Guest column: Georgia Rep. Tom Kirby (R-Loganville)

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Georgia Rep. Tom Kirby (R-Loganville). Contributed photo

As the 2018 legislative session begins under the Gold Dome, I thought I would share a few of the issues my colleagues in the House will, or at least should, address this year.

As always, we will pass the state budget. The first budget we will tackle adjusts the current fiscal year budget. FY 2018 revenue is near the original projections, so no major changes will be needed. We will add some funding to education to keep up with our state’s growing population, and I expect we will stay conservative and add money to the “rainy day” fund. The FY 2019 budget process begins with the revenue estimate by Governor Deal. The General Assembly does not get a say in how much money we budget, only where the money will be budgeted. You can expect some to point out that the FY 2019 budget will set a record on state spending. What they won’t point out is that the population of our state is growing at such a rapid pace that it takes a nearly $800 million budget increase just to cover the same level of spending for expenditures tied to population, such as the state portion for education based on the number of full time students. A “flat” no increase budget for FY 2019 would mean that the actual expenditure increases by almost $1 billion dollars.

There are several important issues that we need to address during this session. Last year, the House passed a complete rewrite and update of Georgia’s adoption laws, which was led by Representative Bert Reeves. Unfortunately, the adoption measure did not pass in the Senate. I am confident that the Senate will pass this critical legislation with minimal changes and bring some common sense and needed updates to the adoption process to help Georgia’s children find their forever families. We would like to address the cost of adoption without an over reach of government, but an attorney making way too much money on the process won’t let that happen.

We are long overdue in addressing the Certificate of Need, or CON as it is commonly referred to. For those unfamiliar with the CON, this requires hospitals to prove that there is a need to build or expand, or in my own words, they have to beg the state to let them do what they think is best for their business. We don’t require this in any other business. Banks and banking is arguably the most regulated business in Georgia, yet they are free to open a branch wherever they want, but the same is not true for hospitals. Without going into great detail of why the CON was created, it began with an edict from the federal government. However, since the federal government dropped the requirement, most states have eliminated or significantly reduced all CON requirements, but not Georgia. Currently, we have the third most restrictive CON in the country by several different accounts. It is interesting to look at the states that have eliminated the CON. Both California, an extremely liberal state, and Texas, an extremely conservative state, have led the way by abolishing the CON. I know many of you heard the radio commercials last year by the Cancer Treatment Center of America that pointed out that only 25 percent of Georgia citizens are able to be their patients because of the CON. Today the CON is old, protectionist legislation. It prevents competition, protects institutions and does not help to ensure that health care is available to all Georgians, especially those in rural areas of our state. The House Rural Development Council met numerous times across the state in 2017 and recommended that we eliminate the CON, but only in metro counties. While they see the harm caused by the CON, there are a lot of “politics” involved, and this will be a fight to do what is right for Georgia and eliminate the CON.

Expect rural Georgia to take center stage with a lot of legislation during the session. The previously mentioned House Rural Development Council has several recommendations as a result of their meetings in 2017, where they had the opportunity to listen to the concerns of our rural citizens and the issues specific to rural Georgia. Perhaps the biggest concern is that there are too many signs of us becoming “two Georgias:” metro or urban areas that are prospering and growing and rural areas that are in decline and still suffering from economic hardships. Speaker Ralston said it best when he stated, “I speak at a Metro Chamber of Commerce meeting and tout the number of jobs created in recent years and they all applaud. I say the same thing at a rural meeting and they all say, ‘Where?’” While I don’t anticipate that all of the council’s recommendations will become laws in our state, nor should they as written, I expect we will look for as many ways possible to help rural Georgia grow and prosper.

Georgia state income tax must be addressed. The recent tax reform that passed in Washington changed our federal income tax, and because of this reform, we must make changes to our state income tax to prevent an increase in your taxes. Since Georgia mirrors federal itemization rules, Georgia needs to increase its standard deduction. With the federal standard deduction going to $24,000, most people won’t itemize. This means everyone with deductions under the new deduction amount will pay more in Georgia income tax, and we need to fix this in 2018. I am committed to do everything I can to see that you do not get hit with this tax increase.

I will continue to work on legislation to help those in Georgia with service dogs. The measure addresses the issues that “fake” service dogs are causing, but would not change the law for actual service animals. I know we love our pets, and my family and I are no exception to that, but pets are not service animals and don’t need the same access to every place service animals have. The best analogy about service animals came from the visually impaired community: “Most people have their eyes on their face; we have our eyes at the end of the leash in our hand.” From restaurants to apartments to many more public places, service animals are always allowed; pets or companion dogs are not. To be a service animal, the dog must be trained to perform a major life activity. The legislation will help ensure service animals have the access required and that pets and companions do not.

This year is an election year. With several members of the General Assembly that have already announced their candidacy for other offices, politics will be on full display during the 2018 session. My hope is that it does not distract from the important issues that need to be addressed. I do know that it will be entertaining for those who follow it closely. My legislative office is 501-C in the Coverdell Legislative Office Building across the street from the Georgia State Capitol. Please stop by if you are in the area during the legislative session. My office phone number is 404-656-0177, and you can also contact me anytime via email at tom.kirby@house.ga.gov. With many bills that will be carried over from last year and the new bills that will be dropped this year, your input is always welcome and appreciated. It is my extreme honor to represent you, and I hope to hear from you whenever you have a question or concern.

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