Georgia legislators to spend week working on budget

ATLANTA — The General Assembly will be in formal recess this week, but at least two committees will be busy looking over the draft $19 billion budget.


Traditionally, legislators take the week following Opening Day for the House and Senate appropriations committees to meet jointly to hear from the heads of the largest agencies about needs for the coming fiscal year. The parade of 28 witnesses begins Tuesday with Gov. Nathan Deal and his economist Kenneth Heaghney.

The first day focuses on students with testimony on the HOPE Scholarship, Pre-K Program, K-12 education, technical colleges and the University System of Georgia. Wednesday’s lineup includes the courts, law enforcement, transportation, ports and natural resources agencies. Social services agencies wind up the hearings Thursday.

Deal’s budget proposal includes a 3 percent reduction in every agency other than K-12 education. He’s predicting just 4.6 percent growth in tax collections for the fiscal year that begins July 1, leading to another lean budget.

“There’ll be some crying and gnashing of teeth,” predicted House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn.

England and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, will share the gavel in presiding over the week’s hearings.

For the two-thirds of legislators who aren’t on the two committees, some of the time will be spent moving into their offices. The 82 freshmen didn’t even know where they would be, their phone numbers or mailing address when they recessed Thursday.

Freshman Rep. Regina Quick, R-Athens, joked, “I’m the true Lincoln representative for now, with no office.”

Lawmakers in Abraham Lincoln’s day had no offices and usually worked out of the boarding-house rooms they lived in while away from home.

Week in review

Hospital bill:

The session promised to be dominated by how to cover state health care costs and the first week did not disappoint, with senators quickly approving Gov. Nathan Deal’s compromise plan to shore up the state Medicaid insurance program without forcing lawmakers to vote on a tax.

At issue is growing Medicaid insurance enrollment while lawmakers face the expiration of a hospital industry tax that yields more than $450 million in extra federal funding used to boost payments to health care providers treating Medicaid patients.

Extending the levy would be the simplest solution. That’s exactly what hospitals asked for, with a few tweaks. But the easiest legal move isn’t necessarily the easiest political move, and legislators are nervous about attaching their name to anything called a tax, even if it’s merely an assessment used to increase many hospitals’ overall Medicaid revenues.

So, the solution in Senate Bill 24 is for an appointed state board to set the hospital assessments, rather than legislators. The Senate tweaked the bill to ensure they don’t cede all control to the appointees, though. While the bill doesn’t set the revenue tax rate – that would be a tax, after all – it limits the overall revenue raised by whatever the board does to an amount the General Assembly will set in the state operating budget.

The bill now moves to the House, and legislative leaders indicate that they want it to pass as quickly as possible to get the uncomfortable issue behind them.

In other action:

Senate lawmakers adopted a weak internal rule prohibiting them from accepting gifts worth more than $100. That rule leaves plenty of loopholes – for example – senators can be still sent on pricey junkets so long as the trip is vaguely related to their legislative duties. It doesn’t apply to food, beverages or admission to events when committees or the entire chamber is invited. Violators can escape punishment by refunding part or all of those gifts.

“A lobbyist could give a 99-dollar gift five times or however many times in the same day. Now that’s a loophole of enormous proportion,” said Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who voted against the Senate rule banning lawmakers from accepting gifts worth more than $100.