Americus Times-Recorder, Americus, Georgia

Local Columnists

February 3, 2014

Report to the People: Feb. 2, 2014

AMERICUS — Jan. 20, the Georgia General Assembly had adjourned in observance of the  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday. It is fitting and proper that we observe as a holiday the  birthday of this great Georgian. He defined the civil rights movement and continued the legacy begun by President Abraham Lincoln. His work on civil rights many times overshadows his ministry. But first and foremost Rev. King was a man of God. One of my favorite quotes by Rev. King is: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

Jan. 21 was legislative day 6. We continued the fast pace as more and more bills were moving through the process. Budget briefing and committee meetings were scheduled in the afternoon following adjournment from the house chamber. Rep. Katie Dempsey, District 13, said it best by describing this session as "fast and focused."

Jan. 22 was legislative day 7. It started at 7:30 a.m. with the Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee meeting in room 341 of the Capitol. There we reviewed the amended FY 2014 State Budget on Higher Education. Chancellor Hank Huckaby for the University System of Georgia and Commissioner Ron Jackson for the Technical College System of Georgia were in attendance. Teya Ryan, executive director of Georgia Public Broadcasting, and Lamar Veatch, director of Georgia Libraries, as well as many presidents from Georgia universities and colleges were also there. The midyear adjustments to the State Higher Education FY 2014 budget amounted to an increase of $8,702,852.

1) $1,400,000 -- Provide one-time funds for equipment upgrades to the PeachNet infrastructure.

2) $957,910 — Increase formula funding for new square footage acquired in FY 2014.

3) $5,772,241— Increase funds to meet the projected need of the Dual Enrollment ACCEL Program.

4) $72,701 — Increase funds to meet the projected need of North Georgia Military Scholarship Grants.

5) $500,000 — Provide funding for personal services and operating expenses for Precision Manufacturing at Savannah Technical College.

These items passed unanimously in the Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee and are now submitted to the full Appropriations Committee for approval.

At the Rural Caucus luncheon Jimmy Lewis, CEO from Hometown Health, presented our program. His major concern was the recent closures of rural hospitals. He said that the current rural health care system in Georgia is fragile and broken in some places, resulting in four hospital closures in 2013. Most of these closures were in counties under 10,000 population. Currently it takes a minimum of 40,000 population to support a rural hospital just to break even.

The current payer mix for rural hospitals is 50 percent Medicare, 15 percent  Medicaid, 15 percent self-pay (with near zero payment), 20 percent commercial insurance (it takes 33 percent to break even).

Fifty counties have no hospital. He added 48 counties have no doctor; 65 counties have three or less doctors. Forty-six county hospitals county hospitals no longer deliver babies. That, added to the 50 counties with no hospitals, brings the total to 96 counties that do not deliver babies. The Affordable Care Act will cut $716 billion in Medicare reimbursements to hospitals by 2023. As stated earlier, Medicare amounts to 50 percent of the payer mix for rural hospitals. This cut will be devastating. These and other cuts in federal subsidies will translate directly into a cost shift forced on local governments to determine whether or not to have a community hospital. Rural hospitals depend upon these federal subsidies to survive, any cut in funds will force local governments to place an additional tax burden on its citizens.

He went on to say that the Health Insurance Exchanges have had a less than satisfactory implementation. He said that total chaos will prevail if employers opt out and take a penalty. He continued by saying that many employers plan to drop health care insurance and force their employees to qualify for Jimmy Lewis ended his remarks with these conclusions: The current rural health care delivery model will no longer work. Rural hospitals will continue to close. Rural Georgia has become a major underserved geography for healthcare. Without health care, Rural Economic Development will plummet, resulting in diminished rural tax digests. Unemployment will continue to soar. Rural counties will face the choice of higher taxes or closed hospitals. Counties with no hospital will be forced to pay nearby counties with hospitals to serve their indigent and charity patients.

In response to a recent news story critical of rural hospitals by Rep. Sharon Cooper, District 41, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, Lewis said “Rural hospitals are an economic engine unmatched for every community. Rural hospitals are a first criteria in industry site selection. No hospital! No industry! Rural hospitals are designed and intended to be acute-care, stabilization, and triage units. Rural hospitals typically serve 80 percent to 85 percent government patients (Medicare, Medicaid and indigent). Rural hospitals are large employers of high-paying skilled jobs in each community.” He added, “Access to healthcare should not be limited to those living in metropolitan areas. Our rural hospitals have historically been the backbone of healthcare in our state and that it is vital for that tradition to continue."

