VALDOSTA — With a new governor, lieutenant governor, 30 new House of Representatives members and more than 15 new committee chairmen, the 2019 legislative session will go through its biggest reorganization in 16 years.

State Sen. Ellis Black, District 8, said he wants to ensure the reorganization goes as smoothly as possible.

Gov.-elect Brian Kemp has promised to cut regulations on business, and Black said he will be in the front line of that battle.

Though Black said he will support the new governor, he remains immovable on some of the governor-elect's campaign promises.

Kemp promised to raise teacher salaries, along with a number of other state salary positions. Black said the raises are out of line with private industry and he cannot support them.

When asked what he would fight against, Black said, "I've always said that the most important work that we do in the legislature is not the bills that we pass but the bills that we get defeated.”

The recent election revealed rural Georgia is getting more Republican and urban Georgia is getting more Democratic.

"The message of this election is loud and clear and that is Georgia is changing,” Black said.

With the 2018 midterm election in the past, there are a host of questions surrounding where new legislators will place their focus in 2019.

The SunLight Project team reached out to state legislators from across our coverage area – Valdosta, Thomasville, Dalton, Moultrie, Milledgeville and Tifton, Ga. – to see what their major concerns are.

Each legislator said the incoming governor has big shoes to fill in the wake of Gov. Nathan Deal leaving office.

Legislators focused on ways to make health care more affordable without sacrificing the free market.

Many spoke about the important role broadband plays in raising South Georgia to a modern economy, improving businesses with reliable and fast internet.

District 175 Rep. John LaHood, R-Valdosta, said 2019 is the beginning of a new era for Georgia. He said he will ensure South Georgia’s voice will be heard in Atlanta.

“I want South Georgia to have the same opportunity as the rest of the state,” LaHood said.

All of the legislators said they will look after the needs of their constituents and take care of the people who elected them.

For the past eight years, Rep. Darlene Taylor, R-Thomasville, said she has served District 173 proudly and with integrity.

"It is my goal to continue to do the same. As a legislator, I do more than just write laws,” she said. “It is my job to help the people of our district to have access to the services the state provides."

She said she plans working with the new governor to improve and continue supporting teachers and education while increasing access to health care for Georgians.

Health Care 

Taylor said she believes expanded access to health care will be among the legislative issues this session.

"Also, we are bringing legislation to increase the amount of tax credit for donations to rural hospitals," she said.

“Surprise billings" is an unfinished issue from the 2018 session, Taylor said. "Surprise billing" is when a patient receives a bill for thousands of dollars but has no say-so in who provides services during a medical procedure.

Maternal mortality is of great concern, Taylor said. More than half of the cases involve morbid obesity, which accompanies other medical problems, such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and post-partum complications. 

Other contributing factors are inappropriate and illicit drug use, Taylor said, adding mental illness, including suicide, and drug abuse are issues.

District 177 Rep. Dexter Sharper said Medicaid expansion, a key feature of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, is the only way to fix the state's health-care woes.

Sharper said there are more than 500,000 people eligible for Medicaid.

Expansion would mean helping rural hospitals stay open, reducing the number of people clogging emergency rooms and improving the overall health of rural communities, he said.

"We need to work really hard for Medicaid expansion," Sharper said. "If we don't do this, you are going to see a lot of our communities hurting even more and a lot more hospital closings." 

Stacey Abrams made Medicaid expansion a major part of her Democratic run for governor. Other than Sharper, a Democrat, no other representative mentioned expanding Medicaid when it came to resolving Georgia health-care issues.

Rick Williams, a Milledgeville funeral director and District 145 representative, said health care is his top priority in 2019.

“(We’re) trying to figure out what we can do to address the insurance dilemma that we're going through and the rising cost of health care,” Williams said. “We want to work with hospitals and doctors to make things more affordable; I know that's number one on my plate, and I think it is with a lot of people.”

Williams said he has spoken to many Milledgeville residents, including insurance agents, during the past year to hear their thoughts on ways to make health insurance more affordable.

Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, a physician, said health care is a major issue for him.

"It's always a goal to enact good policy that improves the lives of Georgians,” he said.

He said he plans to strengthen the health-care system with an eye toward meeting the needs of rural areas. He wants to see the needs of Southwest Georgia incorporated in legislation.

"Most of my life has been in the medical field as a physician and hospital administrator,” Burke said. “Improving access, efficiency and outcomes in health care is something I value. I will continue working on policies that improve our health care delivery systems in Georgia.”

The District 11 state senator considers it a little early to name marquee legislation in the upcoming session.

Legislators started important conversations about health care last session and he his looking forward to continuing discussions with the Kemp administration and Lt. Gov.-elect Geoff Duncan.

"Ultimately, we are looking to improve access to health care in rural Georgia, stabilize the rural hospital system and adopt strategies that allow communities to participate in developing ways that health care can work better for them locally," the senator said.

Rural Development

District 155 Representative Clay Pirkle said the Rural Development Council put out a list of legislation it supports.

“There are several initiatives within that in terms of high-speed broadband, health care and workforce development and economic development for rural areas,” he said. “I’m looking at a good bit of focus on rural development this coming session.”

