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
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.