Middle Georgia Senator David Lucas serves Georgia Senate District 26, including east and central portions of Bibb County as well as Twiggs, Wilkinson, Washington and Hancock Counties. The Monitor caught up with Senator Lucas this week to debrief about the 2015 legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly, which ended April 2 after its legal limit of forty days.
Monitor: You’ve now served three years in the Senate. How would you compare your experience in the Senate as opposed to your prior experience during 36 years of service in the House?
Senator Lucas: The big change wasn’t so much about the different chambers. It’s that the Democrats were in charge when I was in the House, but the Republicans are in charge now that I’m in the Senate. That makes a big difference. I had a seat on the “Green Door” budget subcommittee in the House that gave me some influence. In the Senate as a Democrat, I have less ability to help guide the agenda, though I do serve on five committees, including economic development, regulated industries, and urban affairs.
Monitor: Despite being a Democrat in a Republic-controlled legislature, you still managed to work behind the scenes and across the aisle with Governor Nathan Deal to secure some commitments about rural health care in a time of pain and contraction for rural health providers.
Senator Lucas: Yes, some rural areas aren’t getting served with medical care as well as they used to, and it’s literally killing people. I worked to help fund rural health care initiatives, including a special program through Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs that will use new technology to link more remote parts of my district, for instance in Hancock County, to the main medical centers during medical crises.
Monitor: One of the big items on this year’s agenda was the transportation bill. You voted for it, and it did pass through both chambers. Tell us about that.
Senator Lucas: What we passed was not a catch-all, but it was something. We tried to address some of the underfunding of our transportation infrastructure. For instance, we need to bring lots of aging bridges up to date. This law will help to do that.
Monitor: The political price of that was to raise taxes.
Senator Lucas: We just had to do that, to raise the excise tax. Had to do it. We’re low to begin with, and we’re one of the few states that let local government tax motor fuels, so some of our fuel tax goes to things that have nothing to do with transportation, like schools. It made sense for us to raise the gas tax if the increase goes directly to transportation.
Monitor: Two health-related bills passed the legislature this year, one requiring that private insurers cover autism in young children, and another, Allen Peake’s bill, on medical cannabis or medical marijuana. What was your vote on each bill, and why?
Senator Lucas: I voted for them both. On autism, parents who buy insurance should expect to get coverage for a difficult condition like that. It’s a condition that can be really tough on affected kids and their parents, especially without help. There are limits in the bill on both the amount of coverage, $30,000, and the age of the covered child, up through age six.
As for the medical marijuana bill, I voted for it. As a practical matter, though, you still can’t easily get the medical oil because you have to transport it across state lines in interstate commerce, and the federal government doesn’t allow that. So at the moment, there’s less in that law than meets the eye.
Monitor: Would you support the federal government in reclassifying marijuana as a Class II substance in the Drug Control Act from what it is classed now, a Class I substance, making it legal to transport and use for medical purposes?
Senator Lucas: I’d rather see us grow our own in state. We’ve got the big old empty Brown & Williamson plant here in Macon-Bibb that could be used as for controlled growth of marijuana for medical purposes. We should spend our money locally if we can, and create jobs in the process.
Monitor: One important bill that came up this year will put on the November ballot a decision for voters about whether to allow the governor to take over failing schools. Initially, 14 schools in Bibb County and two in Twiggs have been designated as failing schools.
Senator Lucas: I voted against that, and hope the voters do in November. Schools should be controlled locally. If that law goes through, some local taxpayers will be taxed for the schools locally, but the decisions will be made by the governor. That spells trouble.
Monitor: How would you recommend dealing with failing schools?
Senator Lucas: It’s not clear to me that the schools themselves are failing. It may be because the parents and community aren’t doing their jobs, and the schools just can’t make up the difference. If a kid is skipping school, how can the school be responsible for the kid’s failure? One fix is to bring back the truant officers and make damned sure those kids are in school. Don’t need the governor to do that.
Monitor: How did you come out on Georgia’s proposed version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?
Senator Lucas: I voted against it in the Senate, but it did pass the Senate. It died in the House, though, which was lucky. That was an accident waiting to happen.
Monitor: You’re referring to the cost that Georgia might have suffered in reputation and business that Indiana suffered after passing a similar bill?
Senator Lucas: Yes. Are we supposed to have Georgia law be about a particular Christian approach instead of reflecting a broader set of views?
Monitor: Georgia’s proposed law was said to be a veiled attack on same-sex marriage.
Senator Lucas: Ain’t no question that’s what the bill did.
Monitor: If you could have gotten one thing passed this session, what would that have been?
Senator Lucas: I’d have gotten the legislature to agree to take Obamacare money for Medicaid expansion. Why not? People who are paying for insurance privately have to pay more now to cover the people who don’t have insurance. That raises their premiums. If we took the money that’s already on the table, rural health care would be improved in a big way, and private premiums could go down.
Monitor: How did you get along with your colleagues in the Senate, including first-term Senator John Kennedy, with whom you share representation for Macon-Bibb?
Senator Lucas: I get along with all the legislators fine, including Senator Kennedy. He’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat, of course, but we get on fine. We didn’t have any important local Macon-Bibb legislation on the agenda this year, though, so we’ll have to wait to see how we work together on such things when they arise.