State senator, representatives give updates at Legislative Wrap-Up Luncheon

Published 10:38 am Saturday, May 18, 2019

By Ken Gustafson

AMERICUS — On Tuesday, a group of local politicians, business owners, and concerned citizens of Sumter County gathered in the administration building on the campus of Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW) to hear state Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus; state Rep. Mike Cheokas, R-Americus, and state Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Albany, give updates on what has been going on during the last session of the General Assembly, at the 2019 Legislative Wrap-Up Luncheon hosted by the Sumter County Chamber of Commerce.

State Sen. Freddie Powell-Sims, D-Dawson, was expected to be at the luncheon but was unable to attend.

Justin Arnold, Government Affairs Division chairman for the Chamber, introduced the three state leaders to the group assembled and moderated the forum.

Arnold gave Kirk the floor first to talk about things that are happening in the Georgia Senate. “This is my fifth year serving in the Georgia General Assembly. I’m honored to serve,” Kirk said. “In the five years that I’ve been in the Georgia General Assembly, I feel like we’ve passed more significant pieces of legislation in this one year than we did in any other single year. We didn’t always agree on legislation. We met with the Governor’s people. We met with the House. We were able to get things worked out and we passed some significant legislation.”

Kirk went on to say that Gov. Brian Kemp vetoed some bills, including one guaranteeing recess for kids in elementary school. “I was really disappointed in that veto,” Kirk said. “We were going to make sure that every kid in elementary school had recess in the state of Georgia every day. I still think that’s a wise thing, but the Governor decided to leave that up to the local school boards. There were very few pieces of legislation that he vetoed this year. That’s because we all worked well together.”

Kirk mentioned that the Living Infants Fairness and Equality Act, more commonly known as the “Heartbeat Bill,” was a very significant piece of legislation that was passed and signed by the Governor. He also mentioned that this bill would be challenged in the courts. “We made changes to that bill in anticipation of the upcoming lawsuits. That will go down as an historic piece of legislation,” Kirk said. “I was proud to support and sponsor it.”

Kirk mentioned that the Monument Protection Act was another significant piece of legislation that was passed. “Just this morning, I saw on Facebook that another monument had been defaced over the weekend,” Kirk said. “This bill will have a lot more stiffer penalties for doing that.” Kirk also commented on House Bill 514, which created the Georgia Mental Health Reform and Innovation Commission. It’s a 25-member commission that will be appointed by the Governor. “The Lieutenant Governor is making appointments from the Senate. I will be one of those appointees,” Kirk said. “We are looking at mental health services. We want to look at what we are doing in our communities and across the state and how we can do it better. This commission is being formed and we will be looking at a lot of things concerning mental health reform and innovation.”

Kirk also discussed House Bill 186, which is the Certificate of Need Bill (CON). “This is a bill that has come up year after year after year,” Kirk said. “We finally negotiated out an agreement and we got it through the Senate. I was involved in the negotiations. I was heavily involved with that and I was glad to be there when the Governor signed that bill in Newnan at the local Cancer Treatment Centers of America hospital.”

One of the provisions in this bill permits a destination cancer hospital to convert to a “general cancer hospital” through a CON application. The provision will allow Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) to add more beds and serve more Georgia patients in the Newnan CTCA hospital. CTCA has been fighting for this provision for years. Because of its special status under CON laws, a destination cancer hospital like CTCA had previously been limited in the number of in-state patients it could serve.

Kirk also talked about Senate Bill 158, which deals with the issue of human trafficking. “I didn’t know that we had so much of a problem in our state with human trafficking,” Kirk said. “When I got to Atlanta, I began to learn more about it.” He said that the General Assembly has passed pieces of legislation on it for the past five years, with stiffer and tougher penalties for those involved in that activity.

Kirk also discussed another bill that was passed which allows for public school to use the Bible as a learning device in the school systems. “We had some laws that already allowed for that. This just took it a little bit further,” Kirk said. He said he was very proud that Senate Bill 48 was passed. This bill calls for the mandatory screening of all kids in Georgia for dyslexia. “I supported that bill. I testified in the Senate for that bill,” Kirk said. He mentioned that his uncle, Ricky Kirk, managed the Golden Corral restaurant in Americus for several years and currently lives in Texas. “Ricky suffered from dyslexia and I didn’t know it all those years,” Kirk said. “He shared with me that he had struggled with that. Before we passed this bill, we didn’t make it mandatory to screen kids for dyslexia in our state. I’m very proud of that piece of legislation. That will help so many people. Ricky became vice president of Ryan’s Steakhouse. Imagine what he could have become had his reading been more proficient. There are a lot of great people in our history that suffered from dyslexia.”

