Legislature 2017 Misses Many Opportunities

By Kelly McCutchen



Last year, we wrote that the General Assembly is often, and appropriately, chided for passing last-minute bills with little debate or study. Once again this year, major legislation was crammed into the waning hours of the last day of the session.

It was as ugly as the North Carolina-Gonzaga championship game. Several bills were hurriedly voted on after midnight; many legislators seemed more focused on tearing up papers for confetti in anticipation of Sine Die instead of studying the bills.

Sadly, a major reform of adoption law, an income tax rate cut for Georgians and a minor expansion of school choice fell victim to the clock.

Legislators wisely passed the 2018 budget before March 30, the last day. This needs to be a lesson for the future: Lawmakers should bring up major legislation earlier in the session and perhaps reserve the last day for resolutions. If a resolution naming a bridge for some great Georgian is not passed before midnight on Day 40, it’s not that big of a deal.

Some major legislative efforts mysteriously disappeared.

  • All that was left of the great work done by the Governor’s Education Reform Commission was a bill that passed around midnight; it included a mere handful of the recommendations focusing on charter schools.
  • After a series of hearings around the state on the challenge of broadband service in rural Georgia, no bills were passed despite some good ideas being put forward.
  • Doctors who charge low monthly rates for cash-based primary care are left to operate in a gray area of the law because a two-page Direct Primary Care bill that had passed the Senate and two committees unanimously became stuck in the House Rules Committee.

Some good legislation flew under the radar of the media.

  • Georgia continued its steady progress in criminal justice reforms, passing three bills and showing why this state is a national model in this area.
  • Schools gained more flexibility in K-12 student testing, which could lay the foundation for more personalized learning.

Transparency in government is always good. Taxpayers will now be able to see how much money reaches each public school and how it is spent. After resisting for many years, the Senate will join the House in streaming live video of committee meetings to the public on the Internet.

There were two victories over special interests. Breweries and distilleries finally gained similar abilities to sell directly to their customers as wineries have enjoyed for years. And dental hygienists will be able to serve more patients in safety-net settings.

Unfortunately, special interests continued to rack up victories in tax reform even as small businesses and families were again denied broad-based relief from the income tax.

Despite the failure of broadband legislation, efforts to boost rural economic growth were a common theme. Moving forward, one of the most effective boosters for rural Georgia and the rest of the state, is for government to address health care costs.

Rural Georgia is burdened not only by high health care costs but by financially struggling hospitals and a doctor shortage. A good start to helping would be to eliminate the unfunded mandate caused by the federal law requiring emergency rooms to be the de facto health care provider for the uninsured and the below-market reimbursement rates (price controls) in the Medicaid program.

With Tom Price, Georgia’s former Congressman, heading the Department of Health and Human Services and encouraging innovative state waiver requests, Georgia is well positioned to be a national leader.

Health care is a tricky issue and will be a great test of our state’s leadership, but the benefit is worth the risk. The good news is that work on federal waivers can begin immediately. The better news is that, with Georgia’s two-year legislative session, there’s still hope for progress next year. The bad news is that next year, again, is an election year.

Kelly McCutchen is President of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the view of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (April 7, 2017). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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