He said the House co-chairs of the RDC have done a “first-class job” in looking at the needs of rural Georgia and how the council can facilitate rural development.

“It’s so fortunate that we’ve got the Rural Prosperity Center at (Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College),” he said. “This is the conduit for economic development throughout the state and we have it right in our backyard. I’m exceedingly excited about that and the work they’re doing right now and the work they’re continuing to do.”

There is a lot up in the air this legislative session and state Rep. Jay Powell is taking a “wait and see” approach to the 2019 session.

Powell, R-Camilla, is the co-chairman of the House Rural Development Council; his district encompasses all of Mitchell County, about half of Colquitt County and a portion of Decatur County.

He hopes to steer three council priorities into legislation: a communications service tax measure, revisiting the state’s medical certificate of need system and creating a regional development authority.

The latter would allow groups of counties to band together to attract industry and development without triggering self-interests.

“Right now, there is a real incentive for everybody to go their own way,” Powell said. “If (a community) gets a project, it gets the ad valorem and utility (taxes).”

The idea is to create incentives that encourage communities to work as a team to create a better package to entice companies to locate there.

One way would be for counties to share benefits, so if a company locates in one county for a joint project among counties in a regional authority, they would share ad valorem taxes and utilities.

In Georgia, companies can earn job tax credits that reduce income taxes.

The poorest Georgia counties are in Tier 1 and companies locating there get higher amounts of tax credits.

Another incentive for counties working together would be for a regional authority to offer tax credits at the level of the lowest tier county in the group, Powell said.

The goal of the communications tax proposal is to lower some taxes and fees for users of phone and internet services, while making up for the difference by taxing purchases such as movie streaming and e-book downloads that are currently not taxed.

The move would lower fees and taxes for people with land-line and cell phones and cable television.

For example, Powell said, the proposal is to eliminate a 7 percent state sales tax on land lines, which also carries a 3 percent franchise fee, and replace with a flat-rate 4 percent communication services tax.

“It’s really not a new tax,” Powell said. “Technology has changed, but the tax system has not kept up.”

It reflects the reality that as technology has changed more people are getting their television content from places such as Netflix and downloading Kindle books from Amazon instead of buying books at the bookstore.

Taxes collected would be roughly equal, he said, but with enough money raised to help expand broadband internet to rural areas where it is not available.

State Rep. John Corbett, District 174, emphasized the need for stronger broadband for rural Georgia. He said it would be a boon for the economy.

“Broadband is a big deal,” Corbett said. “It’s hard to draw new businesses without reliable internet or keep our kids from leaving after graduating from school.”

The South Georgia legislator said the difficultly of bringing reliable internet to rural areas is paying for the infrastructure. He said it could be done but it would be a long road to travel.

Allowing rural electric cooperative groups to offer broadband service could also expand broadband access.

They have infrastructure, Powell said, but current law does not allow them to offer internet service.

“It makes sense, if they want to be able to provide that service,” he said.

Deal’s legacy

State Sen. Chuck Payne, R-Dalton, is optimistic about the upcoming session.

"We've got a brand-new governor but he is very experienced. He's not a newcomer to state government," Payne said. "Everybody seems to be working as a team, and they seem to want to do the right thing."

He said he thinks the new government will be able to keep egos out of governing and work for the best of the state.

Williams said Deal's departure creates a vacuum in the state.

“Gov. Deal has done a wonderful job as far as balancing the budget and putting Georgia on the map,” he said.

For several years, Georgia has been the number one state to do business, he said.

“When Gov. Deal took office, I believe the state 'Rainy Day Fund' had about $150,000 in it, and now has upwards of $2 billion,” Williams said. “I think Gov.-elect Kemp will be mindful and frugal also, and I know he's mentioned a few ways to help teachers as well.”

Black said Gov. Deal will be remembered as one of the great governors of Georgia.

He said Deal’s legacy will be the judicial reforms he implemented, which saved taxpayers millions.

“The programs created with these reforms has kept many young violators out of hard prison beds and put them in programs that are having a high degree of success of getting their lives straightened out and turning them into productive taxpaying citizens,” Black said.

Powell thinks Gov. Nathan Deal’s legacy will be as a statesman who took the reins during a time of uncertainty and economic recession and did a good job with the budget and creating jobs.

“I think that he will be remembered as one of the best — if not the best — in modern times, for sure,” Powell said. “He’s been an excellent governor.”

Even criminal sentencing reform — not something conservatives originally embraced — has been a success, he said.

“That will make the state safer, save some money, and it will make people who had no hope maybe have hope,” Powell said.

Despite Democrats turning 11 House seats from red to blue, Republicans hold comfortable control, Powell said. Republicans will hold 105 of 180 seats.

“I anticipate we’ll get some of those seats back in the next election,” he said. “I was happy with the results in the statewide races.

Regarding the governor's race, he admitted, “I was disappointed it dragged out and got so contentious."

In addition to Thomas Lynn, SunLight Project team members Will Woolever, Alan Mauldin, Eve Copeland, Charles Oliver and Patti Dozier contributed to this article.

Thomas Lynn is a government and education reporter for The Valdosta Daily Times. He can be reached at (229)244-3400 ext. 1256

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