Capitol Recap: More money penciled in for public health in Georgia

House budget would reverse health trend line

The demands on Georgia’s public health system have been growing in recent years — even before the COVID-19 pandemic — but state funding has not kept up. In fact, one key statistic shows it’s been dropping.

If lawmakers approved the $26.6 billion midyear spending plan that Gov. Brian Kemp proposed two weeks ago, the state would be spending 13% less per resident on public health in the coming year than it did a decade ago.

The House Appropriations Committee, however, has decided to go another way.

The panel’s plan would add money for a chief medical officer, deputy commissioner and a chief data officer. It also includes $18 million to modernize and replace the computer system used to track immunizations statewide, something health officials say wasn’t designed to deal with a pandemic.

The lawmakers also proposed $15 million more in its fight against AIDS/HIV after facing heavy criticism for meager support in the past. The money would go to the state’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which provides HIV/AIDS medications to low-income people.

The plan also calls for a temporary boost of $19 million in payments to nursing homes that will allow the owners of those facilities to also collect more federal funding.

“We are doing what we need to do to take care of the most fragile among us,” said House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn.

Meanwhile, the state will continue to rely heavily on federal funding to fight the coronavirus.

The state has already collected a little more than $1 billion for that purpose, using federal funds to pay for such virus-related expenses as private laboratory testing, operation of the state’s labs, temporary “surge” staffing, personal protective equipment and an isolation unit for people who contracted the coronavirus. The federal money also covered expenses by the state’s 159 county health departments, which normally depend on state appropriations.

Georgia’s reliance on the federal government when it comes to public health is nothing new. Most years, the federal government picks up the tab for almost three-fifths of Georgia’s public health budget, much of it coming through grants administered by the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Credit: Nathan Posner

Credit: Nathan Posner

Speaker ejects rep for skipping virus testing

The high drama of the past week occurred Tuesday when House Speaker David Ralston had a state trooper remove a fellow Republican, state Rep. David Clark of Buford, from the chamber over his refusal to be tested for COVID-19.

The sequel, however, did not follow, as Clark had promised, on the next day.

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the Georgia House and Senate are requiring members and employees to be tested twice a week during the session.

Applause followed Clark’s ejection.

“We strongly support Speaker David Ralston in his efforts to preserve and protect the health and safety of the members and staff of the House of Representatives and all those who enter the doors of the Georgia State Capitol,” House Majority Leader Jon Burns and House Minority Leader James Beverly said in a statement. “We agree that all members of the House of Representatives should comply with the testing procedures that have been implemented for their safety and the safety of their fellow Georgians.”

Clark felt differently and said Ralston “is becoming a dictator.”

He said he would not get tested, but he planned to return to the House chamber Wednesday.

That didn’t happen.

Clark’s absence did not make hearts grow fonder in the House. He even drew a rebuke from one of the other two Clarks in the chamber, state Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn.

Clark, no relation to David Clark, blasted comments he made in an interview comparing his expulsion to the removal of 33 Black and mixed-race Republicans from the General Assembly during Reconstruction following the Civil War. She noted that those lawmakers were beaten, jailed or killed because of their race and desire to hold public office.

“Black people fighting to be treated like human beings is not equivalent to your fight to not spit in a cup to protect your colleagues,” she said.

David Clark did return Thursday, and he took the test.

Virus-related protections could be extended for businesses

An extension is in the works that would protect businesses and health care providers from lawsuits involving COVID-19.

House Bill 112, sponsored by state Rep. Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown, would limit the ability of people to file suit if they are diagnosed with the disease. Those limits first won approval during the 2020 legislative session, but they expire in July. HB 112 would extend the lawsuit protection until July 2022.

The law shields companies from legal liability unless they show “gross negligence, willful and wanton misconduct, reckless infliction of harm, or intentional infliction of harm.”

Business groups see the protections as necessary if firms are to remain open during the coronavirus pandemic. Critics say gross negligence is extremely difficult to prove, and the law leaves people who get sick little recourse if their employers or the businesses they frequent are at fault.

Absentee ballots could require Photo ID

Under legislation filed this past week, copies of a photo ID could be required twice before Georgia voters cast absentee ballots.

Senate Bill 29 would make it necessary for voters to submit an ID when applying for the absentee ballot and again when the ballot is returned.

