Sunday Interview with Debbie Buckner: 'It's been a huge educational opportunity'

Alva James-Johnson


Georgia Rep. Debbie Buckner - excerpts from the Sunday Interview

The state representative from House District 137 joins the Ledger-Enquirer for the Sunday Interview. For the complete interview with reporter Alva James-Johnson, see the January 10 story in print or online.
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The state representative from House District 137 joins the Ledger-Enquirer for the Sunday Interview. For the complete interview with reporter Alva James-Johnson, see the January 10 story in print or online.

Elected to the Georgia General Assembly in 2002, Debbie Buckner has developed a reputation as a strong advocate for the environment and public health.

As legislators geared up for the 2016 legislative session, which starts Monday, Buckner had a lot to say about some of the issues on the table.

Buckner sat down with reporter Alva James-Johnson and talked about her childhood, background and life as a state representative.

Here are excerpts from the interview, with the content and order of the questions edited slightly for length and clarity.

What was your childhood like growing up here in Columbus?

Fun, I guess is the best way to describe it. I grew up out by the airport, and back then Sunday evening we would walk from our house up to the airport and we would watch the 9 and the 9:30 airplanes come into the airport. ... The security was much different then than it is now, so you could go out on that observation deck and watch them. It was just fun to watch the families be reunited or see some of the soldiers coming in.

Did you grow up in a large family?

I have a brother and a sister. I'm the middle child. My sister's older, my brother's younger. Interesting thing about us, we're all seven years apart. So we all had a chance to kind of be the older -- or the younger and the only -- at different times in our lives, but they're great people and it was a fun household.

What did your parents do for a living?

Mom worked part-time for the tax commissioner here in Columbus, Mr. Hauser. And my dad worked for Burroughs Corporation, which later became Unisys, which was similar to IBM, except that they did bank, computers and check-writing machines and those kinds of things. So he traveled all over the state of Georgia and helped install and service those machines and banks.

What were your aspirations as a child?

I was always kind of interested in lots of different things. Politics, even as a young child, I enjoyed. ... When I first went to the capitol, I enjoyed the capitol and the museum there and the hustle and the bustle, and I loved to watch the things on the news about what was going on during the session. I loved history ... I think it was like fourth or fifth grade. We had a reading program at Britt David and I had to read all the biographies. The librarian said, "You've got to branch out and read different kinds of books. You can't just read all the biographies. In fact, you have read all the biographies, so you've got to move to a different genre." Many of those were about Abraham Lincoln and George Washington and people that were in politics. So I guess that's where I got that interest.

OK, so I read recently that you, your husband and children live at Fielder's Mill, one of the state's few operational grist mills. So tell me how you ended up there.

Well, that's my husband's home and his family has lived there in Talbot County since the Indians, literally. The mill was run by his grandfather and his great-grandfather. It is water-powered and it has the big stones that you think about with grist mills, and we grind mill and flour and grits and we have a mail-order business, where we mail it to people. It's an interesting lifestyle.

... We've got the best grits that ever were, and the cornmeal makes great hushpuppies or cornbread or dressing. ... I'm not a great bread baker but the wheat is a good wheat and it does make good rolls or biscuits. ... If I ever fully retire, I'll work on my bread-making skills.

What is it like living in that environment?

... Living in a rural area like Talbot County was different than living in Columbus. The grocery store was not just around the corner. You had to plan what you were going to do and make your trips count. When we first were married and lived out there, it was long-distance to call from Talbot County to Columbus. So you had to make a list of what you wanted to say on the phone because you didn't want to have a big long-distance phone bill.

... It's a neat place to live in a lot of ways because you have the opportunity to see nature and wildlife up close and personal. You have opportunities to go on really long walks, which I love to do. You can grow. ... There are a number of times we have sat at our dinner table and looked at what's on the table and said, "All of this came from the farm. ... Nothing on the table -- except for maybe the tea because we don't grow tea -- came from the grocery store.

How did you and your husband meet?

Columbus State. We had a math class together. A good friend of mine that I went to high school with and I were the only two girls in a math class of 40 guys. It was wonderful back then.

And your husband is a former postmaster in Junction City, is that right?

