Election year set to start with a bang

By Tom Baxter

The upcoming election year is shaping up to begin in a very interesting, not to say painful, way. The question is how interesting what’s going to happen in January will seem in November.

The federal grand jury investigating the commission formerly known as the State Ethics Commission is scheduled to meet Jan. 14 to receive documents related to its investigation of complaints against Gov. Nathan Deal going back to his 2010 race for governor. Deal and his attorney, Randy Evans, have so far taken a “who, me?” position to the news that three current or former ethics commission employees have been subpoenaed by the federal panel, speculating that the grand jury probe must be about the mishandling of documents at the commission, even though the documents are about Deal’s 2010 campaign.

A federal grand jury investigation is not something to pass too lightly over, particularly in an election year when you have primary and general election opponents waiting. From interviews she’s already given, we known that staff attorney Elisabeth Murray-Obertein has said she heard executive director Holly LaBerge say Deal owed her for taking care of the ethics complaint against the campaign, and that her recommendation of up to $70,000 in fines against Deal was whittled down to less than $4,000 in administrative fees.

Remember, however, that Deal got elected four years ago in spite of having escaped a House ethics investigation by one day with his resignation from Congress, and an energetic effort by former Gov. Roy Barnes to point out the disarray in Deal’s personal finances. It will take more than just a close encounter with the grand jury to put him off course this year.

As important as the grand jury probe could be to the election, its impact on the lives of Georgia voters is relatively paltry compared to the hospital crisis which is also taking shape as the new year nears.

It’s the needle prick of the new Obamacare Medicaid rules, eliminating subsidies for hospitals and penalizing those which underperform, and putting states which don’t accept the accompanying expansion of Medicaid coverage at a severe disadvantage, which will precipitate this crisis. But it should be pointed out that state healthcare funding has simmered at the near-crisis level for some time. The bed tax and various other expedients over the years have simply been bandaids on the old system. With the beginning of the year the state will be half in and half out of the new one.

Republican opposition to Obamacare in toto remains strong, as evidenced by the press conference Monday by a group of GOP legislators who plan to introduce legislation to prevent the state from implementing any part of the Affordable Care Act. But next month is when reality starts to set in. Some hospitals may have to close as a result, but in many communities there’s going to come the realization that it will take raising local taxes to keep a facility open, unless the state changes its position on the Medicaid expansion. That’s when what has largely been an ideological debate begins to be about reality.

However you shake it, the problems afflicting the state health care system are about to take front and center. But again, no one knows how this issue is going to play out in the primary and general elections. We do know that state Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, who this year has been a kind of half-track quote machine voicing his die-hard opposition to Obamacare, has picked up a Democratic opponent, Elizabeth “Liz” Johnson of Statesboro. That will insure at least some kind of debate, and there needs to be one.

It’s interesting also to learn that a Georgia version of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays movement, which resulted in hundreds of arrests at demonstrations during that state’s legislative session this year has been formed. They plan an action when the General Assembly convenes Jan. 13.

Which, with the grand jury meeting the next day, will make that quite a newsy week.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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