New District 160 state Rep. Lehman Franklin succeeded in getting three bills that he introduced passed in the Georgia House of Representatives before “Crossover Day” in his first session.
In order of passage, these have to do with “alternative” investments by the state Employees Retirement System, workers compensation payments for injured workers and the surviving dependents of those who die from on-the-job injuries, and judges’ ability to make protective orders permanent in cases of stalking.
None of the bills had passed the Senate yet, but Monday, March 6, was 2023’s Crossover Day, the deadline date for bills that originate in the House to be sent on to the Senate, and vice versa. A first-year legislator, even a Republican like Franklin when Republicans hold the majority, has no guarantee of getting bills passed.
“I’ve been told that it’s pretty good to get three out,” Franklin said during the lunch break Monday. “I think there are one or two other freshmen who have gotten some bills out like that as well, but I’m pretty proud of it, actually.”
When the session convened in early January, Franklin, a Statesboro auto dealership general manager and company vice president who resides in Bulloch County’s rural Stilson community, took the seat previously held by now-retired Rep. Jan. Tankersley of Brooklet. After Tankersley, also a Republican, announced early last year she would not seek re-election, Franklin ran unopposed.
New House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington, an 18-year veteran representative from the neighboring 159th District, appointed Franklin to serve on the House Retirement Committee, the Economic Development and Tourism Committee and the Interstate Cooperation Committee.
His one leadership role so far is vice chairman of the Retirement Committee, and one of the three House-passed bills he authored originated from this committee. House Bill 285, an amendment to the Public Retirement Systems Investment Authority Law, passed the House on a 171-0 vote Feb. 22, with eight members not voting and one excused.
It would increase the amount of Employees’ Retirement System of Georgia assets the system’s managers can invest in “certain alternative investments” to 10%, from the previous limit of 5% of the total assets.
Otherwise, up to 75% of the assets can be invested – while at least 25% is required to be held in cash – but the traditional investments are limited to S&P 500 stocks and “domestic equity” funds invested in publicly traded U.S. stocks.
The allowed “alternative investments” are “private equity” funds, Franklin said. These are funds that provide capital outside the stock market, such as to privately-held companies.
“Over nine years, the private equity has given them a return on their investments of about 18 percent, versus the S&P 500, which only brought in about 10%,” he said. “So this is the reason they wanted to increase it, because they just wanted to make a better return on their investment.”
ERSGA Executive Director Jim Potvin and the Employees’ Retirement System of Georgia board sought the change. ERSGA serves employees of state agencies such as the Department of Corrections and Department of Transportation, but some other agencies have separate systems. The alternative investment limit was already 15% for the Georgia Firefighters’ Pension Fund and remains just 5% for the Teachers Retirement System.
Workers Comp change
But the Workers Compensation Law covers many people who work for private businesses, as well as public employees. House Bill 480, with Franklin as lead sponsor, would increase the maximum weekly benefits for people injured or disabled as the result of workplace accidents. It also aims to expand the likelihood that surviving dependents of people killed on the job will receive compensation and increases the maximum death benefit.
“This one was a pretty difficult bill, actually,” he said.
It was the only one of the three that met any opposition in the House vote. But on Feb. 27 it passed with 154 representatives voting “yea,” 15 voting “nay,” three not voting and eight excused.
Before that, the struggle had been getting the groups supporting various changes to compromise and agree to a single version of the bill, Franklin said.
“The business community, the insurance companies, the claimant lawyers, the defense attorneys, the advisory council to the State Board of Workers Compensation all came together with this, and I’m really pretty proud of this bill because all those groups were in 100 percent agreement with it, but none of those groups got 100 percent of what they wanted,” he said.
For full disability from a work injury, the bill would increase the maximum benefit from the current $725 per week to $800. For partial disability, the maximum would increase from $483 per week to $533.
For deaths resulting from workplace causes, the maximum compensation to a sole surviving dependent spouse would be increased from $290,000 to $320,000.
The bill also expands the definition of surviving spouses by adding language “including where the deceased employee and a claimant dependent lived together continuously and openly in a relationship similar or akin to marriage.” The pending legislation states that there “shall be no presumption of dependency” in that case but a determination “based on evidence proving the deceased employed provided support of economic value.”
“In the end, really the hardworking men and women of Georgia are the ones that gained by this because they got the increase in the maximum rate for injuries on all levels, they got a raise in the maximum death benefit … and then it allows for more possibility for death benefits for loved ones of those that die on the job,” Franklin said.
The last of his three bills, House Bill 302, breezed out of the House Thursday, March 2, on a 172-0 vote. Just one line more than one page long, it simply adds “on a temporary or permanent basis” to the provision of the law against stalking that allows a court to grant a protective order or consent agreement.
Franklin said the more he looked at this, the more surprised he was that it hadn’t been dealt with before. But two sections of state law actually seemed to apply, with one being vague, so that some judges would grant only temporary protective orders, he said.
This required stalking victims to come back to court, often after one year, and try to get their stalkers back into court to confront them again to extend an order.
“Stalking at its core is basically intimidation, control and fear, and to have those victims come back and have to deal with all this again is pretty intimidating,” Franklin said.
He said a number of representatives, including several attorneys as well as three women who had faced this situation, actively supported the change. The legislation leaves it to the judge’s discretion but seeks to establish that a judge can make a protective order permanent from the outset.