Local lawmakers declared some victories in the 2020 Georgia General Assembly session Friday, despite a number of bumps caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Every session has been different and this one has been the most different of all,” said Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee. “Some things fell by the wayside, but we finished up with the more essential things.”
Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, spent most of the second half of the split session trying to preserve the state budget for human resources in the face of the economic downturn. Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, worked mainly to find revenue sources and resolve issues related to the state’s medical system.
Both said it could have turned out worse.
“I think this was a great year for some healthcare legislation,” said Hufstetler, who led the negotiations that finally ended the practice of surprise billing.
Gov. Brian Kemp’s office also was involved in the legislation that takes patients out of the middle of a payment dispute between insurers and an out-of-network hospital provider.
Dempsey said Kemp’s revised economic forecast also enabled lawmakers to limit cuts to state agencies below the initial 14% mandate. About $53.5 million was restored to the budgets for the departments covering veteran services, human services and behavioral health and developmental disabilities.
“Some of those cuts were going to be very difficult,” Dempsey said. “Over 200 positions were saved, and it saves nearly 9,000 state employees from being furloughed.”
The funding is key to continuing programs addressing foster care support, family and children services, mental health and addictive behavior. Plans to close 54 DFCS offices across the state were averted.
“There are still places where it’s painful, but it’s gone from real painful to bringing it back,” she said. “Everything’s not painted with such a broad brush.”
Hufstetler, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, took aim at state tax credits and exemptions and also sought new revenue from vaping products.
Opponents in the targeted industries contended the measures were too drastic, but some elements prevailed. An increase to the tobacco tax stalled but a bill aimed at vaping products was expected to gain final passage late Friday.
“It’s a 7% excise tax on vaping products, equivalent to our very low tax we have currently on cigarettes,” Hufstetler said. “It does put some regulations in place, which we need. It’s a start.”
An amended House bill he sponsored in the Senate also will require a full audit of film production expenses claimed as tax credits. He said many companies that are using the credits as intended supported the bill, which is aimed at those taking advantage of the system.
“But I am disappointed we didn’t take more opportunities on the revenue side,” Hufstetler said. “I’m certainly disappointed we keep taking hundreds of millions of dollars out of our healthcare without increasing the tobacco tax.”
Before the session started, Hufstetler chaired a special study committee looking into an expanded role for mid-level medical providers — physician assistants and advanced practice registered nurses. While the bulk of its recommendations didn’t get addressed, his Senate Bill 321 passed with some changes.
“PAs and APRNs often compete over scope of practice. This merges them under the same rules,” Hufstetler said. “It’s a little better for the PAs in terms of (how many can be supervised by the same physician). The nurses couldn’t order radiology tests and now they can.”
The move is expected to be a boon for healthcare access in rural areas with a shortage of doctors. Hufstetler said it also will be easier for hospitals that employ numerous PAs and APRNs operating under different restrictions.
Local lawmakers also embraced a measure that will allow people to expunge some minor criminal records that often hamper their searches for employment and housing.
Lumsden, a retired Georgia State Patrol trooper, said he’s been supportive of the relief since he took office and is glad the judicial issues have been worked out.
“When someone does something that puts a mark on their record, particularly when they’re very young, there needs to be an opportunity for them to demonstrate rehabilitation,” he said. “They keep paying the price, sometimes all their lives.”