Key Georgia Senate chairwoman ousted in health committee shake up

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, has sponsored several bills to address the opioid crisis in Georgia. On the lectern in front of her is a photo of an unidentified opiod victim. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, has sponsored several bills to address the opioid crisis in Georgia. On the lectern in front of her is a photo of an unidentified opiod victim. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

A Gwinnett County senator made it very clear to colleagues Tuesday that she didn’t appreciate being ousted as chairwoman of the Senate’s health committee, a post she’d held for several years.

As the lieutenant governor's office released the list of committee chairmen for the 2019-2020 legislative session, state Sen. Renee Unterman, called it a "sad day."

Unterman, a former nurse, will no longer lead the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. The Buford Republican also is no longer the vice-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is the chamber’s budget-writing panel.

She remains a member of both committees.

Unterman — an outspoken supporter of former Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who lost in the Republican primary race for governor to Brian Kemp — said she did not understand why the change was made.

“I just think it’s ironic that our new president of the Senate talks about being on a team and that team is composed of good ‘ol boys,” she said. “That a ranking female with 20 years experience in there is taken off the team for obviously no reason that I know about that no one will express.”

Unterman now will serve as the chairwoman of the lower-profile Science and Technology committee. Unterman’s new role is one of nine leadership changes to the Senate’s 27 committees.

Chairmen are highly sought after positions because the person in that role determines which legislation will get hearings and possibly move forward.

They also are often magnets for campaign contributions from lobbyists and special interests.

Committees are selected by the lieutenant governor’s office and Senate leadership.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan called it a “difficult job” to assign committees and selecting chairmen.

“My job was to try to really influence where I thought folks had the best skill set to work in these positions,” he said Tuesday, his first day leading the Senate.

The Cumming Republican also boasted the number of women who were leading Senate committees, which increased from two to four.

“We were able to double the number of female committee chairs,” he said. “I think that’s a good opportunity to take some incredibly strong talent here in the Senate and allow it to be a strong voice in these committees as we go forward.”

New committee chairmen assignments include Sens. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, with Economic Development ; P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville, heading Education and Youth; Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta, with Ethics; Ben Watson, R-Savannah, leading Health and Human Services; Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, with Higher Education; Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, leading Regulated Industries; Unterman, with Science and Technology; Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, with Special Judiciary; and Bruce Thompson, R-White, leading the Veterans, Military and Homeland Security Committee.

Watson takes the helm of the health committee in time to lead the charge on a signature issue of his, Certificate of Need (CON).

CON is a state regulation that limits health care businesses in adding services that might take profitable business from hospitals.

Businesses like Cancer Treatment Centers of America and outpatient surgery centers oppose CON, and this year they have momentum in the Legislature to weaken it. Hospitals say they need CON to protect their bottom lines as they continue to provide money-losing services and treat the uninsured.

Watson said relieving entrepreneurs of restrictions will allow patients to benefit from more choice.

Watson is a doctor and a partner in a health care business that would benefit from weakening CON by allowing it to expand its business. He has has previously introduced Legislation to add exceptions to CON.

This year he chaired a study committee that held two meetings; he recommended diluting CON while Unterman said the study had been too cursory.

Staff writer Ariel Hart contributed to this report.