The clock on the 2014 Georgia General Assembly session is running down and the stakes are going up.
That’s not unusual, as sessions go. But this year, those stakes are as high as they can be for a state because Georgians will elect a governor in November. And, after a week of snow days, the state Capitol roared back to life on Monday as lawmakers debated some of the most pressing issues facing Georgia.
The most important bill of the session – the 2015 budget, the only measure lawmakers have to pass – came up for a vote in the House Monday. But it was wildly overshadowed by two other measures that will probably haunt the pages of newspapers and Web sites for the rest of the year. Specifically, I’m referring to a bill that would expand gun rights and a bill that would make it harder to expand the Medicaid program.
First let’s deal with the Medicaid expansion bill. As we reported Monday morning, a new bill state lawmakers are considering would bar a sitting Governor from opting to expand Medicaid. Any governor who wanted to add people to the Medicaid rolls would have to receive legislative approval.
Is It Passing the Buck or the Buck Stops Here?
Brian Robinson, Gov. Nathan Deal’s spokesman, told GPB that the decision to broaden Medicaid coverage is so big and has so many financial repercussions that “an additional firewall” is needed. And this bill would build the firewall.
That doesn’t fly with state Senator Jason Carter, a Decatur Democrat and a gubernatorial candidate. He blasted Gov. Nathan Deal again Monday over his decision not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Speaking from the Senate floor, he questioned how Deal could back a bill that would shift the power to expand Medicaid from the governor’s office to legislators.
“Why would you pass this bill at all?” he asked Senate colleagues. “In fact I can’t imagine a governor in our history who would agree he shouldn’t be trusted with this decision. Why is it that the Governor wants to wash his hands of this responsibility? And the answer is because as these rural hospitals close over the summer, they want to be able to say it’s not their fault. ‘Nothing I can do about it, because the legislature has to make this decision’.”
He said Deal’s style of leadership is to constantly pass the buck. And he even intimated that the bill might be a warning from fellow Republicans to Deal that he shouldn’t even think about giving into the pressure to expand Medicaid – even after the May primary.
A word about events outside the Capitol that are shaping events inside the Capitol. Four hospitals in rural Georgia have closed due to financial problems, the most recent Lower Oconee Community Hospital in Glenwood. Supporters of the federal healthcare law known as Obamacare say expanding Medicaid would save these hospitals, which provide jobs in their communities as well as critical medical care.
The argument goes, it would save the hospitals because the feds would pick up all of the costs of adding 600,000 uninsured Georgians to Medicaid for the first three years, and 90 percent of the costs after that. But Deal and others say the state cannot afford to pay for the extra enrollees once the federal government eases back on its contribution.
Echoes of 'Massive Resistance?'
In an interview, Deal’s spokesman reminded your GPB News Now correspondent that the Governor is interested in running a state government that’s “sustainable.” And not just now – even after Deal leaves office.
Economically sustainable programs are a hallmark of Deal’s legacy, so far, as he closes in on the end of his first term. For example, he’s resurrected zero-based budgeting (interesting side note: Gov. Jimmy Carter, Jason Carter’s grandfather, was also a proponent). That approach aims to vet and possibly eliminate carryover expenses in state agency budgets that no one questions but may not be needed.
Another Deal critic, however, worries his refusal to expand Medicaid echoes rejections that a previous generation of Georgia politicians made and that now are seen as shameful.
That critic is longtime lobbyist Neill Herring. I spoke with him Monday because I was thinking about a quote of his that appeared in this space on the first day of the session. Namely he said, once rural hospitals start closing, “it’s going to be like a rolling drumbeat in the distance getting closer.”
So what does he make of HB 990, the bill that would bar governors from expanding Medicaid?
“This anti-Medicaid expansion movement reminds me of ‘Massive Resistance’,” he said. “That’s what it was called when Southern politicians fought desegregation. They just piled on bill after bill after bill to delay it or fight it. Georgia had bills to close all the schools in the event of de-segregation.”
He added, “It’s just absolutism.”
Deal and his camp, of course, think the other guys are being absolutists. They say if the Obama administration would just give them the money in the form of block grants, Georgia could help uninsured folks around the state.
And as for the genesis of the bill, Robinson insists Deal was “on the front-end” and the measure is not an attempt by other Republicans to scare the state’s top official.
I Sing Of Arms And The Man Working For the County
The 2015 budget moved so smoothly through the House on Monday, it nearly passed unanimously. Only four lawmakers voted against it, and only a handful of legislators asked questions. There wasn’t a minority report. As the House appropriations chair Terry England told GPB last week, the fast timing might be a record. Normally lawmakers are only voting on the amended budget at this point in the session.
The funds for $20.8 billion spending plan represent a one percent increase over the current year budget. Included in that budget is increased school funding and money for teacher raises – not something you can say every year.
Now onto what’s coming up Tuesday. The House will vote on a bill that would, with a few caveats, allow Georgians to carry guns in bars, churches and other places. While the bill no longer includes a provision that would have allowed guns on college campuses, the measure would decriminalize the act of bringing a gun onto university property. Instead, violators would face civil penalties and fines.
Members of the clergy have come out against it, some students have come out against it, and many college officials oppose it. Now some other groups are raising questions about it, including the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.
County officials are concerned about a provision that would allow licensed gun owners to take firearms into any public building that doesn’t have metal detectors. Officials with the ACCG say that translates into most county buildings, and would mean guns would enter libraries, tax assessor offices and zoning meetings (but not, please take note, the state Capitol, because that has security machines).
If the bill passes, counties could decide to erect security apparatuses but according to a briefing from the group, such a move would require a “costly expense that would have to be shouldered by the taxpayers of the county for the benefit of a few.” Local officials are also concerned about a provision in the bill that would give anyone who suspects counties are abridging the law the right to sue.
Want to know more? You will hear all about it here – on Tuesday.