- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Recent editorials from Georgia newspapers:


Feb. 14

The Rome News-Tribune on expanding the use of medical marijuana in Georgia:

The issue of expanding the use of medical marijuana in Georgia again confronts the General Assembly. It is an issue fraught with hope on the one hand and concern on the other.

Proponents of medical marijuana, or cannabis oil, have mounted another effort to expand its coverage to more patients. Under the state law enacted two years ago, cannabis oil is allowed for treatment of cancer, seizures related to epilepsy or trauma-related head injuries, and severe or end-stage amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, sickle cell, Crohn’s and mitochondrial diseases.

Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, author of the existing law and chairman of a newly appointed study committee, has introduced a bill to add six illnesses to the list for cannabis oil treatment. They are post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s, autism, Tourette’s syndrome, AIDS and chronic pain. Peake is also proposing a 2018 statewide referendum on the question of allowing cultivation of medical marijuana in Georgia, but that proposal is not expected to gain anywhere near the two-thirds majorities needed in both houses of the legislature.

Georgia has more than 1,300 registered cannabis patients, according to a state Health Department official.

Nearly half of these patients suffer from seizure disorders and about one in four are children. One-third are 50 years of age and older. In one legislative committee hearing after another, parents of sick children and others supporting use of cannabis have told of its efficacy in treating severe symptoms and diseases.

Apparently, there’s a positive side effect from medical marijuana programs. Dr. David Bradford, a University of Georgia professor, has reported that states with such programs had a reduction in the rate of opioid addiction and opioid-related deaths stemming from a type of drug abuse that has reached alarming proportions. Bradford’s conclusion: “Appropriately designed medical cannabis laws can save both lives and money.”

The challenge for the General Assembly is to find the appropriate design, not an easy task. Intertwined with the basic issue of treatment is the problem patients face in obtaining supplies of the oil. Despite legalizing its limited use, the 2015 Georgia law provides no way to legally obtain cannabis oil within the state. Nor is production of marijuana legal here. In fact, it is a federally designated Class I controlled substance, illegal and not recognized by the government as having medical value.

Another issue is the level of THC, the psychoactive chemical that gives people a high. Georgia is one of 14 states with a low THC level of five percent, a target of Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, a physician.

He has introduced SB 16 which would cut the THC to 3 percent, contending that the lower amount would allow patients to find a concentration with which they feel comfortable, citing problems caused by the higher level. Proponents of the existing limit disagree.

Legislators have to reconcile the differences and come up with the appropriate design if possible. The differences include not only what illnesses to cover but a range of issues including whether to remove or amend treatment restrictions for some diseases already covered; the definition of “intractable pain;” and the one-year residency requirement to qualify for a prescription. There is also concern that in some states medical marijuana laws have evolved into legalizing its recreational use.

One of the legislators closely involved in this issue is Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, who serves on the special Medical Cannabis Study Committee headed by Rep. Peake and also sits on the Health and Human Services Committee. After a recent committee meeting, Rep. Dempsey expressed the objective of “making sure it’s done right.”

We share that objective, and we commend Rep. Dempsey along with her colleagues in the General Assembly as they work to create the appropriate legislation governing medical marijuana in Georgia.




Feb. 12

The Marietta Daily Journal on Georgia’s beer bill:

Georgia’s history of alcohol regulation is a tale soaked in favoritism, greed and monopoly.

But this year, legislators have apparently decided to sober up and fix the state’s “three-tier” system that promotes alcohol sales by some while preventing others from getting their due.

In Georgia, there are three tiers to alcohol dissemination: the producers (brewers and distillers), the distributors and the retailers.

The malignancy dwells in the distribution. Purveyors have cultivated such a lock on the market that they’ve suppressed small-business breweries in Georgia from flowering. In essence, the laws promote alcohol sales by the big distributors and prevent the small brewer from taking part.

The plot is accomplished by seducing legislators to protect a law prohibiting producers from selling directly to consumers or retailers.

If you’re Scott Hedeen, founder of the Burnt Hickory Brewery in Kennesaw, and you’d like to sell a six-pack of frothy goodness to folks visiting your brewery, you’re out of luck. It’s illegal.

