The session promised to be dominated by how to cover state health care costs and the first week did not disappoint, with senators quickly approving Gov. Nathan Deal's compromise plan to shore up the state Medicaid insurance program without forcing lawmakers to vote on a tax.
At issue is growing Medicaid insurance enrollment while lawmakers face the expiration of a hospital industry tax that yields more than $450 million in extra federal funding used to boost payments to health care providers treating Medicaid patients.
Extending the levy would be the simplest solution. That's exactly what hospitals asked for, with a few tweaks. But the easiest legal move isn't necessarily the easiest political move, and legislators are nervous about attaching their name to anything called a tax, even if it's merely an assessment used to increase many hospitals' overall Medicaid revenues.
So, the solution in Senate Bill 24 is for an appointed state board to set the hospital assessments, rather than legislators. The Senate tweaked the bill to ensure they don't cede all control to the appointees, though. While the bill doesn't set the revenue tax rate — that would be a tax, after all — it limits the overall revenue raised by whatever the board does to an amount the General Assembly will set in the state operating budget.
The bill now moves to the House, and legislative leaders indicate that they want it to pass as quickly as possible to get the uncomfortable issue behind them.
ODDS AND ENDS:
— Senate lawmakers adopted a weak internal rule prohibiting them from accepting gifts worth more than $100. That rule leaves plenty of loopholes — for example — senators can be still sent on pricey junkets so long as the trip is vaguely related to their legislative duties. It doesn't apply to food, beverages or admission to events when committees or the entire chamber is invited. Violators can escape punishment by refunding part or all of those gifts.
— House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, criticized the gift cap rule set the by Senate, accusing the chamber of playing "around with gimmicks." A longtime proponent of restricting gifts, he has promised to introduce a ban on those gifts as soon as Jan. 28. Ralston has said his bill would require more people to officially register as lobbyists.
— Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican, recovered some of the powers he lost to dissident Republicans. The chamber elected GOP Sen. David Shafer as president pro tempore, a victory for a faction of GOP lawmakers who sought to end a leadership feud that had politically sidelined Cagle. The Republican caucus earlier elected Sen. Ronnie Chance as its majority leader.
— Former State Sen. Chip Rogers raised eyebrows late last year when he abruptly resigned from his post after winning re-election. The Woodstock Republican announced that he would be taking an on-air job with Georgia Public Broadcasting. Turns out, the job change comes with a big raise. Rogers will make $150,000 at GPB. His Senate salary was about $17,000, not including per diem, travel and other expense reimbursement.
"A lobbyist could give a 99-dollar gift five times or however many times in the same day. Now that's a loophole of enormous proportion," said Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who voted against the Senate rule banning lawmakers from accepting gifts worth more than $100.
The House Appropriations Committee starts its review Tuesday of the $40.8 billion budget that Gov. Nathan Deal submitted Thursday. Deal will address the committee Tuesday before the state's economist gives his annual outlook for Georgia's economy.