Rep. Richard Smith to chair Georgia House Rules Committee

Georgia Rep. Richard Smith

ATLANTA – Georgia Rep. Richard Smith, R-Columbus, will succeed the late Rep. Jay Powell as chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, Speaker David Ralston announced Tuesday.

“Richard Smith has earned the trust and respect of every member of our House of Representatives,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “He is a wise and thoughtful leader who always puts the interests of this state and its citizens first. We are fortunate to have Chairman Smith in this new role, and I congratulate him on his appointment.”

Powell, R-Camilla, died unexpectedly in November at age 67. He had chaired the Rules Committee, the “traffic cop” of the House because it decides which bills reach the House floor, for just one year following the death of then-Rules Chairman John Meadows.

Smith has served since 2011 as chairman of the House Insurance Committee. He was elected to the General Assembly in 2004 after serving on the Columbus City Council and, for several months, as interim city manager of Columbus.

Smith’s House District 134 includes portions of Muscogee and Harris counties.

Ralston also named Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, to succeed Smith as chairman of the Insurance Committee.

Georgia Capitol steps slated for renovation

The steps of the Georgia Capitol will be renovated after this winter’s legislative session.

ATLANTA – The historic limestone and granite steps at the north and south entrances of the Georgia Capitol will get a makeover next year.

The Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission has released a request for qualifications seeking a contractor for the $1.5 million project.

Besides removing, repairing and reinstalling the steps, the work will involve installing concrete support walls, a waterproofing system, bronze handrails and floodlights. Workers also will repair the crosswalk at the base of the south stairs.

The Georgia Capitol has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Bids on the project are due Jan. 15. The work will begin at the end of the 2020 General Assembly session, likely in early April, with completion expected within 210 days.

Mega Millions tickets drive increase in Georgia Lottery sales

ATLANTA – Georgia Lottery ticket sales increased by $178.2 million during fiscal 2019, driven by a huge jump in Mega Millions ticket sales.

Mega Millions sales rose by $73.5 million, or 58.6%, to $199.1 million during the fiscal year, which ended June 30, according to an annual independent audit the Georgia Lottery Corp. released last Friday.

The report attributed the popularity of the Mega Millions game to the size of the jackpots.

“The Mega Millions jackpot exceeded $400 million on three occasions during the year, reaching a high value of $1.537 billion in October 2018, $522 million in June 2019 and $437 million in January 2019,” the audit stated.

Mega Millions is a multi-state lottery game operated with 10 other states: California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Virginia and Washington.

Overall, the lottery accounted for $4.776 billion in ticket sales during fiscal 2019, up from $4.598 billion the previous fiscal year, representing an increase of $178.2 million, or 3.9%.

Of that amount, a record $1.207 billion was returned to education, including the HOPE Scholarships program, up $63.9 million compared to fiscal 2018.

Scratcher games accounted for the most lottery ticket sales. Scratcher game sales increased by $77.6 million to $3.219 billion, according to the report.

The audit attributed the growth of scratcher game sales primarily to the popularity of the $10 and $20 games.

Isakson: ‘Hope … is what’s kept me in politics’

Johnny Isakson

ATLANTA – U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., retired this month after 45 years in public service. He leaves Congress as the only Georgian ever to serve in the state House of Representatives, the Georgia Senate, the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate. After helping build the state Republican Party as Georgia House minority leader, Isakson went on to serve as chairman of the state Board of Education. In Washington, he spent six years in the House representing a district in Atlanta’s northern suburbs and 14 years in the Senate, including a stint as chairman of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Recently, he looked back on his career in an exclusive interview with Capitol Beat News Service:

Q: What made you decide to enter politics back in 1972, five years into your real estate career?

A: I was active in the real estate business but also in my civic association in a small neighborhood in East Cobb. There were beginning to be a lot of issues dealing with zoning … and there was an incumbent county commissioner up for re-election who had been the proponent of all the multi-family units being proposed at the time. … I never intended to run for anything, certainly not county commission, but I did and did pretty well for not being experienced and not having any money. … I did well enough to whet my appetite and said, ‘If I get a chance, I’ll try this one more time.’ I did two years later for the legislature and won that seat. That year, I was the only Republican to defeat a Democrat in the state of Georgia who was an incumbent. … That’s how I started my career.

Q: You essentially built Georgia’s Republican Party in the ‘70s and ‘80s along with some allies.

A: A lot of people deserve credit for that. I was on the building team, but I was not the builder. … [The late U.S. Sen.] Paul Coverdell and I did a lot of work to get people to come to Saturday morning breakfasts and get enthusiastic about being outnumbered 10 to 1.

Q: How difficult was it in a state Democrats had dominated since Reconstruction?

A: It was easy back then to get attention because the press would settle for anything from us because there weren’t many of us. … As we grew our numbers and got influential enough to start driving issues, for awhile, it worked to our advantage … because they let us state our case without having anybody give the alternative. That went away as we won more seats.

Q: How did you get along with majority Democrats during all those years you spent in the General Assembly as a minority leader?

A: Tom Murphy was the longest serving [state House] speaker in the country at that time. He hated Republicans, had open season on them any time he could find one. … I said, ‘I’m going to see if we can find common ground.’ … In rural Georgia, there were no four-lane highways. We helped [then-Gov.] Joe Frank Harris pay for the GRIP [Governor’s Road Improvement Program]. … All of a sudden, [Democrats] liked the idea of doing something comprehensive. I won a few points that way.

