Cowsert: It’s Your Money

January 24, 2015 9:00 am

by Jon Richards · 15 comments

Editor’s Note: Senator Bill Cowsert is the Georgia Senate Majority Leader. He represents the 46th Senate District, which includes Oconee County and portions of Clarke and Walton counties. He may be reached by phone at (404) 463.1366 or via email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter.

There is only one bill that the Georgia General Assembly has to pass each year – the budget. It is our predominant duty, more important than any law we pass under the Gold Dome and a duty more important that any partisan agenda. As your elected representatives and senators, we must remain good stewards of your money.

It is my opinion that Georgia citizens work harder and better than anyone else in the world. When the government takes a percentage of your money – no matter how small – we must ensure that Georgia and its citizens are better off for the effort.

The Georgia Constitution, unlike its federal counterpart, mandates a balanced budget. Since we cannot spend more than our tax revenues, we had to make large budget cuts when revenues fell during the great recession. As the economy recovers, our revenues are growing more than they have in many years, allowing us to restore funding in many areas of state government. We are seeing that Georgia – through budget cuts and thoughtful planning – has emerged from the recession stronger than most states. We are in an excellent position to prosper even more in the coming years.

In Georgia, we keep a “rainy day” fund to help balance our budget when the economy has an inevitable downturn. Our rainy day fund was more than $1.6 billion in 2007. These reserves helped us to weather the storm of the recession.

Our reserves dropped to almost nothing in the depths of the recession, but we have made it a priority to rebuild our rainy day fund over the past several years. Today, it is approximately $862 million, leaving Georgia in a great position to weather inevitable down cycles in the future. I am hopeful we will again have more than $1 billion in reserves by the end of this fiscal year.

This past week, the General Assembly has been in recess to allow the House and Senate Appropriation Committees to review proposed mid-year adjustments to the 2015 budget and to review the Governor’s proposed budget for the 2016 fiscal year. Mid-year adjustments for 2015 include approximately $134 million to cover school enrollment growth, $75 million towards economic development programs administered through the Department of Community Affairs, and $39 million in additional health care spending.

This year, I am proud to say, Gov. Nathan Deal has proposed a budget that focuses your money on the education of our children, on the health of our children, on public safety, and on the continuation of his economic development initiatives that will cultivate an atmosphere for economic growth so Georgia’s industries can create more and better jobs.

The proposed budget for 2016 includes expected total revenues of nearly $21.8 billion. Of this, nearly $12 billion is budgeted for education funding (pre-kindergarten through higher education), almost $5 billion for health care programs, and approximately $1.8 billion on public safety. These three areas alone make up more than 85 percent of our total budget.

For 2016, the Governor expects to add $550 million in spending for K-12 education. The funds will cover enrollment growth, an increase in the number of school days, reductions in teacher furloughs, improvement of bandwidth for schools’ internet services, and reliable education assessment programs. The Governor plans to add another $230 million toward education facilities and equipment.

In the coming weeks bills proposed, debated and passed by the General Assembly will complement the Governor’s initiatives and his proposed budget. I look forward to working for my constituents and with my constituents as we allocate our money toward the best purposes for this state.

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A group of 18 legal scholars, mostly professors of law, have written a letter objecting to the possible enactment of House Bill 29, the religious liberty bill sponsored by Rep. Sam Teasley. The letter is dated January 21st, and was sent to Rep. Teasley, along with Governor Nathan Deal, Lt. Governor Casey Cagle, House Speaker David Ralston, Senate President Pro Tempore David Shafer, and Senator Josh McKoon.

From the letter:

We understand that the Georgia General Assembly is now actively considering a religious freedom bill, House Bill 29, under the title of “Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act.” The signatories of this letter are legal scholars, with expertise in matters of religious freedom, civil rights, and the interaction between those fields. We do not agree among ourselves on whether religious freedom legislation, which may vary in its terms, is generally good. For reasons we explain below, however, we all emphatically agree that HB 29, as currently drafted, should not be enacted without significant revision.

