Georgia Politics, Campaigns & Elections — Hide your wallets and daughters edition for January 14, 2013

MountainShelterDogsThis morning’s dogs come from the Humane Society Mountain Shelter in Blairsville, Georgia.

Beamer (left) is a little black-and-white male Lab mix who is about eight weeks old. He has been in the shelter for nearly four months and would love a home to call his own.

Snoopy (center) is a brown-and-white medium-size female pointer mix.

Roxy (right) is a black-and-tan female Boxer/Lab mix who is just a little more than a year-and-a-half old.

Georgia Politics, Campaigns & Elections

croppedDSC_8611Last night, legislators, lobbyists and Georgia citizens gorged on barbecue at the Georgia Freight Depot, pictured above. Today, Georgians are keeping their wallets and their daughters close as the legislature opens the 2013 Session beginning at 10 AM.

Should you wish to keep an eye on your legislators, you can click here for the live video feed from the State House of Representatives. To watch the live feed from the Georgia Senate, click here.

Today’s session will begin with swearing-in, and the swearing will continue for forty days, occasionally by legislators, often by lobbyists, surprisedly by voters.

Office and committee assignments are expected to be made by each chamber’s leadership in the coming week.

At some point today, the Georgia Senate will likely vote on the election of Senator David Shafer (R-Duluth) as President Pro Tempore.

Four years ago, David Shafer had dreams of presiding over the state Senate.

The Republican from Duluth began the first stages of a campaign to become Georgia’s lieutenant governor, but dropped the pursuit when Casey Cagle decided to run for a second term instead of seeking the governor’s office.

This year, though, Shafer will get the gavel.

Not all the time, but when Cagle has to leave the state’s highest legislative chamber, it will be Shafer, the presumed president pro tem, who will step in.

Shafer tops the list of a very high profile Gwinnett delegation, leaders who will have prominent roles to play in the General Assembly as they head to the state Capitol Monday to begin the new session.

“I’m interested in having a positive impact on public policy,” Shafer said, talking humbly about the new position, which is expected to be bestowed as the first vote of the Senate. “I realize we face some great challenges in this session of the General Assembly. I’ve been at the Capitol every day through the month of December to be ready.”

Beginning this year, Senator Steve Thompson holds sole right to the title of “Dean of the Senate,” which is the honorific bestowed by the Senate Majority on the longest-serving member of the body in lieu of the better honorific, “Chairman.” Thompson has served since being elected 1990, and having previously served in the State House. His former co-Dean George Hooks of Americus retired after being placed in a district with another Senator during redistricting.

Earl Ehrhart enters his 24th year of service after being first elected in 1988.

“The Republican wave was cresting in Cobb,” Ehrhart said. “East Cobb had been Republican for a while. West Cobb, everybody could see it coming.”

After qualifying on the Republican ticket, Ehrhart found longtime state Rep. Joe Mack Wilson (D-Marietta), chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, had opted to run in the same post against him.

“With 30 seconds to go, Joe Mack Wilson being the crafty codger he was, he went down and said, ‘I’m qualifying for Post 4. I can beat that Ehrhart boy.’ I get the call, I’m going ‘oh boy.’ I didn’t qualify against a 30-year incumbent. I wasn’t that arrogant. He taught me everything I needed to know about how to run a campaign where the other guy’s playing rough, and I’ll leave it at that.”

The key issue of the Wilson-Ehrhart race came down to the fact that Ehrhart had discovered Wilson hadn’t paid taxes on his Marietta Square jewelry store for a decade, Ehrhart said.

“And I brought it up,” he said. “The paper ran with it. You know, ‘chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who writes your taxes, doesn’t pay his own.’ And when confronted with it, you’ve got to understand the arrogance of that time, Wilson said, ‘that’s just a low-interest loan from the government.’ Only the little people pay taxes, basically. I beat Joe Mack 56-44 and I was very, very young. Tom Murphy said, ‘yeah, his office will be in the hallway. Republicans are like grasshoppers, we squash ’em with our boots,’” Ehrhart said.

Democratic State Representative Calvin Smyre (Columbus) begins his 39th year in service in the junior house.

Smyre was elected to the General Assembly in 1974 and wanted to jump into the process quickly. Before the 1975 session started, Smyre went to Atlanta to meet new House Speaker Tom Murphy. The rookie legislator was introduced to the speaker by another Columbus lawmaker, Judge Albert Thompson.

