Study groups can keep lawmakers busy long after session ends

mlee@macon.comMarch 8, 2014 

ATLANTA ­­-- State lawmakers, like students, count down to their last day of work before taking a break.

For the folks under the Gold Dome, the session lasts just 40 days and finishes March 20 this year. But some of them have the equivalent of summer school, with study committees that work out key ideas in peace. Others serve on study committees that are more like detention: places to put people who are disruptive and getting out of line.

The state Legislature will approve a dozen or so summer study committees by the time the session is over. Membership will include House or Senate members, or both, as well as top administrators and experts. Some of them are supposed to come up with laws to propose or repeal, and some are just supposed to study.

Summer studies have been responsible for, most recently, a bill that looks likely to succeed that would require insurance to cover autism in the youngest children.

For this summer, take the Georgia Legacy Study Committee, created via Senate Resolution 896 by state Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry. It’s meant to figure out how best to fund and acquire land or easements for conservation and preservation. The state already has some such programs.

“Study committees are very important because you have a lot of new people (in the Legislature), and they don’t know anything about these programs,” Tolleson said.

And bringing in outside experts is key, he said. “You just have a few legislators talking, that’s not really a successful study committee.

It’s a step back from a land conservation program he tried to pass into law last year, but which got no traction in the House. He said this summer’s committee may propose legislation, but studying the programs is the main point.

Summer study committees are also a good place to work out controversial or complicated legislation, said state Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson. He wants to move changes to Georgia’s brewpub laws as recommended by a study committee.

“Alcohol always seems to be a contentious topic,” Jones said.

He’s gotten no committee vote on his Senate Bill 303 to allow dry cities and counties to hold a referendum on going wet without first receiving a public petition. There’s not even a bill on another committee recommendation to allow brewpubs to sell growlers, jugs of beer that hold about as much as a six-pack.

Jones made the comments while squeezed into a small chair at the back of the noisy, chaotic state Senate chamber, full of legislators, guests and families milling about, all having their own conversations and ignoring the senator yelling a speech into the floor microphone.

“A lot of the distractions are not there that we have during the session,” he said.

Study committee hearings are public, just like hearings during the legislative session.

Delving into the issues

Stratus Healthcare, a nonprofit hospital alliance that includes the parent of The Medical Center of Central Georgia, likes Senate Resolution 981 by state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, enough to create a summer study committee about violence against emergency room workers.

The MCCG emergency department called the police an average of 11 times a day in both 2012 and 2013 due to violence or threats of violence, said Stratus’ Julie Windom.

The resolution would create a study committee with legislators, doctors and behavioral health professionals.

It’s a perfect illustration of why a study committee is important, Windom said, because they face a legitimate conundrum: If you’re dealing with people who have behavioral health or substance abuse issues in the ER, it’s not clear that they can form intent or be deterred by the higher penalties that some states have tried.

“We want to look at what other things we could do,” Windom said.

Another use

But if a “study” sounds like a good way to fob off an inconvenient lawmaker or idea, sometimes it is.

State Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, has tried several tacks this session to make it possible to open tiny emergency rooms in underserved, rural areas of Georgia.

It’s an arcane area of law that governs where, when and how the state will allow opening health care facilities, especially those with no obvious means of making payroll.

His idea has attracted GOP support, but it has been blocked by questions over money and how it would affect other hospitals. Technical questions over his Senate Bill 338 have persisted, and Lucas was still editing his proposal late into the session.

Instead, Unterman, who runs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, held no vote on the bill and talked instead about setting up a summer study committee.

“To me, it was purposely done because I’m a Democrat with a good idea,” Lucas said, adding that it’s clear without a study that too many rural residents are dangerously far from medical triage.

He wouldn’t be the first insistent lawmaker whom colleagues tried to assuage with a study committee.

A study committee dampened talk about horse racing and betting in Georgia. A 2012 Senate study committee report said the “economic reality” is that the industry is in decline and not worth bringing to Georgia. Diehards still support it, but there’s almost no traction.

A 2013 Senate study committee recommended that Georgia move toward more consumption taxes and less in income taxes, a setup known as the “fair tax.” While there’s always chatter about such a shift in the GOP-majority Legislature, tax-change fatigue permeates the place after last year’s car-tax change, and there have been no big moves on the recommendation this year.

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