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2013 Georgia legislative preview

Budget woes, stadium debates, ethics reforms, guns, and more

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In the final minutes of last year's legislative session, the General Assembly passed a bill that placed restrictions on late-term abortions. Some political observers wonder if the law, which is currently on hold thanks to a legal contest by the Georgia Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, is the last abortion legislation the state might see for some time. While some of the Gold Dome's Bible beaters will surely introduce bills aimed at curbing the practice — no doubt spurred by a July 31 ballot question among Republican voters asking if they support granting "personhood" to fetuses — it's unclear if House and Senate leaders have the appetite to revisit the issue. Never say never, however.


Last November, voters OK'd a controversial constitutional amendment allowing the state to approve charter schools more easily. Now that the heated dispute has been settled, some believe that state lawmakers can finally move forward on other issues. Among the possibilities: an expansion of pre-K programs, new ways to measure teacher performance, and even a statewide push to get broadband access into more schools.

One of the more concrete proposals involves allowing parents to petition to have their child's traditional public school converted into a charter school if they're unhappy with its administrators. House Majority Whip Lindsey plans to sponsor this "parent trigger" bill, which was championed after North Atlanta High School's leadership was removed last fall.

The proposal, which some supporters of traditional public education think favors the charter school movement, has angered at least one teachers' group.

Lawmakers might also introduce legislation that would give well-performing schools more flexibility.

Some lawmakers also question if the power struggle between local and state control that ran throughout the charter school debate could rear its head. If it does, look for a fight — and possibly no progress.

As for more funding for public schools? Watch the budget. In the last 10 years, state funding for K-12 education has been cut by 25 percent. Some sources think Georgia's education budget, relatively speaking, won't be hit too hard.


In a rare show of bipartisanship last year, Georgia lawmakers unanimously passed a reform bill aimed at reeling in the state's ballooning prison population and the cost of housing those inmates.

The law, crafted by a special council organized by the governor, took effect in July and has already diverted a number of low-risk drug and property crime offenders to community programs. There, they're required to remain sober and hold a job, among other things, in lieu of serving time behind bars.

Sure, Georgia taxpayers still shell out more than $1 billion a year to house the state's nearly 60,000 prisoners, but for the first time in more than two decades, the Peach State's prison population is holding steady instead of rising. That alone is a huge accomplishment for a state that boasts one of the nation's highest incarceration rates. It also marks the first tangible step in undoing decades of reactionary, "tough on crime" legislation that often equated longer prison sentences with crime reduction. Expect more proposals in the weeks ahead.

Now, the governor and other state lawmakers have expanded the council's focus to include the juvenile justice system.

Here's the problem: The number of people under the age of 18 in juvenile lockups has declined over the past decade. But the likelihood that serious offenders who spend time in one of the state's nearly two-dozen detention facilities will commit another crime within three years has largely flatlined, hovering right around the 50 percent mark.

Those beds, which cost the state about $90,000 per inmate each year, are supposed to be reserved for "designated felons" — the most serious offenders. Yet the list of crimes that qualify kids for stints in juvy has grown over the years, from a dozen when the code was written in the 1980s, to nearly 30. Misdemeanor and status offenders still account for about a quarter of all kids behind bars.

The special council has recommended changes to the designated felon system that would factor in a child's risk level and establish a more robust system of community-based alternatives, including special schools, to handle lesser offenses. The council says that diverting more low-risk kids to these special schools and other programs could save $88 million over the next five years, reduce the number of kids in jail, and free up money to fund alternatives such as anger management classes, substance abuse counseling, and family therapy.

Like every other initiative under the Gold Dome, the obstacle is funding. Last year's Child Protection and Public Safety Act, a 256-page bill that child advocates have been pushing for decades, sought better community-based help for kids, stronger legal representation in court, and an extension of services for youngins aging out of foster care, among many other things. But it suffered a last-minute death in the Senate amid questions of who would foot the $6.4 million bill.

Both reform efforts have largely taken divergent paths. But now, with an outline to $88 million in savings, and plenty of overlap between the proposals' goals, there's more momentum than ever to rethink the way our state approaches juvenile crime and punishment.


The public obviously has a problem trusting lawmakers. When the T-SPLOST failed last summer, many observers and voters said they didn't trust elected officials to spend the $7.1 billion the tax would have generated. And when Republican and Democrat voters were asked in nonbinding referendums whether they favored stronger ethics laws, more than 1 million people said yes.

On the first day of the session, the Senate established new ethics rules, including a $100 cap on lobbyist gifts and plenty of loopholes. State Sen. McKoon says he will push for tougher reforms that would apply to both chambers and increasing funding for the state ethics commission, which has seen its budget slashed in recent years to the point that it can barely do its job. He also wants to instill more power in the state attorney general, giving an elected official outside the Gold Dome more power to investigate allegations of corruption.

House Speaker Ralston has said he will propose a total lobbyist gift ban. That's a complete reversal for someone who previously viewed spending limits of any degree with disdain.

More lawmakers are also coming out of the woodwork to back substantive ethics reform. Rep. Dudgeon tells CL that boosting the commission's funding would be one of the "very few" places he would advocate raising cash.

So the question isn't whether ethics legislation will pass, but in what shape will it happen — and to what degree will it actually change the wheeling and dealing that takes place at the Gold Dome.

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