Smith opens wounds in GOP over hospital tax

When the Georgia Senate passed the so-called “sick tax” earlier this month, who knew it would be the Republican Party that would be bruised and battered?

On Monday, Sen. Preston Smith of Rome took the Senate well and contributed heavily to that battering. Smith confirmed what everyone else has been whispering for days -- he had been ousted from his powerful position as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

And Smith made no secret why.

“In retribution for my refusal to go along with the lieutenant governor and the rest of the Senate Republicans and vote for a tax increase, my role as chairman was stripped away from me,” Smith said. “... I take the well today with a heavy heart -- not because of a loss of any position, but rather because of what is happening in state government and its larger implication for the legacy of our Republican Party and the posterity of our state.”

Smith said he promised his constituents to never raise taxes. HB 307 would impose a 1.45 percent hospital tax on patient revenue to help fill a $600 million gap in Medicaid funding.

“I wanted to be a different kind of senator -- one who spoke his mind and meant what he said. I made that commitment. But the commitment was to my constituents, not to some outside group,” Smith said. “I gave my word, my bond, that I would not come down to Atlanta and raise taxes. ... Perhaps you should take your chairmanship and give it to a puppet who will feel indebted to you and surrender his constituents’ voice. I don’t need your position to have respect. And I don’t need your title to have honor.”

Smith and two other Republicans, Mitch Seabaugh of Sharpsburg and Jeff Chapman of Brunswick, voted against the bill on April 1. Two others, Jack Hill of Reidsville and Judson Hill of Marietta, were excused from the vote. The bill passed 31-15, but on the day it passed Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle twice stopped proceedings to gather votes. But Smith said it was more than that.

“He ordered the majority leader and president pro tem to go get the votes and to tell the members that their chairmanships were at stake,” Smith said. “[Senate President Pro Tem Tommie Williams] used to tell me that he would never ask me to vote against my conscience or my district. But at the meeting Williams spontaneously called for a motion for a ‘caucus position' on the bill.”

At that point, Cagle struck his gavel and ordered Smith to “speak the truth.”

Smith went on to explain that if two-thirds of the caucus voted to support it, all the members of the caucus had to vote for it.

“There was no discussion. There was not opportunity for dissent. He did not even ask for the members who were voting no,” Smith said. “Like a scene from ‘Lord of the Flies,' we marched back into the Senate to follow the order.”

Although the Republicans carried the bill, the discipline was swift and brutal. Seabaugh resigned as majority whip. Judson Hill would not comment Monday on whether he had been stripped of his chairmanship of the Reapportionment and Redistricting Committee.

So Smith was left to do most of the talking, and he attacked the leadership block of Cagle, Williams and Chip Rogers, whom he said “used to be a champion of taxpayers."

“[Rogers] used to brag that he had never voted for a tax increase. But you cannot claim to be a champion of taxpayers when you vote to raise taxes and then punish those in your caucus who are convicted not to raise taxes,” Smith said. "For the rest of his political career, the majority leader will have to face voters who know that he not only sold out to vote for a tax increase but he fired some of his most conservative members because they refused to go along with a tax increase.”

Rogers said he was stunned by Smith’s comments.

"I started my day as a friend of the senator from the [52nd], and I hope to end the day as a friend of the senator from the [52nd]," Rogers said, adding that he would not comment on committee assignments.

But Williams said the party needed 29 votes to pass the bill and Republicans who voted no jeopardized the GOP’s position and threatened the bill.

“If we are going to get the job done, we need a team," he said. "This is not a business for the weak at heart. There are tough decisions we are going to have to make if we are going to govern.”

Smith said he was called into Cagle’s office for a meeting at 8 a.m. Monday before the GOP caucus meeting.

“He asked me to resign and issue a state of apology,” Smith said. “An apology for voting against a caucus position.”

Jaillene Hunter, a spokeswoman for Cagle, said he would not comment on private meetings. She added that the Committee on Assignments met last week and voted unanimously to “allow the vice chairman of judiciary [Sen. Seth Harp (R-Midland)] to serve as chairman.”

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