Dear school bus driver: Don't panic over health insurance loss. Not yet.

The state will probably subsidize your health insurance for another year, rather than cut you off cold next Jan. 1, as Gov. Nathan Deal has proposed.

After that, it may be time to polish up those pitchforks that your predecessors brought to the state Capitol some three decades ago.

In last week’s $21.8 billion budget pitch, the governor recommended the elimination of a $103 million health insurance subsidy for 11,500 part-time school workers. Deal characterized the move as a matter of fairness – other part-time state workers don’t get that benefit.

For all its fair-mindedness, the governor’s recommendation may be the most politically unpopular proposal he’s put forward this year. “I’m not comfortable at all being on opposite sides with [the governor], except that everybody’s on this side,” said Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

There’s another reason Deal’s hound won’t hunt. It has everything to do with Jack Hill’s daddy.

But before we go there, a confession is necessary: I have a small dog in this fight. The industrious Mrs. Insider works two jobs. A part-time bookkeeping position with the Cobb County school system provides her health insurance and the possibility of, someday, a small pension. Her second gig helps pay the bills.

Many families play part-time school jobs the same way. “At home, my experience has been that these individuals work for the insurance,” said Terry England, R-Auburn, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “They knew the pay wasn’t great, but they work for the insurance to raise their families.”

The key to this fight can be found in Deal’s point about fairness. Why do we view bus drivers and, by extension, other part-time school workers as something special?

The answer is Wilton Hill, a bus driver, grocer and state lawmaker during the 1950s. In retirement, he became president of the Georgia School Bus Drivers’ Association. The organization still exists, though it isn’t nearly as influential as it was when Hill commanded it.

Over lunch this week, one former state senator described Wilton Hill as quiet but relentless, capable of packing the Capitol on several occasions with bus drivers and other workers. A man with a catchy farewell that played on his community’s famous state prison: “If you come to Reidsville, stop by and see me. If you’re sent to Reidsville, I’ll stop by and see you.”

Over a period of several years in the 1970s and ‘80s, with the late great House Speaker Tom Murphy as a key ally, Hill persuaded the General Assembly and a pair of governors that part-time school workers were indeed worthy of something more than an hourly wage.

Wilton Hill’s son still believes that. “These are unique positions that are valuable to everybody,” Jack Hill said this week. "Traditionally, there’s been a unique relationship between school bus drivers and children. You don’t want to be hiring one every week.”

The chairman of the Senate budget committee offers this test: “If there’s a school bus accident, that’s the lead story in every news market in the state of Georgia.”

The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, like his counterpart in the Senate, said he, too, has been inundated with calls from local school officials – who say insurance coverage lends stability to low-paying positions.

“If you go to a purely hourly worker, you’re going to have some issues,” England said. “You’re going to have turnover. With the health insurance being attached to it, the individual has a buy-in. They have some ownership of the job.”

This week, House leaders inserted into a budget document an endorsement of that sentiment, demanding “an examination of options to provide health benefits” to “essential” part-time school workers.

Translation: We like the idea, but don’t know how to pay for it.

The chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees, who control much of the budget process in the Capitol, are proposing that, next year, local school systems pick up a larger share of health insurance costs for part-time employees. Lower gasoline prices could help absorb the cost. The state subsidy would shrink to something like $35 million, but it wouldn’t disappear. Not immediately.

“Then we have to have an adult conversation,” England said.

You can see the trend. Ultimately, health insurance for part-time school workers could become a system-by-system decision. Poorer outfits may have to point their bus drivers, cafeteria workers, para-professionals and bookkeepers to Obamacare.

School systems will have to be careful how they do that. A new Georgia law, enacted last year, bars state political units – including boards of education — from becoming cozy with the Affordable Care Act.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.