A state budget decimated by the financial crisis. An intense need for transit but no money to pay for it. A fast-approaching deadline for the most vital natural resource a populace requires. And long-overdue reforms to the cozy relationships elected officials have built with deep-pocketed lobbyists. These are just a smattering of the issues state lawmakers will tackle during the next 40 days of the Georgia General Assembly, which started Jan. 11.
Residents will be treated to posturing, grandstanding and the occasional valiant effort to bring progress to a state that's falling behind. And to top it all off, it's an election year, which means lawmakers will try to one-up each other with the most outlandish of red-meat bills involving guns, immigration and zygotes that are virtually guaranteed to rouse the political base. It's by no means an exhaustive list, but we've outlined some of the most daunting – and controversial – issues lawmakers are likely to address.
Georgia's financial woes will be the one issue upon which most, if not all, other issues hinge for the next 40 days. Thanks to job losses, company closures and the death rattle of the state's once-booming development industry, lawmakers are fretting about cutting as much as $1.2 billion from the budget – without raising taxes. According to Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, state revenues have dropped $4.5 billion in two years. "We're basically operating at 2005 levels," Hill says. "And we've grown roughly 600,000 people since then."
In previous years, lawmakers often would have cash left to spend or would bank the state's reserves. Not in 2010. The state's cut itself to the bone, says Alan Essig, executive director of the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. And absent new fees and tax hikes, education and health care are the only two departments left to cut. Essig warns that school years could be shortened, teachers furloughed and class sizes expanded to make ends meet. In expectation of a $500 million Medicaid shortfall, doctor reimbursements could be trimmed. And the special-interest tax breaks and exemptions that lawmakers dole out every year? Expect them to come under close scrutiny as the state basically tries to stay financially afloat. There's hope that an uptick in the cigarette tax – or perhaps legalizing alcohol sales on Sunday – could raise much-needed revenue. But judging how tax-adverse many lawmakers are, don't hold your breath.
For the past two years, the House and Senate have quibbled over different funding proposals that could help metro Atlanta finally build the roads, bridges and transit that could begin to get residents out of gridlock –and allow Atlanta to compete with other Southern cities for jobs, residents and overall quality of life. Take a look around and you'll see nothing was resolved.
A proposal similar to what the Senate championed – allowing counties to band together to levy a penny sales tax to fund local transportation projects – has the most support. (Mayor Kasim Reed has already said he'd lobby for the proposal, which, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission, could generate $7.6 billion over 10 years in the 10-county metro area.) There are high hopes that it or a similar version will finally pass, but don't be surprised if it doesn't; legislators might fear supporting anything that even sounds like a tax increase during an election year.
Lawmakers also are expected to revive efforts to allow MARTA to tap into funds that, thanks to state law, can only currently be used for expansion and improvements. Using that money likely will help MARTA avoid more cutbacks in service, should other funding fall apart. But some lawmakers, such as state Rep. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, have suggested that the only way to cure MARTA's ills is for the state to take over the agency. Regardless, MARTA is one of the few pieces of leverage GOP lawmakers have over metro Atlanta legislators – one they're almost certain to use in other power struggles. Expect fireworks and drama with any MARTA bill.
Last July, a federal judge said metro Atlanta risks losing most of the water it pulls from Lake Lanier by 2012 if it doesn't come to terms with Florida and Alabama, Georgia's two rivals in the decades-long water wars.
While the governors of the three states hash out their agreement in secret, lawmakers acting on recommendations put forth by a task force assembled by Gov. Sonny Perdue will do what they can – be it building new reservoirs or pushing conservation – to prepare for life with less water from the region's biggest source. Topping the Legislature's list of fixes – with surprising support from the business community – are rebates and tax credits to encourage residents to replace water-wasting toilets and fixtures, and possibly an outright ban on daytime watering. Problem: Cash-strapped Georgia might not have the money to offer those incentives.
Another possible solution, one which rural lawmakers and environmentalists adamantly oppose, is the costly practice of piping millions of gallons of water from one river basin to another. Longtime environmental lobbyist Neill Herring predicts that eco-advocates will push for the state to regulate the practice, which is known as an inter-basin transfer. Just to be safe, run out and buy a canteen.
You can thank Susan Richardson and her tell-all TV interview about ex-husband and former House Speaker Glenn Richardson's affair with a lobbyist for making some lawmakers realize that the Gold Dome isn't a glorified frat house. The fallout from that bit of sordidness led to a shuffling of House leadership and a widespread call for ethics reform that lawmakers will find difficult to ignore, be it by cracking down on lobbyists' gifts, campaign contribution limits or the highly questionable financial activities of political action committees.
What's different this year is that newly minted House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, agrees that reform is necessary – a sentiment his predecessor never voiced. Gone could be the days of $400 dinners and free tickets to the Masters as proposals pop up from both sides of the aisle. State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, says he'll file an ethics reform bill he developed with open-government advocates at Common Cause that includes a $100 limit on lobbying state lawmakers.
Meanwhile, Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, has proposed a $25 limit. Gold Dome insiders say all this talk of reform has some lawmakers wondering how they'll eat. May we suggest Lunchables?
Sex offender overhaul
Georgia's much-criticized sex offender law has suffered partial dissection since its adoption in 2005 as one judge after another has blocked enforcement of certain measures and declared others unconstitutional. But only this year does it appear the draconian statute may receive a much-needed overhaul. A bill to restore some sanity to the law is sponsored by none other than the new speaker.
For starters, Ralston's bill would decriminalize homelessness among sex offenders, a nasty provision that's already been struck down in court. Next, it would draw a real distinction between "sexually dangerous predators" and run-of-the-mill sex offenders who may be guilty of lesser crimes such as statutory rape. And, finally, the bill would allow judges to relax the residency restrictions against low-risk offenders – think quadriplegics and nursing home residents – or even release some folks from registration requirements altogether. Judicial discretion – what a concept!
Freedom for firearms
Not satisfied with gaining the right in 2008 to pack heat in restaurants and parks, the gun lobby has returned with a controversial bill aimed at legalizing shootin' irons in nearly every public space in Georgia, including local government buildings. In fact, about the only places where guns would be off-limits under the proposed legislation would be courtrooms and jails.
The bill is expected to be the source of a major fight at the Capitol – which, ironically, would also be open to concealed weapons if the bill's proponents get their way. Be careful what you vote for.