Decatur, GA, February 10, 2017 – by Trey Benton – Joined by about 150 attendees during a February 9th Town Hall meeting held at the Central DeKalb Senior Center in Decatur, Senator Elena Parent (D-42 Atlanta) provided insight on issues such as Healthcare, gambling in Georgia, Campus Carry, Education, an Independent Redistricting Commission and other issues being worked on in the State Legislature.
Parent said the General assembly has gotten off to a slow start this session, part of the reason being the recent Presidential Election results taking everyone by surprise – including members of both parties. She said some of the issues that had been “teed up” in the run up to this session, some of the more contentious ones, kind of “went out the door” with the election of President Trump. Chief among those – the expansion of Medicaid.
With Georgia not accepting Medicaid expansion, some issues have come about in rural areas of the State whereas a number of hospitals have closed. Parent said there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 more on the brink, hospitals that would struggle anyway due to those populations being underinsured. Under the Affordable Care Act, changes were made and some states were expected to expand.
The number of uninsured individuals were expected to go down drastically, meaning that hospitals would be doing much less uncompensated care, and greatly cutting “disproportionate share” payments to those hospitals.
Parent said with the uncertainty regarding what will happen with the Affordable Care Act under the new White House Administration, the State has declined to do anything until it is all sorted out.
But some of the things the State is doing includes renewing a hospital provider fee bed tax, which is a tax that raises about $300 million, and then matched at about a 2-to-1 ratio from the Federal Government. This results in about $900 million in total. That pot is then divided up so hospitals like Grady or Memorial Medical Center in Savannah that do a high amount of uncompensated care, come out all right at the end of the day.
Another thing Parent said is in the works regarding healthcare is reworking the rural hospital tax credit to make it more attractive for those that give donations to these hospitals. In turn, those donors receive a large portion of that donation back in the form of a tax credit. She said the program that was enacted last year has not been as robust as initially thought, so now the Legislature is looking at ways to make it more so.
On gambling Casinos in Georgia, now affectionately renamed from “Casinos” to “Destination Resorts” in the General Assembly, legislators are wrestling with what would be a Constitutional amendment and decided on by the voters, because gambling is prohibited in the State. Parent explained that if approved by voters, the Legislation would allow for two “Destination Resorts” in Georgia – one being in the Atlanta region and the other somewhere else in the State. In order for the measure to be passed statewide by voters, a 2/3 vote would be required – not just a simple 50% plus 1 majority.
“The minimum investment for the Atlanta one is to be $2 billion,” Parent said. “The one in the other area in the State is in the range of $450 million.” She explained the idea is to not have “gaming floors”, but more of a big, glitzy Las Vegas style resort with shows, concerts and restaurants, and they would be privately run entities.
Parent said Legislators are also trying to figure out how much of the tax proceeds of these “Destination Resorts” would come back to the State. She said the industry preferred tax rate is about 12%, but they vary widely across the US. She has seen some, such as one in Maryland, have taxes in the range of 62%. Georgia Legislators, Parent said, are kicking around a 20% tax rate number, although she said the Governor is thinking he’d like to see a number closer to 24%.
Parent did a show of hands of audience members, as she said she has done at all of her recent Town Hall meetings, to see how much support there was in each room for gambling in Georgia. When she asked those in support to raise their hands, about 20% of the people showed support and approximately 80% were in opposition. She said those ratios were consistent with what other meeting audiences expressed.
Parent said Campus Carry is rearing its ugly head and has been filed again. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Deal in the last session. “The University Presidents are uniformly opposed, the Campus Police Chiefs are uniformly opposed, the faculty are uniformly opposed, the students are uniformly opposed, the parents are uniformly opposed…so why are we doing this? Again,” said Parent. She said the House of Representatives has been a lot more aggressive on gun bills than the Senate has, and she is hoping it does not make its way to the Senate floor.
“The Governor’s veto message on that [Campus Carry] was strong,” explained Parent. “He voiced objections in the process. The Legislators declined to address his concerns, so his veto was not entirely unexpected. However, his veto message was really a broad statement against the notion of guns on campus. It wasn’t just limited to the areas that he had previously enumerated concern about.”
Parent said Deal’s message was that campuses have always been regarded as sanctuaries of learning since the founding of our Country and the founding of our State. With the absence of very dramatic evidence that a change is absolutely needed in that regard, they should stay that way. “I plan to remind him and his colleagues about that fact,” she added.
On Education, Senator Parent reported an effort is underway by the Education Committee and is waiting for both sides of the General Assembly to have a meeting of the minds on revisions to the way schools are funded. She said before any Legislation is brought forward, those working on it want to be sure it is sound and also has the support of the Governor. She said it would not be as far-reaching such as taking control of schools the way the failed Opportunity School District measure did.
District 82 State Representative Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur), who was in attendance, provided some more information on the topic. She said there has been interest in a bipartisan bill and a draft was prepared. She invited DeKalb County School Superintendent Dr. R. Stephen Green down to the Capital to review it with the House people who were drafting the bill. However, she explained, that did not exactly happen.
“We show up at the office and at the appointed time and were told the meeting had been cancelled,” Oliver recalled. “The efforts of bipartisanship seems to have floated away a little bit because I think they are having trouble amongst themselves because the draft proposed a 6-year oversight process, which the State Department of Education already has.” She said at the end of the oversight period, for schools that are not performing, the draft provided for vouchers. “I told them I would not support vouchers,” Oliver added. “I think that’s the part of bipartisan effort they have given up on.”
Oliver also said it is a mystery to her why the draft has gotten hung up and not come forward.
Parent said another thing to pay attention to is an effort she is working on to create an Independent Redistricting Commission. The audience applauded. “I am so excited. I am thrilled about how many people have come out and wanted to help and reach out to Senators about it,” Parent explained.
If successful, the Independent Redistricting Commission would remove the drawing of districts from the hands of the Legislature. Presently, Parent said, districts are drawn horribly unfairly. “Voters know unfair districts are a problem. They are a problem for the State, the Country and just generally anti-democratic.” She also said there is a companion bill that would set up a set of standards for redistricting that would go in to State Law. Should maps be approved that are contrary to the standards, a mechanism for a legal challenge would be included.
“This is worked effectively in Florida,” noted Parent. “They don’t have a commission, but they have the standards defined. And, after their last round of redistricting a number of groups – non-profits – banded together and sued and they were successful.” She said several other States have had maps thrown out – Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana and others. “They are all a disaster and the courts are starting to look a lot more critically at these sort of excuses about why districts are the way they are,” said Parent. “I am so grateful for that and I applaud it.” She added the Judicial branch has started to see this is a true crisis and it is threatening America.
“I fully intend to fight [for this] on all fronts,” Parent told the audience. “They have been monkeying around with districts since Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (pre-clearance) got tossed by the Supreme Court.” Senator Parent said the goal is to have this in place before the 2020 census.
Parent said an announcement will be sent out when the final hearing on the proposed commission bill and the companion standards for redistricting bill will be conducted. “It is a Constitutional Amendment, so it would be voted on by the voters,” Senator Parent added.
Editors Note: From a 2013 New York Times report – “The Supreme Court on Tuesday effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval. The law had applied to nine states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia — and to scores of counties and municipalities in other states.”