The so-called hospital “sick tax” was on life-support Thursday when it reached the floor of the Georgia Senate.
By the end of the day, after hours of debate, delays, backroom politics and hurt feelings, the Senate approved HB 307, which would impose a hospital tax to help fill a $600 million gap in Medicaid funding.
The 1.45 percent tax on patient revenue could raise about $170 million.
The bill, with three amendments attached, passed 31-15.
The key to the bill was a last minute amendment that gives a tax cut to insurers on health insurance premiums when the state’s revenue shortfall reserve is funded at the level of $500 million.
But Gov. Sonny Perdue, while praising the bipartisan bill the House passed last week, lashed out at the Senate for trying to “curry favor with a Washington, D.C., special interest group” by adding the amendment “that triggers yet another provision contingent on the first signs of economic growth.”
“Georgia has maintained its coveted AAA bond rating through these difficult economic times with responsible fiscal management. The unpredictable revenue impact of these provisions should not be added to a bill of this magnitude,” Perdue said.
The Senate Republicans, who desperately wanted the bill, scrambled all day to get the required number of votes needed to pass the controversial bill. The GOP, which has basically gotten every bill it has wanted passed this year passed with its strong majority, apparently started the day without enough votes.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the president of the Senate, stopped the session twice to allow for backroom caucusing.
Democrats accused the Republicans of trying to bully their members into voting in favor of the bill.
On the Republican side, there were strong whispers that Judson Hill of Marietta was stripped of his Reapportionment and Redistricting chairmanship over a potential no vote. Hill was not in the chamber at all during any of the votes and was marked excused. He was one of 10 senators who skipped the vote completely.
There was also talk that Senate Republican Whip Mitch Seabaugh of Sharpsburg quit his position. He voted no on the bill and offered a no comment afterwards. Three Republicans voted against the bill.
“Today, we have broken twice so we can meet. I can tell you what [the Democrats] didn’t do. We didn’t threaten anybody. We didn’t take anybody’s job,” said Steve Thompson (D-Marietta). “Anybody that would lay down and let some of these tactics make their decision is somebody I don’t know. And I know many of you. You are better than that.”
Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers of Woodstock, who authored the last amendment that helped carry the bill, confirmed that his caucus fought bitterly amongst themselves, but denied that there were any threats.
“I rarely see permanent ill-will, “ Rogers said. “There will be tempers anytime you deal with issues this volatile. And Mitch Seabaugh is still the whip.”
At least three Democrats broke ranks and voted for the bill – Freddie Sims of Dawson, Ed Harbison of Columbus and Ronald Ramsey of Lithonia.
“They put a lot of pressure on Democrats,” said Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown of Macon. “You have the majority party having to hunt down Democrats to raise taxes. When you are talking about education policy and not cutting education, you can’t find us.”
Harbison, Sims and Ramsey left the chamber before they could comment.
Brown said he didn’t know what made them vote with the Republicans.
“You have to ask the ones who voted for it what they got,” Brown said.
With the Senate’s passage of the bill it now goes back over to the House, because of the three amendments. It’s failure, however, could have brought the 2010 legislative session to its knees and force major changes in an already shaky budget process.
“We have mandates on education. We have mandates on the courts, but we don’t have to do this. We believe we have to take care of the least in our society,” said Tommie Williams (R-Lyons) during the debate. “We that have ought to give to those that don’t. If we don’t pass this bill, the governor will have to cut provider rates.”
In the middle of all of the debate was Grady Hospital. Supporters of the bill argued that the major benefactor of the bill would be the Atlanta hospital. The money raised from the bill would be distributed among all of hospitals and the ones that provided the most care to the indigent would get more funding.
Grady, they say, stands to gain more than any other hospital in the state.
But Atlanta Democrat Vincent Fort, a long time supporter of Grady, said supporters of the bill who speak of Grady are being hypocritical.
“Grady hospital, for those who want this bill, has become a lobbying point,” said Fort, adding that over the years, deep financial cuts to Grady has caused the hospital to suffer.
He said that Grady annually runs on a “$20-$40 million deficit.”
“The states cuts are (equal) to the operating deficits at Grady. These folks have cut, cut and cut to the bone,” Fort said. “Some of the people who are promoting that position are the ones who have put my hospital in the ditch. You tell me to save Grady with one hand and on the other hand you cut Grady.”