ATLANTA -- Elected officials aren’t making much noise right now, but that doesn’t mean they’re not busy.
A few have made headlines with bills they’ve prefiled for the next session. Examples include proposals about drug tests for candidates and recipients of unemployment benefits, putting “In God We Trust” on car tags and slowing the creation of cities.
Such bills have been labeled a waste of time and even silly by editorial writers, but there’s no guarantee they’ll ever consume any time, either in a committee or before the full Legislature. Introducing a bill is easy, getting it considered is another matter.
At the same time, the only committees still holding meetings delve into such areas as “alternative wildlife hunting,” a topic certain to stir the emotions of animal lovers and outdoorsmen both.
With little visible activity to focus on, reporters can exaggerate the significance of long-shot legislation from freshmen, members of the minority or schemes that are clearly nonstarters.
What genuinely deserves notice are the bills being drafted behind the scenes.
This is the time when the House and Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses are sifting through polling results to decide what measures to sponsor. They generally shy away from anything not drawing support from 80 percent to 85 percent of the public, leaving other ideas for individual legislators to champion if they dare.
Also, some special panels are wrapping up their work in time for consideration during the next legislative session.
A committee to revise the funding formula for public schools will have recommendations that will impact every taxpayer, parent, teacher and student. Its subcommittees have already made sweeping preliminary recommendations to resume funding for school nurses, more resources for textbooks or their electronic equivalents and greater spending on classroom technology.
Even committee members acknowledged that their ideas will spark controversy, especially with so many competing interests.
Another task force putting the finishing touches on its recommendations is Gov. Nathan Deal’s Competitiveness Initiative. Its members held a series of public hearings around the state with the advertised goal of soliciting ideas. But before the first one, its leaders said they thought the main need was more generous giveaways to use as incentives for companies considering Georgia.
Eliminating inventory taxes and the sales tax on energy used by manufacturers were mentioned so often by the task force, it seems like they’ve already been resolved by acclamation.
Because the Republicans controlling state government are eager to generate jobs, enhanced incentives are likely to meet little opposition except from critics who’ll warn about the expense.
One of the most potent sources of controversy next session is formulating behind the office doors of the University System of Georgia, where staffers are hatching a plan to merge some of the state’s 35 public colleges and universities. Because having a hometown college is such a source of civic pride, lawmakers are likely to fight to protect the autonomy of their local schools.
Chancellor Hank Huckaby, who served half a term in the House, understands the powder keg he’s packing for delivery early in the legislative session, but Deal backs the concept as a cost saver. And Sen. Buddy Carter, the Republican chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee from Pooler, quotes Huckaby as saying the plan will spare the often-discussed, crosstown merging of Savannah State University and Armstrong Atlantic State University, which would undo racial segregation that’s been mutually accepted for half a century.
The big kahuna issue of last session, tax reform, is coming back. In the months since it failed to come to a floor vote in the House in the final hours of the last regular session, legislative leaders with sharpened pencils and calculators handy have been trying to fit the pieces together in a way that avoids raising taxes on most middle-income taxpayers while giving relief to employers.
It is unlikely they can do it without reinstating the sales tax on groceries.
The heavy lifting on all these issues is being done out of the media glare. So while reporters write about what is made public that strikes some as trivial, the real substance has yet to surface.