Here is our message, in simple terms–the timing and broad content of the Bill will invite and legitimate discrimination. The Bill, if enacted, will send a powerful message that religiously-­based refusals to provide equal treatment to particular classes of employees, customers, and persons seeking public service are legally superior to any legal prohibitions on invidious discrimination.

The letter goes on to describe in detail the authors’ reasoning for why they believe HB 29 would potentially allow for discrimination against classes of people, potentially violating laws mandating equal protection. In addition to familiar arguments over whether a bakery could refuse to serve a same-sex couple on religious grounds, the authors cite the possibility that a claim under the bill could override the civil rights and guarantee of equal protection that should be enjoyed by all people, and how one interpretation of the law could violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

The authors suggest several modifications to the bill that would resolve their concerns:

HB 29 can be revised to eliminate the risk that it will support invidious discrimination. The ways to eliminate these terrible possibilities from the operation of HB 29 are straightforward. First, the Bill should explicitly exclude for‐profit business entities from the class of “persons” whose religious exercise is protected. Second, the Bill should explicitly say that it does not apply to any law–-federal, state, or local-­‐designed to protect the people of Georgia against discrimination, in any sphere of social or economic life, based on race, religion, national origin, sex, disability, age, marital or familial status, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

The letter concludes with this:

HB 29 is unnecessary to protect freedom of belief and worship in Georgia. The state constitution already protects each person’s “natural and inalienable right to worship God, each according to the dictates of that person’s own conscience.” In its current form, HB 29 is potentially quite harmful to the legal and business culture of Georgia. It might be interpreted to “justify practices inconsistent with the peace and safety of the state.” HB 29 would permit the religious beliefs of some Georgians to deprive others of their equal rights to participate in the state’s economic and social life. In its current form, we strongly urge you to reject it.

The entire ten page letter is below the fold.
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With transportation funding being a huge issue during the ongoing legislative session, it warrants a close look at the Governor’s proposed FY 2016 Program Budget for the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).

A first glance at page 394 of the FY 2016 Budget shows that the State General Funds portion of the GDOT budget has been reduced by more than $5 million. A closer look into the spending component shows reduction is accounted for by the elimination of the Airport Aid grant program in the “Intermodal” section of the budget because of the reduction in matching federal funds.

On the other hand, the table on page 394 indicates an increase of the State’s Motor Fuels Funds by almost $17.5 million. This expected increase in revenue allow additional spending on the I-285 / GA 400 Interchange project ($5.92 million), quick response contracts ($3.9 million) and traffic management & control projects ($2 million). The proposed budget also provides for GDOT employee retention and recruitment initiatives extended to employees of other agencies as well.

On an overall basis, the proposed budget consists of a net increase of $12,189,768 to boost the state’s share of the $2.5 billion GDOT budget to $876,295,966. No change is anticipated in the federal contribution to the transportation budget. While this $12 million increase is meaningful, one could argue that it is also minuscule compared to the estimated $1.5 billion Georgia would need to expand its funding for various GDOT projects. At a time when finding new sources for transportation funding is seen as a key issue, it could surprise some to see the budget propose little to no significant budget increases in transportation. This could primarily be in anticipation of the Joint Study Committee on Transportation’s recommendations.

With a new Commissioner at the helm of GDOT, better knowledge of public opinion, and the General Assembly hard at work to figure out alternative solutions to fund our transportation needs, the next few weeks will reveal what ultimately unfolds in this intriguing debate.

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Speaking of unintended consequences and benefits that are difficult to quantify…

During yesterday’s edition of All Things Considered, NPR broadcasted a story detailing the lack of substantive data supporting police body cameras..

Wearable video cameras are fast becoming standard-issue gear for American police. The cameras promise a technological answer to complaints about racial bias and excessive force.

But in fact, the beneficial effects of body cameras are not well-established yet. And the police departments that rushed to buy them are now dealing with some unintended consequences.

The people who like body cameras always point to a study done in Rialto, Calif., in 2012. Researchers found that officers who wore cameras used force less often — incidents dropped by more than 50 percent. That settles it, right?

