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Heath Highlights General Assembly’s First Week

State Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, gives his take on the opening days of the Georgia General Assembly.

Our nation's founders, having experienced the oppression of a king, set out to create a new form of government that would protect the lives and liberties of the citizens of this new nation. The creation of three distinct and separate branches of government were meant to create the necessary checks and balances to ensure that no one branch would be able to oppress the people as had been the case in England. Georgia's Constitution follows that same concept with a separate Article for each of the three branches of Government that defines the offices of each branch and their responsibilities.

It is no surprise that leaders want to amass powers, always promising to never abuse them. It is up to the members of each branch to defend the powers assigned to them by the Constitution. We have certainly seen our share of those exercises during these first four days of our 2013 Legislative Session.

We began our first day, as we begin each day, with the pledge to both the U.S flag and the Georgia flag followed by our devotion and prayer. We then took our oath to support the Georgia and U.S. Constitutions. We also swore that we were not the holder of any unaccounted for money due to the state or any political subdivision or authority thereof. It was an honor to be sworn in by former state senator and now Superior Court Judge Bill Hamrick.

It all began on Monday when we convened for the first day. As we began to take our seats, amendments to the rules by which the Senate conducts its business we're introduced. We had the opportunity to see these proposed changes as we were convening in the Senate Chambers.

As we began our day, newly proposed Senate rules were distributed. These rules made some significant changes in how the Senate would conduct itself. The most notable changes were a change in who controls every action in the Senate and a cap on lobbyist gifts to senators, albeit with many exceptions.

Article V of the Georgia Constitution lists the members of the Executive branch and their duties and powers. Paragraph III of this article addresses the office of the lieutenant governor. This paragraph states, “The Lieutenant Governor shall be the President of the Senate and shall have such executive duties as prescribed by the Governor and as may be prescribed by law not inconsistent with the powers of the Governor or other provisions of this Constitution.”

The newly proposed amendments to the Senate rules gave the lieutenant governor, clearly a member of the Executive Branch, the powers to decide which committees each member serves on and who chairs those committees. Prior to this change, those powers had resided in the Senate itself, thereby preserving the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. The lieutenant governor was also given the powers to assign each bill to the committee of his/her choice. While these changes don’t necessarily give the executive branch the power to pass legislation, it certainly gives it the power to stop any legislation.

In an effort to be the first to claim the adoption of “ethics reform,” the rules included a prohibition of any “gift” with a value in excess of $100. Of course, there were exceptions. Among them were “actual and reasonable expenses for admission, registration, food, beverages, travel, and lodging attributed to participating in events, seminars, or educational programs sponsored by or in conjunction with a civic, charitable, governmental, educational, professional, community, or business organization or institution where attendance is related to the Senator's official duties.” Of course these rules only apply to senators, not members of the House of Representatives, executive or judicial branches.

As I promised to do on day one, I introduced SB 36 that prohibits any gift to any public officer by a lobbyist. The law already includes the definition of a gift as something with a value in excess of $100.

On Thursday, the Senate took up SB 24. The stated purpose of the bill is to allow the continued collection of what has been referred to as the hospital bed tax. In 2010, the hospital bed tax was coupled with a reduction in insurance premium taxes (once the state’s Revenue Shortfall Fund reached $500 million) as a temporary measure to mitigate a Medicaid funding shortfall due to the declining revenues of the state.

SB 24 grants the Department of Community Health the ability to tax net hospital revenues at any rate up to the cap set by the Federal government of 6 percent for up to four years. In an attitude of compromise, recognizing the difficulties facing the state, conservatives in the senate fought for amendments that would have limited the measure to only two years, cap the rate at the current 1.45 percent and adopt reform measures that are predicted to save approximately $1 billion. Those amendments failed and ultimately the measure passed on a vote of 46 to 9.

It is an honor to represent you, the constituents of the 31st Senate District at the State Capitol. If you ever have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to call or email my office.

State Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen

State Sen. Bill Heath serves as chairman of the Government Oversight Committee. He represents the 31st Senate District, which consists of Haralson and Polk counties and portions of Paulding County. He may be reached at 404-656-3943 or by email at billheath@billheath.net.

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