Legislature 2019 a Promising Start to Georgia’s Biennial Session

By Kyle Wingfield

Kyle Wingfield

The 2019 legislative session started as something of a blank slate: a new governor, new lieutenant governor and lots of fresh faces in both the House and the Senate. While that kind of turnover always breeds uncertainty, it’s also an opportunity.

On some issues, legislators seized the moment. On others, less so – although thanks to the General Assembly’s two-year terms, hope lives on until next year.

Let’s start with what did get done. Of all the bills sent to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature, perhaps none has more potential to change Georgia for the good than Senate Bill 106. The “Patients First Act” gives Kemp the authority to seek more flexibility from the federal government in how Georgia administers Medicaid and the private insurance exchanges and subsidies created by the Affordable Care Act.

As most Americans recognize in most spheres – but not all; more on that to follow – one size does not fit all. In health care, one size of a government program does not fit all patients or all providers. With the right kind of flexibility, commonly called “waivers,” Georgia can tailor the private insurance market for individuals and small businesses to allow greater choice and competition, which should result in lower prices. Medicaid is also in dire need of that kind of state-specific customization.

The ultimate goal of increasing insurance coverage should be increasing access to care, and other bills advance that interest as well. SB 115 allows for the issuance of telemedicine licenses to out-of-state doctors, and SB 118 requires insurers to cover telemedicine services on the same basis as those provided in person. That’s particularly good news for those in rural Georgia, which is plagued by doctor shortages.

An ambitious plan to curtail Georgia’s burdensome Certificate of Need regime, which effectively grants existing hospitals a veto over new entrants to the marketplace, fizzled as lawmakers settled for a scaled-back version in HB 186. It’s a step in the right direction, but the Georgians in all parts of the state need more provider options. This is one area where legislators can finish the job in 2020.

Some of the infrastructure needed to enable telemedicine, and many other types of businesses, got a double boost this year. Legislators finally settled on a standard way for local governments to regulate the new “small cell” technology that promises to turbocharge wireless internet services. Legislators approved  SB 66, outlining streamlined, time-limited process for cities and counties to issue permits for the thousands of smaller antennae needed for the faster, more reliable “5G” technology.

At the same time, wired broadband stands to expand to Georgia’s rural areas. SB 2 gives electric co-ops explicit legislative authorization to offer broadband service. Because the co-ops own the utility poles used by other providers that may now be their competitors, especially cable companies, the legislation also regulates the fees and conditions they can impose for the use of those poles. Choice and competition should grow as a result.

Alas, not all the news is positive. The one-size-fits-all model will still apply to the vast majority of Georgia students after the defeat of an important school-choice measure. SB 173 would have created Educational Scholarship Accounts so that students who need a different education than what their public school offers could use part of their public funding for private school, homeschooling or other options. Although the number of students was drastically limited, and priority was given to students in low-performing schools, students from foster or military families, students who are bullied, and others similarly challenged, the public-school establishment succeeded in blocking it.

While it’s disappointing that thousands of students face another year in a school setting that isn’t best for them, 2020 offers yet another opportunity for Georgia legislators to get it right.

Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO 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 views 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 5, 2019). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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