But one of the researchers who ran the study, Alex Sutherland of the University of Cambridge, says Rialto was not a definitive answer on the effectiveness of cameras.

“The Rialto study is one study. And it could be a fluke,” Sutherland says.

“It’s a small department,” he says. “The police chief was kind of involved in implementation.” Sutherland says that if these particular circumstances aren’t present, then perhaps these cameras “wouldn’t be as effective. But we just simply don’t know that at the moment.”

Some of the unanswered questions: Did the cameras make the difference, or was it the officers’ verbal warnings about being recorded? How important was the camera’s novelty — after all, this was three years ago; does the effect fade as people get used to the cameras?

Sutherland says we can’t say anything definitive until more studies are done, in more places.

“If public money is being spent on this technology, the onus is certain to make sure that it’s being evaluated as it’s being rolled out, rather than deciding that it works and then that’s that,” Sutherland says.

There are currently bills in the Georgia House and Senate that would mandate body cameras for all law enforcement officers in the state; if it becomes law, local governments in every corner of Georgia will presumably need to come up with a way to fund this mandate, which is estimated to run about $125 million for the first three years. Several Georgia police departments, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, have already purchased body cameras, so they are taking on the uncharted task of determining how these cameras impact their community and their police force, but it’s arguably premature to require these cameras for every law enforcement officer in the state with so little data supporting their universal adoption.

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The push for marijuana legalization in Georgia seems to be picking up a little bit, but if Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has advice for Governor Nathan Deal and other governors on pot legalization it’s this: wait for a couple of years.

That’s what he told reporters in an article over at The Hill:

“You don’t want to be the first person to do something like this,” he said.

He said that he tells other governors to “wait a couple of years” before legalizing marijuana as Colorado continues to navigate an unknown, non-existing federal regulatory landscape for the industry.

Trailblazing has its benefits and consequences. The voters of Colorado may not have thought that far, so that’s something for our legislators and voters (if a proposal makes it that far) to keep in mind.

Of course, Mr. Mackey has his own opinion….

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:: Update ::

Charlie, Mike Hassinger, and I spoke with Senator Isakson about this bill on Friday’s edition of Peach Pundit Radio. The interview will be rebroadcast on Saturday, January 24th at 9 AM on Talk Radio 640 WGST, or you can listen in here.

It didn’t take long for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to get down to business. In its first official meeting under new Chairman Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson, the committee voted unanimously on Wednesday to pass the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. The bill now heads towards a full Senate vote. It was passed by the House earlier this month, and Senator Isakson hopes the bill will become the first one President Obama signs in 2015.

Following committee passage of the bill, Isakson said,

When you have 8,000 veterans a year committing suicide – which is more veterans than have died in all of Iraq and all of Afghanistan since we’ve been fighting – then you have a serious problem and this is emergency legislation that we need to pass to help our veterans.

Stars and Stripes has some background on the bill’s history, and what it will do for America’s veterans:

Veteran groups and Clay Hunt’s parents have backed the measure since it was first introduced last year. Hunt served in Iraq and Afghanistan and struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, becoming one of the 22 veterans who commit suicide each day.

Despite widespread support among lawmakers, the bill failed in the last congressional session because retiring budget hawk Tom Coburn blocked a final vote in the Senate. The Oklahoma Republican had objected to the $22 million price tag, which supporters say is small in terms of the federal budget.

Isakson, who is a veteran himself, has been on the Veteran’s Affairs Committee since being sworn in a a Senator in 2005. Named committee chair this year following the Republicans winning the Senate majority, Isakson pledged bipartisanship for the committee’s actions.

As I’ve said many times in Atlanta at the VA hospital, we don’t just have Republican veterans and Democrat veterans, we have American veterans. This committee is about serving the veterans of the United States of America regardless of their race, creed, color, national origin or their political affiliation. This is going to be the most bipartisan committee in the United States Senate because … those that sacrifice themselves for our country need to be rewarded with the best possible health care available and the best services from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

For more information on the issue of veterans’ suicides, and how veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan eras have a higher risk of suicide, the Hartford Courant has some in-depth information.