That's correct.

He sounds like he's an interesting person.

He is. You can ask anyone, quite a character. He is a history buff extraordinaire, very knowledgeable about Georgia history and about the region's history and very interested in making sure that people are aware of what did go on and how we can learn from that and make some better choices for the future.

So tell me how you got into politics.

Mainly because I fell in love with Talbot County and the people out there. ... In a lot of ways, people felt like we were being attacked. They were trying to put a hazardous waste incinerator out there. I was, at the time, working in public health and had been to the capitol as an advocate for a lot of different health issues. So I kind of knew my way around the capitol.

... Georgia had a rule where a child would go to school and would have 120 days to become adequately immunized. As public health officials, we're like, "Wait a minute, it would be better for them to come to school immunized rather than to expose children." We were able to change the immunization laws. Then we started looking at our infant death rate. We had a very high one at the time. So we were looking at things like, "How can we make sure that people who are afraid to go to the doctor because they think they're pregnant and can't afford the bill, how can we do something to get them in quickly so they can get the prenatal care that they need? And we'll figure out the money afterwards." We worked with the Department of Family and Children Services and started the presumptive eligibility for women that were pregnant so that they could come in quickly, get under the care of the physician and be taken care of and we could decrease the infant death rate.

Working on those two things, I had learned some things about laws and how things happened in Atlanta, and when they started talking about putting this hazardous waste incinerator on the Taylor-Talbot county line, it didn't feel right that we would put something that would have the capability of importing waste from all over the country to this one little area that has very sandy soil, that has exposed aquifers, which is an underground lake. ... We were able to defeat the incinerator and after that some people started talking to me about, "Would you ever be interested in politics?"

As a legislator, you're considered a strong environmentalist.

I am. But I don't understand, sometimes, when people talk about environmentalism, it's almost like they think it's contrary to other things like development or businesses, and I don't really see it as being contrary. ... I see it as a part of the spectrum of good health. If you don't have clean air and clean water, you can't live, so you can't be healthy. It's just a part of public health to me, and a very important part.

You represent a district that includes both rural and urban areas, small towns and larger cities. Has it been a challenge representing such a diverse population?

It's been a lot of fun because there are a lot of different interest groups. I have 12 cities and four counties. So that makes hitting all of the city council meetings a challenge. There are vast differences between some of the constituencies in south Columbus and, say, north Meriwether County. The one thing that I think is common among all the people is that they want someone that they feel like they know represents them, that's willing to give them a call back, that's willing to listen to them and that is, at least, present in their community periodically and trying to do something to help their communities. With those common threads throughout the community, I still don't believe I know all I need to know about the whole district, but I'm still learning and having a good time meeting people and trying to do the best I can.

Do you consider yourself a rural or an urban legislator?

The part of Columbus that I (represent is) the most rural part of Columbus. ... I think I'm both, really, but I am very involved in the rural caucus. I am vice chair of the rural caucus. That is a very important caucus at the capitol because of the fact that we have issues that appear to pit Atlanta against the rest of the state. The rural caucus is made up of Democrats and Republicans that are in the rural part of the state of Georgia so that we can come together on issues when we need to and say, "Wait a minute, the rest of the state needs a voice here."

In the past, you have expressed a concern about job creation. How do you think that the state is doing in that area?

In the past, what we've been doing is creating jobs and attracting businesses. But sometimes the jobs that we've attracted have not been at the same level as the jobs that we've lost. We may have people that are working, but they're working at a job that may pay $30,000 when they, before the great recession, were working a job that paid $50,000, $60,000, $70,000. That makes it kind of difficult for families to be able to provide for their needs ... because everything's going up in cost, it feels like. So for the salaries to go down makes it really a tight squeeze.

So what has been done about that at the state level?

I think a lot of us are concerned about that and looking at that. Of course, there's been conversation over the last few years about increasing, on the national level, the minimum wage. And people are looking at what that would mean for Georgia.

What are some of the other issues that you would say you've been passionate about over the years?