Kirk also mentioned that he was involved with the passage of a bill involving rural broadband communication, which will bring broadband to rural communities throughout the state by allowing electric membership cooperative to get into the broadband business.

State Rep. Mike Cheokas mentioned that as a member of the Appropriations Higher Education Committee, he has used that platform to see what he can do to help the educational institutions in Americus and Sumter County. He said that he, along with the help of Kirk, Rynders and Powell-Sims, was able to secure the finances to renovate a gymnasium on the GSW campus. “We, as a team, were also able to get a little over $1.5 million for South Georgia Tech. That’s what we are focusing our attention on,” Cheokas said. “Our educational leaders not only teach our future leaders, but they have a vital economic impact in our community today. They provide jobs. I think the number that we look at is about two to two-and-a-half students that have gotten a local job from that.”

Cheokas went on to talk about broadband in the rural communities and how the legislation regarding it allowed the local EMCs to provide broadband in rural areas.

“They are stepping up to the plate. There’s more legislation to come on that,” he said. He mentioned that as a member of the Education Committee, he and other legislators were instrumental in getting a $3,000 per teacher pay raise. “We want to provide a high-caliber, second-to-none school system in public education in our state, and we’re well on our way to doing that,” he said. “To do that, we have to have the best paid and the best prepared teachers.”

Cheokas also mentioned that he and his colleagues in the Legislature have been involved in seeing what they can do to improve safety in Georgia’s schools. He believes that mental health is a key component in the matter. “That’s what we have to look at,” he said. “We need to look at the culture and climate when we think about school safety. We need to provide a support mechanism for our students and support our teachers because it’s not an easy job. It’s a lot more difficult than it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

Cheokas said the legislature passed the Farmers Protection Act, which, in his opinion, has more of an impact in the metro areas than in Americus and Sumter County. “In the metro areas, where they keep growing and growing, they tend to engage in what I call frivolous lawsuits to prevent farmers from actually providing the food to put on our tables,” he said.

Cheokas said the most significant legislation passed was the decision as to what to do with the voting machines. “We had an issue in the past where our elections have been questioned and challenged,” Cheokas said. “There was a movement to go to hand ballots. What ended up passing was a bill that allowed voters to use a similar machine that we use today. You print out a ballot so that it is a mechanically printed ballot. The voter reviews the ballot. If the voter wants to make changes, he or she discards that ballot, makes changes to the ballot and prints another one.” Cheokas explained that once the voter is satisfied with the ballot representing his or her wishes, the voter scans that ballot. The ballot is taken and put in a box and saved in case there is a need for a recount.

“The issue with the hand ballots is that too many times, the hand ballots are not marked correctly,” Cheokas said. “Then it goes to court and the judges have to decide in the courts the legality of the ballot.”

He said he supports the legislation passed concerning the new voting machines because, being in the liquor business, he has seen numerous lottery tickets marked incorrectly by hand.

Cheokas mentioned another piece of legislation that he championed. It was legislation allowing Georgia’s technical colleges to allow people who complete their GED to get a high school diploma from the Technical College System of Georgia. “That will remove the stigma of the GED,” Cheokas said. “It will make it easier for our work force to obtain jobs.”

State Rep. Ed Rynders commented to the crowd that this is the most politically polarizing time that he has ever seen. “It is amazing when people start voting against things because they want someone else to take credit,” he said. He mentioned that the Monument Protection Bill that was passed also included civil rights. “When someone tries to tell you that it’s just about Confederate monuments, that’s just the wrong narrative, despite what Hollywood or the AJC may tell you,” he said.

Rhynders said it was an extremely busy session as far as he was concerned. He also made a comment regarding the voting bill. “Every state gets sued regarding voting,” he said. “Everybody is going to claim that somebody was disenfranchised and that somebody was suppressed. It works that way all across the country. The best example I can give was what happened in Randolph County here in Southwest Georgia.” He explained that election officials said that the voting precincts there did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “It had nothing to do with the Secretary of State who was running for Governor,” Rynders said. “It had nothing to do with trying to suppress or disenfranchise people. It had to do with the fact that those precincts didn’t meet the ADA requirements. That reason didn’t fit with the narrative that you were trying to keep people from voting.” He said the new voting machines that were brought in as a result of passing the voting machine bill had a 92 percent approval rating by county voter registrars. “I cannot believe that anybody wanted to go back to a piece of paper and bubble it in,” Rynders said. “I don’t care what party you belong to. We were hearing from officials all across this state and 92 percent of them said ‘No, we want to keep it electronic.’ That’s what we did.”

