Legislative Priorities Becoming Clear; Economic Outlook Cloudy

This week’s Courier Herald column:

It’s been an unusual session of the Georgia General Assembly, even for a gathering where the first rule is to expect the unexpected.  It’s been a long time since fissures within the governing majority in Georgia were as public, and with policy proposals and priorities as disparate.

Much of the public discussion covering the play by play of the action has focused on the budget.  As according the fundamental economic law of scarcity, legislators are trying to satisfy unlimited wants within the limited means of a balanced budget.  There’s a delicate balancing act of trying to fulfill campaign promises of teacher pay raises and tax cuts while attempting to ensure the state will have all the funds in hand to meet the budget’s obligations.

Stepping aside the battle over money – both how much is taken from taxpayers and how it is spent – there are other substantive items being considered by Georgia’s legislators.  Looking at which ones have the backing of leadership provides a bit of understanding of what is likely to pass at least one chamber on the path to becoming law.

Speaker David Ralston pronounced himself “dangerous” in a session with members of the media prior to convening the legislature. His explanation was that someone who doesn’t want anything – at least publicly – is harder to bargain with as there’s nothing to trade away.

Last week, however, the Speaker appeared twice with legislators as they introduced bills prior to the deadline for consideration this year.  His public support of the two measures underscores a theme from the House supporting a “culture of life”. 

State Representative Houston Gaines of Athens filed legislation giving employees of the State of Georgia paid parental leave for the first time.  Earlier in the year, Speaker Ralston announced the creation of a paid parental leave program for House staffers, with this legislation designed to extend the practice throughout state government. It also aligns with federal legislation President Trump signed into law last December granting paid parental leave for federal employees.

Speaker Ralston also stood with Representative Sharon Cooper of Marietta as she announced legislation aimed at stemming Georgia’s abysmal maternal mortality rates, which are among the country’s worst.  Cooper’s legislation would seek a waiver from federal Medicaid rules to allow additional postpartum coverage for new mothers.  The bill would also expand lactation care and services, with funding included in this year’s House budget proposal.

Over in the Senate, a couple of measures have Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan’s support regarding health care reform.  Senator Ben Watson of Savannah introduced a Right To Shop act, which would require insurers to publish in-network costs for healthcare services as well as quality metrics.  The bill passed the Senate 51-1, indicating bipartisan support.

Duncan also has added his support to a measure sponsored by Senator Chuck Huffstetler of Rome designed to end surprise billing for medical services.  The measure is designed to cut back on patients being billed by “out of network” providers when they seek care from hospitals that are within the patients’ insurance network.  The measure passed the Senate unanimously, also indicating that the frustration with this issue among voters does not have a partisan divide.

With leadership priorities becoming more clear, the trajectory and timing of this meeting of the state’s legislators is becoming fuzzier.  The growing number of Covid-19 cases has many capitol observers wondering aloud if restrictions on large numbers of people convening in groups may cause a premature ending to the session. 

The waves of economic impacts to hospitality and tourism are beginning to extend to other industries, and as this column is being filed the oil markets are in full collapse.  The economy will receive a shock of some magnitude.  It is unclear what the direct effects will be on Georgia’s incoming tax revenues, and thus the budget.

Just expect the unexpected.  This year, add some extra to your unexpected column. 

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