“It was a cordial conversation,” Smyre remembers. “During it, I told him I would like to be on the Appropriations Committee. He laughed and said, ‘We don’t allow freshmen on that one.’ Then I asked if I could be on the Ways and Means Committee. He chuckled again.”

In four years, Smyre was on the Ways and Means Committee. It took him eight years to get on the Appropriations Committee.

“Tom Murphy really liked Calvin,” said former Rep. Tom Buck, who represented Columbus for 38 years before retiring in 2004. “He was able to get some important committee assignments.”

Smyre eventually became chairman of the Rules Committee.

The hospital bed tax, also known as the Medicaid access fee, will be a contentious issue. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes this morning that Governor Deal may support legislation to put the bed tax levy in the hands of the Georgia Department of Community Health.

[T]he “bed tax,” which is set to expire in June… requires hospitals to pay a percentage of their total revenue to shore up Medicaid, and the state leverages those funds to draw in more than $500 million in federal matching dollars.

Extending the program could incur the wrath of tea party adherents and test many Republican lawmakers who, like Deal, signed a pledge not to raise taxes. But the state’s budget for Medicaid and the PeachCare program already faces a $374 million shortfall this fiscal year and an even larger one next, and failing to renew the fee would only deepen that hole.

The AJC learned on Sunday the governor is backing legislation that gives the Department of Community Health the responsibility to levy the fees, allowing lawmakers to avoid the thorny issue of voting to hike a tax. Yet it could still face hurdles among lawmakers who are concerned it’s only a temporarily stopgap.

Dalton Mayor David Pennington wrote this morning that the bed tax is not a tax on hospitals, but on patients and small businesses to whom the tax is passed. According to Pennington, the bigger problem with the bed tax is that it’s not part of comprehensive tax reform.

Speaker David Ralston says he hopes the legislature gives the extension of the bed tax serious thought.

The Medicaid financing idea involves assessing hospitals, using that money to secure federal support, then plowing the entire pot of money — more than $650 million this year — back into Medicaid payments to health care providers.The speaker dismissed outside political pressure, led by national GOP powerbroker and anti-government activist Grover Norquist, not to renew the measure. Some lawmakers, particularly Republicans, fear re-election campaigns in which they could be branded as tax-and-spend politicians. The speaker went so far as to argue the current arrangement isn’t a tax at all: “It’s an assessment that allows us to draw down our money that we sent to Washington.”

Those who vote to extend it certainly wouldn’t be supporting a tax increase, the speaker added.

“Anyone who says that is being dishonest,” Ralston said. “I would hope we could put aside what might be on the (campaign) mail pieces and look at the facts. … Young children depend on this.”

Legislators adopted the hospital tax — it’s actually an assessment on patient revenues — in 2010 to help make up for lagging revenues blamed on the recession. Each Georgia hospital pays a 1.45 assessment on their net patient revenue. That increases Georgia’s contribution to Medicaid, a joint state-federal program in which the federal government matches local spending at varying rates based on factors like a state’s per-capita income. The money yields an 11.88 percent Medicaid rate boost for hospitals.

Georgia hospital leaders have submitted to Gov. Nathan Deal and lawmakers a proposal to extend the current assessment and then add a second fee, to be paid by certain private hospitals that lose money on the initial levy because they don’t treat many Medicaid recipients. Like the patient-revenue tax, the secondary assessments would be used to get more federal money. But that second pot would be used for payments targeted back to the private hospitals, mitigating their losses from the overall concept.

Ralston said specific Medicaid finance legislation is still being drafted. He did not say whether it would exactly reflect the industry proposal, nor did he identify a sponsor.

Last week at a spate of last-minute fundraisers before money-raising by most state elected officials goes dark, legislators were stuffing 32-ounce porterhouses and lobster tails in their coat pockets instead of cash, as the Senate is likely to adopt rules restricting gifts to $100. Poor Senators. Instead of surf-and-turf, it’ll have to be surf-or-turf.

Tennessee’s Junior United States Senator Bob Corker decries the bed tax as a “gimmick” and argues that the “bed tax scheme adds to the federal government’s fiscal problems and is something both parties agree is poor public policy.”

