Obamacare, transportation and snow on minds of top Georgia legislators

Georgia legislative leaders unveiled their top priorities Thursday for the 2017 session, saying they planned to open on schedule next week despite the weekend threat of a winter storm.

Those priorities include monitoring the state’s response to the expected federal repeal of the Affordable Care Act, regional transportation planning and more money for education initiatives.

First, however, was what to do about the weather, which could have an impact on the Legislature's expected start Monday. House and Senate leaders said they are monitoring the forecast closely, but Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said he expected lawmakers to convene as planned and noted the state's constitution requires it.

“Actually, I’m going home to Blue Ridge Friday afternoon. I hope I get snowed in,” a joking Ralston said.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said he trusts state agencies to be prepared to handle the storm’s impact.

“Right now, we’re moving forward,” he said, “but we’ll have a contingency plan if weather does become dangerous.”

Cagle and other GOP Senate leaders said Thursday that they were forming a “repeal Obamacare” task force to guide how Georgia responds to President-elect Donald Trump’s plans, saying the effort was one of their top priorities for the upcoming legislative session.

Republican congressional leaders are poised to dismantle the federal health care law but have so far released few details. State lawmakers, meanwhile, are left to guess how the changes could affect Georgia. Trump proposed during his campaign to issue block grants for Medicaid, although it’s not yet clear what that could mean for individual states.

House Democrats, however, said such efforts amount to posturing. Because Georgia never expanded Medicaid or created its own state exchange under the Affordable Care Act, there isn't much here to dismantle, said House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta.

A federal repeal of the ACA would mean people with pre-existing conditions would no longer be guaranteed coverage, and millions would lose their insurance and preventive care.

“So, if that’s what the Senate is looking at, because those are the consequences of repeal, then I am very open to how we make certain we do not make Georgians sicker because of political disagreement,” Abrams said.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are expected to push efforts including gun safety, voting rights and creation of an independent redistricting commission. Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, summed up their agenda as "focused on access to great education and health care, jobs that pay well, supporting small business, creating equal and just communities, and protecting our environment."

Top issues for the Senate’s GOP majority caucus include charting a regional transportation plan for the state, education initiatives to bolster job training programs in high schools and a push for the Georgia Lottery to pull back on prize money and funnel those extra dollars into the state’s popular HOPE scholarship program.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, has long been critical of the lottery's administrative costs, saying cuts could raise more money. An audit requested by the Senate Appropriations Committee and released last week, however, found that while administration accounted for about 14 percent of its overall operating expenses, it was not the major driver for the lottery's costs.

Instead, expenses related to prizes — such as advertising and, especially, payouts to winners — are the primary driver of operating expenses, and that small changes in that area could have a significant impact on the lottery’s bottom line, according to the audit. State law encourages the lottery to return about 35 percent of ticket sales to education programs, although that is not a mandate and the lottery’s current return rate is about 25 percent.

Cowsert said he wanted to see that rate increase, even as the lottery last year returned a record $1 billion for education in Georgia.

Lottery officials noted Thursday that the audit, which had no major findings, said Georgia ranks among the lowest of 44 lotteries across the nation in administrative expenses as a percentage of net sales, and that Georgia’s prize payout rate was in line with other states — ranking 12th out of 44.

Otherwise, notably absent Thursday from the conversation was "religious liberty," which the Senate caucus championed last year.

“We have a different environment today,” Cagle said. “We have a new president, a president who is going to appoint a (Supreme Court) justice who is going to be conservative,” he said, adding that “the fears that existed prior to that may have subsided.”

Ralston, too, said he has no interest in repeating the religious liberty debates of past years.

“We’ve dealt with that for three years,” Ralston said. “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.”

Ralston on Thursday also announced his plans to create a new budget subcommittee to handle the state's transportation spending, including the potential for transit expansion in Georgia. He also said the House will again pass legislation that would expand workers' compensation coverage for firefighters after Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a similar measure last year.

Another bill quashed by a Deal veto in 2016 was one that would allow anyone 21 or over with a concealed weapons permit to carry firearms on most parts of public colleges and universities. Ralston said an effort will be made in 2017 to pass a similar bill.

On another topic, Senate leaders said there is a potential opening to expand the state’s 2015 law allowing a very limited form of medical marijuana. Proponents believe the law should be expanded to include more treatable illnesses and — in a “home run” scenario — an in-state program to grow and cultivate cannabis in Georgia for medicinal purposes.

While the Senate majority continues to oppose cultivation, Cagle said Thursday that his members would back limited expansion of the law if there’s a rollback of the allowable THC level in the cannabis oil now allowed here. THC is the component in the drug that makes people high.

The law's author, state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, said he welcomed the chance to talk about it after the Senate quashed efforts last year to increase who could qualify to use the oil to ease their medical conditions.

“I’m grateful my Senate colleagues want to expand our medical cannabis law to include more hurting Georgians,” Peake said. “While the THC level currently in law is not psychoactive and only helps cancer, (multiple sclerosis) and (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) patients who deal with unbearable pain, I look forward to discussing their concerns and moving toward a good bill that will help more Georgians who are suffering.”


Legislature returning

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will have the largest team of journalists at the Capitol covering the action when the Legislature returns Monday for its 2017 session. To get the information that matters most to taxpayers, go to myAJC.com/georgialegislature. To see where particular bills and resolutions stand, check out the Georgia Legislative Navigator at http://legislativenavigator.myajc.com/. You can also follow the proceedings on Twitter at twitter.com/GAPoliticsNews or on Facebook at facebook.com/gapoliticsnewsnow.