Rynders said, in passing that bill, the legislature took some provisions of other election bills and rolled them into this one. He added that they put in a piece of legislation that says if a person is incarcerated and hasn’t gone to trial yet, that person could use the jail as an address to have their absentee ballot sent to them. “You are innocent until proven guilty. That’s still the law of the land,” Rynders said. “You should not be denied your right until the rule of justice prevails.”

Near the end of the luncheon, there was a Q&A time in which Arnold asked each of the three elected officials various questions. The first question was for Kirk:


Arnold: What piece of legislation do you think that was passed in this last session most impacts and benefits our small businesses and industries here in Southwest Georgia?

Kirk: “I don’t know. All I know is that our Governor really wants to focus on small businesses. He’s been down to our area. He was down here a lot last week. I was in Savannah for a conference so I didn’t get to tag around with him. He has made it a point to be at the openings of small businesses in rural Georgia. As far as specific legislation regarding that, I don’t recall off the top of my head. Maybe one of my colleagues can help me out with that.”


Arnold: Is their one particular piece of legislation, or bits of legislation that most benefits our local businesses?

Cheokas: “In my opinion, if you look at where we live, it’s the Rural Broadband Bill. We’re still an agri-business area and rural broadband is going to help not only our agri-businessmen, but also small manufacturers. The market is no longer in the locale. It can be across the country or across the world. Without broadband, we’re not able to tap into that market.”

Rynders: I”t’s always about turf war. I don’t care if it’s health care. I don’t care if it’s education. At the end of the day, Senate Bill 2 (Rural Broadband Bill) will help our children. We’ve got children that can’t get into some of the best colleges because they don’t get Advanced Placement in some of the more rural school systems. The answer is to take it online, but if you can’t do that, you’re limited. When you look at health care, when you look at things like education, Senate Bill 2 will allow the EMCs to try to provide that service. It’s not a short-term answer. It’s going to take quite a while to develop. I would say that Senate Bill 2 benefits our local businesses the most.”


Arnold: How do you feel about the recent legislation involving healthcare? What do you see on the horizon as a result of this recently passed legislation?

Rynders: “This is an issue that will never go away. We are going to fight it forever, both pro and con. I’d like to give just a little history first. The Certificate of Need Bill, in its original intent, was designed to lower healthcare costs. The reason was you didn’t want somebody going in there and having an oncology center with three patients. That would drive the cost up. There is a reason why there is only one Augusta Burn Center in the state. It’s because we do not have that much of a need for that severity of the burn. There’s a reason why there is only one Shepherd Spinal Center. It’s the exact same reason. The original intent of Certificate of Need was a way to make sure that large medical providers didn’t go out and always try and lock up something, even though there was a need for it. Over time, it has morphed into a way to lock out competition. You have to have access, but on the other hand, it has to be reasonable. This battle will never go away because everybody is trying to squeeze that extra nickel.”


Arnold: Why did you vote for or against the recent medical marijuana legislation? What are your thoughts about the potential for industrial hemp or marijuana as an agricultural commodity?

Cheokas: “I voted against both of those measures. We looked at it, and there’s a growing amount of evidence that marijuana, mental illness, and violence are related. I would have voted for the measure. There was one amendment by Rep. Andy Welch. It says that the State Board of Pharmacy shall be authorized to establish rules and regulations for the retail sale of low-THC 0il through licensed pharmacies in the state. It said that it would compile a list of safe-access retail outlets. It also says that no licensee shall advertise or market low-THC oil in any safe-access retail outlets. Apparently. what we have now is about 8,500 patients that are in need of medical marijuana. I was uncomfortable with this bill because the amendment failed.” Cheokas mentioned that he came across trade journals involving news on cannabis. “This is my opinion. There are a lot of big-money companies in the United States and Canada that are bank rolling these operations. I just felt that we didn’t have the controls in place because of the amendment failing. That’s why I did not support this legislation. We have in place a mechanism that allows for the distribution of medical marijuana because it’s been proven to have good medical results on certain medical conditions. I supported that legislation. It’s administered through the University System and through the Medical College of Georgia.” Under federal law, marijuana is a Schedule I drug, which means it cannot be researched. Schedule II drugs can be researched. “Unfortunately, the way I see it right now, until federal law changes and marijuana is changed from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II drug, we can’t do anything. We need to have marijuana changed from Schedule I to Schedule II so that we can figure out what the exact dosages are to provide for the medical needs that exist. Expanding it without being authorized through pharmacies, I thought, was more than what I could support.”

