Gov. Brian Kemp (right) and House Speaker David Ralston at a press conference after the passage of SB 106, a measure that could allow the governor to expand Medicaid in Georgia. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

The Jolt: A 40th-day test for Brian Kemp, David Ralston

We’ve reached the 40th day of the 2019 session of the General Assembly. Get ready for shenanigans.

By now, you surely know that Georgia lawmakers are a lot like you were in high school: They inch right up to a deadline, then fuzz the details.

Since it was breached in 2015, the midnight deadline has been more fungible, giving lawmakers a few more precious minutes to pass wide-ranging measures, often with minimal time to actually read them.

With that in mind, here are a few of the people and storylines to watch during Tuesday’s Sine Die:

-- The ‘Frankenbill.’ The fate of the monstrous amalgamation of an airline jet fuel tax break, a watered-down attempt to exert state control over Atlanta’s airport, and a rural transit initiative is up in the air. Rumors abound: Will the measure be dismembered, sliced and diced back into three separate bills to help its passage, or collapse under its own weight?

Here’s what we know: The Senate’s leaders want a strong airport takeover bill and care little for the jet fuel tax break that Delta Air Lines so desperately wants. And House leaders know that.

-- House Speaker David Ralston. As the last of the trio of Republican leaders who had ruled Georgia most of the last decade, Ralston has had to navigate a new regime with Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.

He’s been on the outside more often than he’d probably like, most notably with the “heartbeat” anti-abortion bill, which his Capitol counterparts endorsed before he did. Some of his allies have privately worried that the speaker’s edge in experience has been blunted by scrutiny over his private law practice. We’ll find out today.

-- Governor Kemp and the jet fuel tax break. Georgia lawmakers gave Delta a spanking last year after the airline waded into a gun control debate, by blocking a tax break that would have saved the airline $40 million a year. That break is up again this year, tied to the aforementioned Frankenbill.

Delta and its corporate allies have cast it as a make-or-break moment for Republicans to prove their pro-business mettle. Democrats, you see, largely support the 20-year tax break. So has Kemp, who endorsed it on the campaign trail and made it one of his administration’s legislative priorities. The question is how hard the governor will push the issue.

-- Medical marijuana. With Gov. Nathan Deal out of office, the biggest obstacle to legalizing the in-state cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana is also gone. But that hasn’t guaranteed passage of an expansion. With Ralston and other House leaders solidly behind a sweeping measure, Duncan and Senate honchos have endorsed a more limited proposal. And the families of children who are forced to illegally transport cannabis oil across state lines are getting restless.

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In 1964, state Rep. Denmark Groover, D-Macon, dangled dangerously from the House balcony in an effort to keep the chamber's clock from reaching midnight. AJC file.
Photo: Joe McTyre / The Atlanta Journal/Joe McTyre / The Atlanta Journal

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On Monday, one day before the close of 2019 session of the Legislature and with a jet fuel tax break still in the balance, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian made an appearance before the Rotary Club of Atlanta.

Afterwards, Bastian was quizzed on attempts to either put Atlanta’s airport under a state authority, or subject it to a looser form of state oversight. The Delta CEO declined to get into specifics but said this, according to Maria Saporta of the Saporta Report:

 “We are opposed to politicizing the operations of the most important asset we have in our community,” Bastian said. “We just don’t like the politicization of such an important asset that I believe has been well managed operationally.”

Not that he has any patience for hanky-panky at Atlanta City Hall:

“Hartsfield-Jackson is the biggest, most powerful airport in the world,” Bastian said. “There can be no acceptance of any malfeasance or corruption – it’s inexcusable what we’ve witnessed over the years.”

***

Last night in Washington, the U.S. Senate rejected a pair of natural disaster relief bills last night, making the timetable for long-delayed Hurricane Michael aid to Georgia even more uncertain.

Puerto Rico funding continues to be at the center of the partisan fight.

President Trump has telegraphed that he won’t accept more than $600 million in additional food stamp funding for the island, while Democrats want more to pump up aid aimed at the island’s infrastructure.

Georgia Republicans are howling that Democrats are trying to punish Trump while Southeastern farmers suffer. Democrats, meanwhile, allege that Trump is treating Puerto Ricans as second-class Americans. 

Debate will at least temporarily move to the back burner in the Senate while the parties hash things out in the days ahead. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has teed up votes on several Trump nominees, as well as another “nuclear option” rules change, moves that won’t exactly foster any bipartisan good will in Congress’ upper chamber. 

***

WSB Radio’s Jamie Dupree tells us that, after a week of public calls for fellow Republicans in Congress to act on a new plan to repeal and replace the Obama health law, President Donald Trump made clear late Monday night that he does not expect any immediate GOP action. At least, not until after the 2020 election, and only if Republicans win back total control on Capitol Hill.

"Vote will be taken right after the Election when Republicans hold the Senate & win...back the House," President Trump said in a series of Tweets.

But here’s a question: Even if Trump has backed off immediate dissolution of the Affordable Care Act, in favor of post-2020 action, how does that make the issue less of a challenge for Republicans seeking re-election?

***

Here’s an April Fool’s joke we can get behind.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, declared Monday that he planned to grow a beard so that he would no longer be mistaken for Elijah Cummings, a Maryland colleague who’s also African-American, bald and the leader of a House oversight panel. 

“I considered getting a tattoo on the back of my head, just to clear things up,” Lewis said in his April 1 press release. “I tried to convince Elijah to get one too, but that didn’t go over so well.”

Lewis and Cummings’ resemblance has tripped up plenty of junior Capitol Hill reporters and C-SPAN viewers over the years. It’s become enough of an issue at times that we’ve felt compelled to author blog posts setting the record straight. Here’s the challenge -- that’s Lewis on the right in the photo below. Or is it?

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