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Strident newcomers and practical veterans go different ways in the legislature

Posted: March 5, 2014 - 12:05am

ATLANTA — Sen. Renee Unterman supports legislation that isn’t popular with some of the newer lawmakers in the Republican Party.

Unterman attributes that to the differences in their experiences. She has been a nurse, a wife, a mayor, a county commissioner, a member of the House of Representatives and a senator. As the chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and only female GOP senator, she could easily be labeled a passionate conservative.

When she hears discussion in the appropriations committee about increased funding for Meals on Wheels, she can recall the conversations about the difference one hot meal delivered each day can mean to a shut-in who can no longer cook but isn’t eager to move in with a relative or nursing home. Such budget considerations are merely mathematical abstractions to the newer legislators.

A growing cadre of newcomers is determined to minimize government spending and intrusion. Most of them are energetic young men serving in their first public office.

Often, these men leave the legislature after a few terms. Many GOP legislative seats have turned over three times since Unterman was first elected to the General Assembly from Buford in 1998. As a result of the high turnover rate, Unterman says legislators don’t become as familiar with government and how it touches people as lawmakers who kept their seat 15-20 years.

“I’ve got all these young people that won’t vote with me,” Unterman said. “They’ve got this mentality, ‘We’re not expanding government. We’re not giving more services.’ And I’m like, ‘You haven’t been there, done that.’”

Indeed, the Senate easily passed a resolution urging Congress to adopt a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution and an amendment to the Georgia Constitution to prohibit raising the state income tax – both of which Unterman voted for.

Some of the issues she has championed do expand government and increase spending. For example, she is pushing this year for legislation to require insurance companies to pay for medication commonly used in mouth cancer and similar conditions that can be taken orally. Now, the companies pay only for intravenous administration, which requires a trip to a clinic.

It would be a mandate, something most conservative Republicans have sworn to reject as a factor driving up premiums.

Her initiatives this year are mostly the recommendations of an aging task force that was created last year, something the newcomers had no part in and no allegiance to.

“We’ve got so many young guys’’ in the GOP legislative ranks, she said. ‘‘They just don’t see the bigger picture. ”

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