Politics & Government

Georgia House leader previews cannabis, teacher pay, casino debates

Georgia state capitol building in Atlanta.
Georgia state capitol building in Atlanta. Getty Images/iStockphoto

ATLANTA -- Ahead of Georgia's annual legislative session, one of the state's most powerful politicians said he supports expanding medical marijuana access, is concerned about recruiting teachers and stressed that the casinos issue is much more complicated than a simple "yes" or "no."

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, will set the agenda in the House of Representatives when the Georgia General Assembly opens for business Monday. In remarks Thursday, he gave his opinion on some of the issues that are expected to come up for debate under the Gold Dome.

Ralston supports a bill that would license a handful of medical marijuana cultivators and manufacturers in Georgia and would allow patients with any one of 17 diagnoses to take those medical marijuana products.

The bill, filed Wednesday by state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, expands on a 2015 law that opens medical cannabis to a smaller list of patients but did not allow in-state cultivation.

Ralston said that when the 2015 bill passed, he expected there would be a follow-up bill dealing with growing the plant in Georgia.

"I think this bill is that next step," he said.

That puts Ralston on a different track from Gov. Nathan Deal, who has said he's not convinced that Georgia could keep a medical marijuana industry under tight enough control.

On the education front, teachers and school administrators are watching a debate about how K-12 teachers should be paid. A summer study committee appointed by Deal researched and reported on a wide range of education changes, but teacher pay probably drew the most attention and emotion. Some educators have slammed the idea of a closer tie between pay and student performance because they say measurements could be unfair or could even tempt teachers to teach to the test rather than educate students broadly.

Ralston said he learned lot by listening to those educators.

"I heard concerns about how do you measure merit pay, what kind of metric are you going to use," Ralston said. "I can assure those teachers ... that what I heard will stay with me throughout this session."

Ralston said he's not sure there will be a merit pay bill. The governor's summer study committee ended up with a mild recommendation to leave the question to city and county school districts.

"I think we need to free up teachers to teach and not test," Ralston said.

Politicians are feeling the pressure to keep teachers from voting with their feet. The state Department of Education just completed a teacher survey that shows 44 percent of newly hired teachers drop out of the profession by the fifth year.

Another potentially hot topic for this legislative session is casino gambling in Georgia.

Ralston said there are still questions to answer.

Some gaming firms have scouted Georgia, and a Savannah legislator has filed a bill that would let the state issue casino licenses.

Gaming itself is "not an easy question, but it's a black-and-white question," Ralston said. Voters would have the final yes or no vote on casinos.

But lawmakers would need to decide the terms to put before the voters, such as the number of casinos and how much tax they would pay.

Those details "are going to have to be sorted out," Ralston said.

Ralston also said one of his priorities is the health of rural hospitals, though he also said he does not yet have a cure for their ills.

"I have a hospital in my district that's barely hanging on, and unfortunately that's a fairly common situation in rural Georgia," the speaker said.

The closure of small, rural hospitals can put emergency care and doctors dangerously far from rural residents. But such hospitals also struggle to make enough money to stay open and also serve many patients who cannot cover the cost of their care.