Short Session Shouldn’t Keep Legislators From Reforms


KELLY McCUTCHEN President, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

President, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Their sights may be set on the looming election season and campaigns, but a reluctance to rock the boat is no reason for Georgia legislators to keep 2014’s short legislative session in the doldrums when there are opportunities to move forward on policy in Georgia.

With the exception of criminal justice, Georgia has left public policy innovation to states like Florida, Indiana and Louisiana. With income tax, pension and major education funding reforms pushed to 2015, tort reform could be the issue that puts Georgia in the national spotlight. Sen. Brandon Beach’s Patient Injury Act would eliminate medical malpractice litigation.

Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledge shortfalls in the current medical malpractice system. For the poor and middle class, access to justice is a real problem. Less than 3 percent of victims of medical negligence receive compensation. Worse, there is little evidence that tort liability has reduced poor-quality care. Negligent medical injury rates have changed little in four decades. Defensive medicine needlessly raises costs in a health care system that already costs too much.

The Patient Injury Act would replace costly litigation with an administrative system where patients who have been harmed would simply submit an application. Rather than having to prove negligence, the patient would be immediately compensated if an expert panel determines the injury could have been avoided in a high-quality setting such as the Mayo Clinic.

Projections show many more patients would be compensated under this system. The Act would cap the cost of the system, with the added cost of compensation funded by savings in litigation and administrative costs. More importantly, increased transparency would help reduce medical errors and hopefully help the Georgia Medical Board perform its job of monitoring and sanctioning providers who are a danger to the public. If passed in Georgia, expect the concept to be quickly adopted in other states.

Outside of tort reform, budget debates will dominate. State agencies are rejoicing in anticipation of state revenue growing again, but to merely undo prior budget cuts misses the opportunity to do better. Georgia’s new focus on redirecting non-violent offenders into more effective alternatives to prison is one good example.

Transportation provides another opportunity. Undoubtedly, Georgia must address congestion and mass transit. Unfortunately, while Georgia’s transportation taxes are 20th highest in the nation, transportation spending ranks among the lowest: Transportation taxes are being diverted to other spending. Georgia should begin shifting the “fourth penny” of the gas tax back to transportation or reduce the tax, starting with this year’s budget.

In education, Georgia’s per pupil spending remains higher than states with higher student achievement like North Carolina, Tennessee and Florida. There are certainly systems that are struggling, but putting more money into an antiquated QBE funding formula will complicate next year’s reform effort. The state should instead look for a way to provide temporary assistance to the most needy school systems.

Ahead of elections, the goal under the Gold Dome traditionally is to minimize fallout. Clearly, there still is opportunity for meaningful policy changes.

(This commentary was published in the January 12, 2014 Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)