 Jan. 23 was legislative day 8. The amended FY 2014 State Budget was placed on our desk. By law the State Budget needs to be on our desks 24 hours before it can be brought up for a vote by the General Assembly.

Rep. Brooks Coleman, District 97, chairman of the House Education Committee, released the results of the Joint House and Senate Education Listening Session that took place at the conclusion of the 2013 session of the Georgia General Assembly. These listening sessions were held throughout the state and I attended the one held at Darton College in Albany this past fall. The following is a list of some of the information presented by local School Systems at the listening sessions as well as actions adopted by the General Assembly.

• Local School Systems want to see state austerity reductions restored thus enabling superintendents to reduce the number of furlough days, restore the school year to 180 days, thereby increasing teacher salaries. Action taken: $130 million to fully fund midterm adjustment in FY 2014; $171 million to fully fund enrollment growth and TRS increase in FY 2015; and $314 million in additional funds in FY 2015 to offset austerity reductions.

• Continue to support Regional Educational Service Agencies (RESAs). Action taken: $560,000 for Positive Behavior and Intervention Support (PBIS) Trainers.

• Continue funding sparsity grants for rural school systems. Action taken: $2,516,320 added for 34 newly qualified schools.

• Superintendents, Board of Education members, teachers and many members of the public requested the legislature not to pull Georgia out of the Common Core Georgia Performance Standards (CCGPS) Action taken: Governor Deal charged the State Board of Education to perform an in-depth review of the standards. The General Assembly is looking at possible legislation to resolve some  of the main concerns of the general public.  

• Concern that the new teacher evaluation systems, TKES and LKES, are extremely time consuming. Action taken: Teachers who score highly will have far fewer evaluations which will reduce the amount of time spent by administrators.

• Most school systems encourage the legislature to reinstate the Return to Work Bill. Action taken: Rep. Valerie Clark, District 104, is working on legislation to allow rural systems that opportunity.

• School systems want the option to have more flexibility with their current E-SPLOST penny sales tax. Action taken: HR 160 would give local school boards the authority to call a referendum on whether to split their current penny sales tax dedicated to Capital Outlay Projects and use part of the money for Maintenance and Operations.

• School systems wanted more options on becoming a Charter System. Action taken: HB 327, allowing school systems greater flexibility and more accountability, passed the House 174-1 and is now in the Senate.

I want to personally thank Rep. Brooks Coleman, District 97, chairman of the House Education Committee, Rep. Mike Dudgeon, District 24, vice chairman of the House Education Committee and Sen. Lindsey Tippins, District 37, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, for all their hard work, long hours and many miles traveling the state, to improve the quality of education for our students, Georgia's future.

Jan. 24 was legislative day 9. HB 743, the Amended Fiscal Year 2014 Appropriation Bill, totaling $20,234,238,575, was presented by Rep. Terry England, District 108, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.  England began his remarks by thanking the Appropriations Subcommittee Chairs and members for their hard work. He then complemented the House Budget and Research Office director, Martha Wigton, deputy director, Christine Murdock, and the entire staff for their incredible dedication and tireless efforts in preparing this budget.

He then said, "The amended budget showed an increase of $313.9 million, amounting to a 1.5 percent increase. That 58.3 percent of the increased revenue went to K12 education, amounting to $183 million." He wanted to make two very important points about HB 743. "First, in the 11 pages of Budget Instructions, the words "submit same level of funding" were prominent and the word "reductions" was only used as a reference and not a directive. Budget request for additional funds were allowed in three areas: Growth, Workload, and Enrollment Driven Programs. On Sept. 3, 2013, all of the Budget Offices were presented with the agency request. Twenty-seven of the 50 Budget Units had no adjustment request and these are significant departments with incredibly important functions, such as Veteran Affairs, Public Health, Economic Development, Community Affairs, Insurance, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Judiciary, and Natural Resources.” England then said, "The lion's share of funding goes to the Department of Education, the second largest infusions of new funds goes into Economic Development initiatives in OneGeorgia and Regional Economic Business Assistance Grants ($51.5 million).

The Department of Transportation received $27 million in new money and the Department of Community Health showed an increase of $47.6 million." He concluded by saying, "HB 743, as it stands before this House for your approval today, allocates 53.3 percent of all State Revenue to Education; 23 percent for a Healthy Georgia; 8.4 percent for Public Safety needs and 5.8 percent for Economic Development.” This measure passed by a vote of 163-1. Good job. Terry.

Thank you for choosing me to represent you in Atlanta at the State Capitol.


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