... I'm delighted with what's going on down on the river. It is just so exciting to have the whitewater rafting. It's so exciting to have businesses develop along the river's edge and the RiverWalk, of course. ... For many years growing up, it was just a place that was there, but we didn't ever really appreciate that part of the city. I think now the city has a challenge where it's going to have to really work hard at making sure we have not only the flow -- the amount of water coming down the river so that we can maintain those activities -- but we're going to have to start looking at the quality of the water that's coming down so that we can make sure that we can have all those activities and have it be the quality of water that we need.

Right now -- which will be coming up, I think, this session -- there have been some rulings in the court about buffers. And the buffer is where you say you're not going to do something along the river's edge. One of the most famous ones that I was involved with several years ago up in the Hull County area, they had a huge drinking water reservoir and so the streams coming into that reservoir had a buffer of, like, 75 feet. You couldn't build in the 75 feet of the stream.

Let's talk about health care.

... I am concerned about health care now because I think that sometimes when people are going for care, they are not receiving the care that they need. I have just recently had several personal examples of people that would go, for example, to an emergency room and would be told to go home and they would go home and had to come back and they would have a very serious condition that had been overlooked. They would go to an emergency room and be told to take a pain reliever. When a dear friend just recently passed away, it was a blood clot and he died at home the next day. My concern is that we are not really listening to the patients.

... They don't trust what they're saying or maybe don't listen to what they're saying or don't think that they know their bodies as well as the person might know it. I think we need for our doctors to be more like pediatricians or veterinarians and really look carefully at the signs and symptoms and listen carefully to what's being said.

Do you think that the state has made a mistake in not accepting federal funds for the expansion of Medicaid here in Georgia?

I've been a longtime proponent that Georgia should be a part of the Medicaid expansion. The reason I believe that is because we have so many uninsured families in the state of Georgia. I feel (like it's) not a panacea to solve all the problems of health care in our state, but it was a way for us to literally kick the can down the road. And if we could use the time very wisely, while we were getting that Medicaid expansion, we could've found some solutions hopefully to be able to do things better. ... We've lost four rural hospitals because people are going for care and can't afford to pay for it, and there's no mechanism to help them pay the bill. Hospitals cannot render the care at that frontline in the emergency room, and listen carefully and take care of the patients, if they don't have the money to pay the staff, if they don't have enough staff to hear of what's being said. So I really do believe we made a mistake by not accepting the Medicaid expansion.

Do you see that changing anytime soon?

... It could be part of the dialogue that we will have this year at the legislature. In Georgia, they voted to take the responsibility of taking that decision away from the governor and giving it to the legislature. So, as more and more hospitals are in jeopardy, and as more and more hospitals have closed across the state, I think we're going to have a robust conversation about whether or not we should expand.

In Columbus, 2015 was a difficult year for the health care industry. What is your reaction to all of that?

Well, I have been concerned for a long time, not only about the money side of health care, but mostly about the care side. But I do understand that in order for you to take appropriate care for the patient, you've got to pay for it somehow. What I would hope is that -- from all that has gone on and all the changes that are coming -- we will rebuild in Columbus our health care community to the point that we have good care for our citizens. I personally have some reservations about some of the things I'm seeing right now. I see a lot of people that are receiving lots of treatment for cancer, but I don't see a lot of successes.

There is a group in town called the West Central Georgia Cancer Coalition and it was established probably (15 years ago). ... The purpose of that group was to look at why, at that time, Columbus did not have a higher incident rate of cancer (but) had a higher death rate than the rest of the state in many of the cancers. The purpose of that coalition was to do whatever we could to really screen and get people into early care. Because what we found, in particular with breast cancer and with prostate cancer, is that people were getting in, were presenting to the physicians at stage three and four where there's fewer options.

... We need a really good look at where are we now. ... Have we improved with what we've done? And if we haven't, why haven't we? And what do we need to do different?

A lot has changed since you became a legislator. The state government is now dominated by Republicans in both chambers and the executive office. What is it like being a Democrat in that environment?