Rynders: “I voted no also. The Georgia Sheriff’s Association came out and opposed it. They had legitimate concerns. It’s morphed into companies seeing potential economic development coming their way. I promised my constituents that I’m not going to open the door for that pathway. I feel like it’s important to keep your word. To somehow be painted with a brush that you don’t care about children that are having seizures, that is wrong. We have real problems with knowing exactly what the right dosage is clinically because the clinical work hasn’t been done. We also know that we cannot define who truly is in chronic pain. There are people out there who are using the medical purpose for the sole purpose of having their goal, which is to have it legal everywhere.”

Kirk: “I’ve been a proponent of allowing marijuana to be used for medical purposes over the past several years, but this year, I voted no. The reason was due to law enforcement. We tried to work out some last-minute legislation to make sure we could get the sheriffs on board. We couldn’t do that. I think that it would create a lot of problems for law enforcement.


Arnold: What piece of legislation were all of you most or maybe least surprised by its passage during this past session?

Kirk: “I guess that would be the Heartbeat Bill. That passed by the skin of its teeth. There are several bills that would fit those categories: The Certificate of Need Bill, getting the waiver from the ACA (Affordable Care Act). You don’t realize how important it was to get the waiver from the ACA. I don’t think the general public will realize it until we are able to implement that waiver. One of the big components of that is that we are trying to lower the rates for those who are on the ACA and don’t get supplements for their premiums. That’s huge in our state. That is expensive healthcare. If we can lower those premiums for those having to pay full premiums in the ACA, that is significant. We won’t know how significant it is until it is implemented.”

Rynders: “The one bill that didn’t pass that surprised me was a bill involving dual enrollment. We’re going to have to do something about that. We cannot have ninth-graders taking culinary arts before they take algebra and say that they are college material. The number of students doing that grew from 40 million to 160 million in just a few years. It’s because we have a few bad actors that turn around and spoil it for everybody else. We found a school system in North Georgia that was using dual enrollment for kids with discipline problems to get them off campus. We have got to get a handle on that. It’s not because you aren’t trying to get kids ready for college. At the end of the day, we cannot sustain this rate of growth.”


Arnold: How have the new Governor and Lieutenant Governor impacted what all of you have done in the legislature? How has this particular session been from past sessions?

Kirk: “I believe that we passed a lot of significant legislation this year. We didn’t all agree on everything, but we came to the table. We met and we worked things out. I think the Governor’s team worked well. I was very pleasantly surprised at the Lieutenant Governor’s team as well. I saw a lot of collaboration amongst members of the House, the Governor’s Office and the Senate.”

Cheokas: “I agree with Sen. Kirk. I know Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan and Governor Brian Kemp personally. I’ve known them for years personally. They came prepared to work. The reason for the significant amount of legislation is because they have a mission that they are working on. That mission is to improve the state of Georgia and to make us a better state than we are. I’m proud of the leadership that we have and I’m glad to see what we are doing. We are tackling some controversial issues and bringing them to the forefront. We want the input and we want more forums like this. We want to hear your voices in regards to what we can do to improve.”

Rynders: “Because Governor Kemp and Lieutenant Governor Duncan are both new and because of the November election, they were more methodical. Sometimes going in without such a huge, huge mandate type of thing makes people feel a little bit more attentive. I think they both have been exceptional.


Arnold: How are Georgia’s voting operations going to be changed or be different from this past election to 2020?

Kirk: “We plan to have the new voting machines in place. I hope that we do. We need to have some investigations in regards to complaints about absentee ballots and registrations that weren’t complete. How do you not know what your address is? How do you not know what your middle name is? We need to look at those kinds of things, and we need to get to the bottom of it. We all want to have legal and fair elections. We need to make sure that we’re looking at facts when we hear things and not just rhetoric.”

Rynders: “Our challenge in rural Georgia is how do we message the truth and what’s going on. The viewership of network television is down an awful lot. I met with {U.S.} Sen. {David} Perdue’s people last week. What’s coming is control of the U.S. Senate in 2020. That’s what’s coming. There is going to be no shortage of dollars spent in this state from both sides to try to create false narratives and fear mongering. That’s the way it works. At the end of the day, the best thing about Georgia is that we are able to manage in the middle. It’s my hope that if we can continue doing that, we can continue to move Georgia forward.”