Cover Story: CL’s 2016 legislative preview

Expect casinos, ‘religious freedom,’ and maybe - just maybe - hope for MARTA expansion

Every year, state lawmakers pack their bags and converge on Atlanta from all corners of Georgia for the General Assembly, the 40-day legislative session. Under the Gold Dome Downtown, lobbyists corner politicians, pages deliver messages, and the public crosses its fingers that the devastation wrought by wacko bills, politicking, and horse-trading is kept to a minimum.

2016 is an election year, which means it’s prime time for lawmakers to remind voters that, dammit, they care about the issues. At this year’s General Assembly, which started Jan. 11, Republicans will introduce far-right bills that have little chance of passage but will warm the cockles of dedicated voters’ hearts. Democrats will stand in the well and denounce the proposals. Expect much more posturing this season, plus the occasional barb at presidential candidates.

State ethics laws prohibit lawmakers from raising campaign contributions while the General Assembly is in session. The sooner they finish their legislative duties, the quicker they can collect cash to fund their re-elections. That could mean lawmakers try to keep the number of large issues they tackle to a minimum.

Every legislative session, deals are made, bills are passed, paper is tossed in the air on Sine Die, the final night of the session, and then everyone goes home. Here’s a handy rundown of some, but not all, of the issues the General Assembly will consider this year.


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Gov. Nathan Deal is halfway through his second and final term, and at the end of his political career. He’s thinking about the state he’ll leave behind. Early in his administration that meant, thankfully, reforming the state’s criminal justice system to put more of an emphasis on rehabilitating Georgia’s approximately 51,000 prisoners and giving them a second chance upon re-entering society.

Deal is now turning most of his attention to an age-old problem that’s befuddled predecessors and will surely flummox successors: the public education system that serves approximately 1.7 million Georgia students, and which consistently ranks among the nation’s worst. But the steps he’s considering have education advocates and budget wonks on edge. The fight over what, if anything, passes might be the biggest battle of the legislative session.

In late October, a commission appointed by Deal to brainstorm reforms recommended that the state use merit pay, among other measures, to retain and attract talented teachers. While the proposal might sound enticing, its success in other states has been mixed. Teacher groups, including the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, argue that merit pay promotes competition rather than cooperation. And how would a school measure who deserves the bump?

The commission also advised the state to update the 30-year-old formula Georgia uses to allocate school funding. Here’s the hitch: Lawmakers have failed to fully fund that formula for the past 14 years. According to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a think tank that advocates for the state for additional investments in education, health care, and other critical areas, the General Assembly underfunded Georgia school districts this past year by nearly $700 million.

GBPI argues that the commission’s recommendation to add nearly $260 million to the current K-12 funding formula and, when available, $206 million be contributed to a new “student-based, modern” formula, would make the underfunded amount the baseline — cementing more than a decade of cuts. A new formula is needed, the think tank says, but that’s not the one.

“If that is not the right thing, they have the time to get it right,” says GBPI Executive Director Taifa Smith Butler. “This is too important and too critical not to get it right.”


MARTA is riding high thanks to CEO Keith Parker’s overhaul and Big Business demanding proximity to rail. Ridership is up. Revenues are in the black. Clayton County joined the system in 2014, becoming the first metro Atlanta government to do so in 40 years.

Never before has MARTA been in such good standing with state lawmakers. In addition to asking that the Gold Dome do no harm, the transit agency’s officials will ask state reps and senators to do them a solid — help MARTA build out its rail network to North Fulton and and past the Centers for Disease Control and Emory University, along with a bus rapid transit line deep into DeKalb County.

To make that vision become a reality, MARTA needs money. Like $8 billion. Some of that funding will have to come from local sources, including Fulton and DeKalb residents who have been paying a 1 percent sales tax for decades to fund the system. Fulton mayors, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and county commissioners are talking over whether to ask voters to approve another sales tax to fund transportation and how that cash should be split.

Transit honchos are hoping the federal government will contribute a healthy chunk. But federal officials require cities, counties, and states looking for cash to show they can pay to operate the systems for at least 20 years. If the feds are going to help build a transit system, they want to know the public investment won’t shut down in five years due to a lack of funding.

