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.