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Over at the AJC, James Salzer reports that for the purposes of collecting sales tax, for the next six months the price of gasoline is $2.946 per gallon. That’s despite pump prices falling below $2 in much of the state. Why? Because instead of figuring out what the tax is at the time you buy that gas, the price for the purpose of calculating the sales tax is fixed every January and July for the next six months.

In July, 2014, Governor Deal decided not to raise the sales tax price because gas prices were higher than expected The sales tax price remained frozen at the beginning of this year because prices are lower than expected. The volatility in the price of gas can have a big effect on the revenue for the DOT. On Tuesday, new DOT Chief Russell McMurry told lawmakers at a budget hearing that DOT would expect to lose around $86 million over six months if the sales tax price was lowered to match the retail price.

What really caught my eye in the Salzer story, though, was this:

So instead of paying a 4 percent tax on $2 per gallon at the pump, consumers are paying 4 percent on $2.946 per gallon. On 10 gallons of gas, the difference is about 36 cents.

That only tells part of the story.

In reality, consumers are paying between a 6 and 8 percent sales tax on gasoline due to county SPLOSTs, E-SPLOSTs, HOST or MOST taxes. In Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties, there’s 1 percent for MARTA, and in the regions that passed the 2012 TSPLOST, there’s 1 percent for transportation. That means on a ten gallon gas purchase, consumers are paying around 76 cents more than they would be expected to.

Here’s yet another way of looking at it. With the sales tax rate locked in at $2.946 per gallon, the average consumer is paying 28.1 cents in Georgia taxes per gallon, including the 7.5 cent per gallon excise tax. Of that, the DOT actually gets 16.3 cents to pay for maintenance and construction of roads and bridges. That’s the excise tax, plus 3% from the state sales tax. The other “penny,” plus the county sales taxes go elsewhere. Drop that to the $2 per gallon you’re actually paying at the pump, and the numbers are 21.54 cents vs. 14 cents per gallon. For these examples, I’m assuming a 7% combined state and county sales tax rate, and I’m ignoring the federal excise tax on gas of 18.4 cents per gallon.

One final thought: If you drove a vehicle that gets 25 miles per gallon 15,000 miles last year, you paid $168.60 in state gas excise tax and sales tax, based on the numbers I used in the preceding paragraph. Of that, $97.80 went to the state DOT, and $70.80 went elsewhere.

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Congressman Doug Collins (R-GA-09) issued a press release yesterday concerning the federal land sale of under-used tracts of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest:

Today, Congressman Doug Collins (GA-09) introduced the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest Land Adjustment Act to facilitate transfer of under-used U.S. Forest Service lands to private hands, a move to boost Northeast Georgia’s recreation and economy.

“This bill would eliminate federal waste, saving taxpayer money, and provide more opportunities to Georgians from around the state to enjoy our beautiful region,” said the Ninth District Republican.

Under Rep. Collins’ bill, H.R. 470, the Forest Service would sell remote tracts at market value and buy others with the proceeds, consolidating holdings to improve fishing, hunting and hiking. Nearby counties, currently providing unreimbursed services to federal lands, would also begin to collect tax revenue from new private owners.

The Forest Service approached conservation groups with its proposal to unload remote tracts of Georgia’s lone national forest in 2014. “This is a win at both the state and local levels,” explained Rep. Collins. “It’s an economic win, too, that will create investment and jobs.”

The Outdoor Industry Association has valued consumer spending on outdoor activities in Georgia at $23.3 billion and related wages and salaries at $7 billion. The state’s consumer spending on outdoor activity ranks 5th nationally.

Discuss.

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Today in Peach Pundit radio I’ll be in studio with Mike Hassinger and Jon Richards….maybe others.  Sully will be on location in Conyers at the Whistle Post Tavern.  So if you’re on Atlanta’s East Side…

We’re honored to have Senator Johnny Isakson talking to us this morning.  Or at least, that’s the plan. He is currently on a plane from DC so we’ll need the weather at Hartsfield to cooperate a bit.  He’s the new Chairman of both the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and Ethics Committee.  He likely has a few thoughts on this week’s State of the Union as well.

