Democratic Georgia state representatives met with area media Wednesday in Savannah for a roundtable to discuss their accomplishments during the recent legislative session and issues they are looking to tackle in the coming months.
The topics that House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, and Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, primarily discussed were Gov. Nathan Deal’s veto of the “campus carry” legislation, criminal-justice reform, Medicaid expansion and a new study committee to discuss Base Realignment and Closure in Georgia.
Deal vetoed House Bill 859, which would have allowed gun owners to carry handguns on public college campuses, on Tuesday.
“What Gov. Deal did was recognize that the harm well outweighed any potential security that would have been offered by having guns on campus,” Abrams said.
“It’s sad that we jeopardize the lives of our students for political gain,” Williams added.
Abrams was not shocked by Deal’s decision.
“I think Gov. Deal, when it comes down to public safety, has proven himself — both on public safety and just on public sentiment — has proven himself to be more of a pragmatist than an ideologue,” she said.
Abrams also delved into some of the challenges facing the justice system in Georgia.
“I think writ large we have a challenge with our criminal justice system, particularly the relationship between the state and the county, because there is a financing issue,” she said. “There’s also the characterization of our criminals.
“Too often, county jails are expected to essentially serve as mental-health facilities,” she continued. “And because they’re mental-health facilities, you face overcrowding and you face the challenges. And if we were to expand Medicaid, we would have the resources we need to actually provide them the health and support.”
Deal has started a conversation about criminal-justice reform, Abrams said.
“But it also requires that we take the next step and look at why are they there, who is there, and how do we make sure there’s a pathway out,” she said.
Williams said the conversation also needs to focus on how to create employment and hope for everyone, not just released prisoners.
The issues are multifaceted, Abrams said, but Georgia must invest in its people.
“It’s thinking about economic development, thinking about criminal-justice reform, thinking about the leadership in the state in a way that recognizes not just where we are, but looks at the predictive models that tell us where we’re going to be,” Abrams said.
“And that’s the challenge that we have faced, and we haven’t been willing to invest,” she said.
The lawmakers also said Medicaid needs to be expanded in Georgia, adding that it would create jobs.
“If we expand Medicaid today, you will create over the next seven years 56,000 jobs in the state of Georgia, 3,000 of which will be in coastal Georgia,” Abrams said. “You do that, you’re creating a return on investment for $200 million a year, and we don’t even start paying that for another few years.”
When it comes to Deal making a decision about Medicaid, Abrams said, “We are doing our best to create the space for him to say that he’s going to do the right thing.”
Abrams said that Georgia, with the most restrictive Medicaid in the country, has come to a decision.
“We need to stop treating it as a crisis as though we didn’t have a choice,” Abrams said. “We’ve made the decision not to expand Medicaid, we’ve made the decision to keep 56,000 people unemployed, we’ve made the decision to collapse hospitals because we do not care for the source of the revenue,” which is from the federal government.
Later in the discussion, Williams touched on the people who say they are against accepting federal dollars.
“We scream around about we — let’s free ourselves of federal dependence. We don’t want the federal money. I haven’t heard one yet say let’s close Fort Stewart,” he said. “Come on, $4.9 billion — why don’t we send that to another state because we don’t want federal money?”
The Coastal Courier will report on the roundtable’s discussion of Base Realignment and Closure in Georgia in an upcoming edition.