A Q&A with Speaker David Ralston on ‘personhood,’ immigration, a new Georgia Dome and hospitals

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.

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House Speaker David Ralston greets supporters of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan during the election night party for the 2012 U.S. presidential election results at the Grand Hyatt Buckhead. Jason Getz/jgetz@ajc.com

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

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10 comments Add your comment

Tom

December 1st, 2012
10:02 am

Even Mississippi….where a near-majority of Republican voters would still like to see inter-racial marriage banned……couldn’t pass a “personhood’ amendment.

I know Georgia is now behind them in HS grad rates (ugh), but I still have to think (hope?) we’re still not quite as bass-ackward as those folk.

GaBlue

December 1st, 2012
10:19 am

Attention Georgia Voters:

The General Assembly convenes in January, like they do every year, to think of new ways to screw you over. Why? Because you’re not paying attention. You’re not holding them accountable. You’re not calling, writing, and asking “Who’s idea was that, and what are you getting out of it?” Trust: if they’re supporting it, they’re getting something out of it.

Georgia is at or near the bottom of every good list, and at or near the top of every bad list. Our government is rife with corruption. Our legislators get away with their shenanigans because you’re too busy to hold them accountable. Guess what? When new laws take effect in July, or when your tax bill arrives, but you’ve seen no improvement in what that money bought, IT’S TOO LATE.

Vow that 2013 will be different. Promise to pay attention from the first day this shady bunch gathers, until the very last signature the governor puts to paper.

It’s up to you.

Tom mitchell

December 1st, 2012
10:36 am

When the Speaker mentioned broadening registration for lobbyists, I wonder if he knows that there are a few professional full-time lobbyists at the Capitol who don’t even bother to register or file reports, even though they are at the Capitol almost every day. For example, the lobbyist for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the private prison company that does a couple hundred million a year in business for the State prison system, John Clayton, thumbs his nose at the State Ethics Commission. John laughs at those nerds at the Ethics Commission. Check it out at the Ethics Commission website. And he’s not the only one, either.

Don Coyote

December 1st, 2012
11:02 am

All lobbyists should have to wear badges. All legislators should have to wear price tags.

Ministry of Truth

December 1st, 2012
11:15 am

Ralston does not worry about the Ethics Commission. He has already been bought. No disclosure required because it was not the lobbyists who paid off his debts.

SOGTP

December 1st, 2012
12:27 pm

David is so very misguided on two issues; 1) this concept of public private partnerships and 2) Medicaid and bed tax.. All the losses go to the private sector, the gains to the government. The taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize this stadium. Medicaid is broke and cutting rates to providers forces patients into the Hospitals. Doctors can’t afford to see Medicaid patients in their office, so they send them to the Hospitals. It is the reason healthcare quality is down and more expensive.

Kris

December 1st, 2012
1:28 pm

Ministry of Truth

Ralston does not worry about the Ethics Commission. He has already been bought. No disclosure required because it was not the lobbyists who paid off his debts.

The truth, and if I might add the rest of the GA legislators, and the Gov. ___________ Deal.( insert favorite political arsonist word). Shady double dip, or CROOKED.

@ Don, how about a big red “C” on their shirts.

Margie

December 1st, 2012
2:53 pm

Yes. Take a REALLY BIG look at the non-profit status of the hospitals.
Its a joke how they rake in the profits and call themselves non-profit.

ld

December 1st, 2012
4:41 pm

The personhood amendments should all fail. Human skin is “alive” unless and until it dies and is sloughed off or until it is cut from the body — so to are fetal cells. Sure, you cannot have a baby without those cells but you cannot, as yet, have a baby without a woman’s reproductive organs, none of which is a baby.

It is just as valied a view from someone to believe, as I do, that life begins at birth when a newborn can survive without the massive medical intervention available today that was not available even a century ago — life begins at birth, just as it did thousands of years ago when Jesus walked the earth rather than at erection or conception. Note: I’ve yet to hear any member of the GOP offer senior citizens nine months back SS income.

Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion. That “free will” we are all supposed to have been given IS the essence of individual liberty. Forcing rules upon the population that are clearly both religion based and controversial is not freedom and it is not “faith”. Religion, as government, is nothing less than tyranny. Putting time consuming, embarassing and/or expensive roadblocks to the freedom of women to make their own personal medical and reproductive decisions is a denial of equal right under law.

If any man does not trust any woman to decide what to do with the “fruit of his loins”, then he should not give it to her.

I miss the Republican party that supported individual liberty and equal right under law. It seems that when the leadership of the GOP was bought out by the wealthiest among us that a conscious decision was made by the Republicans to work to gouge our economy for the benefit of the rich minorit to the detriment of not only the employee class minority but the economic well being and, therefore, the security of America. The GOP leadership has been trading and/or selling off Republican support for individual liberty and equal right under law in exchange the votes of the religious zealots. That proverbial “deal with the devil” to take away the freedom of and/or penalize those that do not agree with the zealots needs to be rethought; it needs to end.

ld

December 1st, 2012
4:43 pm

meant “rich minority” and “employee class majority”