Budget, health care will dominate Georgia legislators' time

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ATLANTA — Georgia lawmakers will convene Jan. 14 with a familiar theme: a budget shortfall explained mostly by an economy not keeping pace with rising health care costs.

The single biggest variable is the Medicaid insurance program for the poor, most of them children. Medi­caid already promises to be several hundred million dollars short of what it will need to continue existing services and payment rates in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Even more pressing is an expiring hospital tax that yields about $650 million in state and federal cash. If it runs out with no replacement, the shortfall jumps to the neighborhood of $1 billion. Hospitals have presented Gov. Nathan Deal with a plan to extend the tax with some modifications, but they could face heavy lifting to get an increasingly conservative House and Senate on board.

Plenty of other issues are at play:

GUNS IN SCHOOLS: In the wake of the December massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, gun-related proposals will span the ideological spectrum. There are already calls for more guns in schools, either by expanding the number of armed guards or allowing teachers and principals to carry weapons. Some Atlanta Democrats want to push discussion on gun-control measures such as limiting high-capacity magazines and requiring background checks and public records of private gun sales.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE: After passing an overhaul of the adult criminal justice system last year, lawmakers are expected to turn their attention to the juvenile justice system. A special council last month released a report with recommendations for juvenile justice reforms, including saving the state’s out-of-home facilities for the most serious offenders and strengthening community programs to reduce recidivism.

TEACHER EVALUATIONS: Lawmakers and the Department of Education must work out details of Georgia’s new teacher evaluation system that ties educators’ job performance assessments to student performance. The key question is how to measure certain teachers – those in art, band or physical education or in early grades – whose students do not take clearly measurable standardized tests.

NEW STADIUM: Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank wants a new domed stadium, but the public investment of tourism tax revenues will require legislative approval.

VOUCHERS: A Georgia program that lets businesses and individuals get tax credits for money that finances private school scholarships could draw proposed changes from both ends of the spectrums. There are always lawmakers who want to expand the existing program into a statewide voucher program. Other lawmakers, particularly among leading Democrats, want to require more transparency in the current structure: what schools are getting how much money, and how are those students doing?

There’s no shortage of political intrigue with expanding tea party ranks in the House, a Senate where Republican leaders promise smooth sailing after GOP squabbling crippled the chamber last year, and weakened Democratic caucuses looking to find a toehold in either chamber.

Nearly all of the questions in some way come back to money, and every decision within the budget hinges on Medicaid and the hospital “bed tax” that expires June 30.

“It seems like everyone is waiting on a deal with the hospitals, then it will all flow from there,” said Alan Essig, a longtime observer of state politics who leads the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, an Atlanta think tank that advocates for active government.

The governor is at the center of the debate because Georgia law empowers him to set the official revenue estimates used to write the budget. Lawmakers can’t legally call for spending more than the state is projected to take in. Deal is expected to submit his revenue estimate and proposed budget Jan. 17. He’s otherwise been mum about his legislative agenda.

Both the House and Sen­ate will be even more Re­pub­lican than after the GOP sweep of 2010. Repub­li­cans used their strong majorities to redraw legislative districts for the 2012 elections, which left them on the cusp of a two-thirds supermajority on both sides of the Capitol.

Deal frames himself as austere, and he has shown no interest in raising broad-based taxes to deal with budget crunches. But Georgia Hospital Association executives say he’s generally on board with the industry tax used to generate federal money for Medicaid. House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said he supports the concept as well. But Republicans, besides the party’s general anti-tax stance, are getting outside pressure from national GOP powerbroker Grover Norquist not to extend the tax.

House Democratic Minor­ity Leader Stacey Abrams warned that Democrats won’t help Speaker David Ralston carry the tax vote in the House without “significant Republican votes.”

“It’s the job of majority to govern. It’s the job of the minority to collaborate where we can,” she said.

Ralston and Cagle have yet to announce any session agenda, with the exception of the speaker calling for an outright ban on lobbyist expenditures on lawmakers. Some Senate Republicans have called for a $100 cap. Georgia has no limit now.

The session will be lawmakers’ first since Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment expanding the state’s authority to create independent public charter schools. State Superintendent John Barge opposed that amendment, angering many of his fellow Republicans in the process.

The next push from school-choice advocates will be a “parent trigger” bill. Essentially, the idea is to let parents in a public school vote to convert their campus to an independent charter.

Barge said he expects a relatively quiet session on education this year – “at least I hope that is the case.” He said the focus should be on implementing changes already been approved: curriculum changes and other policy tweaks Georgia is making as part of the federal Race to the Top program.

The Education Depart­ment will argue for additional school investments, Barge said, though he conceded the difficult political landscape. He sidestepped questions about gun laws, saying he “wants to reserve comment until I see actual legislation.” He generally endorsed the idea of more school resource officers, who are typically armed. He said the question is who pays.

Barge also must be on the lookout for any retaliatory budget actions aimed at his office after the charter school amendment fight.

“I’ve heard rumors of that,” he said. “But let me be clear: I have had some good conversations with the governor, and we are moving forward together, working on good things for Georgia children.”


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