Tuesday, voters finish deciding who will represent District 4 in the Georgia Senate. The runoff features two Republicans, Dr. Scott Bohlke and Billy Hickman, CPA, who agree on the importance of health care access and economic development but disagree on tort reform.
The Senate district encompasses Bulloch, Candler, Evans and Effingham counties and parts of Emanuel and Tattnall counties. In Bulloch only, a runoff between attorneys Catherine Sumner Findley and Mark A. Lanier for Bulloch County State Court solicitor-general appears on the Republican ballot, while the nonpartisan school board District 7 runoff between incumbent member Heather Mims and challenger Lisa Deloach involves just a portion of the county.
Three weeks of early voting ended Friday. Traditional polling places will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. In Bulloch, this includes 16 precincts, but because of an air-conditioning problem, the Fair Precinct has been temporarily relocated to the Bulloch County Center for Agriculture at 151 Langston Chapel Road. Three precincts that were moved to larger buildings for the June 9 primary also remain in those locations.
Bohlke vs. Hickman
A July 28 online forum hosted by the Statesboro Bulloch Chamber of Commerce and the Statesboro Herald gave some indication of differences in emphasis between the State Senate contenders.
To some extent those differences align with their professions. Bohlke is a family practice physician from Brooklet, and Hickman is a certified public accountant from Statesboro. When they were asked to list what they see as top issues, Bohkle put health care first on his list.
“So, you hear my opponent say health care, and that’s what I do,” Bohkle said. “That’s what I’ve been doing, once again, for the past 21 years. I agree, I think health care is very, very important. Industry will not relocate without health care access. So I’m an advocate for that, for the Georgia HEART program. I think (rural hospitals) may suffer because their accountants don’t actually know about the Georgia HEART program.”
This program isn’t actually about hearts or cardiology. HEART is an acronym for Helping Enhance Access to Rural Treatment. Created by the Legislature and former Gov. Nathan Deal in 2016, Georgia HEART provides a state income tax credit to individual and corporate taxpayers who contribute to a fund to help qualifying rural hospitals. The hospitals in Claxton, Metter and Swainsboro are all on the list of eligible hospitals ranked by financial need.
Reduction of regulations was the second issue Bohlke named as a priority.
“It’s about decreasing regulation,” he said. “I’ve heard it time and time again as I travel around this district. It’s about decreasing regulation on farmers, in health care and on businesses. We need to … free them up to do what they need to do on a day-to-day basis.”
Hickman actually answered the question first, but the order has been flipped here since he was quoted first in a July 30 story.
Poverty and hospitals
“Well you know, I don’t look at things as problems, I look at them as opportunities, and I think one of the biggest opportunities we’ve got is addressing poverty in our area,” Hickman said. “Our poverty rates in the district run anywhere from the lowest of 10% in Effingham to the highest of 29.7% in Emanuel County.
“When you have hopeless children, you have dangerous children, and that causes issues also,” he continued. “The way you get them out of poverty is you provide jobs for them, and that goes back to economic development. …”
“The other thing, again, we’ve got to make sure we provide access to health care, and we’ve got to keep our hospitals open in Emanuel County, Evans County, Candler County, Effingham County. …,” Hickman said. “Nobody wants to move to a community that doesn’t have access to health care.
“So to me, poverty, jobs, economic development and education are the priorities for this district,” he concluded.
Both candidates said similar things about these issues. Both also expressed support for state programs to help fund expansion of broadband service in rural areas.
Split on tort reform
But tort reform was a different matter.
“I’ve been a proponent for tort reform dating back to 2005,” said Bohlke, previously president of the Medical Association of Georgia and now chairman of its Council on Legislation.
He equated tort reform with “getting rid of frivolous lawsuits.”
“Traveling this district, I spoke to a gentleman that owns a trucking company in Collins, Georgia,” Bohlke said. “He has a hundred employees. His liability insurance right now is $1 million. He has to pay $1 million for insurance before he makes dollar one. Now, that’s ridiculous. We’re talking about common sense. It’s about ‘One call, that’s all;’ it’s about, ‘For the people.’”
Those two phrases are from slogans used by specific personal injury law firms in TV ads.
“We need tort reform right now,” Bohkle said. “We need to get rid of the spill-the-coffee, $1 million; slip and falls....”
He said companies such as Home Depot, Delta Air Lines and Publix are pushing for tort reform in Georgia.
Bohlke did not refer to specific legislation. But Senate Bill 415, which was tabled in the Senate in March and did not cross over to the House, would have limited jury awards in product liability cases and barred claims by trespassers against landowners, among other restrictions affecting various kinds of lawsuits.
When the tort reform question went to Hickman, he said, “I believe in the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution; I believe in trial by jury.”
“And I do believe that we need to look at the frivolous lawsuits and determine what is frivolous and not frivolous,” he said.
In addition to being a CPA, Hickman is certified in financial forensics and said he has “testified in about every court in this area.” Decisions such as the value of someone’s life or a permanent injury should be made by a jury and not just a judge, he said.
“I am not in favor of tort reform,” Hickman concluded. “I will never support tort reform. I will support looking at frivolous lawsuits and some reform of those.”
Bohlke acknowledged that he has received contributions from organizations that support tort reform. As seen in a June campaign disclosure report, one of his contributors is the Georgia Lawsuit Reform Political Action Committee, based in Atlanta. Several PACs concerned with medical and health care issues have also contributed to his campaign.
Bohlke asserted than Hickman received a significant portion of his campaign funds from personal injury lawyers.
Hickman acknowledged that a number of attorneys have contributed to his campaign. Several of these are attorneys with general-practice firms in the district, but others are from further afield, such as attorneys with Butler Wooten and Peak, a personal injury firm in Columbus.
Both candidates’ campaign disclosure reports can be found at https://ethics.ga.gov.