On Jan. 9, state lawmakers will return to the downtown's dome that is gilded and settle into their desks for another 40 days of panderin', budget-cuttin', and lobbyist-schmoozin'.
Unlike previous years, when elected officials often marched in lockstep to tackle a serious issue — think transportation funding or illegal immigration — this year looks to be a mixed bag. Expect an in-depth discussion about overhauling Georgia's harsh criminal sentencing system, additional laws aimed at harassing undocumented workers, and what could be a bitter battle over whether the state or regional leaders should call the shots on transit systems in metro Atlanta.
Several factors could result in grandstanding over substance. All lawmakers are up for re-election in November, which means they'll try their damnedest to attract attention and show constituents they made a difference at the Capitol.
In addition, the Senate, which until last year was considered the grown-up chamber, has devolved into a circus with no shortage of clowns. Just before the 2011 legislative session, a group of senators stripped Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle of the power to assign committee chairmen. In his place they installed an eight-member leadership panel, which predictably led to legislative gridlock. This year, we've been told, there's no reason to expect things will move any more smoothly.
To prepare you for the annual shitshow that is the General Assembly — a 40-day bacchanal of lobbyist-sponsored dinners, resolutions honoring small-town Cub Scouts, and enough horse-trading to choke a, well, you know — we semi-proudly present a primer on the 2012 Legislative session.
TRANSIT AND T-SPLOST
Every day, an alphabet soup of a dozen transit systems — MARTA, GCT, CCT, and so on — operate more than 100 different bus routes and rail lines across metro Atlanta. It's a wasteful, chaotic, unsustainable situation.
Shortly after the Legislature convenes, top lawmakers are expected to propose the creation of an umbrella transit agency to oversee these systems — or delegate those powers to GRTA, which Gov. Roy Barnes launched for just that purpose in 1999.
The creation of such a regional transit agency is considered crucial to the successful passage of next July's referendum for a 1 cent sales tax, often called T-SPLOST, to fund new roads and transit. Doing so could also help ease the stigma of MARTA, which many suburbanites have unfairly cast as an urban bogeyman.
Many political observers predict that lawmakers will see the wisdom of empowering GRTA, whose full name, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, already suggests its intended role. But a hurdle exists in that it's a state agency whose board is appointed by the governor. Atlanta-area lawmakers have made clear they want the oversight agency's board to be populated by representatives from the counties that actually pay for transit, such as Fulton and DeKalb. The Atlanta Regional Commission, metro Atlanta's mega-planning agency, has drafted model legislation to distribute votes and funding based on a city or county's population and how much they contribute to the operations of a transit system. Whether that bill gets a closer look is anybody's guess.
There's also a possibility that legislators could again try to push back the T-SPLOST referendum to November, which some political observers believe would improve its chances of passage. They made an unsuccessful attempt last year, but the Tea Party crowd likely would, again, oppose such a move.
Georgia taxpayers today spend some $1 billion each year to house the state's nearly 56,000 prisoners, more than twice what it paid 20 years ago. Yet the recidivism rate hasn't changed, and the Peach State has one of the highest percentages of its adult population behind bars. Not exactly peachy.
This year, at the behest of Gov. Nathan Deal — and much to the relief of criminal justice advocates (PDF link) — state lawmakers begin the massive undertaking of reforming a system made unworkable from years of reactionary, "tough on crime" legislation.
For starters, a special joint committee of lawmakers is expected to craft legislation based on recommendations released by a council (PDF link) appointed earlier this year. Among the group's many suggestions: provide incentives, such as shorter probation periods, for people who show good behavior and comply with requirements after prison; funnel many minor drug offenders toward treatment and rehabilitation rather than incarceration; and reserve prison beds for serious, violent offenders rather than the small-time druggies and petty thieves who now make up nearly 60 percent of the prison population.
The topic will likely spark intense intra-party debate between traditional, "lock 'em up" Republicans and fiscal conservatives concerned about the growing cost of caring for an enormous, aging prison population.
Also on deck is a major effort to overhaul the state's outdated and draconian juvenile justice code, the goals being to provide additional legal protections to young offenders and reduce the number of children charged as adults. This effort is helped by the fact its chief sponsor, Sen. Bill Hamrick of Carrollton, is a Republican. The proposal, however, is already meeting pushback from some district attorneys and judges, who claim it would saddle counties with higher costs.
Finally, we understand that, in the wake of the Troy Davis execution, Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, plans to ask his colleagues to abolish Georgia's death penalty. Who said Democrats don't have wedge issues, too?