Recap of the 2011 General Assembly
By Scott Maxwell of Mathews & Maxwell, Inc.
Well, of course, the big news is that HB 214, Mickey Channell’s bill creating an independent, cabinet-level Department of Public Health, has become law. Renee Unterman carried the bill in the Senate. HB 214 was signed late in the day on Friday, May 13, just before Governor Deal left for a trip to Europe. However, for some time the folks in the Division of Public Health and at the Department of Community Health have been drawing up plans to separate the two agencies effective July 1, 2011. Commissioner David Cook made reference to that fact during the DCH monthly board meeting on May 12. In addition to the success of HB 214, supporters of Public Health in the legislature inserted language into the FY 2012 Appropriations bill to ensure there would be no technical problems with funding the new agency. The passage of HB 214 was GPHA’s top legislative priority this session.
A second priority of the Association was to try to protect the funding for formula grants to counties. The Governor recommended a $2.48 million cut in those funds for FY 2012. (A similar amount was slashed in the Amended FY 2011 budget which helps balance the current budget in the last couple of months of the fiscal year.) I’m pleased to report that both the House and the Senate approved appropriations bills restoring those recommended cuts in both budgets. We are particularly grateful to Rep. Terry England (Appropriations Chair) and Rep. Butch Parrish (Appropriations Health Subcommittee Chair) in the House and Sen. Jack Hill (Appropriations Chair) and Sen. Greg Goggans (Appropriations Health Subcommittee Chair) in the Senate for their efforts on behalf of Public Health during difficult economic times.
The third priority of GPHA for this session was an increase in the tax on cigarettes. GPHA joined with numerous other advocacy groups including heart, lung and cancer associations, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and numerous others to work on this goal as a coalition. The group, collectively and independently, pursued this ambitious project relentlessly during the summer and fall, long before the first gavel of the session fell. The first goal of the coalition was to persuade the Tax Reform Council to include a tax-hike in the formal recommendations it was required to present to the Legislature. While we lobbied hard for an increase of $1.00-per-pack, the Council ended up recommending only a 27-cent increase – a reflection of the Southeastern average. Unfortunately, even this amount fell by the side when the legislature was unable to agree on a comprehensive tax-reform bill of any kind. It’s worth noting that Governor Deal had threatened to veto a cigarette tax increase if it passed separately. He has said he made a campaign promise not to raise taxes.
Other bills of interest that were signed by Governor Deal:
HB 99 – Require fingerprints for nurse licensure.
HB 807 – Immigration bill
HB 101 – Bicycle Safety
HB 307 – Allows burn centers to be eligible for Trauma Commission dollars
SB 76 – Allows EMS operators to be reimbursed when transporting to trauma centers across state lines.
SB 88 – Booster seat bill
SB 178 – Establishes a new level of care “assisted living communities” between personal care homes and nursing homes.
SB 211- Lead poisoning prevention
What happens next with tax reform and any cigarette tax increases remains to be seen. The Governor has announced that he will call a Special Session of the General Assembly on August 15 to re-draw election districts in the state. (This is the normal, once-every-ten-years procedure that occurs immediately following release of the U.S. decennial census. Georgia will gain a Congressional district, but there will also be a big shift in General Assembly districts from the rural southern portions of the state to the more populated northern half of the state. Some long-time legislators may find themselves running against one another in the same re-drawn district.) Constitutionally, a special session of the General Assembly can consider only those issues that are part of the Governor’s formal “call.” There has been speculation that the Governor could add “tax reform” to his special session call, but he has not publicly stated any plans to do so.
Things to Watch For
With the creation of the Department of Public Health, the Governor will be making nine appointments to the new Board of Public Health within the next couple of months. We’ll keep you posted on who is selected to serve in these positions.