House Speaker David Ralston recently sat down to discuss the November elections and their impact on the next session of the state Legislature, which begins in January.
Ralston predicted that Republican re-engagement on immigration reform in Washington would forestall further state legislation on the issue. He also suggested that a “personhood” amendment to the state constitution was unlikely to fly and said he has urged state lawmakers to think coolly and calmly about two hot issues: a new stadium that would serve as home to the Atlanta Falcons and renewal of an “assessment fee” on hospitals to help prop up the state Medicaid program.
Some excerpts from our conversation:
Q: So what’s your verdict on the 2012 campaigns?
A: I think the November elections were a mixed bag. Nationally, as Republicans, we were disappointed. We were obviously disappointed in the presidential race. We frankly dropped the ball in the nominating process in a couple of states. And as a result we’re going to be shut out of majority status in the U.S. Senate.
On the other hand, I was very pleased in Georgia. We’re up to 119 (GOP House members). We lost no Republican incumbents in November. We defeated two Democratic incumbents. We won some open seats.
Q: One GOP loss in Georgia was the defeat of Lee Anderson in the 12th District race against U.S. Rep. John Barrow. Does the Republican Party need to get more deeply involved in recruitment in that race?
A: I don’t know. They had three or four people running. Lee Anderson won. That’s who the Republican primary voters chose. Lee’s a good fellow. He served in the House here. I still think that’s a very competitive district. But John Barrow’s a survivor. You’ve got to give him a little credit.
Q: The GOP state primary ballot in July included a question on a “personhood amendment” — a measure to give full human rights to embryos. Republican voters approved it by an almost 2-to-1 margin. Will the Legislature take it up?
A: There’s not been one introduced. I have not read it. I’m not sure that one will be. We passed a very strong pro-life measure last session.
Q: When you accepted the nomination for House speaker again this month, you emphasized the need for all legislation next year to be data-driven. Is the fact that Mississippi voters defeated the personhood amendment part of that data?
A: I think what I actually said was “fact-based.” But I think you do have to look at the experience of one neighboring Southern state that has a definite Republican and conservative orientation, that has a heated debate in their General Assembly and then a very heated and volatile debate amongst the electorate — who rejected it.
Q: Given that Republicans in Washington are reassessing their approach to immigration reform, will the Legislature hold off on the issue?
A: I’m hopeful that maybe now is the time. It’s long overdue. The states have acted. I don’t plan for us to revisit that issue here.
Q: Gov. Nathan Deal recently expressed some support for a new $1 billion stadium to replace the 20-year-old Georgia Dome as a home for the Falcons. The Legislature will be asked to increase the borrowing power of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority if this is to happen. What’s your take on the issue?
A: I think it’s unfortunate that the discussion has gotten off to the start that it has, by being labeled the new Falcons stadium or an Arthur Blank project. This is a much, much bigger project. I think that the case has yet to be made, but I think what we need to look at is first of all, the economic impact that that facility historically has had since we built the Dome and what it will have with a new facility.
It’s a big impact, in my opinion, not only for the city of Atlanta, but for the state. We don’t call it the Atlanta Dome or the Falcons Dome. If we were to build a new one, I don’t know what we’d call it, but I hope that we would call it the Georgia Stadium. …
… I think it’s significant that it’s a public-private initiative, where the public participation level is a distinct (30 percent or less) minority, and the state would have ownership. I think we need to step back and look at it in a thorough, comprehensive, calm way. Leave the demagoguery out of it and look at what the facts are.
Q: In response to demands for a $100 cap on gifts from lobbyists to state lawmakers, you’ve called for a ban on all gifts. How’s that coming?
A: I’ve asked (House Majority Leader) Larry (O’Neal) to chair a sort of informal working group. It’s a bipartisan group of members of the House that have been here a while. What I’ve simply asked them to do is look at what other states have done. I’ve always said the $100 cap was a gimmick. I still believe that. …
… I want us to have a bill ready early in the session and pass it out of the House, and then get back to work on things like the budget and Medicaid and health care.
Q: Will the ethics legislation tackle any other areas?
A: I think there are some gaps in who is required to register as lobbyists. I think we need to close those gaps. I want the end result to be something that’s clear and understandable, not only to members of the General Assembly, but to the lobbying community and the public.
We’ve got a little, silly provision in the law now that says if you devote more than 10 percent of your time (at the state Capitol), then you have to register. If you’re here less (often), you don’t. Frankly, I think if you’re here on a regular basis advocating for an interest group, you need to go pay the fee and get a badge so people know who you are.
Q: The hospital provider fee that was passed in 2010 — dubbed the “bed tax” at the time — expires next year. Georgia hospitals pay the fee to help subsidize the state’s Medicaid program. Hospitals pay the bed tax to the state, and the state returns the cash to them according to the level of Medicaid care they provide. You have begun calling it a “Medicaid assessment fee.” What are the chances of its renewal?
A: When you go pay your bill at the hospital, there is no line item that says “bed tax.” Medicaid assessment is a model that we adopted here in 2010 — it was supported by the entire industry. They asked for it.
There are other options. We can cut rates. We can look at the nonprofit status of some of these hospitals. What I’m saying to members of the House is, it is really critical that this be a fact-based issue. Take away the cute one-liners that I’ve heard out there. This is too big an issue. This is too serious. And sometimes you just have to do the mature and responsible thing.
Am I saying we’re ready to embrace the current model and extend it? No. But I’m not sure that doing nothing is an option.
Q: (The interviewer makes a bad joke about the use of labels during debates over fees and taxes.)
A: The language is not what’s critical — it’s the reality. And the reality is the future of many hospitals in Georgia and whether they keep the doors open to serve communities — and they may be serving communities with large Medicaid populations or other indigent care populations. The future of many of those hospitals hangs in the balance of what we do. That’s serious. And we’re approaching it that way.
A final note: Just in case you didn’t catch it, there was an implied threat in Ralston’s comments about the Medicaid assessment fee: “We can look at the nonprofit status of some of these hospitals.” That’s a line that lobbyists representing Piedmont Hospital will be underlining and sending to headquarters.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider