January 13-- The Georgia General Assembly convenes today in Atlanta.
Walter Morris reports in The Athens Banner-Herald on some issues lawmakers may consider before returning home to run for re-election in the May primary elections.
"Raises for state workers and teachers, a scholarship and loan for technical-college students, and assistance for felons reentering society are among the few new initiatives expected in this year’s legislative session.
The new ideas may be few, but the fights over old issues probably won’t be. Among the battles will be the Common Core curriculum, the minimum wage, expanding Medicaid, limiting medical-malpractice claims and guns on college campuses.
“Many people have said this session will be fast and furious, but I don’t use that characterization because furious implies anger,” said Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome. “I say it will be fast and focused.”
Legislators nearly always promise a quick session, but there is a good reason to believe them this year. A federal judge has ordered an earlier primary, prompting lawmakers to maximize the time left after adjournment when they can campaign and raise funds.
“We have been asked by everybody, ‘What’s going to be happening during the session?’” said Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus. “The answer is not a whole lot.”
Here are some of the major topics expected to come up during the 40 days the constitution allows the General Assembly to meet each year:
Tax collections have steadily improved since the last recession, but they still haven’t returned to the pre-recession level even though the number of students and people getting state services never stopped growing. Gov. Nathan Deal is waiting until his speech State of the State speech Wednesday to reveal most details about his spending recommendations, but House Speaker David Ralston told reporters he is looking for state workers and teachers to get their first pay raise in years. Deal did say he will fund 525 additional child-protection social workers.
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.
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.
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 reentry into society.
“Helping rehabilitated offenders transition back into society will reduce recidivism, save taxpayer dollars and keep Georgians safe,” Deal said.
A separate study by a state Senate committee is recommending restrictions on criminal records, such as mug shots and booking information. The goal is to make it easier for felons to find a job. Among the suggestions are prohibiting employers from asking job applicants certain questions about arrests.
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.
Legislation by Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, would end the state’s three-year participation in the multistate education standards developed largely under the leadership of then-Gov. Sonny Perdue. Conservatives see it as giving up state control and also object to its recommendations about math and some literary books.
Removing restrictions on college students from exercising their Second Amendment right to have concealed weapons on campus is another controversial bill held over from last year. Versions passed the House and Senate, but agreement fell apart in the final moments of the session. Ralston said its passage is his priority.
Democrats have announced they will join their party’s national push to boost the minimum wage. Their bill would raise the lowest hourly wage from $5.15 gradually to $9.80.
Despite repeated statements by Deal and other Republicans that the state can’t afford it, Democrats will continue pushing for Georgia to accept federal funds to expand eligibility in Medicaid, the insurance program for the poor. Since last session, hospital trade groups in the state have come out for expansion, pointing to the closure of multiple rural hospitals as a reason.
Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, pre-filed a bill to prohibit all state and local governments from taking any steps to implement the Affordable Care Act, including assisting people trying to sign up for insurance through exchanges.
“We’re going to take a look at it in Georgia. There’s a fair amount of interest in the bill,” said Ralston, who acknowledged that he had not read the bill yet. “I think it’s a fair subject for discussion.”
The Senate Health Committee held hearings throughout the summer and fall on Senate Bill 141 which would replace medical-malpractice lawsuits with a system similar to worker’s compensation where claims are reviewed by a panel of appointees rather than a court. Advocates say it would reduce claims for malpractice, which would result in lower medical costs. Groups for lawyers and doctors oppose the bill, and state leaders say it’s too complicated to pass this year. Still, advocates will continue pushing it.
ENDING THE INCOME TAX
Legislators in the House and Senate are sponsoring proposals for different ways to end the income tax. Deal has said the timing isn’t right, but conservatives are insistent it would stimulate the economy.
Introduced the final week of last year’s session, a bipartisan bill would end Georgia Power Co.’s monopoly and allow other companies to generate electricity from the sun and sell it.