When Lt. Gov. Burt Jones was sworn into office earlier this year, the question in the Capitol quickly turned to what kind of a leader Jones would be.
Would the man who had been frozen out by the previous GOP leadership now lead from the inside? And would Jones operate the lieutenant governor’s office to advance the state’s interests or those of his well-known family’s increasingly large empire, about 60 miles south of Atlanta in Jackson?
We may get answers to those questions shortly, as a standoff between the House and Senate over complex hospital regulations threatens to stall several major bills in the waning days of the General Assembly. A plan to open new rural hospitals, including one in Jones’ native Butts County that could go on land his father owns, hangs in the balance.
The lieutenant governor began the 2023 Senate session leading the chamber with a looser style than his predecessors. Unlike previous years, when backroom deals seemed to pre-determine outcomes, Jones allowed controversial bills to come to the Senate floor for a vote, not knowing if they would pass or fail.
It was oddly refreshing to see senators have their fights in public and their differences put to a vote for all to see.
But Senate Bill 99, the Jones-backed bill to change the state’s complex hospital regulations, has lacked that same transparency. And its supreme importance to Jones in the final week of the Legislature has led the lieutenant governor to clash with House Speaker Jon Burns and Gov. Brian Kemp, who both oppose the measure.
Arm twisting on the Senate side has now stalled other large bills in the waning days of the General Assembly, including a House bill to fund youth mental health services. Also caught up is funding for the University System of Georgia. A Jones-backed tax measure to gut a Wellstar Health System tax credit also inadvertently swept up Children’s Health Care of Atlanta, too, although Jones’ office intervened to protect CHOA’s tax status.
If you’re asking what could be so important to the Lieutenant Governor’s office that they would pick those kinds of fights, look no further than Butts County, where Jones lives and his father operates the family’s massive Jones Petroleum business.
By eliminating the need for state approval to open new hospitals in rural counties, SB 99 would also clear the way for a hospital that officials in Butts County have long wanted to open.
One of the local leaders pushing the new hospital is Jones’ father, Bill Jones, who also owns the tract of land where county drawings currently show a mockup of a new hospital planned to accompany the massive River Park development underway in Jackson.
Engaged in planning the new medical facility is Interstate Health Systems, LLC, a new subsidiary of Jones Petroleum.
The lieutenant governor’s office has said that no specific site has been chosen for the project, despite what the drawings indicate, but Bill Jones himself testified at a hearing last year in favor of a new hospital.
He did not discuss this ownership of the possible site for the hospital, nor of the company planning one.
It’s important to say here that the Jones-backed bill has merit. It has started a much-needed debate about improving rural healthcare in Georgia and adding flexibility to the cumbersome Certificate of Need program, which governs the construction and expansion of health care facilities and regulate the services they can offer.
But the bill’s statewide scope has also raised questions about how it would affect existing rural hospitals across Georgia. And the Butts County piece of the bill has brought aggressive objections from Wellstar, which owns the nearby hospitals that would be most affected by a new one in Jackson.
Wellstar has now threatened an agreement with the state to partner on Augusta University Health, a place where lawmakers worry that costs will spiral out of control without the deep pockets of a company like Wellstar. Why Wellstar, which walked out on the money-losing Atlanta Medical Center with little notice to patients and doctors, is considered a completely reliable partner is hard to understand. Maybe Jones has a point about them, too.
“The Lt. Governor was born and raised in rural Georgia and he understands that people from across Georgia need a voice on their health care access, not only WellStar who just received a $105 million handout from the state,” a spokeswoman for Jones said. “By closing AMC, they left other facilities in dire straits. The Lt. Governor is fighting for the people he represents, not the special interests under the Gold Dome.”
But no matter the merits of the larger issue, the lieutenant governor’s motivations for pushing SB 99 can’t be separated from the Jones’ family interests — until they are.
One path forward could be for Jones to either recuse himself from the negotiations over the Certificate of Need program or to preclude Butts County or his family’s companies and land from the legislation.
That would let lawmakers debate the future of rural health care in the state without making an enemy out of the powerful family. It would also take Jones out of a political fight he seems destined to lose, with Kemp and Speaker Burns lined up against him. And it would give Jones the high ground on an issue where the low road seems to be calling.
It’s a lot to ask of a family business not to be involved in a major development deal in their own backyard. But it’s also a lot to ask of voters to let you to lead and defend the interests of the state of Georgia, as the lieutenant governor did by seeking the office last year.
It’s time for Jones to make his priority clear.