In a wide ranging discussion with members of the Capitol Hill press corps, House Speaker David Ralston covered several issues that are expected to come up during the 2016 legislative session, which begins on Monday. Among the topics the Speaker addressed were medical marijuana legislation, MARTA legislation, and funding for the Hope scholarship.
The Speaker expressed his disappointment with President Obama’s recent executive actions to expand the scope of background checks in an effort to reduce gun violence. He said that the president had tried to make a terror attack into a gun issue. “I am firmly committed to our Constitution, including the Second Amendment,” the Speaker said. “We blame a lot of things on guns in our society. I think we’re wrong to do that, and as long as I’m in this position, we’re going to continue to protect the rights of Georgians under the Second Amendment, and anything that will infringe on that will have a tough time getting past my office.”
On other issues, Speaker Ralston expressed his support for Rep. Allen Peake’s new bill that would expand the number of diseases that could be treated, and said that at some point, the decision over whether to treat a patient using medical marijuana should be made by medical professionals. On whether the state should permit casinos and / or horse racing as a method of raising funds for the Hope Scholarship, the Speaker said that ultimately, whether to allow gambling would be up to the people. But, figuring out the details of implementation could be more difficult. It’s also important, the Speaker said, to examine ways to reduce tuition and fee increases within the university system so as not to put such a burden on the scholarship program.
In metro Atlanta, there has been a lot of discussion over using provisions in last year’s HB 170 to expand MARTA rail service. To do so would require amending the “Regional TSPLOST” portion of the bill to allow for a tax lasting long enough to be bondable. When asked his opinion on that issue, the speaker indicated he would look for input from the representatives in the affected communities. He did, however, affirm his commitment to transit as something that has a future in state transportation policy.
One item that may not be on anyone’s radar that the Speaker thinks will need to be addressed is funding for rural hospitals. Saying it was a priority for him, but he did not yet have an answer, he admitted that it’s a challenging situation. He said that many rural hospitals are barely hanging on, including one in his district. One possible solution appears to hinge on which party’s candidate is elected president in November. If it’s a Republican, Ralston hopes that some of the Medicaid funds in the Affordable Care Act could be provided as block grants through a waiver. “It’s a very real problem that I see every day, and one that troubles me very much,” Ralston said. “We’ve got to find a way to deal with that.”
This year’s session promises to be a busy one. It’s an election year, which means that qualifying for elected offices will occur in early March, in the middle of the session. Legislators will be eager to wrap up the session and start raising money and campaigning for office–especially those who decide to run for Rep. Lynn Westmoreland’s seat in Congress. When asked whether the 40 day session will wrap up by St. Patrick’s Day, the Speaker wouldn’t make any promises, even mentioning the April word. “We’re a lot bigger state than we were when we got out before St. Patrick’s Day, back in the day.”