ATLANTA -- State Sen. David Lucas and his predecessor, Miriam Paris, are squaring off for the third time to represent a huge legislative district that runs from east Macon-Bibb through Hancock, covering all or part of seven counties.
One of the two Democrats will win the seat in the May 20 primary because there is no Republican in the running.
Both candidates have spent most of their political lives in Macon, so the issues in sparsely populated counties are relatively new to both.
Lucas racked up some early country credibility by spending this year’s legislative session making enough noise about the lack of rural health care that Gov. Nathan Deal has asked the state Department of Community Health to fast-track some changes.
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Lucas lined up bipartisan support for the idea of making it possible to open tiny, rural emergency rooms in underserved rural communities. But he was stymied mostly by the complexity of executive-driven hospital regulation and figuring out if -- and how -- the Legislature could make the changes he sought.
The Department of Community Health board, with Deal’s blessing, is scheduled to vote April 29 on the legalization of tiny rural emergency rooms.
The rule changes would come with no money to create or run what would be money-losing facilities.
Lucas said his next step, if re-elected, is “to fully develop a rural health care plan,” not only to put some money behind the emergency-rooms rule change but also look for possible federal funds for clinics, and to attract doctors to the country.
“I think the governor should have accepted the Medicaid expansion. We’re paying for it,” said Lucas, a reference to federal, taxpayer-funded incentives to expand the insurance program that covers low-income residents. Medicaid is part state and part federally funded, and Deal has said it is too expensive for Georgia.
Lucas is also looking to put more money into education as the economy -- and hence state tax revenues -- improve. “We put money in this year, but it doesn’t compare to what we cut” in the past few years, he said.
On the Macon-Bibb front, Lucas and Paris spent much of political 2011 and 2012 sparring about what kind of consolidation question, if any, to put to Macon and Bibb voters. Paris signed the bipartisan bill that finally called the referendum.
Lucas attacked her for signing a bill that makes the Macon-Bibb County Commission a nonpartisan body.
But Paris is proud of consolidation overall, which she said has streamlined local government and ended city versus county rivalry.
“The biggest thing for me is that it has been a unifier,” she said. “We are now one entity that I think will be more responsible and accountable” to voters.
In District 26 overall, “it’s really jobs, it’s always jobs, education and health care,” Paris said. “When people don’t have access to a good education, that means that they’re going to have a very limited chance of making a good living.”
She said making sure everyone has access to a sound education is key. And she agreed that Twiggs and Hancock especially are in “dire need” of some kind of medical facility.
During her term under the Gold Dome, Paris joined the rest of the Senate’s Democratic women by walking out of the chamber in protest over two bills. Senate Bill 438 from 2012 barred state employee insurance coverage of abortion. The bill did not make exceptions for cases of rape and incest. Senate Bill 460 said “religious employers” need not offer contraception in their employee health insurance.
Both bills failed in the House, but Paris said such issues are still high on her priority list.
“When you see people going after others on their health care choices ... you wonder what’s next,” she said.
Paris said, however, she is someone who can work with state government in Atlanta.
“I’m respected by my colleagues,” she said. “I’m a worker. I’m a person who works for the people.”
In the money contest, during the first three months of 2014, Paris raised about $36,000.
Sitting senators such as Lucas cannot raise money during the first part of the year when they are in session. But in the last three months of 2013, he raised about $15,000.
The legislative job comes with a salary of $17,342 per year, plus per-diem payments. The full Legislature meets for 40 days a year, plus a variable number of Atlanta committee days.
In the off season, it’s up to each lawmaker how much time he or she wants to spend at home on research, speeches, constituent issues and other legislative business.