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Georgia House leader talks about 2016 legislative session 0

January 14, 2016

House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) sets the agenda in the House of Representatives when the Georgia General Assembly begins session Jan. 11. In remarks Jan. 7, he expounded on some issues that are expected to come up for debate under the Gold Dome during this session.

Ralston said he will support a bill (HB 722) that would license a limited number of medical marijuana cultivators and manufacturers in Georgia and would allow patients with any of 17 diagnoses to take those medical marijuana products.

The bill, filed Wednesday by state Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon) adds to a 2015 law that opens medical cannabis to a small list of patients but does 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; and “I think this bill is that next step.”

Peake’s bill, modeled after a medical marijuana law in Minnesota he called the strictest in the country, would limit the number of in-state manufacturers of cannabis oil to a minimum of two and a maximum of six. Manufacturers would cultivate, produce and dispense the final product, and create a “seed-to-sell” tracking system intended to provide increased security and track all plants grown, processed, transferred, stored, or disposed.

Distribution facilities would be located based on geographical need throughout the state to improve patient access. All manufacturers would be required to contract with an independent lab to test the cannabis oil and employ licensed pharmacists to distribute the product.

The bill also expands the number of diseases that qualify patients to receive cannabis oil. Last year’s legislation initially was aimed at epilepsy and other seizure disorders. It was expanded as the bill went through the legislature to include cancer, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, mitochondrial disease, Parkinson’s disease, sickle cell anemia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

The new bill would increase the list to also include Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Alzheimer’s disease, Tourette’s Syndrome and intractable pain (defined as pain that cannot be removed or treated).

Ralston’s support is important

after a study commission created by Gov. Nathan Deal last spring recently recommended not moving forward with in-state growth and distribution of cannabis oil because, among other things, marijuana in any form remains illegal under federal law.

“I took careful consideration when drafting this legislation to fully address the concerns that have been expressed by Gov. Deal and Georgia’s law enforcement community,” Peake said. “I am optimistic that the details of this bill will satisfy those concerns.”

Peake wants to expand the law because those who qualify to use medical marijuana in Georgia currently must travel out of state and bring it back, which is illegal.

“They risk violating federal law bringing it back here. We need a safe, lab tested product, produced, distributed here in Georgia for our hurting citizens that really need it,” said Peake.

Peake expects the bill to be assigned to committee by the end of this week.

ON THE EDUCATION FRONT. Teachers and school administrators are watching a debate about how K-12 teachers should be paid. A state education reform commission appointed by Gov. Deal researched and reported on a wide range of education changes, including to permanently add $258 million to the current K-12 state budget beginning in the 2018 fiscal year budget, and adding $209 million toward a modern, student-based funding formula for classrooms.

However, teacher pay probably drew the most attention and emotion. Some educators have criticized 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.

After holding town hall meetings (including one in Blue Ridge) with teachers late last year, Ralston said he learned a 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 also feeling the pressure to keep teachers from leaving the profession. The state Department of Education recently completed a teacher survey that shows 44 percent of newly hired teachers drop out of the profession by the fifth year and more teachers are quick to say they cannot recommend education as a profession.

Georgia voters will have a chance to approve or defeat the proposed “Opportunity School Districts” at the ballot box this November. Senate Bill 133 calls for the state to take over persistently low performing schools in an effort to improve student achievement. It proposes to create an Opportunity School District (OSD), a statewide district overseen by a superintendent appointed by and reporting to the governor.

The Opportunity School District requires an amendment to the state constitution.

The focus on education comes at a time when states and local governments are taking back control of classrooms after passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015, which replaces the No Child Left Behind Act.

CASINO GAMBLING. 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.

According to Ralston, gaming itself is “not an easy question– but it’s a black-and-white question.”

Voters would have the final yes or no vote on casinos; however, lawmakers must decide the terms to put before the voters, such as the number of casinos and the amount of taxes they would pay.

According to Ralston, “Those details are going to have to be sorted out.”

RURAL HOSPITALS. Ralston also said one of his priorities is the health of rural hospitals; although he added that he does not 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.

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Speaker of the
Georgia House of Representatives

P.O. Box 1196, Blue Ridge, GA 30513 | 706.632.2221 |

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