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General Assembly won’t be a sprint for lawmakers

POSTED: January 14, 2013 9:15 p.m.

Look for health care and education to be the dominant focal points during this year’s legislative session, which began Monday in Atlanta.

Those are two of the most challenging — and costly — areas in the state’s budget. And within those two areas, it is health care that figures to have the most heated discussions.

That’s the consensus legislators — Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, and Reps. Butch Parrish, R-Swainsboro, Jon G. Burns, R-Newington, and Jan Tankersley, R-Brooklet — in interviews with the Statesboro Herald leading up to the 2013 session.

One of the most contentious areas figures to be the hospital provider fee, more commonly known as the “hospital bed tax,” in which all Georgia hospitals pay a percentage of their revenues toward the state’s Medicaid program. It allows federal matching dollars to further support Medicaid — a program jointly funded by the federal government and states that provides health-care benefits for some low-income individuals and families.

The fee, passed in 2010, will expire in June without legislation. Advocates say it is needed or else some smaller, rural hospitals might be forced to close with the loss in revenue. Opponents say it’s another onerous tax that ought to be eliminated. In 2010, Burns and Parrish voted for the measure, Hill did not vote and Tankersley was not listed on the General Assembly’s voting record for the bill.

“This is an effort that helps even the playing field where all hospitals participate,” Burns said. “We might lose some hospitals in rural settings if we don’t provide this funding.”

That fee also ties in to the discussion over Medicaid overall in Georgia. The program, along with PeachCare for Kids, faces a $374 million shortfall in the current fiscal year and nearly $400 million in fiscal 2014, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Shortfalls of that magnitude have far-reaching implications. To close the gap, other state programs must be cut or eliminated entirely, which leads to even more contentious debate.

“The one biggest piece of need in our state budget process is Medicaid,” said Hill, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “It’s bigger than any other — bigger than growth in education, the payments we’re putting into (state employees’) retirement funds.”

The financial clouds are not quite as dark for education, though educators are quick to point out that because of continuing austerity cuts since 2003, the state has underfunded public education by $1.1 billion a year since then.

Two bright spots with regard to education come courtesy of increased Georgia Lottery revenue. Gov. Nathan Deal has said his proposed budget will include a 3 percent increase in HOPE Scholarship funding and the restoration of 10 days into the Georgia prekindergarten program, which would bring it back to its original 180-day academic year.

Legislators generally are signaling support for those increases. Both programs were cut in 2011, when state projections showed that the HOPE Scholarship was not sustainable as it was structured then, when it guaranteed a full-tuition scholarship to any four-year public college in the state for any Georgia high school graduate who had a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher.


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