New Georgia House gatekeeper knows insurance, health care

New Georgia House Rules Chairman Richard Smith is the gatekeeper who will decide which bills make it to a floor vote this year. Maggie Lee/Georgia Recorder

Richard Smith just got one of the most important and unknown jobs in Georgia politics.

He’s the new chairman of the Georgia House Rules Committee, which decides if a bill gets to the Georgia House floor for a vote. If Smith doesn’t see the point of a bill, that hurts its prognosis.

The Columbus Republican and retired University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service director was sworn into the state Legislature Jan. 10, 2005. For about eight of the last 15 years, he chaired the state House Insurance Committee. So, he’s heard his share of testimony about the price Georgians pay for health care.

When Smith is sitting in the Rules chair, he’ll give preference to bills that he says meet common litmus tests.

“Will it create jobs, will it improve health care, the road system, fund the state?” Smith said.

And by the end of this month, lawmakers from all over Georgia, Democrat and Republican, will get used to the routine of heading to his committee room at meeting times, and lining up along the wall, waiting a turn to explain why their bills pass the test. After all, the most common modifier used ahead of Rules Committee is “powerful.”

Smith said he intends to approach the job with objectivity. He’s looking for a satisfactory answer to several questions, like why a bill is being proposed, whether it has unintended consequences and how it would benefit the state.

“Then you say ‘OK, maybe that needs to make it to the House floor for a vote,’” Smith said.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat who took office in 1975, has spent time waiting his turn along the wall, but he also spent four years two decades ago in the Rules chair where Smith now sits.

“Your office is like Grand Central Station,” Smyre said.

That is, Smith is in charge of organizing a lot of legislative mashups that need to be free of unintended consequences. At stake are policies that affect the lives of people and communities across Georgia.

Smith said he’s not likely to put his name on legislation in his new role.

But it’s safe to expect he will be mostly in step with the man who handed him the powerful job, state House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican.

“A Rules chair who was going against the speaker regularly, I suspect that person would be looking for a new job,” said Charles S. Bullock III, a University of Georgia political science professor and author of several books on Deep South politics.

Smyre, too, recalled close collaboration: daily morning phone calls with long-serving House Speaker Tom Murphy, a Bremen Democrat. 

Smith agreed it will be wise for a Speaker and a Rules chairman to be in step philosophically, but that doesn’t mean the 180-member House is micromanaged.

One trapping of the title is Smith can expect to be called “sir” and to be treated with deference by junior lawmakers, Bullock said. Because one day, all those legislators will need  something to clear the gatekeeper that they view as crucial to re-election or that would have a big impact on their district.

In spite of his growing influence Smith was unable to secure enough support last year to curb “surprise” medical billing.

State House lawmakers rejected Smith’s House Bill 84, which proposed that health care providers tell patients if they will be treated by out-of-network caregivers. It was his second try in as many years to create more billing transparency.

It’s not that legislators are in favor of surprise medical bills. It’s more about finding a policy that a majority of lawmakers from House and Senate agree is fair to insurers, doctors and patients. And the powerful medical and insurance lobbies have a valuable interest in over out-of-network care costs and who gets the bill.

Smith said he’s negotiating with one of his colleagues to revive his billing transparency legislation leftover this year from 2019, so that proposal should have a champion in the coming months.

After all, it never hurts to be the Rules chair’s champion.