Georgia ReportNews

Catching Up on Jekyll Island, the Falcons Stadium, the Democrats’ Chairman and Medicaid

Major League Baseball players will be taking a midseason break for the All-Star Game, so we’ll take our own midseason break and catch up on developments in some of the stories highlighted in earlier columns.

Construction is proceeding on a new football stadium for Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank that will be partly financed with $200 million from Atlanta’s pot of hotel-motel tax revenues. Common Cause Georgia is still fighting that questionable use of the taxpayers’ money by launching a petition drive to put the issue on this fall’s city election ballot. It’s a long shot, but if Common Cause could obtain the signatures of 35,000 Atlanta voters, they would force a referendum to amend the city charter so that hotel-motel tax funds could never be used to pay for a football stadium.

There has been a controversy down on Jekyll Island over the revision of a master plan for the island’s future development. The Jekyll Island Authority wants to count marshland as part of the island’s acreage, which would allow expanded commercial development. Environmentalists are adamantly opposed. Attorney General Sam Olens offered an opinion that marshland can be counted as “land” for the purposes of allowing more commercial development. Environmental groups are preparing to file lawsuits and reminding their members that Olens’ name will be on the ballot next year when he runs for another term. 

The attorney general was also part of a three-person commission that decided whether state Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta) could keep his job as a legislator while facing criminal fraud charges in a federal indictment. Olens, along with state Rep. Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta) and Sen. Steve Henson (D-Tucker), voted to allow Brooks to remain in office on the grounds that the federal indictment did not interfere with his ability to carry out his duties as a lawmaker.

The Georgia Democratic Party recently found itself in an awkward position when state chairman Mike Berlon resigned and an election was called to select his replacement. The party’s charter requires that the chairman and first vice chair must be of different sexes and racial backgrounds, which meant that only white males could qualify to run for chairman in the special election. For a party that has often criticized Republicans for their lack of diversity, it was an ironic development to be holding a “whites-only” election for chairman. Democratic Party officials have since modified their position and are allowing anyone, regardless of race or gender, to run in that Aug. 31 election.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly debated the issue of extending a provider fee paid into the Medicaid program by hospitals—a fee known more widely as the “bed tax.” There was a general agreement among Gov. Nathan Deal and the legislative leadership that the bed tax should be extended so that the Medicaid program did not go broke. Legislators did not want to go on record, however, as voting for any kind of tax, even one as badly needed as the Medicaid bed tax. The Legislature thus passed a bill that transferred the authority for levying and collecting this Medicaid tax over to the state Board of Community Health—an executive branch agency whose members are appointed by the governor. The Georgia Constitution is very clear on this issue—it requires all bills raising taxes to originate in the House of Representatives. This Medicaid tax bill originated in the Senate and would seem to be a clear violation of the Constitution. The bed tax would probably be thrown out by the courts if anyone bothered to mount a legal challenge, but no one has filed a lawsuit to date. The state Board of Community Health subsequently voted to impose this new incarnation of the Medicaid bed tax, which took effect on July 1.