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2013 Georgia legislative preview

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

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.

BUDGET

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.

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STADIUM

While it might seem like the new Atlanta Falcons stadium is a done deal, there's still one outstanding issue that needs to be addressed.

If the Georgia World Congress Center Authority is going to help build the 80,000-seat facility with approximately $300 million in revenues from Atlanta's hotel/motel tax, it needs to raise the limit on its credit card. And that takes legislative approval.

You'd think that state lawmakers would be happy to help out a billionaire considering past legislation (i.e., tax breaks on jet fuel for Delta, a sweetheart bill allowing Georgia Power to charge customers in advance to build a nuclear power plant). But considering how much attention the stadium issue has attracted and its potential to stoke populist anger, lawmakers from both parties are sure to fight the proposal — or at least indulge in a little political theater.

State Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek, one of the proposed deal's most vocal critics, has said the state should fully fund duties such as education and health care before helping to finance a stadium. He'll most likely be the face of the opposition, at least in the House.

Some lawmakers, particularly those who represent the communities surrounding the Georgia Dome, might push for guarantees that those neighborhoods won't be burdened by the same parking and development woes that have come along with the Georgia Dome and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority. That could mean requiring certain conditions in exchange for their approval of the project.

GUN CONTROL

Anyone who thought that December's Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting would convince state lawmakers to call time-out on legislation allowing guns everywhere will be disappointed. (Well, everywhere except the Gold Dome, which is always exempted from the long list of places where you can carry a gun.) The mass killing, which has reignited the national debate about gun control, hasn't changed some GOP lawmakers' opinions about where Georgians can tote their shootin' irons.

A long-simmering debate about whether students and faculty should be allowed to carry guns on campus, one which was already expected to return before the Sandy Hook killings, will only grow more heated. Many college officials, including Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson, fiercely oppose the proposal, saying that alert students are better than armed students. One freshman lawmaker, state Rep. Charles Gregory, R-Kennesaw, has already introduced four bills that would OK guns on college campuses and churches and declared that "evil resides in the heart of the individual, not in material objects." His colleague, state Rep. Paul Battles, R-Cartersville, has proposed allowing school boards to give school administrators permission to carry weapons. Left up in the air is who will pay for the firearms training required by the bill — and whether the Georgia GOP wants the national headlines that come with easing gun laws in the wake of a mass shooting.

Some Georgia Republicans, including House Speaker Ralston, have kept mum about their plans involving firearms legislation, saying it'd be improper to comment while "children were still being buried." Others, such as House Majority Whip Ed Lindsey, R-Buckhead, and state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, argue that access to mental health care and not the size of gun cartridges or the sales of firearms at gun shows should be reviewed.

Democrats will most likely push back against some of the proposals, which will surely grow in number as the session rolls along. One of the upper chamber's most liberal lawmakers, state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, has announced that he'd push for legislation banning assault weapons similar to the kind used by the shooter in Connecticut.

ENVIRONMENT

Every few years, lawmakers must renew the Hazardous Waste Trust Fund, a program overseen by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division that pays to help clean up brownfields and toxic sites. Since 2004, however, state lawmakers have redirected much of that cash to pad the state budget and fund pet projects. That's not because the state doesn't have any hazardous sites. According to a July report from the EPD, there are currently more than 550 pieces of property on the list. More than 50 of those properties are located in Fulton County. Lawmakers are just more comfortable letting foul pieces of property fester rather than raise revenue to fix the budget shortfalls. When the trust fund comes up for renewal this year, political observers predict that lobbyists for local governments and environmentalists will push for the program's funds only to be spent on their stated purpose. Like last year, state lawmakers will surely try and preserve the funding flexibility they enjoy.

In addition, some lawmakers are expected to raise hell over how much Georgia Power customers should be on the hook for cost overruns of two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle. In 2009, the General Assembly passed a bill allowing the utility to charge most ratepayers (big business's lobbyists carved out an exemption for their clients) in advance for the new reactors, the country's first in decades.

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TRANSIT

Shed a tear for MARTA. It's become a sport under the Gold Dome to beat up on the transit agency, despite the fact that the state provides no funding to operate its buses and trains. This year should be no different.

MARTA is facing a nearly $34 million budget deficit and an audit report that found, among other things, that the system's employee benefits plan was $50 million more expensive than the national average. Keith Parker, the transit agency's new CEO and general manager, says he plans to implement some of the recommendations found in that audit. He's also open to privatizing some of MARTA's operations.

