On Jan. 14, members of the Georgia General Assembly kicked off their annual orgy of legislation, lobbyist dinners, back-room deals, and chicanery that ends with an explosion of thrown paper and huzzahs known as Sine Die. There will be debates, photo ops, and possibly fistfights. And maybe some actual policymaking.
The 40-day legislative session is guaranteed to bring awkward and embarrassing moments, and will affect your life. While we're sure to get bills about the conservative issue du jour or resolutions honoring local football teams, state senators and representatives will also make important decisions affecting health care, transportation, criminal justice, and their own ethical behavior.
Republicans control every statewide elected office and nearly enjoy a supermajority in the Georgia House of Representatives and Senate. But considering it's not an election year, chances of oddball legislation about evil United Nations plots to take over the world and resolutions honoring WrestleMania are less likely to come up. Still, be on the lookout for lawmakers' pet causes to get some attention.
Without further ado, CL presents its annual rundown of the biggest issues lawmakers are expected to tackle from now until the gavel pounds the session to a close at midnight on Sine Die.
Ask any elected official, lobbyist, or policy wonk what issue will dominate the legislative session and they'll point you to the state budget. Over the last four years, Georgia lawmakers have cut an estimated $2 billion from the spending plan, resulting in layoffs, furloughs, fewer school days, and less environmental regulators.
Only when Gov. Nathan Deal releases his budget plan for the next fiscal year on Jan. 17 will we know just how bleak the outlook is. But things are expected to get ugly. Tax collections brought in less than anticipated in 2012. In addition, the state is looking at a shortfall of more than $430 million in Medicaid funding for the current fiscal year, which ends in the summer.
Filling part of this budget hole depends on whether the Legislature can renew the so-called "bed tax" on private and public hospitals that expires June 30. The tax on hospitals' net profits helps the state pull down federal funding, which is then redistributed to the hospitals. Should the tax not be renewed, according to various reports, lawmakers in the next fiscal year might have to cut as much as $650 million more from the budget.
The Georgia Hospital Association says it's more or less OK with extending the tax. But anti-tax activist Grover Norquist of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans for Tax Reform has said that lawmakers that vote for the measure would violate an anti-tax pledge many of them signed. Top leaders dare not call it a "tax." House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, calls it a "Medicaid assessment fee." Deal calls it a "provider fee." He's even pitched an idea that would prevent lawmakers from voting on the measure, giving them cover.
There will be other cuts. Alan Essig of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that's criticized the General Assembly for cutting public services to the bone, says state lawmakers could avoid such dire questions if they'd actually fund the kind of government Georgia needs. That could be achieved by hiking the state's super-low cigarette tax, an idea that polls well, or revising the state's dusty tax code, parts of which were written in the 1950s.
Honestly, we might not know how dire the situation really is until March, since more than half of the state's funding comes from the federal government. The recent "fiscal cliff" talks delayed decisions on federal spending cuts, which could leave as much as $100 million of the state's funding in limbo. Some lawmakers have proposed calling a time-out on the session and reconvening in April to pass the budget — a rare move.
ATLANTA'S WISH LIST
Every year, City Hall drafts up a late Christmas list of legislation it would like to see the Legislature approve. This year, Mayor Kasim Reed is asking state lawmakers to approve fees and surcharges to operate the municipal court and city jail, increase alcohol taxes, and promise to spend cash earmarked to clean up dumped tires on, well, actually cleaning up dumped tires. That cash often goes to padding the state budget. Interestingly, Atlanta also wants Georgia to start following the lead of other cities around the country and allow fractional sales taxes. Such a move could raise millions of dollars for the city's arts, infrastructure, public safety, and other programs and would be easier for taxpayers to swallow. Finally, Reed wants the Legislature to clarify what it can do after condemning blighted private property. As CL went to press, the Atlanta City Council still had to sign off on the list.