A survey by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggests that Georgians’ top priority for the General Assembly is jobs. Duh. And yet again, the AJC fails to present sufficient data for readers to decide for themselves whether the supposed poll really says what they say it says.

In another “Duh” moment Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts says the Board of Elections needs to get it together so that they don’t continue to embarrass the rest of the state.

Commissioner Robb Pitts said after an election board meeting that the group must quickly replace the two members so it can address last year’s string of polling problems.

“With the recent turnover, I’m more concerned than ever,” said Pitts, who has prepared a list of candidates for the board. “I want to move very quickly to get a qualified person in place regardless of party affiliation.”

Chairman Roderick Edmond, the county’s top elections official, stepped down Friday as the board prepared for a hearing in three weeks on the voting woes that have plagued the county. Another board member, attorney William Riley, cited his busy schedule as a reason for quitting two weeks ago.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp, whose office oversees elections, has said the recent resignations underscore “the lack of dependable leadership” on the county’s elections board.

Can we all agree that the legislature needs to at least discuss giving the Secretary of State’s office enhanced powers to deal with local Boards of Elections that have a known history of election problems so that future problems might be prevented rather than just issuing fines afterward?

He’s baaaack. Wayne Hill has been appointed to the Gwinnett County Water and Sewer Authority by County Commissioner Tommy Hunter (R).

Trust is the issue in a fight on the Chatham County Commission.

Commissioner Dean Kicklighter voted against Commissioner Helen Stone’s nomination as chairman pro-tem. Kicklighter said Stone had voiced support behind closed doors prior to voting against a salary increase for commissioners at their last meeting.

“Commissioner Stone has to earn my trust back,” Kicklighter said.

Local jurisdictions in most of Georgia will be on the hook for a greater percentage of the cost of local road improvements after rejecting T-SPLOST last summer.

Instead of a 10 percent match, the county and city will have to fork over 30 percent of the costs of projects funded with state Local Maintenance and Improvement Grant funds. The higher matching fee was a penalty provision included in the state legislation that established the sales tax referendum.

Savannah is getting slightly more than $1 million in grant funds while Chatham is getting almost $600,000 from the Georgia Department of Transportation. The penalty provision means the city will have to chip in about $300,000, instead of $100,000, if the sales tax had been approved. The county will have to shell out about $180,000, rather than $60,000.

Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree has ensured a bad relationship with his local press by announcing a draconian press policy. Good luck with that, dude.

From now on, nobody in the sheriff’s office or connected with the sheriff’s office is going to tell you anything – except for my designated mouthpiece. And he’ll send a FAX when he’s good and ready. Nobody else connected with the sheriff’s office is authorized to speak to you about anything, and we’re not above checking e-mail and cellphone records to see who’s been talking to whom. When we need you to help us catch a criminal by printing his photo in the newspaper, online or on TV, we’ll let you know.

Could this surprising reversal of the previous sheriff’s media policy be the result of negative stories about Round­tree’s record before the election, such as his delinquent taxes and romantic trysts with three female officers on his shift at the Econo Lodge hotel in a room formerly used for a sheriff’s substation?

Republican State House candidate Brian Laurens isn’t the only one giving our profession a bad name. Kevin Ross, a Democrat who worked for former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, is at the center of the criminal investigation that is drawing in Ross’s client DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis.

Six years later, another corruption case is drawing attention to Ross, and this time he is one of its apparent targets. Last week, authorities raided Ross’ office and home as investigators simultaneously served search warrants at the residence and government office of one of Ross’ former political clients: DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis. Authorities seized personal bank records, computers and material involving campaign contributions to Ellis, apparently trying to link the two men to allegations of bid-rigging and kickbacks involving county contracts.

Neither Ross nor Ellis has been charged with a crime. Both denied wrongdoing.

The investigation, however, brings into focus the highly fraught relationships often forged between elected officials and their political gurus. Like many other political consultants, Ross fills time between campaigns representing companies that seek business with government agencies — sometimes ones run by an official whose election he engineered.

“He earns their loyalty because he delivers valuable electoral services and becomes a trusted political adviser,” said Sharon Gay, an Atlanta lawyer who worked with Ross on Campbell’s first campaign for mayor. “The tricky part is: How do he and the elected official manage that loyalty after the election is over?”

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