While we wait for the next round of presidential debates, let’s take a moment to catch up on some of Georgia’s major political stories.
In January, congressmen Jody Hice and Barry Loudermilk got off to a stumbling start in office when they voted to elect John Boehner to another term as House speaker. That did not go over well with their tea party enthusiasts. Hice and Loudermilk were slammed all across the Internet by angry constituents who denounced them as traitors.
Shortly after those disastrous votes, Hice and Loudermilk joined a new group of ultra-conservative House members who called themselves the “Freedom Caucus.” The Freedom Caucus, which consists of about 40 people, has agitated so successfully against the House leadership that it compelled Boehner to resign and forced Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to withdraw from the race to elect a new speaker. In the space of just nine months, Hice and Loudermilk have progressed from being pariahs to being power brokers.
I’ve written several times about Gov. Nathan Deal’s refusal to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income Georgians. The governor does not want residents to get health insurance if it involves the state receiving money under the Affordable Care Act.
How have Deal’s efforts worked out? In terms of keeping people uninsured, he’s been very successful. A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that Georgia still has more than 1.5 million non-elderly residents without health insurance. Only three states have higher numbers of uninsured citizens: California, Texas and Florida.
Georgia also has the third-highest number of residents—about 305,000—who are uninsured because they make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to qualify for federal subsidies under Obamacare. This is known as the “coverage gap,” and the only states with more people trapped in that health insurance gap are Texas and Florida.
Last year, as Deal was running against Jason Carter for a second term in office, he found himself in the awkward position of being governor of a state that had the highest unemployment rate in the nation. That ranking undercut Deal’s campaign statements that he had a great record of creating jobs and making Georgia a friendly place to do business. In the end, the issue did not prevent Deal from winning another term in office, since he defeated Carter. The state eventually climbed out of last place in the rankings. The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data has Georgia in 38th place with a jobless rate of 5.9 percent.
During the legislative session, the issue that attracted most of the media coverage was the attempt to raise the state’s gasoline excise tax by about 6 cents per gallon. The bill that eventually passed also imposed a new tax on electric vehicles and a $5 daily surcharge on hotel stays. Georgia’s tax collections increased by 6.1 percent in July, the first month that the tax hikes took effect, went up by 13.6 percent in August and improved by 8.7 percent in September. Partly because of the new taxes, the state has collected $438 million more tax dollars during the first quarter of this fiscal year than it did in the same quarter last year.
Fortunately for legislators, the higher gasoline tax took effect during the same period that the retail price of gasoline steadily declined. This means that motorists saw only that the overall price of fuel at the pump was going down, nullifying any backlash that might have accompanied the tax hike. With all that new money pouring into the state coffers, you should see more concrete being poured for new highway construction.
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