Gold Dome antics
What state lawmakers will - and won't - accomplish in 40 days at the Capitol
Forty painful days of handshakin', legislatin' and horse tradin' are set to commence Jan. 10, when state lawmakers return to the Gold Dome. When not whacking chunks from the budget or pushing proposals to crack down on illegal immigration, legislators will find plenty of solutions to the state's biggest problems. Or maybe not. Here's a rundown of what lawmakers most likely will — and won't — accomplish. As usual, we'll hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
BUDGET: Unlike recent years, Uncle Sam isn't expected to offer stimulus dollars to help the state fill an estimated $1.5 billion deficit. And considering that tax-adverse legislators have already drastically trimmed agencies and ordered employee furloughs to balance previous years' books, cuts to such vital services as health care and education — both large chunks of the state's estimated $17 billion budget — are almost unavoidable. (Gov.-elect Nathan Deal, who thus far has kept his legislative and budget agenda hush-hush, has already said state worker layoffs are likely.) Factoring into lawmakers' decisions will be the recommendations of a panel tasked with overhauling Georgia's tax code. The group's expected to suggest a reduction in the state income tax, balanced with increases in sales taxes on goods and services. Such a move might mean higher prices for cigarettes, haircuts and maybe even groceries — delivering the biggest hurt to those living on low incomes.
ABORTION: In addition to proposing perennial pieces of legislation outlawing abortions or granting fetuses "personhood," far-right lawmakers are sure to fall for pro-life activists' latest strategies aimed at ultimately overturning Roe v. Wade. Among the measures rumored to be introduced: Outlawing abortions after 20 weeks because of iffy science that says fetuses can feel pain. Ah, the unborn make great political footballs, don't they?
WATER: Deal has hinted he wants to use state bond funding to help develop new reservoirs to provide new sources of water for drought-prone Georgia. But Sierra Club lobbyist Neill Herring says the state could achieve the same goal at lower cost by raising Buford Dam at Lake Lanier. Just two additional feet of depth, he says, could generate nearly 27 billion additional gallons of water and help protect the environment, he says.
IMMIGRATION: In addition to a prefiled bill banning undocumented students from all public universities, politicos have signaled they'll introduce legislation akin to Arizona's controversial law. Look for fireworks, however: The Georgia Farm Bureau, the powerful trade organization that represents the Peach State's growers, has said it'll oppose any measure that negatively impacts migrant workers, a chief source of labor.
HOPE: Because lottery revenues aren't keeping up with HOPE's demand, the lottery-fueled scholarship and pre-K funding program faces shortfalls in the hundreds of millions of dollars. (One estimate predicts it'll be more than $300 million in the hole next year.) Expect cuts or changes to the popular program, in addition to heated debates over whether it should show preference to students with high grades or take parents' incomes into account.
SUNDAY SALES: Unlike his predecessor, Deal said during the campaign he wouldn't veto legislation letting local communities decide whether stores could sell alcohol on the Sabbath. Once he gives lawmakers a wink and a nod, look for Sunday boozin' to become a real possibility — and for Georgia to join the modern world.
KEEPING THEIR JOBS: Lawmakers most likely will schedule a special session in the summer for redrawing congressional and legislative districts based on recent census figures. Keep an eye open for any chicanery to gerrymander those new districts — most of which are expected to be located in booming metro Atlanta and North Georgia — into Republican-leaning strongholds.
NEED TO ADDRESS, BUT PROBABLY WON'T
TRANSPORTATION: The regional transportation funding ballot referendum intended to raise much-needed cash for new roads and transit generated myriad criticisms from transit advocates and counties — many of which lawmakers said could be addressed prior to the 1 cent sales tax proposal going before voters in the summer of 2012. The current legislation explicitly states that cash-strapped MARTA can't use a single dime to operate or maintain its bus or rail service — a provision that Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate say hasn't impressed federal officials who've helped fund the system. But don't hold your breath for any changes this session. House Majority Whip Ed Lindsey of Buckhead says his caucus will spend 2011 discussing the creation of a regional transit system. Lawmakers will also brainstorm proposals to make the tax, which could raise more than $7 billion over 10 years for metro Atlanta alone, more palatable for voters. That means any changes would have to be passed next year, most likely late in the 2012 session. Such a delay might not bode well when it comes to educating voters about paying another penny to finally solve congestion woes.
ETHICS: Ethical scandals and pressure from open-government advocates forced state lawmakers last year to finally pass an ethics bill with teeth. While the legislation required local officials to file campaign disclosures with the state, it failed to clamp down on lobbyists' gifts to elected officials, among other shortcomings. Nor did the Legislature allocate any new funding to the state Ethics Commission to enforce the new measures. While some bipartisan ethics bills are expected, it's unlikely they'll go anywhere.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM: The December shooting of a Georgia State trooper by a repeat offender is sure to spark at least one piece of legislation aimed at stiffening criminal penalties or switching up the way counties handle recidivists. What won't be discussed is a comprehensive review of the criminal code, although some lawmakers privately say that's long overdue. Thanks to piecemeal amendments to the code, more prisoners are serving longer sentences for more crimes — all in increasingly overcrowded prisons. Crime-prevention and rehabilitation programs, however, are rarely as popular with elected officials as the next get-tough measure to lock up more lawbreakers. In other words, holding your breath for meaningful solutions to this problem is not recommended.
NOTE: This article has been altered to correct an error about the date of the transportation funding referendum.