ATLANTA — When legislators from across the state meet Monday morning to begin the 40-day session of the General Assembly, they’ll find major challenges awaiting them.
The first day will include their oath of office and ceremonies. Later in the week they’ll get their committee and office assignments, and Thursday, Gov. Nathan Deal will present them with their biggest challenge, balancing the budget. It’s such a mammoth task that the legislature will promptly recess for a week just to hear about it in detail.
Consideration of other issues will begin after that recess when committees hold hearings on topics from school funding, juvenile justice and ethics. It remains to be seen if matters in recent headlines like gun control and expanded legalized gambling also get hearings or if bills related to them languish in committees without lawmakers ever voting on them.
Here’s a look at what officials have already said will be the major topics, even though others are bound to arise when 1,500 bills are introduced during the session:
Balancing a $19 billion budget for 80 agencies takes considerable political skill in the best of years, but projected deficits and rising costs will complicate it this year. Tax collections reported by the Governor’s Office last week are below the revenue estimate that officials used in drafting the current year’s budget, forcing them to institute cuts now which will also impact spending levels in next year’s budget.
“In order to rebuild the state’s reserve funds, tax collections for the full fiscal year need to grow between 7 and 8 percent,” notes Alan Essig, director of the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute think tank. “As that level of growth is highly unlikely, the budget cuts for the current fiscal year that were asked for by the governor last summer will become a reality.”
At the same time, costs for Medicaid have already climbed $500 million above what was budgeted, prompting still more belt tightening.
Such lean finances usually mean no pay raises for state employees like teachers as well as reductions in programs considered marginally important. The conservative Republicans controlling the state have expressed no interest in broadly raising taxes, such as a proposed cigarette tax.
Hospital tax renewal
One of two possible revenue bills that leaders have said they will shepherd through is renewal of a tax on hospital revenues, although they insist on describing it as a “provider fee.” Tea Party legislators insist it is a tax and that they will oppose it.
The $200 million paid by the hospitals is matched by $400 million in federal Medicaid funding, so not extending the three-year tax would leave a $600 million hole in next year’s budget if it expires in June.
Deal announced he is asking that 10 days be restored to the pre-k school year that had been cut for cost savings two years ago. The added days will bring the year back to a full 180 days and give teachers a 4.8 percent pay raise, according to Kristin Bernhard, the governor’s education-policy advisor.
He also announced he will boost HOPE Scholarship payouts 3 percent because revenues have grown in the Georgia Lottery that funds both programs.
“I’m tickled to death to know we are restoring the 10 days to the pre-k program and raising the HOPE Scholarship,” said Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association. “I’m also delighted that it’s coming from lottery funds and not general funds that would have to come from somewhere else in the budget.”
The laws dealing with minors are up for revision, from child custody to neglect, abuse and delinquency. A commission of judges, educators and law officers appointed by the governor recommended the changes as a way to save taxpayers money while reducing repeat offences.
The bill shifts responsibility for most kids who get into trouble from the state to counties, which would get some of the state funds. Ohio and Texas made the same transition in recent years. The state would retain responsibility for the most violent children, those assessed to be the likeliest to break the law again.
The justice commission also recommends removing the criminal sanctions from many minor traffic offences, like broken tail lights or illegal lane change. The move is designed to save taxpayers money by reducing court dockets.
Since voters in most regions of the state defeated the transportation sales tax during the July primary, officials are looking for another way to fund needed transportation projects. Deal has said he favors tolls on new lanes, but lawmakers may have different ideas.
Another aspect of the sales-tax defeat is a penalty/reward it creates. Local governments in regions that passed it get rewarded by lowering to 10 percent the share of projects they must pay for while regions where it failed must pay 30 percent. Legislators from penalized regions want to repeal the penalty, but those from rewarded areas don’t. A 13-county region that includes Richmond and Columbia counties passed the 1 percent sales tax.
Also, half the members of the State Transportation Board come up for re-election. Legislators from congressional districts will cast secret ballots in the first weeks of the session.
The 28-year-old formula in the law for how public schools get funded is getting its first, wholesale update. While there is no significant increase in funding, the proposed revisions include mandated funding for nurses, technology and counselors. Most changes will be phased in, starting after next year.
Attorney General Sam Olens announced he is proposing legislation that would crack down on physicians and clinics that prescribe powerful medications to addicts who claim to be suffering from chronic pain. He says tough laws in surrounding states have prompted offenders to move to Georgia to set up business.
A comprehensive bill targeting both physical and financial abuse of the elderly is slated for consideration in the Senate Human Services Committee. As Georgians live longer, an increasing number of them have become victims of abuse, according to experts who say many cases are not reported.
After a rash of fatal crashes on Lake Lanier near Atlanta, legislators from that area are supporting legislation to require all boaters in the state to have a license on every lake, river, stream and ocean bay in the state. Deal also supports legislation lowering the threshold for drunk boating from .10 to .08 in order to match the level for drunk driving.
Lawmakers in support of expanding legalized gambling for horse racing or casinos are expected to push separate legislation, even though their efforts haven’t gone far in past years. Deal has said he’s opposed to both.
“Proponents tout the great economic opportunity for the state – new jobs, more tourism, and increased revenue generation. Opposition includes concerns about legal loopholes this legislation could open for ‘full-blown’ gambling in Georgia as well as the woes of gambling in general,” wrote lobbyists Stanley Jones and Helen Sloat in their report for clients for the law firm Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough.
Two different groups are pushing to change the law dividing up the state into regions where each of the state’s 94 electric utilities has a monopoly, although those utilities are opposed to any change. One group wants to allow a new company to get a statewide monopoly on solar power. Another group wants a change so they can lease their rooftops to independent companies that would sell solar power to them and to the utilities. Current law prohibits anyone other than those 94 utilities to sell power.
Legislative leaders recognized the political impact of the overwhelming vote in July’s primary on straw-poll questions about limiting gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers. Senators are expected to vote on their own rules Monday that would include a $100 limit on gifts. Separate legislation applying to all lawmakers is likely to come out of the House which may include a complete ban on gifts.
Common Cause of Georgia is also pushing for whatever passes to include limits on campaign contributions to political parties and political-action committees.