Interesting. ... I have a lot of friends from both sides of the aisle. I've been able to work with people from all parts of the state ... and I think that's incredibly important. I think it's important for people to realize that there's a nucleus of people that go to the legislature that truly care about the state. They're not politicians that are party people. They are there because they care about the state and they want to do whatever it takes to make it run the way it should, so that the solutions that are created are solutions that will help as many people as possible. ... I thought it was a big change when everything went from Democrat to Republican, but what's been a bigger change for me is a new wave of total disgust, total disregard and total dislike of government, elected officials and the process. ... What I'm seeing is that a lot of people that have recently been elected say that they want smaller government or no government. ... Do we want a streamlined, effective, efficient government? Do we want leaders who are responsive and are trying to do the very best and are honest? Yes. Do we want to not have government at all? I don't think we do. I think that's like Somalia when you have no government.

In 2015, there was a transportation bill that was opposed by some local leaders. Why was it so controversial? And what was your stance on it?

... They were worried that this new bill would take away all the benefits and advantages that they had voted in, and (taxes) that their citizens had (approved through TSPLOST), to be able to have roads and bridges. ... The bill that was passed did not touch any of those communities, did not change that agreement at all. ... There are a lot of people that are very upset about the new transportation bill, and the main thing that I keep hearing them being most upset about is the $5 per night hotel room charge that they put on there to make up a gap and the amount of money that it would take to fund transportation.

That was a last-minute negotiation item. It was between either taxing rental cars or taxing the hotel rooms. ... We were told (that there) were fewer Georgia locals that would use the hotel rooms then would rent the cars and that ... people passing through the state visiting would help us pay that transportation tax. ... There are a number of people talking about, "If we can generate the money that we need for transportation from the other parts that are in the bill, could we take that $5 hotel room rate off?" I think there will be some conversation about that during the session.

The medical marijuana bill passed unanimously. Why do you think that's a good thing for the state?

There are a number of medical conditions (some of them have been more anecdotal and less scientific than others), but there had been some improvement in the symptoms. I think that there are definitely some problems with the bill. It was not a bill that solved the problem of getting that medical marijuana, or the cannabis oil that is generated or made out in Colorado, from Colorado to Georgia knowing that you've got to pass through states where it's illegal.

... The feds will have to work that out. So there's a real problem with, "We passed something, but families are still in difficult situations."

What are some of the big issues that you expect to dominate the session this year?

... Some of the transportation bill will be talked about, I think. There are some revisions, I think, from a study committee that happened on the medical marijuana bill. I think that that will be talked about. I think that there will be some discussion about the Medicaid expansion and whether or not we can push for that. I think that there will be some issues about water and buffers that will be discussed as well.

Here in Columbus, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson hopes to have a "thaw the freeze" referendum on the November ballot. What are your views about that? Should it be on the ballot and what are your views about thawing the freeze in general?

It's generally my belief that if there's an opportunity for us to put something on the ballot and allow people to take ownership of that issue or that concern, to have a chance for them to voice their own opinion, I think that's what we should do. ...

So do you think the freeze should be altered?

Since I don't pay taxes in Columbus, I'm careful about how I put this, but honestly it does seem unfair and I do think it needs to go to a vote. ...

When are you up for re-election?

We'll all have to qualify this spring and run this summer and in November.

Will you be running again?

I'm running again.

How would you sum up your experience in the general assembly so far?

... Even though we may fight like cats and dogs, there are some absolutely amazing people there serving in the state of Georgia. It's a delight to serve with them. It's been a huge educational opportunity, not only for me to learn about the legislative process and learn a little bit about Georgia history and the laws, but to broaden my horizons and learn more about parts of the state that I've never really known that much about.


Name: Debbie Buckner

Age: 60

Hometown: Born in Atlanta, raised in Columbus

Current Residence: Junction City, Ga.

Job: State Representative for House District 137, which includes Talbot County and parts of Harris, Meriwether and Muscogee counties

Previous Jobs: Former director of community benefit at Columbus Regional Healthcare System; director of community relations at Doctors’ Hospital and Senior Public Health Educator at the Columbus Health Department.

Education: Bachelor’s in Health Science from Columbus State University and attended Georgia Southwestern College for post-graduate work and a teaching certificate.

Family: Husband Mike, sons Josh and John, daughter Olivia, daughter-in-law Victoria, and two dogs.