly from east of metropolitan Atlanta and north of metropolitan Augusta, and the Oconee County Democrats provided him a warm reception at their Nov. 16 meeting.
Frye represents the 122nd House District, which is the only House District that falls entirely in Clarke County.
He was at the podium for nearly an hour, first speaking and then responding to a number of questions from the audience of 18 in the basement meeting room of the Oconee Chamber Of Commerce in Watkinsville.
A number of others were connected remotely.
Frye began by talking about his expectation for the upcoming special legislative session, called to respond to a federal judges ruling that the legislature needed to revise the legislative districts it created in 2021.
Frye then turned to his expectations about the session starting in January.
Things Bubbling Up
“In this session, I feel there a couple of things that are bubbling up to the top that I can probably guarantee we’re going to talk about,” Frye said.
“I don’t know what the outcome will be,” Frye said. “I think one of the things is going to be vouchers–money follows the kids type of stuff where the child could have a portion of the money that the state spends on that child and take it and use it somewhere else including private education.”
“I’ve got nothing against (private schools),” he said. “But I will say that it is called a private school for a reason. And we have public schools called public schools for a reason.”
“I don’t think they have anything to do with each other except for a reaction to the (federal) Civil Rights Act,” he said. “So I’m not really a fan of the voucher bill.”
Frye said in other states where voucher bills have passed, they have created budgetary problems, since the state has to come up with the money to fund the public schools and also give some of that money to parents to spend elsewhere.
Certificate Of Need, Tort Reform
The second issue that Frye said he sees “bubbling up” is the state’s Certificate of Need program.
“We see boutique health care is popping up all over the place,” Frye said. “They will cherry pick the insurance. They don’t take Medicaid. The don’t take anything that’s not easy to process and expensive to process.”
“They have an indigent care requirement, but there no real teeth or police in a lot of that,” he said.
Frye said tort reform “could have many different looks. It is going to depend on what it is whether I support it or not.”
Tort reform generally is designed to make it harder for victims to file lawsuits and to restrict the compensation victims can recover.
Frye said the state has spent a lot of money recruiting manufactures to the state but given little attention to where those people will live.
At present, he said the state is 140,000 houses short. And a starter home is “touted” at $350,000, he said.
Frye said he has introduced legislation, which has not been successful, to keep hedge funds out of the housing market in Georgia.
“Part of our way to fix it (the housing shortage) is getting local governments out of the way,” said Frye, who is a home builder and also Executive Director of Athens Area Habitat for Humanity,
“When you’ve got governments that won’t let you divide a piece of property for no other reason than they don’t want two pieces of property there, that’s wrong,” he said. “That’s absolutely wrong. Especially in this market right now.”
“We’ve got governments that say you cannot have more than two unrelated people in your house,” he said. “What kind of planet are we living on?”
Frye was particularly critical of design standards that add extra costs to houses, lot size requirements “that don’t have anything to do with septic systems,” minimum house sizes, and restrictive parking requirements.
“I’m not talking about environmental stuff,” he said.
Senate Bill 233
The voucher bill considered in 2023, Senate Bill 233, would have given $6,500 to the families of Georgia public school students in the bottom 25 percent of schools who pulled their children out of class to attend private school or study at home.
The Bill passed in the Senate 33 to 23, with Cowsert voting in favor, but failed in the House by a vote of 85 to 89, with Gaines and Wiedower joining most–but not all--of the Republican members in supporting the bill.
Oconee County Board of Education Chair Kim Argo said when the Bill was being discussed that the Oconee County Board of Education opposed the bill.
“The Board has communicated consistently that public money belongs in public schools,” she said.
Rep. Gaines reported in his newsletter, which went out on Dec. 23 of 2023, that sometime in the “last two weeks” “We also visited with a number of local governments and school systems — including the Jackson County commissioners, Clarke County and Oconee County school boards, and the City of Auburn council.”
The meeting with the Oconee County Board of Education was not announced, and no minutes from it appear on the Oconee County Schools and Board of Education web site.
Senate District 46 Candidate
After Frye spoke, Gareth Fenley introduced herself to the Oconee County Democrats.
Fenley said she plans to seek the Democratic Party nomination to run in the 46th Senate District now occupied by Cowsert, an Athens attorney.
Fenley. who lives in Walton County, identified herself as a social worker, entrepreneur, community volunteer, and “a geek for democracy”
“Nothing could be more important than saving our democracy,” she said.
“When there is competition on the ballot, people are more energized to turn out and vote,” she said. “And when people turn out and vote, Democrats tend to win more. Greater turnout favors progressive candidates and policies.”
“When a Democrat challenges a Republican and even one who is likely to win, and gets people involved in democracy, we can boost the turnout by up to 1 and a half percent,” she said. “So every vote really does count in Georgia.”