Raising the Standard.

Georgia General Assembly 2014, Part I

(Photo courtesy J. Glover)

TAC alumnus Brian Underwood brings us the latest from the state Capitol. Part I comprises general observations and “low points” of the 2014 Georgia General Assembly. Check back tomorrow to discover its “high points” in Part II.

Leaving the warm embrace of Athens upon graduation in December 2013, I experienced a predictable sort of longing for the place I had called home for nearly three and a half years. Fortunately, I found myself in familiar circumstances with a job under the Gilded Dome for the 2014 session of the Georgia General Assembly. Though I can speak little about what went on in the House (“the people across the rotunda,” as my chamber referred to it), the Senate sessions progressed with all the political intrigue and pontification I had become so accustomed to on UGA’s Model UN Team. I have yet to decide whether this compliments Model UN members for accurately portraying elected officials in their competitions, or slights elected officials for behaving like collegiate undergrads.

With this an election year, each Republican did their best to be further out in right field (or, worse, increasingly indistinguishable from the Democrats) than all their legislative colleagues. The runaway circus act in which many Republicans tried to juggle appealing outmoded policies from a slowly disappearing, vociferous fringe of their own ranks and abiding by the establishment mantra of “don’t rock the boat and be ‘practical’” was only salvaged by a few worthy bills (albeit, of the run-of-the-mill Republicanism variety) that found their way through the chaos. Among these were a proposed constitutional amendment to cap the state income tax at its current levels (SR 415), a formal repeal of the estate tax in Georgia (HB 658), and a bill removing the governor’s ability to expand the taxpayer-funded medical entitlement program “Medicaid” under Obamacare without legislative approval (HB 990). This last, though a clever way for the Republicans to hedge their bets against possible Democratic victory over Gov. Deal in November, could potentially face litigation on the grounds that it violates the Art. 1, Sec. 2, Para. 3 of Georgia’s constitution mandating the separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers.

Amid these and other less admirable measures (the least of which will be covered below), there was the typical flowing of the mundane and the uneventful. It might surprise those unfamiliar with politics that the vast majority of legislative measures, in Atlanta or Washington, are passed with near unanimity. A tweak here, a revision there, and both sides enter their green votes and call it a day. Some are used as riders for additional legislation. Most, however, are routine measures that occur annually or as needed. Except for the daily points of personal privilege (five minutes per senator wishing to speak), very rarely does the well of the Senate see prolonged debate on a single issue. The few tense exchanges that do occur tend to defuse quickly once a senator leaves the well – an important fact to remember for a public that only gets to see two senators arguing on the newsreels, rather than palling around like any two friends and colleagues would once the debate has subsided. The “lack of civility” in politics is more construct than reality.

What follows is a list of six entities and their respective actions during the 2014 legislative session. Three are admirable examples of statesmen behaving as they should; three are contemptible displays of all that members of the intellectual right are trying to remedy. I chose these examples because I found them most relevant to the mission of this publication and to the culture war on the right. In the name of concluding on a positive note, I will begin with the censure and offer approbation to the deserving at the end.

Low Points:

1. Sen. McKoon (R-29) on SB 283: Though not even among the sponsors, Senate Judiciary Chairman Josh McKoon became the frontman for SB 283, a bill dealing with “traditional winter celebrations” and public schools.  Besides an innocuous provision permitting teachers to say “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukkah,” etc., the bill explicitly allowed the erection of winter holiday displays including menorahs, Christmas trees, and (of key importance here) nativity scenes on school property. The Supreme Court has not been entirely clear on the issue, permitting a nativity scene in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) and striking one down in Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU (1989) on the grounds that the latter, unlike the former, was prominently displayed within a courthouse and bore religious scripture. The Allegheny case also upheld the constitutionality of a menorah and a Christmas tree outside the same courthouse on the grounds that the two (along with a sign saluting liberty) were just recognizing the secular winter holiday season. A chorus of senators took the well to address this highly technical issue of constitutional jurisprudence, prefacing their speeches with the phrase, “Now I’m not a constitutional scholar, BUT…” The ensuing debate did more to gloss over and deride the Establishment Clause altogether than to explain how the bill was justified under it. Aside from Sen. Bill Jackson (R-24) proclaiming an outright falsehood that the Pilgrims celebrated Christmas at Plymouth (the Puritans actually suppressed the holiday, citing its pagan origins), it was simply disappointing to see Sen. McKoon, a lawyer, foot a bill with so many legal issues. While federal jurisprudence is ambiguous, the Georgia constitution is much clearer, forbidding the state or localities from using taxpayer money to “directly or indirectly” aid any religious or sectarian institution (Art. 1, Sec. 2, Para. 7). One would be hard-pressed to demonstrate how a display depicting Christ the Nazarene on public property does not at least “indirectly” privilege the Christian religion over those who do not have public buildings decorated for their holidays. The bill passed the Senate, was amended in the House, and died after no conference committee was appointed.

2. Sen. Hufstetler (R-52) on HB 990: The GOP is well aware of Sen. Jason Carter’s (D-42) fair shot at the governor’s mansion this November. This legislative session, ensuring that the governor cannot place an eventual fiscal obligation on the state through Medicaid expansion (the feds will fully cover the cost through 2016) without legislative approval took center stage. When HB 990 finally reached the Senate floor, Sen. Hufstetler was the only Senate Republican to oppose the bill. His argument as a doctor was hard to not sympathize with — that the law currently requires hospitals and doctors receiving payment through Medicare (i.e., virtually all of them) to treat emergency room patients even if those patients do not have the means to cover the expenses of the treatment. This provision is known as EMTALA, and was signed by Pres. Reagan in 1986. Sen. Hufstetler made the point that doctors can either receive the meager payment offered by Medicaid or none at all. Of course, the solution is not expanding government welfare, but eliminating the provisions requiring doctors to work for free as well as the Medicare entitlement at the heart of it all. The bill passed both chambers and is now awaiting Gov. Deal’s final approval.
3. Sen. Unterman (R-45) et al. on SB 397: There is nary a Republican who does not jump at the opportunity to voice their opposition to Obamacare. It is lambasted as the most intrusive example of government overreach into the health industry in the history of the United States. Voters often choose Republican candidates on the belief that those candidates will oppose such overreach. And they do, until they are the ones doing the reaching. Such was the case with SB 397, yet another example of Republicans following the Democrats’ lead at a slower pace. The bill, sponsored by Senate Insurance Committee Chairman Golden (R-8), fronted by Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Unterman (R-45), and backed heavily by Lt. Gov. Cagle, would have further regulated the already bound, shackled, and gagged insurance industry with another mandate. The bill’s origin from Republican leadership is self-evident: it would have required autism coverage for any child under six already covered under a policy or contract. Though minor compared to other regulations already in place, the mandate is still impermissible. Nevertheless, the GOP leadership allied with Senate Democrats to pass the bill with near unanimity. The few dissenting Republicans had their arms twisted into silence with heavily implied threats against their chairmanships or sponsored bills, causing them to excuse themselves from the vote. Sen. Unterman was the driving force behind the bill, citing her late son’s battle with autism. Of course, we sympathize with her situation and send our deepest condolences regarding her son, but no one’s misfortune is justification of infringing on their rights of insurers (regarding what policies they want to offer and on what terms) and the rights of the insured (to determine what policies best suit their interests). The bill passed the Senate and moved to the House, which is an appropriate place to begin the positive news.

Part II to follow.

—Brian Underwood is a University of Georgia alumnus (Class of 2013)

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