Georgia’s state Capitol

Capitol Recap: Georgia’s rural struggles reach into classrooms

State lawmakers this past week learned a few new things about the problems currently facing rural Georgia.

Their teacher was the chief financial officer of the Georgia Department of Education.

Ted Beck told members of House and Senate Appropriations committees that two-thirds of the state’s school districts saw enrollment drop over the past five years.

But enrollment isn’t the only thing in decline. For many, so is the ability to collect tax revenue.

About one-third of Georgia’s districts now have a lower tax digest — the value of property that can be taxed — than in 2013.

Costs are going up even with fewer children in the classes. A larger share of them are participating in more expensive programs, such as those serving remedial, disabled and gifted students.

State Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, asked whether all the state’s school systems, once you throw in costs for pensions and other benefits, will be able to afford the $3,000 pay raise that Gov. Brian Kemp included in his first budget to fulfill 60 percent of a campaign promise he made to teachers.

Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods’ answer? “For areas with a declining tax base,” he said, “that’s an issue.”

Some districts could resort to a past practice of diverting money the state intended for pay raises in order to balance their budgets. Kemp administration officials are strongly encouraging the districts not to do that.

A cost estimate for Medicaid: Georgia Democrats have tried to make a case that the state’s rural communities could see great benefits from an expansion of Medicaid, especially for their financially struggling hospitals.

The state auditor has now put a new price tag on what that would cost, should Georgia choose to go that route.

The net cost, according to a fiscal note delivered to House leaders, is estimated at about $150 million in 2020. It would then grow to somewhere between $188 million and $213 million by 2022.

To state House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, that’s a health care plan free of sticker shock.

“Putting an insurance card in the pocket of nearly 500,000 Georgians for a net cost to the state of $150 million in 2020 should be the first priority for this General Assembly,” Trammell said.

The prospects of expansion under the Affordable Care Act appear to be popular among Georgians. Earlier this month, an Atlanta Journal-Constitutional poll found 71 percent of Georgians back the idea.

Democrats say boosting the state-federal program that provides coverage for the poor and disabled would mean a healthier cash flow for rural hospitals. That, in turn, could help their communities, even attracting new businesses.

But Democrats aren’t in charge, Republicans are, and many of them have stood firmly against Medicaid expansion.

While Kemp is prepared to endorse a Medicaid waiver, which would give the state more flexibility in how it spends federal funds for health care, he opposed out-and-out expansion while on the campaign trail last year. As did Gov. Nathan Deal during his eight years in office.

Their feelings on Medicaid expansion, like those of many other Republicans, can be broken down in three parts: First, it would be too costly in the long run. Second, it relies too much on the federal government, which would pay 90 percent of the costs at least through 2020. Three, it would divert state dollars away from other priorities, such as public safety and education.

“We’re not going to put our state at risk by relying on Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to fund one of Barack Obama’s policies,” said state Rep. Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown. “We want to find ways to lessen Georgia’s dependency on the federal government and find a Georgia-grown solution.”

While Kemp is an obstacle to full-blown expansion, the real barrier is Kelley and his fellow legislators. In 2014, the Republican-led Legislature gave itself the final say on whether to expand the program.

So what would be the impact of expansion? The numbers get a little fuzzy.

The Urban Institute estimated last year that Medicaid expansion would insure 473,000 more Georgians and draw down about $3 billion in federal matching funds.

But the state fiscal note said as many as 535,000 newly eligible Georgians could join the program by fiscal year 2022. That could include at least 40,000 people who are already eligible for the program.

Spanning progress: Obsolescence may do what a community effort cannot in trying to take Eugene Talmadge's name off a bridge that connects Savannah to South Carolina.

Talmadge’s bridge is apparently being overtaken by the needs of modern times.

Political leaders in Savannah sought a change in names last year because Talmadge, elected to serve three terms as Georgia’s governor starting in the 1930s, was a staunch segregationist.

State Rep. Ron Stephens, a Republican from the city, with the support of a small army of cookie-bearing Girl Scouts, proposed renaming the bridge after their founder and Savannah native Juliette Gordon Low. His bill did not gain traction, though.

In comes Griff Lynch, the head of the Georgia Ports Authority, who told lawmakers during a budget briefing that plans are underway to replace the bridge in roughly a decade.

A taller bridge is needed to allow larger container ships to come into the port.

“We’ll be talking about this in the years to come — it’s probably about $1 billion in cost,” Lynch told legislators. “If you’d like the ports to continue to be what they are now, this is something we’re going to have to figure out.”

Lynch told legislators that by 2028, the increase in shipments through the port each day could be measured in millions of tons. But for that to happen, he said, a bridge with a higher road deck is needed to accommodate the newer class of jumbo ships. Another option, he said, is a tunnel running under the Savannah River.

Another run? Republicans are watching to see whether former U.S. Rep. Karen Handel makes a bid to regain the seat she lost in the 6th Congressional District.

But they’re not all waiting.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, has indicated he would like to make a run in 2020 at Democratic U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, who beat Handel in November.

He’s stirring up some interest. GOP operative Heath Garrett told GPB’s “Political Rewind” that he could become an adviser to Beach.

Garrett likens Beach to his former boss, Georgia U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson. Garrett was a chief of staff in Washington for Isakson, who used to represent the 6th District in the U.S. House.

But before Beach runs against McBath, he may have to run against Handel.

Rob Simms, who was Handel’s campaign strategist in 2017 and 2018, said she is thinking seriously about running again and will make a formal announcement soon. She’s reportedly maintaining contact with donors and core supporters.

“There are many people who believe she’s the best candidate to win this seat back,” Simms said.

Even if Handel chooses to sit this one out, Beach could still face a primary challenger. State Sen. John Albers of Roswell is one of the names being floated as a contender.

Parties shuffle: When the next election comes around, the state Democratic and Republican parties will be under new management.

On the Republican side, Carmen Foskey, the 20-something executive director, is getting ready to take a job in the private sector. Taking her place will be Stewart Bragg.

His resume boasts a lot of work in battleground states, which could come in handy now that there are signs Georgia could have a significant role in the 2020 presidential race and all the other contests that go with it. Kemp’s narrow victory in the 2018 governor’s race, a close call for the GOP in one congressional district and a flip to the Democrats in a second all make the state a destination stop on the political map.

State GOP Chairman John Watson said Foskey helped stabilize the party’s finances.

When Watson took over the party in June 2017, it sported an unhealthy balance sheet showing $223,000 in the bank and $317,000 in debts. It has since narrowed that gap. In June, the party reported having $516,000 on hand and debts of $523,000.

Meanwhile, Democrats are also in the process of putting new names at the top of the party flow chart.

They were set Saturday to select somebody to replace Porter DuBose as chairman. The first job for the new boss could be naming an executive director. Rebecca DeHart is leaving after long service in that position.

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