With the the 2017 legislative session beginning five weeks from today, we’re beginning to see what leadership in the General Assembly is prioritizing for the upcoming session. On Friday, House Speaker David Ralston presented some ideas in a conversation with Bill Nigut and Jim Galloway on GPB’s Political Rewind, while House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and Senate President Pro-Tem David Shafer addressed a meeting of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce and laid out their plans for the session.
The common themes running through the plans of all three leaders were healthcare and education, although the specific focus in each area varied. And late breaking developments in each are might affect how the General Assembly deals with the two issues.
While Medicaid expansion was expected to be a dominant issue this spring, the election of Donald Trump, who has promised to quickly repeal the Affordable Care Act, likely means that issue is off the table. Speaker Ralston believes that Medicaid could become a program of block grants to the states, noting that cookie-cutter approaches prescribed by Washington won’t necessarily work in every state. Yet, as Shafer and Abrams agreed, it would be premature to address Medicaid until there’s a better picture from the federal government.
There will need to be work on two separate healthcare issues, though. Both Sen. Shafer and Abrams brought up the need to renew what’s become known as the Hospital Bed Tax, although the tax is actually on a hospital’s revenue rather than the number of beds it has. Shafer estimates the tax brings in about $300 million annually, although federal matching funds bring this amount up to around $1 billion. While originally hospitals as a group got more money than they paid in due to the federal match, new requirements make that no longer the case. Shafer indicated that the provider fee formula might have to be changed, possibly so it can benefit hard-hit rural hospitals, but in any case, the tax would have to be renewed.
Leader Abrams agreed that the provider fee would need to be reauthorized, but she also emphasized the need to provide access to healthcare, especially in rural communities. Pointing out that access to healthcare is critical for economic development and bringing new business to the Peach State, she says she disagrees with those who believe that the new administration in Washington should work it out.
Beyond healthcare, the next major topic to be addressed is education. Here, a portion of the discussion will be guided by the fact that the Opportunity School District was not approved by voters last month. How to deal with the issue of failing schools, along with a possible change in the formula used to fund K-12 education, and the need to address the affordability of higher education are all up for discussion this year.
The issue most likely to be discussed is the revision of the Quality Basic Education Act, which was brought up by all three. A proposal was supposed to be introduced during the 2016 session, however Governor Deal decided to hold off in order to get additional feedback from teachers and school administrators. Leader Abrams pointed out that while she applauds the increases in K-12 funding over the past two years, how that funding is distributed needs to be reconsidered given the additional costs of educating a more diverse population. The Speaker said he was looking forward to hearing the governor’s proposal, noting that making changes to the funding formula was politically difficult, yet important to do.
Senator Shafer pointed out that the cost of higher education at the University of Georgia went up 190% between 1999-2009, compared to general inflation of 33%. Shafer said he believes the issue of tuition increases is less than visible because much of education is paid for by third parties, including the HOPE scholarship and other grants. One suggestion he made was to base additional funding for specific colleges and universities based on the percentage of students who graduate from that institution. Saying the Sen. Fran Millar was working on some ideas to address the issue, Shafer hopes this issue gets addressed this session.
One idea that has been floated for making college more affordable to many is permitting casino gambling in Georgia, with licensing revenue going to boost the Hope Scholarship. The idea got a few hearings a year ago, but went nowhere. The House Democratic Caucus, according to Leader Abrams, believes that any additional funds from casino gambling should go to what’s known as Gap funding. According to Abrams, 13,000 students dropped out in 2013 and 2014 because they couldn’t come up with $5,000 or less to continue their education. Whether there is more political will to pass casino gambling is a separate question, When asked if he thought this was the year, Speaker Ralston said, “Don’t bet on it.”
Beyond healthcare and education, what else might we see during next year’s session? The speaker believes there will be another effort to expand second amendment provisions, especially as they apply to campus carry. Last year’s bill was vetoed by Governor Deal, so some discussion will be necessary to draft a measure that all can live with. Ralston also brought up increasing pay for the state’s law enforcement personnel, an idea that was previewed by Governor Deal, Lt. Governor Cagle, and Speaker Ralston last fall. Ralston would also like to try to get another vetoed bill to pass next year that would provide additional workmans compensation insurance to firefighters suffering from certain cancers.
Both the Speaker and Sen. Shafer mentioned another effort at transit expansion. He pointed out that it was going to be important to have specific plans for expansion, noting that the transit bills that were introduced last year were short on specifics and allowed a lot of wiggle room in defining routes and stations. Ralston noted that one item on President-elect Trump’s agenda was a trillion dollar infrastructure program, and depending on how that developed, it could provide funding for expanded transit.
How much of this will end up on the governor’s desk is an open question, especially since Lt. Governor Casey Cagle and Governor Deal himself will have some say about what gets addressed during the 40 day session. And there are sure to be bills introduced that fall into what Leader Abrams calls the “who knows what” category of unanticipated legislation. Looking at it from a distance of five weeks away, this is a pretty good guess.