David Ralston: On finding cash for rural broadband, ‘religious liberty’ and teacher pay raises

House Speaker David Ralston speaks with Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus. AJC file

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

House Speaker David Ralston speaks with Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus. AJC file

Athens -- When the Legislature convenes in January, the state will have a new governor, and a new lieutenant governor – who will preside over the Senate.

Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, will be the Capitol veteran, entering his ninth year as leader of the House.

On Tuesday, at the close of a three-day, biennial gathering held here expressly for newly elected state lawmakers, Gov.-elect Brian Kemp gave the Class of 2018 a first taste of legislation he intends to send their way.

But House members, led by Ralston, had already laid out their own agenda. Last week, finishing up two years of work, the House Rural Development Council offered up a package of legislation intended to help rescue a rural Georgia bereft of jobs, health care, and – increasingly – young people.

It proposes a rewriting of Georgia’s “certificate of need” process, through which the state regulates the construction of hospitals and the services they offer. House members also proposed lowering – but also broadening – a tax on communication services, so that it includes services like satellite TV and livestreaming purchases. Think Netflix and Hulu.

That cash would be used to extend high-speed service to Georgia’s broadband deserts.

Other initiatives: Tax credits would be extended to employers who create jobs five and 10 at a time, rather than 50. Farm-based wineries would be able to sell as much as 24,000 gallons of their product without running afoul of Georgia’s arcane alcohol laws.

This agenda, and more, will be attempted even as Republicans in the state Capitol contemplate the loss of 13 GOP state lawmakers in last month’s general election contests. Most of the defeats occurred in north metro Atlanta.

The losses highlight a rural-suburban divide that’s likely to color many issues in 2019, most especially any debate over “religious liberty” measures that critics – the LGBT and business communities -- say are intended to allow religious conservatives to discriminate against same-sex couples.

Advocates point to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, commonly referred to as RFRA, which was passed by Congress in 1993. Kemp has promised to sign a state-oriented duplicate.

On Monday, a day prior to Kemp’s public address, Speaker Ralston sat down with me to discuss all of the above – and more. His remarks below have been lightly edited for length and clarity:

Insider: The report from the House Rural Development Council is substantive, but also a huge lift. Are there any portions of it that you're likely to press harder on than others?

Ralston: I haven't decided where I'll press the most. But I told that group early on that I expected them to be very candid, to call it the way they saw it. Darned if they didn't take me up on it. They've brought back a very bold, ambitious set of recommendations. It sets the table for some discussions that we probably have needed to have. What makes it across the finish line and what doesn't, I think it's too early to say.

Insider: Have you had any discussions about it with the governor-elect?

Ralston: I have not. I know he and I are trying to find some time to have more than just a catch-each-other-on-the-fly conversation. We plan to do that in the next few days.

Insider: I thought it was interesting that the House is the first out of the box with its agenda. It seemed pretty important for you and your members to lay some groundwork.

Ralston: Keep in mind that this was not an overnight process. This council has been in process since May of 2017. These are not things that we're rushed out.

Insider: How does "certificate of need" fit into rural development?

Ralston: Anything that breaks down the barriers to access to quality health care in rural Georgia, or creates barriers, I think is fair game. And there's a feeling by many that we couldn't talk about the whole issue of rural hospitals and ignore that issue. So I think it has to be part of the discussion.

Insider: I didn't see any reference to Medicaid waivers. (Note: Democrats speak of expanding Medicaid coverage for those who can't afford health insurance. Some red states have pursued separate deals with the federal government, allowing them more control over how the money is spent, under the name of "waivers.")

Ralston: There's some discussion out there. I think Governor-elect Kemp talked about that in the campaign. I'm willing to have a discussion about that. I just don't think we can fix our health care system on the promises of the federal government. That's been my concern with Medicaid expansion. Waivers are a different kind of thing.

Insider: The communications tax – that seems to be the second-heaviest lift out there. This is a smaller piece of something we've talked about before, about expanding the base of the sales tax in order to reduce taxes elsewhere.

Ralston: What we're doing in the proposal is to tax products that have been tax-free up until now. If you believe in a flatter, fairer tax, I think people will like this. Certainly, it allows us then to do some things regarding the extension of broadband to some poorly served or not-served-at-all areas of Georgia.

I think high-speed broadband is the foundation of rural development, because it's so intrinsically related to health care and education and business.

Insider: We're well over a month past Nov. 6. Everybody is looking at the dynamic within the Republican camp of rural versus the suburbs. What kind of balance is to be struck there?

Ralston: My message is that we as Republicans need to focus on the issues that made us all Republicans to begin with. We need to go back and embrace the fact that we're the party of small business. We're the party of leaner, more efficient government. We're the party that people associate with a lower tax burden.

I think we have to begin with all of us recognizing that each district in this state is different, and what may be popular in Fannin County may not be in Gwinnett, and vice versa. We're a big tent, and I think we focus on the things that unite us, and we work through the things that we disagree about. And we're going to have disagreements. I'm very optimistic that we can do that.

Insider: Even with religious liberty legislation?

Ralston: Nobody's introduced a RFRA bill. 

Insider: Would you support religious liberty legislation if it were accompanied with a civil rights measure laying out protections?

Ralston: I'd have to think through that one a little bit. I'm pretty well on the record about having some serious concerns about RFRA. The states that have passed it, or have talked about it in the last few years, have not had good experiences. And I don't want Georgia to have that experience.

I think we have to recognize that the world's a much different place than when Bill Clinton signed a bill that the Congress passed in '93. The RFRA discussion then was totally different. It wasn't about what it's about now. That's one of those issues that divide us, and I think if we're going to continue to move Georgia forward, we have to do it united as opposed to being divided.

Insider: In his campaign for governor, Kemp advocated a $5,000-a-year pay raise for teachers. Given that the House holds the purse strings of the state, has anyone started looking at that? Does that have an audience in the House?

Ralston: Those are two different questions. We are looking at it. But let's back up to the second [Nathan] Deal term, when we made great strides in becoming very much more competitive, in terms of teacher pay. I supported those measures enthusiastically.

I think we have to look at this. It carries a big price tag. Our budget folks are looking at it now, and we'll see what kind of appetite there is for it.