State law already requires photo ID when voting in person.

The bill — proposed by state Sen. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas — is the first major proposal to limit absentee voting after Republican Donald Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden in last year’s presidential election. State and local election officials have said there’s little indication of fraud besides isolated cases — nothing that would have overturned the election.

The voting rights group Fair Fight said Republicans are trying to increase their chances of winning elections by preventing eligible Georgians from casting ballots.

“By requiring access to a printer, which many Georgians obviously do not have, Republicans are attempting to purposely take away the ability of many Georgians to vote by mail simply because they believe too many Democrats and too many people of color voted by mail,” Fair Fight spokesman Seth Bringman said.

Gov. Brian Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and House Speaker David Ralston have all generally embraced the idea of mandating some form of photo ID with absentee ballots.

None of the three, however, has endorsed more far-reaching proposals backed by some Senate Republicans that would end no-excuse absentee voting, signaling that such a proposal is likely to stall out this year.

Parental-leave proposal returns

State Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, is pushing once again for paid parental leave for a quarter of a million state employees.

The measure, House Bill 146, is similar to a proposal he introduced last year that cleared the House on a vote of 164-1 before hitting the wall in the Senate during the closing moments of the legislative session.

The bill would grant three weeks of paid parental leave to 246,000 state staffers, including 132,000 k-12 educators and 46,000 University System of Georgia employees, following the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child.

GOP leaders granted similar benefits to full-time employees of the Georgia House and Senate early last year.

Georgia has long ranked among the bottom of states in terms of paid leave benefits. Currently, state employees qualify for 12 weeks of unpaid leave, the minimum required under federal law.

Gaines’ bill would have no impact on private companies.

Gambling proponents return to the table

Supporters of expanded legal gambling in Georgia launched efforts this past week on two fronts.

One, Senate Bill 30, was proposed by state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta. It would establish a Georgia Horse Racing Commission responsible for licensing up to three racetracks in the state.

The other, House Bill 30, would put a proposed constitutional amendment on an upcoming ballot, giving Georgia voters the final say on whether to allow casinos in the state. It was proposed by House Tourism and Economic Development Chairman Ron Stephens, R-Savannah.

Three pieces of legislation are calling for the state to expand its gambling options this year. Stephens already filed House Bill 86, which would legalize online sports betting in Georgia.

Sports betting may have the easiest path. Its supporters say it — unlike casinos and horse racing — won’t require a constitutional amendment. That means it could win passage in the General Assembly by only gaining simple majorities in both the House and the Senate. Before proposed constitutional amendments can even be placed on a ballot for voters to decide, they must win two-thirds majorities in each chamber of the General Assembly.

To sell the idea of expanding gambling, supporters make a case that it could bring thousands of jobs and sweeten the pot for the Georgia Lottery-funded HOPE scholarship by millions of dollars. Countering them are conservative groups and religious organizations who say gambling is immoral and an addictive habit that breeds crime. Critics also say supporters dramatically inflate the financial benefit to the state in terms of earnings and jobs.

Lawmaker seeks in-state tuition for DACA recipients

State Rep. Kasey Carpenter is making another pitch to allow young immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Georgia colleges and universities, calling it a “workforce development issue.”

Carpenter gained bipartisan support last year for his House Bill 997 before it stalled in the House Higher Education Committee. His new proposal closely follows that measure.

It would apply to participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The program, created by the Obama administration in 2012, grants renewable two-year work permits and temporary deportation deferrals to immigrants who were brought here before they turned 16, who are attending school here and who have no felony convictions. As of 2019, 21,110 people in Georgia were participating in DACA.

Eligible students under Carpenter’s bill would also have to be younger than 30, have been in the United States since they turned 12 and have graduated from a Georgia high school or obtained a GED in Georgia.

Touting the proposal’s benefits, Carpenter said “we have invested in these kids already through k-12 education.”

His proposal, the Dalton Republican said, “provides opportunities for our students to enter the workforce with better qualifications.”

Stat of the week: One-third of state school bus fleet is aging

House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, reported this past week that one-third of the state’s 15,000 school buses are now on borrowed time, having surpassed their recommended life spans.

England’s committee sent a spending plan to the House floor that calls for buying 500 new buses.

The price tag: $38.6 million.

But does that include the floor mats?