Ralston, who was guest speaker at the Marietta Area Council meeting of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce at the Mansour Center on Wednesday, gave a talk about public service. The Journal caught up with him afterward to ask whether there is money to support the request by Cobb Schools Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who wants the legislature to eliminate the austerity cuts to the school system, cuts state Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb) said have cost the system $425 million since 2003.
“I see a budget that as we are preparing to go into the session is over $300 million dollars short because of shortfall in Medicaid that’s due to the economic downtown, it’s due to population increases, and so when we go in with that big a hole I think that increasing funding is going to be very, very challenging in that environment,” Ralston said. “You know, there’s a lot of things that we would like to do, but we have to do the responsible thing and that’s balance the budget and do it without increasing taxes, so this is going to be another year where you’re going to see budget cuts as opposed to adds.”
Ralston said his top three priorities for the 2013 session are “the budget, the budget and the budget.”
Another topic before lawmakers is the so-called hospital bed tax. Lawmakers adopted the fee in 2010 as state tax collections tanked. It uses tax money paid by hospitals to generate a larger pot of state and federal health care money, which then flows back to the hospitals. State Sen. Judson Hill (R-east Cobb) plans to vote against an extension of the fee just as he did in 2010, referring to it as a tax increase and calling on the state to wean itself off “federal crack dollars.”
Ralston wouldn’t reveal his position.
“I’m not familiar with a hospital bed tax,” he said. “I know we have a Medicaid assessment fee that we’ve got to make a decision whether we’re going to renew or not. We’re looking at everything involved. It’s a part of our health care system, and it ensures that hospitals that provide care to indigent people and people on Medicaid have the same sort of incentives as those who don’t. … It’s been incorrectly labeled as a tax, and I think that we’re probably going to need to do a little more educating on the issue, but we’re going to do that as we go forward.”
Marietta attorney and lobbyist Chuck Clay, among those who attended the Chamber breakfast, said health care is “driving the train right into the ditch.”
“Every time we turn around there’s a larger gap in Medicaid, there’s a larger shortfall in the state health benefit plan,” Clay said. “Everywhere you turn, health care–related issues seem to be the tar we cannot extricate ourselves from or get our arms around in any coherent way, which is not unique to Georgia.”
Clay said he believes the $300 million shortfall Ralston referenced will be made up through budget cuts.
“I don’t see any alternatives but to have fairly significant across-the-board cuts because at a certain place in time I don’t know how much more you can squeeze out of public education in this state,” Clay said.
Mayor Steve Tumlin also believes the cuts will be shared to make up for the shortfall.
“Usually the budget people, if they’re going to cut anybody, they’ll spread the joy,” Tumlin said. “I would say a good portion of that would be across-the-board cuts.”
Lawmakers such as Tippins and state Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), chairman of the Cobb Legislative Delegation, remain unconvinced about a proposal to build a new $1 billion stadium for the Atlanta Falcons, who currently play home games at the Georgia Dome. The Dome is operated by the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, a state agency. The new stadium would be paid for in part with hotel-motel tax dollars.
Ralston didn’t take a position for or against a new stadium.
“Well it’s not really a facility just for the Falcons, first of all,” Ralston said. “Again that’s one of those issues that’s gotten sort of oversimplified and kind of drawn out of context. Having said that, I think the case has yet to be made for the need, and I think there’s going to be again some education done as to why there is a need for a new facility, and that’s going to meet with some degree of reluctance, I think, on the part of members in the House.”
In the July 31 primary, 87 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats statewide voted in favor to nonbinding questions asking whether to end unlimited lobbyist gifts to legislators. Ralston said state Rep. Majority Leader Larry O’Neal (R-Bonaire) is chairing a working group to tackle the issue.
“It’s a bipartisan group of House members, and they’re looking at some of the best practices in other states, looking at some of the problems that other states have had in adopting a gift prohibition and some of the ways that they’ve kind of gotten around some of the practical issues involved, but they’re looking at that, and I expect that we will have a package of lobbyist reform measures ready sometime during the first week of the session,” he said.