ATLANTA — The legislative session is set to begin Monday, and state lawmakers have a short list of top priorities amid a busy election year.
Lawmakers will be motivated to move quickly and wrap up the session with enough time to return home and start campaigning. One of the first orders of business will be to move the state primary date to May 20 to align with the federal primary, which was moved up under court order to allow more time for overseas and military ballots.
The budget is expected to dominate much of the session, as lawmakers have the benefit of increased revenues that have brought an end to additional spending cuts. That said, don’t expect the Republican leadership to go on a spending spree as they look to balance the budget, a constitutional requirement, and deflect any primary challengers campaigning on limited government.
Yet all signs suggest a significant amount of additional funds will be set aside for education, more than in recent years, as top officials say they are concerned about estimates that more than half of Georgia’s school districts are not meeting the 180-day minimum school calendar set by state law.
“There will be a significant increase in K-12 funding,” Deal said in a recent interview. “It will be done in such a way that it will relieve much of the pressure that local school districts have been under.”
Deal said specifics would be released Wednesday during his State of the State address, but promised that much of the additional revenues not set aside to continuing to rebuild the state’s reserves will be spent on education and meeting obligations under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Education is expected to be a major campaign issue as well, with Deal facing challenges from Republican state schools Superintendent John Barge and Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter.
State lawmakers are unlikely to overhaul the state’s school funding formula, which has its share of critics. House Speaker David Ralston said recently he doesn’t think lawmakers can fix the funding issue this session.
Lawmakers will be working on an amended fiscal year 2014 budget, which ends June 30 and includes $41 billion in combined state and federal funding, as well as crafting a new budget for fiscal year 2015, which starts July 1. Ralston said he hopes money will be available for pay raises for state employees.
Here are other major topics expected to come up during the 40 days the constitution allows the General Assembly to meet each year.
GUNS: A major lingering question from last session is whether lawmakers will back a bill expanding gun rights on college campuses. A compromise emerged late on the final day of the session between two competing bills but never received a vote. Ralston said he plans to make the legislation a priority.
CHILD PROTECTION: Lawmakers will also discuss efforts to shore up the state Division of Child and Family Services, after the deaths of two children with whom the agency had contact. Deal has said he wants to spend $27 million over three years to hire hundreds of caseworkers and supervisors. Both Deal and Ralston have signaled a willingness to at least start a discussion about privatizing some child welfare services, looking to Florida as an example.
SAVANNAH RIVER: One of the few tidbits Deal has released is his commitment to complete the state’s share of deepening the shipping channel in the Savannah River, even as he awaits federal funding. Deal said his budget will include the final installment of $35 million. Since the current budget includes a $50 million installment, that frees up $15 million for other uses.
SCHOLARSHIPS: The only other budget detail Deal has let slip is his decision to put nearly $14 million toward low-interest loans and a scholarship for books and supplies for technical college students. He will also propose a 3 percent increase in the HOPE Scholarship to four-year colleges.
OFFENDER RE-ENTRY: A task force of judges, prosecutors, government officials and advocates meeting at Deal’s request recommended a series of policy changes designed to help felons move from prison to productive employment and law-abiding society. The recommendations call for job training, help finding employment and individual plans for each prisoner’s re-entry into society.
CIVIL FORFEITURE: A controversial proposal held over from last year would restrict how sheriffs and local police seize cars, cash and other valuables suspected in drug sales and other crimes. Sheriffs and prosecutors opposed it then but have agreed to compromise this year.
HEALTH CARE: Democrats plan to draw attention to the governor’s decision not to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law, and protests are planned by the “Moral Monday” movement, which includes the state NAACP and other advocacy groups. A similar effort in North Carolina last year included weekly arrests of nonviolent protesters and helped to rally Democrats. A group of Republicans have already introduced legislation that would prohibit state employees, state agencies and public colleges and universities from enforcing and implementing the federal health care law.