The General Assembly had a generally productive session this year but, as usual, there were plenty of controversial issues to keep the pot boiling up to sine die adjournment of the legislature.
Legislators approved a $27.5 billion budget with a $3,000 pay raise for teachers and a $150 million voting system revamp. In what could be the most significant and far-reaching action of the session, landmark health care reform won approval and was signed by Gov. Brian Kemp. If the necessary federal waivers are granted, the Patients First Act would open the way for hundreds of thousands of Georgia residents to gain health care access via expanded Medicaid eligibility.
Important changes also were approved in the state’s controversial Certificate of Need program to loosen restrictions on opening new medical facilities. In the past, applications for new facilities have usually been opposed by existing hospitals based on their need to stay financially sound, arguing that new hospitals could cherry-pick well-insured patients and leave the uninsured and more medically difficult patients to the established hospitals. Under the new legislation, there is a 35-mile radius set for facilities objecting to a CON application for a new project versus the previous law with no geographic restrictions on an objecting institution. Also included in the measure are tough financial disclosure requirements for nonprofit hospitals.
Legislation changing state law on medical marijuana opened the way for patients using cannabis oil to obtain it by having it grown and dispensed within Georgia. Under House Bill 324, up to six private companies can be licensed to grow and produce the cannabis oil, two universities can begin medical marijuana programs and pharmacies would be allowed to sell the oil, all under oversight of a state board. On another issue important to public health advocates, lawmakers approved a measure that “encourages” schools to have 30-minute recesses, stopping short of the mandatory daily recess proposal that failed in recent years.
On the controversial side, the ill-advised bill for a state takeover of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta failed on takeoff. The proposal, labeled the “Frankenbill” after being pieced together from House and Senate versions, morphed from state takeover to oversight by a state committee. It also included suspension of jet fuel taxes for savings of up to $40 million a year for airlines — of great benefit to Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines. The proposal evoked strong opposition from virtually all quarters including its sponsor, Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, working in behalf of Gov. Kemp. His bill, said LaRiccia, was “hijacked.” The disagreement between the two chambers resulted in the bill’s failure — ending the coveted tax break for the airlines, at least for the present.
The effects of losing the tax break will be harmful to the state, says Delta. “By doubling the tax rate that airlines pay in the state of Georgia and making Georgia the highest jet fuel tax state in the country among states with hub airports, it would make the state less competitive and give commercial aviation reason to grow somewhere other than the state of Georgia,” a Delta spokesman said. This could set up a scenario similar to that of last year when then-Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, running for governor, killed the tax break, blaming Delta’s ending a reduced fare break for National Rifle Association members. Then-Gov. Nathan Deal reinstated the fuel tax break by executive order, followed by the Legislature extending the break in its November special session. So, it’s déjà vu all over again, in the words of Yogi Berra.
Another controversy surrounds legislation to ban abortions in Georgia as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detected, possibly six weeks into gestation. The Living Infants Fairness and Equality Act was approved in the closing days of the session and sent to Gov. Kemp, who had praised legislators backing the measure “for protecting the vulnerable and giving a voice to those who cannot yet speak for themselves.” Opponents said they would take the issue to court, and some Hollywood celebrities said they would push for television and film production companies to leave Georgia if the law passed. Several other states have passed similar laws or are considering them.
Our legislators have gone home, but the controversies go on. In other words, it’s business as usual in Georgia politics — and look for the courts, not the Legislature, to decide the biggest controversies.