You can listen on your AM “dial” at 640, or just click this link to listen live here.  Noon to 1pm today!

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In politics, as in life, there are usually two sides to every story. And sometimes, it’s useful when looking at news or opinion pieces to try to figure out what is known as the subtweet on Twitter: making a comment about one thing that is actually directed at another.

With that in mind, take a look at this piece in the Huffington Post. On the surface, it’s a defense of the Seventh Amendment to the constitution–the one that guarantees a trial by jury in civil cases. It’s an important issue, since in modern life we often sign away that right in favor of binding arbitration. Good luck suing your bank or stockbroker, for instance.

But, buried inside the piece, there’s this:

A chief function of the jury system is to provide a check on official or arbitrary power. It was the colonists’ experience that the civil jury system could be vulnerable to political attacks by those in power. The framers could hardly have imagined that such attacks would still be a problem 223 years after the Amendment was ratified. Unfortunately, many lawmakers in recent times have allowed the civil jury system to be weakened or, in some cases, completely shattered.

Consider all the ways this has happened. Many states have enacted “caps on damages,” or limits on compensation to injured victims after they have won their case. The determination of damages is one of the jury’s most important functions. As the Georgia Supreme Court said in its 2010 decision striking down caps in that state, “the determination of damages rests ‘peculiarly within the province of the jury.'” Caps undermine a jury’s fundamental purpose. Even worse, they transfer the jury’s job to cash-greased politicians, who force courts to apply “one-size-fits-all” limits irrespective of the evidence that a jury sees.

Does that second paragraph ring a bell with you? Perhaps this will serve as a reminder. It’s a post I did almost a year ago about Richard Jackson, CEO of Jackson Healthcare, and his efforts to pass a bill known as the Patient Injury Act. In his effort to get the Patient Injury Act passed, Jackson accused trial lawyers of being greedy and opposing the legislation. The bill died a quiet death after the way it was being advocated for became known.

Will the Patient Injury Act be back for another round this session? Maybe. And maybe the HuffPo piece is a bit of a preemptive strike to oppose it and similar legislation that might be introduced in other states.

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Here:
Anyone remember the really, really old terminal?
This sounds de-lish.
– About that (unpopular) gas tax.
– Why does GA hate entrepreneurs so much? h
– About that MLK statue
Bus driver, bus driver, open the door.

There:
– Watch out! #itwontsnow
GRTL is in the news again, and/or can the GOP find their way out of a wet paper bag?
What could go wrong?
– Colorado an (Un)ACA crystal ball?
Corruption in NY? Surprise, surprise, surprise!

Random Everywhere:
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Art imitates life, or something.
The Abolition of Private Life.

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Let the Litigation Begin

January 22, 2015 22:14 pm

by Obi's Sister · 7 comments

Well, that didn’t take long. Via 11Alive:

Former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran has filed a complaint against the city alleging that he was discriminated against because of his religion.

Cochran’s attorney filed a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint on Wednesday.

Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Jeremy Tedesco issued the following statement:

“Alliance Defending Freedom allied attorney Jonathan Crumly filed an EEOC complaint on behalf of Chief Cochran yesterday based on the City’s clear religious discrimination against the Chief. Americans are guaranteed the freedom to live without fear of losing their jobs because of their beliefs and thoughts. We are continuing to evaluate all available legal options to vindicate Chief Cochran after his unjust termination.”

As this story continues to unfold, Mayor Reed will have a difficult time scraping this mess off his shoe.

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Congressman Tom Graves (R-GA-14) has released the schedule of his office’s county connection program. The program places members of Congressman Graves’ staff in each county, except for Whitfield and Floyd as there are permanent field offices in those counties, allowing constituents to visit with staff that is more convenient than driving to one of the two offices located in the district.

Here is a list of those dates/times/location:
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Despite overwhelming scientific evidence that shows humans are contributing to climate change on Earth, both of Georgia’s United States Senators refused to vote for an amendment that acknowledged humans’ role in changing atmospheric conditions.