Nor can Hedeen sell directly to, say, Shillings on the Square or Kroger. State law prohibits him from doing so. It’s a law the powerful, well-connected distribution companies have kept in place and guarded by showering lawmakers with campaign cash over the years.

To sell Burnt Hickory beer to Shillings’ patrons, Hedeen must contract with a distributor, who will deliver it to the restaurant - and jack up the price.

Distributors buy the brand and distribute it to retailers, but as state Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Smyrna, points out, the contract is slanted so heavily in favor of the wholesaler it’s very difficult to break, even if Hedeen believes the distributor is doing a terrible job distributing his product.

No one is suggesting distributors be run out of town. Many breweries and distilleries don’t want the cost and effort of handling distribution and seek out these wholesalers to provide that service.

The outrage is that distributors and their lapdog lawmakers have monopolized Georgia’s system for so long that a small-town craft brewery can’t sell its product to customers who visit.

Noticing the stranglehold distributors have on the market, Hill tried to provide a carve-out in the ridiculous law with 2015’s Senate Bill 63, which allowed breweries to offer “souvenirs” of their products to customers who took a “tour” of their facilities - 36 ounces to drink on site, or 72 ounces to go.

Distributors went apoplectic over his proposal, seeing a threat to their lucrative monopoly, but the bill ultimately passed. Prior to that legislation, brewery visitors could engage in tastings, but were prohibited from taking any product home.

While having to pay for a tour to simply take home a six-pack from the local brewery is pretty silly, it did allow craft breweries to get a toe in the door, laying the groundwork for future reform. That reform is here with Senate Bill 85, which would allow the state’s licensed breweries to sell up to 288 ounces of their libation - the equivalent of 24 12-ounce bottles - to those who come through their doors. Brewers’ direct sales would be limited to 3,000 barrels a year, the equivalent of about one million bottles.

The bill has passed the Senate and is now in the House.

Hill says the small breweries are happy with the bill because it’s not their intention to make more than 3,000 barrels a year, anyway.

Beer has been a part of the culture since the Pilgrims changed course on the Mayflower, opting to land on Plymouth because they ran out of the drink, as Jonathan Brown, a lecturer at Kennesaw State University’s Culinary Sustainability and Hospitality program, reminds us.

There have always been brewers and distillers in this country, but around 15 years ago, the homebrew craze exploded, a phenomenon where folks wanted to make their own product at home because it was cheaper and, they thought, fun. Some who took a fancy to brewing ended up starting their own businesses.

Another reason for the rise in small craft breweries is the sustainability factor of buying local.

“When people come into our cities and areas, they’re looking for something different,” Brown said. “They’re looking for something local, and then the locals are just wanting to drink the local beer because it’s a source of pride, it’s something that’s made here. It’s our product and it’s something we’re really proud of.”

That the middleman, the distributor, has kept the producer and retailer from communicating with each other for so long is an affront to the free market. And it’s clear that the only reason they’re not putting up a stink against the latest bill backed by Sen. Hill is because they know Georgians are on to them, and if they keep it up, their entire three-tier system is going to be junked, as it probably should be.

The House should pass SB 85 and Gov. Deal should sign it. It will help these small businesses grow, give more options to residents and boost tourism. And if they stop to think about it, the wholesalers will end up profiting in the end when the small breweries become larger and need their services. We can all drink to that.




Feb. 13

The Savannah Morning News on increasing teacher salaries in Georgia:

Georgia lawmakers are wise to be concerned about the big state subsidy that’s required to pump up the state’s pension programs for its retired educators in 2018 - an amount that’s expected to hit a whopping $223 million.

That’s an alarming total, believed to be the largest ever for Georgia. And while the state’s pension system for teachers doesn’t appear to be in trouble, like some systems for public employees elsewhere in the country, who knows what the future holds? The best time to reform any pension system is before it becomes bogged down in red ink. Lawmakers should be concerned by the size of this latest subsidy and consider alternatives to the current retirement system.