It's expected that calls for outsourcing those services will only grow louder this session. In addition, state Rep. Mike Jacobs, the Brookhaven Republican who chairs the MARTA Oversight Committee, said during a recent meeting that he expects to see legislation that would temporarily lift the so-called "50-50" restriction. The antiquated rule requires the transit system to spend half the revenue it collects from sales taxes in Fulton and DeKalb counties on operations and the other half on capital projects. In addition, he'd like to change the makeup of MARTA's board of directors. Some transit advocates fear that mayors from new cities in north DeKalb and Fulton counties would get spots, crowding out elected officials from areas with more transit-dependent riders.

Then there's the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, or GRTA, which operates the Xpress bus system. The service links suburbanites to downtown and Midtown during the workweek via luxury "coaches." Xpress will run out of cash in June if the General Assembly doesn't allocate more funding. GRTA has been the rare transit agency in Georgia that's enjoyed state support — most likely because suburban GOP lawmakers' constituents use it. This year's state budget is expected to be tight, but don't be surprised if the state finds cash to keep GRTA afloat while continuing to burden MARTA with crippling and unfair laws and rules.

CITYHOOD FEVER AND FULTON COUNTY BLUES

Dunwoody. Brookhaven. By the time you read this, who knows what other slivers of land disgruntled DeKalb County residents will have fenced off and turned into cities. In an attempt to prevent another neighborhood from becoming a city, some DeKalb County elected officials have floated the idea of incorporating all the remaining property to create a so-called "City of DeKalb." It's a novel approach to combat the further balkanization of metro Atlanta and would provide access to fees the cash-strapped county currently can't collect. But it's unlikely to go anywhere under the Gold Dome, where the county's delegation would first have to give the proposal its approval. A discussion about the "City of DeKalb" could open up touchy debates about race and class that many lawmakers would prefer to avoid. If created, Atlanta would suddenly be bordered by a city with an estimated 600,000 people — the largest in Georgia. It could also apply for the same funding Atlanta currently needs, which could make things awkward.

Fulton County officials might want to prepare for a bruising as well. When GOP lawmakers gerrymandered new political districts in 2011, they made sure Republicans each represented a tiny piece of Fulton County. That means lawmakers whose districts are mostly in Cherokee, Forsyth, and Gwinnett counties are now also members of the Fulton County delegation, and can weigh in on special bills affecting the populous county. That could prove helpful in not only trying to push for North Fulton to secede and become Milton County (still a hard sell under the Gold Dome), but also in stripping Fulton County of much of its nonessential powers. Not to mention diluting its appointment power on state boards and agencies, including MARTA. Fulton County commissioners last week fired their lobbyist and plan to visit the Gold Dome themselves to win over lawmakers. Good luck.

TRANSPORTATION FUNDING

Many wonks and political observers predicted that state lawmakers wouldn't revisit funding to build new roads, bridges, and transit if voters rejected last summer's transportation sales tax (T-SPLOST). Turns out they were right. According to sources, top state lawmakers have no plans to pass legislation that would help raise cash to build new rail lines or fix interchanges — at least not on a regional level.

Instead, Gov. Deal seems more focused on finding cash to build a $400 million interchange at I-285 and Ga. Hwy. 400. Not exactly a visionary project that will earn you a spot in the history books like a commuter rail line might. But it is one that will endear you to Republican voters who live in the northern suburbs and waste their lives sitting in gridlock.

Environmentalists say they would consider pushing for a well-supported idea that's bounced around for several years that would allow two or more counties to partner and levy a sales tax to fund transportation. Whether lawmakers will even entertain such an idea is another matter.

Then there's the issue of the T-SPLOST itself. The Transportation Investment Act, the law that created the T-SPLOST, requires counties that rejected the sales tax measure to pay more to pull down state funding for road projects. That provision, which kicked in Jan. 1, hurts local governments. In the weeks after the ballot measure's failure, some Tea Party activists and lawmakers demanded the General Assembly repeal the law. Call it sour grapes or the right thing to do, but such an effort might be in the works — even if House Transportation Chairman Jay Roberts, R-Ocilla, says it will go nowhere.

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ABORTION

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.

EDUCATION

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.

JUVENILE JUSTICE

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.

ETHICS

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.