The largely symbolic amendment narrowly failed 59-40, just short of the 60 votes necessary in the Senate. However, just prior to the vote, a similar proposal acknowledging climate change existed at all – though not necessarily because of human activity – passed overwhelmingly in a 98-1 vote, with only Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) voting against the amendment.

Democrats had originally planned a climate change amendment to the Keystone Pipeline legislation as a way of forcing Republicans to take a clear stand on the evidence of climate change. But Republicans scuttled those plans at the last minute by dividing the question into the two votes mentioned above.

Even incoming Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-OK), who previously called climate change a “hoax,” voted for the first proposal acknowledging climate change’s existence. But only 15 Republican Senators joined Democrats in voting for the second vote, including Presidential hopeful Rand Paul (R-KY).

It’s worth pointing out that 97% of scientists disagree with Isakson and Perdue’s stance and that the carbon dioxide levels are already at a dangerous 400 parts per million that is acidifying our oceans, causing extreme weather, and contributing to rising sea levels.

So even if human-induced climate change is something that doesn’t worry Isakson (age 70) and Perdue (age 65), it’s certainly something that worries my generation, who will have to bear the costs of their denial.

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Georgia’s Healthcare Outlook

January 22, 2015 9:46 am

by Will Kremer · 22 comments

While the General Assembly scrambles to figure out how to keep bridges from collapsing without raising taxes, another seemingly mountainous topic is creeping up: Healthcare. We’ve written about rural healthcare and the Grady/Blue Cross Blue Shield debacle, but those two problems don’t begin to scratch the surface of our healthcare situation. The Albany Herald did a very nice write up on the trends and surprises in Georgia’s healthcare outlook.

Affordable Care Act

The gift that keeps on giving higher premiums is the main topic for discussion within the medical field. The law has extremely altered the healthcare industry. Governor Deal has firmly stated he is not willing to expand Medicaid; however, with Georgia’s hospitals screaming for financial assistance, could support for expansion grow?

The Georgia General Assembly passed laws last year to place obstacles to ACA implementation in the state. One prohibited the state from expanding Medicaid without legislative approval. Opponents of expansion say it’s too costly overall.

Advocates’ campaign for Medicaid expansion has gone nowhere in Georgia. Some Republican governors, including critics of the ACA, have accepted expansion in their states. But Gov. Nathan Deal has stood firmly against it here. And last year Deal easily defeated a pro-expansion Democrat.

Rural Healthcare

I have said it before and I will say it again: Rural healthcare will be a major issue this session. Four rural hospitals closed in the past two years, 15 are facing serious financial woes, and six are on the verge of closing according to HomeTown Health, an organization representing rural hospitals. Additionally, only 75 of Georgia’s  180 hospitals have labor and delivery units.

The Herald summed up the most important question:

Georgia has seen four rural hospitals close in the past two years. Rural Georgia also has major shortages in primary care physicians. Will there be meaningful changes to help sustain rural health care this year, or will access to care in these areas continue to erode?

Certificate of Need

You will frequently read about Certificate of Need (CON) battles during this legislative session. The brewing battle over CON pits hospitals against physicians.

Meanwhile, hospitals are expected to defend the state regulatory apparatus against attempts by physician groups looking to operate doctor-owned multi-specialty surgery centers. This certificate-of-need battle is expected to heat up in the Georgia General Assembly.

Medical Marijuana

State Representative Allen Peak’s HB1, also known as Haleigh’s Hope Act, would provide THC-reduced medical marijuana to children suffering from upwards of 100 seizures a day. The medicine has reduced the number of seizures in some of the kids to one or two a week. It is facing opposition and still has a long road to travel.

Children’s health issues figure to take a prominent profile when the Legislature convenes. A push for to allow children with seizure disorders to be treated with medical marijuana already has gathered momentum. Experts say that unlike last year, a bill to allow cannabis oil for children and other patients will probably pass the 2015 General Assembly.

It will be an interesting year in regards to healthcare. Seriously, keep your eye on health related issues. It’s bound to be wild.

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