State Rep. Deborah Silcox (R-Sandy Springs) touted some of her bills as a freshman legislator, and fielded questions about such big issues as Medicaid expansion and “religious freedom” laws, at a Sept. 10 Rotary Club of Buckhead luncheon at Maggiano’s Little Italy.

Silcox represents House District 52, which includes parts of Buckhead and Sandy Springs. She defeated a Republican challenger in May’s primary election and now faces Democrat Shea Roberts on the November ballot. Silcox did not mention Roberts and the luncheon appearance was presented as an apolitical legislative update.

State Rep. Deborah Silcox speaks to the Rotary Club of Buckhead at Maggiano’s Little Italy on Sept. 10. (John Ruch)

Her one reference to the election was urging attendees to vote in it, noting that the ballot also includes choosing a new governor.

“It is more important than ever to get out and vote,” Silcox said. “We had a 19 percent turnout, you guys, in the Fulton County primary… That is pitiful, you guys,” she added, especially “if you consider the number of people who died for this flag, who died for voting rights in this country…”

Silcox’s bills

“I actually passed more pieces of legislation than anyone else in the freshman class,” said Silcox, showcasing four bills she sponsored.

A law that subjects fireworks to local noise ordinances was particularly popular in Sandy Springs, though city government there is still figuring out how to implement it. Silcox also cited a sex-trafficking law that explicitly cracks down on “middlemen” and toughens penalties for victimizing children; and a bill funding a Georgia Holocaust Memorial, which she hopes can be paired with the Anne Frank exhibit in Sandy Springs.

A fourth bill she touted was designed to help address Georgia’s low rankings on infant mortality and childbirth mortality rates. The law creates a voluntary “designation” system for ranking hospitals’ neonatal and maternal healthcare. An audience member criticized the system as no help for mothers who have no choice of hospitals under insurance providers, and Silcox acknowledged that “may be an ironclad situation” for some, though saying the federal government and insurance companies are responsible for that.

Medicaid expansion

Another healthcare topic was expanding Medicaid coverage to more Georgians, an option under the federal Affordable Care Act that was rejected by Gov. Nathan Deal. An audience member asked about Medicaid expansion, noting that many hospitals are closing across the state.

Silcox said she would not want to expand Medicaid in a way that would “water down” benefits for the 1.8 million Georgians who currently use it. She suggested a waiver policy to “target a certain population with identified needs” and thus “grow Medicaid, but not an all-out expansion.” Any Medicaid coverage changes need to be “effective and targeted and not just given out to the general population,” she said.

Religious freedom laws

“Religious freedom” or “religious liberty” laws have generated repeated controversy in the state in recent years, including a veto by Deal. Proponents say religious practices need better protections from government intrusion, while opponents say such laws could legalize discrimination, particularly against LGBT people. A big factor in the dispute is opposition from many large corporations. Asked about a possible new round of religious freedom legislation, Silcox indicated an open but cautious mind.

“I am certainly for religious freedom, but I’m not for discriminating against anybody,” she said. A law identical to an existing federal version, and which did not discriminate, might be OK, she said. But she also expressed concern about economic damage to the state.

Education

Silcox reviewed the legislature’s recent work on education, including full funding of the “Quality Basic Education” formula for school funding and the creation of a $16 million school safety committee that she believes will produce new laws. She also noted an infusion of $361.7 million into the teachers retirement fund to “shore it up.”

“Our teachers are invaluable. They aren’t paid enough for what they do,” she said.

Asked about increasing access to preschool, Silcox acknowledged that early learning is important and tied it to criminality. In her remarks and comments afterward, she said unidentified “government wonks” study elementary-level reading and math scores and “look at a lot of third-graders to plan how many prison beds they need going forward.”

However, she said, preschool access means more money, which is difficult under the state’s balanced budget. “If we didn’t have to put $361 million into teachers’ retirement, we might could afford it,” she said after the luncheon.

Taxes

Silcox promoted the state’s new income tax cut as a “great economic driver.” Among other changes, it cuts the corporate and highest personal rate from 6 percent to 5.75 percent. The legislature could reduce the rate to 5.5 percent in 2020, and Silcox said she believes that will happen as increased internal sales tax collection revenue comes in.

Silcox said she does not want to get rid of the state income tax completely because it is important for maintaining the government’s bond rating and ensuring a “stable basis” for budgeting.

Asked about creating senior property tax exemptions, an issue she campaigned on, Silcox said, “I don’t want to be partisan because we’re not supposed to talk politics here.” But she noted that she and fellow Buckhead Republican Rep. Beth Beskin are in the minority on Fulton County delegation on the issue. Responding to an audience question, she also pledged to look into the issue of possible exemptions on military veterans’ retirement income.

Other issues

An audience member asked about the legalization of medical marijuana. Currently, Georgia law allows doctor-authorized possession of a certain type of marijuana-derived oil for specific medical uses. This year, legislation expanded the authorized uses to including treating post-traumatic stress disorder and “intractable pain.” Silcox said she believes the pain treatment authorization was “overly broad” and that the state should loosen restrictions to allow more study of medical marijuana dosage, especially as it affects child patients. “My biggest concern about medical marijuana is the dosage,” she said.

On the topic of mass transit, Silcox briefly addressed the landmark creation of “The ATL,” a regional transit governing authority. “Who wants to see more transit in metro Atlanta?” she asked. She raised her hand and many audience members did as well, though it appeared a majority did not.

Asked after the luncheon what she sees as a big issue for the next legislative session, Silcox said, “Job number one is going to be acquiring a new voting system in Georgia,” especially one that can create a back-up record or receipt for votes cast. Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is also the Republican candidate for governor, has issued a request to voting machine vendors for a better system in advance of the 2020 elections.

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