Georgia State Senator John F. Kennedy of Macon, Georgia was elected in 2014 for the District 18 seat being vacated by Cecil Staton after a lively race in which Kennedy bested Dr. Spencer Price from Thomaston. District 18 covers north, south and west Bibb County, plus Upson, Crawford, Peach and Monroe Counties, and parts of Houston County. Kennedy won in the decisive May 20, 2014 primary by 2,180 votes with a 57-43 percentage margin. Unopposed in the November election, Kennedy was then tapped by Governor Nathan Deal to be one Deal’s Senate floor leaders – an unusual position for a freshman senator indicative of Kennedy’s strong reputation even before arriving in Atlanta. The Monitor caught up with Senator Kennedy on April 24, 2015 after the conclusion of the 2015 term of Georgia’s General Assembly.
Monitor: Your first session of Georgia’s General Assembly as a senator is now complete. How would describe the major accomplishments of the General Assembly this session?
Kennedy: It was a good session. We tackled some large and difficult issues, some of which have been around for a while. Transportation is a good example. We have infrastructure challenges on a statewide basis that we need to address to attract and retain business and industry.
Monitor: What might that mean for Middle Georgia?
Kennedy: With the deepening of the Savannah port, middle Georgia should have a significant increase in transportation opportunities as well as infrastructure needs because of the anticipated increase in traffic coming out of Savannah and through Macon. The I-16/I-75 interchange needs to be addressed, and it’s expensive – a $350 million project. One problem is that the traffic going from Savannah to Atlanta now has to funnel down to one lane. That’s an acute problem.
We’re not only talking about new projects, but deferred maintenance. We should have been spending eight percent on maintenance, but we’ve been spending two percent. As a result, for instance, a lot of our bridges are derated from their original design loads and intended purposes. We have school buses taking longer routes with our children to avoid those bridges.
Monitor: Is the expensive proposed expansion of Macon’s airport runway part of the deal, or can that be handled by use of the Warner Robins facilities as some are suggesting?
Kennedy: We did not study that issue this session. The bigger controversy in Atlanta was about the transportation bill being viewed as a tax increase. There is a tax increase of the excise tax, raising it on net from roughly 19-20 cents per gallon to about 27 cents per gallon. We tried to mitigate tax increases as much as possible, for instance by pledging possible future increases in state budgets to transportation, and eliminating the substantial fuel tax breaks now enjoyed by Delta.
Monitor: One controversial matter was the proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act. What was your view of that?
Kennedy: That bill made it out of the Senate, where I voted for it, but it didn’t make it out of a House committee in a close vote. It was a victim of bad press and bad timing, given the media sensation that was occurring in Indiana and Arkansas about the same time concerning their religious freedom laws.
Monitor: RFRA sponsors in Georgia are vowing that it will return next year to the General Assembly, but the U.S. Supreme Court’s anticipated ruling on same-sex marriage might have some bearing on the matter. What do you think will happen?
Kennedy: I do believe that RFRA as a proposal will return in one form or another. The precise bill could even come back without change, because it was already passed by the Senate, and the second year of this legislative term is not over. Other than that, I don’t know what will happen.
Monitor: Two controversial bills that did make it through the General Assembly this year involved medical marijuana and coverage by private insurers of childhood autism.
Kennedy: Yes, Allen Peake’s work on the medical cannabis bill was impressive. He really helped move the needle of public opinion on that. Going forward, the federal government needs to study cannabis and possibly change its status down from Class I status so that medical uses like those envisioned in Georgia can be facilitated.
As for the autism bill, it is the right thing for these families and it makes good economic sense for private insurers to cover early childhood intervention. If young kids with autism are not effectively treated, they have a significantly higher likelihood of serious complications that can lead later to the state being required to assume obligations for them as adult wards of the state. Autism treatment for young children can work. We’ll be watching to see how this plays out.
Monitor: As a lawyer and floor leader with a judiciary committee assignment, you did some work for Governor Deal helping to shepherd some bills through that were parts of his legacy issue of reforming Georgia’s criminal justice system.
Kennedy: Right. For example, we worked on crafting a more efficient approach to the state functioning in various areas such as pardons and parole. We also addressed some juvenile justice matters that needed attention, and that I was able to help with.
That process also gave me the welcomed opportunity to get to know my new colleagues better. It also had me working closely with the Governor’s staff. The time commitments were serious. We’d convene most mornings at 7:30 a.m.
Monitor: You also served on the banking and technology committees. Did anything interesting come up there?
Kennedy: Trying to figure out how to deal with Uber and similar businesses in that category was interesting and challenging. That is still a moving target.
Monitor: Did anything surprise you about your experience in your first term?
Kennedy: Given that I was the new kid on the block, I was pleased to have gotten all sorts of help from my more experienced colleagues. They were very kind to me. Overall, it was also more of an all-consuming experience than I anticipated. Still, I appreciated the opportunity to learn, and I did learn an awful lot. I’m looking forward to serving Georgia and the people of my district throughout this year and in next year’s General Assembly as well.