The full Senate is expected to vote on it Thursday, the day Deal addresses a joint session of the General Assembly with his budget recommendation, most likely with the revenue from the tax included.
The tax on hospital revenues was due to expire in June, and conservative legislators have said they oppose renewing it. Deal and legislative leaders insist the levy is not a tax but a fee, although Senate Bill 24 introduced by his floor leader, Sen. Charlie Bethel, includes penalties for hospitals that are late paying it or who don’t pay it at all.
SB 24, introduced Monday and hustled to a committee meeting the next afternoon, gives the Board of Community Health authority to charge the hospitals. Similar legislation gave the board, appointed by the governor, authority over nursing homes in 2003.
Lobbyists from hospitals and their associations took turns telling the committee they support the bill because it avoids a 32 percent cut in what they get from Medicaid. The federal government matches roughly two dollars for every dollar into it, meaning the $250 million paid by hospitals results in $689 million in Medicaid payments back to them.
“The only purpose of this authority is an effort to access the matching funds,” said Bethel, R-Dalton.
The three senators who voted against the measure expressed skepticism that it was merely an attempt to cover up a tax increase since the board would have little latitude other than to effectively renew the current rate. The legislature could still veto anything the board does, and the bill would retain the legislature’s ability to decide how the money is spent.
“I have a little concern,” said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Tucker, one of three committee members to vote against the bill.
Observers were surprised Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle assigned the bill to the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, a panel that normally deals with phone companies and electric utilities that are regulated by the state. The committee included the president pro tempore, majority leader, Health Committee chairwoman, the Appropriations Committee chairman and two of Deal’s other floor leaders.
Despite being stacked with Deal’s allies, the committee still made a change from his proposal to have the board’s authority expire in 2018 after a second Deal administration. The new expiration date is 2017, when Deal would still be in office, if he wins re-election.