No matter what the forecast held, state legislators were required by law to brave snow, sleet, hail and high water to be under the Gold Dome this morning to kick off the 2017 session.

Notably absent from the Republican Senate priorities — which include healthcare, cutting red tape, protecting Georgians against terrorism, increasing education funding and enhancing career classes at high schools — is so-called “religious freedom,” or RFRA, legislation.

“I don’t know that an issue that so divides Georgia as that one does is something that we need to be devoting a lot of attention to. We passed a good bill out of the House last year, the Pastor Protection Act. I support that bill and if someone wants to bring that bill back this year then I will certainly support it,” Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), newly re-elected speaker of the House, said. “Georgia’s got so many good things going right now. I’m not sure that we want to model after North Carolina and Indiana and some other states like that. I think we have to be very, very careful and that’s not — I’m not going to devote a lot of energy to that this session because it’s taken too much.”

House Minority Leader Rep. Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta)

House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta), however, has no intention to support the Pastor Protection Act if reintroduced.

“The Pastor Protection Act in 2016 was an attempt to codify what was an understood reality of state and federal law. Unfortunately, that goodwill was perverted in the Senate and unfortunately became something that was entirely contrary to our intent,” she said. “I am not interested in that type of symbolism again because I just don’t trust that everyone will operate with goodwill.”

That being said, she also appeared cautious when discussing a potential conversion therapy ban bill that Rep. Keisha Waites (D-Atlanta) talked about introducing later this session.

“I respect greatly Rep. Waites’ concerns about conversion therapy. However, my understanding is that Georgia does not currently participate in or allow conversion therapy,” Abrams said. “This is not a place that is unfamiliar with hijacking good bills and turning them into terrible, terrible consequences, which is exactly what happened with Pastor Protection. Watching what happened in 2016 makes me very wary of introducing any legislation that can carry the [impression] of Democratic or even LGBT support, but that can be used to turn against the very community it’s intended to help.”

Abrams said though most legislators appear uninterested in reintroducing RFRA, the beliefs of these legislators should never be underestimated.

“I never discount anything until the gavel hits on the 48th day,” she said.

GOP senate leaders announce 2017 healthcare initiatives

During a press briefing late last week, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle openly gave his support for Sen. Tom Price’s (R-Georgia) appointment to Health and Human Services secretary, and shared the state GOP’s plans for healthcare policy going forward.

“I am announcing today we will have an Obamacare Repeal and Replace task force that will be put into place, made up of senators that will be looking at ways in which the state shall be focused on taking the issue at the state level and looking at ways we can bring about a healthcare system that is more affordable and acceptable to individuals within our state,” Cagle said.

A special emphasis will be placed on healthcare coverage as it relates to mental health and substance abuse, according to Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford).

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, flanked by fellow state Senate GOP leaders, announces the party’s healthcare plans for 2017. (Photo by Dallas Duncan)

“We have to wait and see what Washington is going to do, but we can’t sit idly by and do nothing,” Unterman said. “Mental health is one of the biggest issues that we’re facing in this state and I think … that as we continue to work on mental health and substance abuse, specifically the heroin epidemic, that we have very constructive plans. You are going to see multiple bills coming through that address those issues.”

Abrams said she’s pleased to see the GOP’s commitment to increasing access to healthcare, but expressed concern about the announced task force.

“If the intent is to disassociate Georgia from benefits of the Affordable Care Act, unfortunately what that means is determining as a state how we would enforce coverage for pre-existing conditions; how we would protect 26-year-olds and younger who are on their parents’ plans; how we would ensure that women do not return to a time where being a woman was considered a pre-existing condition and more expensive; and where we would eliminate many of the pre-requisites that have helped expand and improve preventative care, especially for our seniors, who can now go and get support whether or not they’re on Medicare,” she said.

Medicaid expansion, a priority of openly gay Rep. Sam Park (D-Lawrenceville), “came off the table the night of Nov. 8,” Ralston said.

“What I’m hoping is that this Congress … will allow the states to design their own healthcare systems because I think that’s way it ought to be, through a block grant program,” he said. “I think Georgians have the ability to design a system that best suits Georgia.”

HOPE scholarship and Pre-K funding big questions this year

“We have almost 70,000 children in failing schools in Georgia. What we do about that is going to be important to me. It’s going to be important to the House,” Ralston said. “Georgians do expect us to make education a priority. That’s one of the most important things we deal with and we’re going to be dealing with it in the budget.”

The traditional way of funding two talked-about education prioroties, the HOPE scholarship and Pre-K, has been through the education lottery. But the lottery board is sending less than 25 cents per dollar spent back to the programs, Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) said.

“When it was established, it was told that it should deliver 35 cents of each dollar spent on lottery tickets back to be spent on HOPE and Pre-K programs,” Cowsert said. “The lottery board is not complying with the law as intended.”

One potential solution for education funding comes from additional support from gambling dollars outside of the Georgia Lottery, such as casinos and horse racing. Cowsert said there is some fear the industry may “cannibalize” itself by offering multiple gambling venues.

Education funding and healthcare are just a few of the questions the General Assembly gets to address this year, and Ralston is hopeful for the outcome. During his swearing-in ceremony this morning, he legislators that regardless of political party, “gender, age, ethnicity or sexual orientation, you are each a member of this people’s House.”

“I hope that we can have a spirit of cooperation going forward because I think that’s what’s important. I think that’s what people expect,” he said. “November’s election was a rejection of the dysfunction in Washington, frankly, that’s not here.”

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