The retirement system covers about 400,000 teachers and University System employees, that total includes 2,809 retirees in Chatham County.

The problem, as some lawmakers see it, is that the state is pumping too much of its limited revenue into paying retirees and has been underpaying active teachers. Indeed, the $223 million slated for the retirement system, which ended fiscal 2016 with fewer assets than it had two years earlier, is enough to have given all teachers 4 percent or 5 percent pay raises, rather than the 2 percent Gov. Nathan Deal and lawmakers are offering. It’s also more than enough to return Georgia to education funding levels that lawmakers long ago promised public schools.

State Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Atlanta, said that Georgia has underpaid teachers for years while offering generous retirement benefits. That’s an equation he would like to change.

“We need to modernize our approach to paying teachers what they are worthwhile they are working for us and adding value to our children,” Mr. Hill said.

The Atlanta lawmaker is right. While retired teachers are entitled to the benefits they have earned, teachers make the most impact while they are on the job, not while they are enjoying their retirements. Mr. Hill has pushed legislation in the past to change retirement benefits for newly hired educators. Not surprisingly, he hasn’t had much success. Mention of altering the current retirement system for teachers tends to cause a political uproar.

Teachers and retirees generally argue that it’s a terrible idea because the pension benefits are a key tool in recruiting and retaining educators. There’s some truth to that logic, but at the same time, low teacher salaries prevents the best and brightest students from going into the teaching profession. It also hurts working teachers.

Wouldn’t it be better if teachers were paid what they were worth during their working years, instead of forcing them to wait until after they retire to enjoy the fruits of their labor?

Another concern about massive payments to prop up pension systems is that Georgia has less money to spend on other things.

Government pension woes have been well documented in the past decade, with some states, like Illinois and several municipalities in California facing huge shortfalls.

The state of Georgia’s two major systems, the TRS and the Employees Retirement System, which covers state employees and retired staffers, have long been considered to be well-run and well-funded in comparison with retirement plans elsewhere.

The Georgia systems are funded with a combination of contributions from employees and employers (school districts, public colleges, state agencies, etc.), as well as investment income. The pensions teachers and employees receive are based on the highest income they receive over a period of time and the years they work. Statewide, the average TRS payout last year to 117,918 retirees was about $36,000 each, according to an analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The TRS reports show the number of people receiving pension benefits is rising.

These are huge amounts of dollars. According to the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia, Chatham’s retirees received $99.9 million in retirement benefits in 2016, Effingham County’s retirees received $12 million in benefits last year.

The TRS had $65.7 billion in total assets at the end of fiscal 2016. The value of the fund went down during the great recession, had good years in 2013 and 2014 when investments paid off big, was relatively flat in 2015 and declined in value by more than $1 billion in 2016, with a sizable decline in investment income.

The system had 84 percent of its pension liability covered in 2014. At the end of 2016, that had fallen to 76 percent. But that’s still better than some pension plans in other states.

Still, if lawmakers approve the governor’s budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, Georgia taxpayers will have pumped in almost an additional $900 million over the past nine years to shore up the TRS and the state employees pension system.

TRS officials base their financial model on a 7 1/2 percent average annual return on investments. But that projection, and the big hit to next year’s budget, has some lawmakers concerned.

Nationally, there has been a small movement toward changing government pension systems so that they are based on defined contributions - how much an employee and employer puts into something like a 401(k) - rather than strictly defined benefits, where an employee gets a set lifetime pension when he or she retires.

A few years ago, State Sen. Hill proposed a hybrid retirement plan for newly hired teachers - part traditional pension and part 401(k). New teachers would pay into both. The state employees retirement system had gone to a new plan almost a decade ago, and Mr. Hill said it was time for the TRS to go in the same direction.

But teacher and retiree groups fought back and Mr. Hill’s bill stalled. It’s time to renew that debate as the current system is not sustainable. “Thinking long term about the health of our teaching core and the financial health of the state, we have to look at this issue,” Sen.Hill said. “If I have anything to do about it, we will be looking at it.”

We encourage Chatham County’s legislative delegation to be part of that important discussion.



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