Q: Did you hesitate before jumping into that special election race for Congress in 1999, considering you were looking to succeed such a high-profile politician as Newt Gingrich?

A: That night I was on an airplane to Anaheim, [Calif.] to make a speech to the Realtors Political Action Committee. When I got to the hotel that night, there were 72 messages for me. The first 71 were from my wife. She said, ‘Newt quit and everybody says you ought to run.’ … I’d run statewide three times before and lost. … But I had the name ID. We put together a heck of a campaign in seven weeks and won the seat.

Q: You played a leading role in the No Child Left Behind Act in the House in 2001 and helped improve the law while you were in the Senate. Did that stem from your time as chairman of the state Board of Education?

A: The federal government doesn’t really have a role in education, but it is the first priority of state government. I knew what the state’s problems were and how to account for the money. I had some working knowledge. … [George W.] Bush was the new president and decided he was going to make that a signature issue. He asked me to lead that effort.

Q: You were awarded the inaugural ‘John McCain Service to Country Award’ earlier this year. What does that mean to you in terms of the time you spent in the Senate with John McCain?

A: John was a product of my era, the best we had. He went to Southeast Asia and fought in the worst war America ever fought in. I lost some very good friends in Vietnam. … I’m very close to that whole era. John epitomized it. He was a volunteer. … He wanted to go and not use his father (a Navy admiral) for any preferential placement. … I worked with John when I got elected on issues including immigration and ethics. … What really got me close to him was President Trump went after him after he died. … I got upset and made about a 20-minute speech calling the president out on it. That was no way to treat one of our heroes.

Q: Veterans have been one of your priorities. Looking back, what do you feel were your greatest accomplishments chairing that committee in the Senate?

A: The committee never did much because it was what you call a ‘B’ committee. … But when I got it, I said, ‘We’ve been fooling around with these issues for 10 years. I want to make this thing work for veterans.’ … The Mission Act replaced the Choice Act. A veteran can go to a private doctor or a VA doctor. It makes no difference. … Vets don’t need to be told a doctor is not being paid. … It’s working really well now. I believe last year, they did 1,000 more appointments for veterans than the year before.

Q: The theme of your farewell speech on the Senate floor this month was a plea for bipartisanship. With the toxic atmosphere in Washington, do you believe there’s hope for that?

A: My hope for it is what’s kept me in politics. … If you’re in politics and you do a favor, you get one in return and you remember that. … Three years ago, I pulled a Democrat out of a committee room and got him to switch a vote. Once people know you have the ability to deliver that kind of power, they respect you and will negotiate with you. … In my speech, I tried to get across what happens in the real world and the need to be cooperative.

New year to ring in new state laws

ATLANTA – The “heartbeat” anti-abortion bill Gov. Brian Kemp pushed through the General Assembly this year will not take effect Jan. 1 as intended, blocked by a federal judge.

But more than a dozen less controversial measures Georgia lawmakers enacted during the 2019 legislative session will become law with the coming of the new year.

The state’s new business court will become operational, patients in need of certain medications will get an easier path to a prescription, Georgians saving for their children’s college tuition will get a more generous tax break and two judicial circuits will get additional judges.

Here is a breakdown of some of the new laws taking effect Jan. 1:

  • Technically, House Bill 239 establishing a statewide business court in Georgia took effect last May, the day Kemp signed it into law. But the court doesn’t become operational until Jan 1. In August, members of the state House and Senate Judiciary committees confirmed the governor’s nominee to head the court, Walter F. Davis, a partner in the Atlanta office of Jones Day. The new court, aimed at expediting the handling of cases requiring expertise in business law, was created by a constitutional amendment Georgia voters ratified in November 2018.
  • Under House Bill 63, doctors can seek exceptions from insurance companies to “step therapy,” which requires patients to try certain preferred medications and wait for them to fail before they can receive a prescription for the medication they want. The law will apply to any health insurance plan that takes effect or is renewed on or after Jan. 1.
  • House Bill 266 doubles the state income tax deduction awarded through Georgia’s 529 Plan for college savings from $2,000 per year to $4,000 for single taxpayers and from $4,000 per year to $8,000 for married couples filing jointly. The legislation takes effect with the 2020 tax year.
  • Under House Bill 166, all genetic counselors in the state must be licensed, making Georgia the 28th state with such a requirement. The law is intended to provide consumers assurance that when they make an appointment with a genetic counselor, the clinician has been suitably trained  in genetics. Genetic counselors provide risk assessment, education and support to individuals or families at risk for or diagnosed with a variety of inherited disorders.
  • House Bill 478 creates stricter requirements for listing an offender on Georgia’s child abuse registry. Under the new law, abusers must be at least 18 at the time the abusive act was committed to be listed, up from the current 13. Abusers put on the list have a right to a hearing on whether their name should be removed, starting three years after being placed on the list.
  • House Bill 21 provides an additional Superior Court judge for the Gwinnett Judicial Circuit.
  • House Bill 28 provides an additional Superior Court judge for the Griffin Judicial Circuit.
  • Senate Bill 118 is aimed at leveling the playing field between health care provided through telemedicine and health services delivered  by other means. The law prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage of health care solely because it was provided through telemedicine rather than in-person consultation with a health-care provider.