Capitol Recap: It’s ‘Groundhog Day’ in Georgia for some legislation

They celebrated Groundhog Day this past week at the Georgia Legislature, but more in a Phil Connors sense than that of Gen. Beauregard Lee.

ExploreThe general, a rodent of unusual significance, predicts the coming of spring from his digs in Gwinnett County.

Connors, Bill Murray's character in the film "Groundhog Day," is trapped in a temporal phenomenon, reliving the same day over and over. The playing of Sonny and Cher's "I've Got You, Babe" each morning on the radio signals that he has failed again to move on. He only escapes once he's learned to make the changes necessary to obtain his goal.

It was like that this past week at the Legislature, as work began on new pieces of legislation with ties to previous failures. But have they been altered enough to succeed this time around?

Less clout this time might improve chances

A twist in strategy could help this first piece of legislation.

House Bill 64, sponsored by state Rep. Shaw Blackmon, R-Bonaire, would make sure Georgia health insurance agents get a commission for all sales.

Blackmon says the bill is needed because while — thanks to the Affordable Care Act — agents in small towns are handling more individual plans than before, they aren't necessarily being paid for every sale they make. Again, the ACA has a part in that because it requires insurers to spend at least 80 percent of what they take in from premiums on health care costs and improving quality. That's caused insurers to tighten their grip on the remaining 20 percent, which pays for a range of business expenses. Agents' commissions come out of that share if the insurers pay them at all.

HB 64 is a new version of a proposal Blackmon made last year that despite winning passage in the House, managed to get out of a Senate committee only after a display of heavy-handedness by a powerful co-sponsor. Even then, it never got a vote before the full Senate.

Blackmon made some changes this year that might help his proposal clear the barriers that stopped it last year.

First, it no longer sets a minimum commission. Some legislators balked at that as government interference harmful to businesses

Second, and perhaps more importantly, this year's bill has shed House Rules Committee Chairman John Meadows, R-Calhoun, as a co-sponsor.

Normally, having Meadows sign on to your bill is a big plus. He’s sort of the Simon Cowell of legislation. If his thumb points up, a bill moves on to the next round. If that digit turns downward, the bill won’t make it to the commercial break.

But Meadows is also an independent insurance agent. And his connection to last year's bill, House Bill 838, led The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to raise questions about conflicts of interest.

That’s when HB 838 stalled in the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee. A majority of its members — who strangely enough also happened to work in the insurance industry — opted not to vote on it.

Meadows responded by saying he was somewhat reluctant to schedule votes for any bills that originated in the Senate.

Suddenly, Senate leaders found two new members for the Insurance and Labor Committee, and a new majority found the same zeal for HB 838 that Meadows felt.

But the bill never went beyond that.

Blackmon is hoping this year his bill will get by with a little less help from its friends.

‘Religious liberty’ returns ever so lightly

If there’s an issue at the General Assembly that’s lived the Phil Connors existence, it’s “religious liberty.”

It was a high-profile topic during the past three legislative sessions. Last year, legislators even approved House Bill 757, which, among other things, would have allowed faith-based organizations to deny social, educational or charitable services "that violate such faith-based organization's sincerely held religious belief."

Supporters say such a law was needed to protect people of faith from an overreaching government. Opponents, including some of the state’s major business leaders, warned that it could allow for discrimination, in particular against the LGBTQ community.

ExploreGov. Nathan Deal sided with opponents, vetoing it.

Now, Republican lawmakers are taking smaller steps with a piece of legislation some call religious liberty lite.

Senate Resolution 105, sponsored by state Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, would protect government grants and contracts, among other things, held by faith-based organizations such as those that receive money to aid in adoption.

Heath's bill has some powerful friends, including Senate President Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth.

But SR 105 could have a hard time if it goes to the other chamber, where Speaker David Ralston awaits.

Ralston spent much of early January saying don’t bring that stuff into his House. And he showed real discipline in sticking to his message.

Here’s what he said four days before this year’s legislative session opened:

“We’ve dealt with that for three years. I don’t know that an issue that so divides us as that one does is something that we need to be devoting a lot of attention to.”

Here’s what he said in an AJC story the day before the session opened, after a poll found 44 percent of voters opposed any move to revive HB 757 and 40 percent supported its return:

“We’ve dealt with that for three years. I’ve taken the hits on a couple of those years and I’m willing to take the hits again this year. … I’m not going to devote a lot of energy to that this session because it’s taken too much, frankly.”

Here’s what he said on Day 2 of the session:

“We’ve spent a lot of energy and time on that issue over the last three years. We passed a measure last year and the governor, in his authority, vetoes it. I respect his decision, and now I’m looking at other things. And I don’t plan to spend a lot of time on that.”

Cue Sonny and Cher.

Staff writers Greg Bluestein, James Salzer, Aaron Gould Sheinin and Kristina Torres contributed to this article.

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