Day 1 (Monday, Jan. 14): Although we have been out of session since March 29 of last year, it seems that I have spent more time in Atlanta than at home during the interim. There have been only two two-week periods when I didn’t have to come to the Capitol at least once during the week.
As I begin my ninth year, I am assigned an office in the Capitol and, while I am excited for the opportunity, I do hate to lose my assistant for the past two years. Fortunately, my new assistant is a seasoned veteran and I look forward to working with her.
Today is a special day as we are sworn in by Superior Court Judge Bill Hamrick from Carrollton, who served with us in the State Senate for many years until his current appointment last fall. Regardless of how many times I am given the oath of office, the honor and privilege of serving in the Georgia Legislature is one of the greatest in my life.
Also today we elect Sen. David Shafer as president pro tem, Bob Ewing as secretary of the Senate and John Long as sergeant-at-arms. Once all of the ceremonial duties are complete, we get right down to business. Before we can conduct any business it is necessary for us to adopt the Senate rules, and this year’s rules contain a few significant changes that cause quite a bit of discussion. One of the changes involves the role of the lieutenant governor, whose powers to appoint committees and preside over the day-to-day business of the Senate are restored.
Some of those who believe that the lieutenant governor’s office is part of the executive branch go to the well to express their concern with the rule changes, but in the end the new rules are adopted by a 42-12 margin.
A part of the new rules is a $100 limit on gifts, meals and drinks that a lobbyist will be allowed to spend to entertain members of the Senate. Although this issue may come up again, I am proud that the Senate has taken the lead and addressed this issue at the very beginning of the session.
Also today the rules are suspended so that a bill can be read for the first time. SB 24, the governor’s proposal to transfer the authority for levying a Medicaid provider fee from the Legislature to the Department of Community Health (DCH), is then read for the first time and assigned to committee. Later in the afternoon, we receive committee assignments and I am pleased to find out that I have been appointed chairman of the Public Safety Committee.
I am also happy to find out that I will continue to serve on the Higher Education Committee, as I have thoroughly enjoyed serving as chairman this past year. I will also serve on the Appropriations and Health and Human Services committees, as well as serving as chief deputy whip.
Day 2 (Tuesday, Jan. 15): I’m up early this morning as the Legislative Prayer Caucus has our first meeting. We are honored to have former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley and Gov. Nathan Deal as our guest speakers.
In my nine years in the Legislature, I have never witnessed a session that has started out as fast as this one. To say that we have hit the ground running is an understatement. While most of the talk in the Senate revolves around SB 24, the hospital provider fee, I try to add some to the discussion myself by dropping 12 bills today. Among the bills that I drop are non-partisan election bills that will allow counties to vote to hold non-partisan elections for such offices as sheriff, clerk of superior court, tax commissioner, county commission, district attorney and county coroner. (This is not a misprint — in order to run for county coroner, one must declare a party affiliation).
Other bills that I introduce today include bills dealing with continuing education for nurses, mandatory reporting for nurses and power purchase agreements for solar power users. Later in the afternoon, I meet with interested parties of another of the 12 bills that I have dropped today, the Geospatial Advisory Council bill. This is a council that will be charged with the responsibility of organizing and coordinating the GIS information in our state. Also this afternoon, the Senate Regulated Industries Committee hears and passes out SB 24. This is record time and shows the legislative powers of the governor’s office.
Day 3 (Wednesday, Jan. 16): After attending the annual Georgia Chamber of Commerce Eggs and Issues breakfast this morning, we have a better idea of what leadership is planning for the session when we hear from the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker of the House as to their respective goals this year. As we go into session today at our regular time of 10 a.m., SB 24, the hospital provider fee, is still the hot topic. Passed three years ago, the fee is slated to expire on June 30 of this year and, unless renewed, would leave an approximately $700 million hole in the Medicaid budget.
A history and synopsis of this issue can be found in a column I wrote back in September entitled “Is it a fee or is it a tax?” The link is www.friendsofbuddycarter.com/articles/. The problem for many of us is not the extension of the fee but turning over the authority of assessing the fee to DCH. Nevertheless, the bill is moving at unprecedented speed and is set to be voted on tomorrow.
Day 4 (Thursday, Jan. 17): Today is a busy day for Gov. Deal as he joins us in our daily caucus meeting today to drum up support for SB 24 and later delivers his annual State of the State address. After lunch we take up SB 24 and eight amendments are offered including one that I co-sponsor that would have prohibited DCH from increasing the hospital provider fee from its current rate of 1.45 percent.
Although the amendment loses by the slimmest of margins — one vote — another amendment that will require the DCH to submit the rate in their budget proposals is approved. This will at least give the Legislature the opportunity to approve the rate during the budget process.
With this assurance of legislative oversight now in place, I vote for the bill as it passes by a 46-9 vote.
What a first week!
Sen. Buddy Carter can be reached at 421-B State Capitol, Atlanta, GA, 30334. His Capitol office number is (404) 656-5109. You can connect with him on Facebook at facebook.com/buddycarterga or follow him on Twitter @Buddy_Carter.