Under the current Georgia law, however, local governments’ sales taxes must sunset after five years — not nearly enough time for MARTA to raise funding for its expansion and show the long-term commitment needed to get on the feds’ radar.

“Voters made that commitment to MARTA in 1971 and I take advantage of that every day,” says Lee Biola, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit and a dedicated MARTA rider. “It’s up to us to make that choice for the next generation.”

Though details are still in the works, MARTA is expected to politely ask the Gold Dome to tweak the law. Considering how the transit agency has been used as a political football in the past, a means for GOP lawmakers to twist Democrats’ arms and support key measures, things could get messy. Or state lawmakers could remember the importance that transit plays in moving people to jobs and services as well as the demand it’s seeing from major corporations looking to relocate. Hell, while they’re at it, they could even consider chipping in some cash to run MARTA buses and trains and finally escape the dreaded list of states that don’t help fund their largest transit system’s operating costs.

Biola and other transit advocates have more items on their wish lists should lawmakers feel particularly gracious this year. First: amending the Georgia Constitution to see if voters outside the five original counties included in MARTA — Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton, Cobb, and Gwinnett — would like to join the transit agency. Oh, and there’s the long-delayed action on what the state will do to replace Amtrak’s crumbling Brookwood station. Advocates would love to see an Amtrak option located near MARTA rail to provide passengers an easy ride to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

For the past several years, casinos and horse-racing boosters have been laying the groundwork for games of chance and betting to become legal in Georgia. If gambling interests have their way this year, Georgians would no longer have to drive to Alabama or North Carolina to sit at a video slot machine or blackjack table to part ways with their paychecks.

Late last year, the gaming industry released a study that said allowing six casinos in Georgia — two in metro Atlanta, one each in Savannah, Columbus, Macon, and elsewhere in South Georgia — could create tens of thousands of jobs and $288 million in gambling taxes, some of which could shore up the dwindling HOPE Scholarship. Track and off-track betting could generate about $30 million. The analysis didn’t delve into the social costs that come with gambling, such as addiction and potential crime, or the possible impact casinos can have on nearby homeowners’ property values.

State Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, the Gold Dome’s biggest cheerleader for all things megatourism, including gambling, has proposed a constitutional referendum that would ask Georgians to determine whether the state should allow the creation of the casinos. Voters in the region where the projects are proposed would have the final say.

Performance venues that draw in big-name acts to attract gambling patrons want protections that would prevent casinos from putting geographic restrictions on talent. Imagine what it would do to their ticket sales if the MGM Atlanta paid Taylor Swift top dollar to agree to perform only in the Bill Campbell Ballroom.

Reed, the chief executive of Georgia’s largest city, says he’s personally opposed but would meet with executives if they came calling. Deal, who at first said he would be OK with voters deciding the measure, now says he plans to push back against the proposal — unless casinos are willing to fork over as much as 35 percent of their gross revenues to fund higher-ed scholarships for top-performing students.

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If President Barack Obama thinks convincing Congress to pass meaningful gun-reform legislation is tough, he should see the Gold Dome. Georgia lawmakers want to expand gun rights, not limit them. Two years ago, the General Assembly passed to so-called “Guns Everywhere” bill that made practically every place imaginable an open carry zone. Bars? Bring on the ammo. Churches? Jesus, guide my aim. Gold Dome? No, sorry, guns are not allowed here.

Against the wishes of the University System of Georgia chancellor, one proposal that would allow public college and university students to carry guns on campus is sitting in the House this year. The proposal, introduced by state Rep. Heath Clark, R-Warner Robins, earned headlines but not much attention from fellow lawmakers. Another one of Clark’s proposals — eliminating gun licenses altogether for people over the age of 21 — is in the same situation. It’s not clear if House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, will allow those and other proposals to move forward. But the lower chamber’s leader has said he won’t tolerate gun-control measures.

The GOP’s from-my-cold-dead-hands stance on shootin’ irons is not stopping Democrats from trying, God bless ‘em. State Rep. Keisha Waites, D-Atlanta, has introduced legislation seeking to require applicants for gun licenses to undergo safety training first. State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, who chairs the committee where the proposal would be vetted, told the AJC it’s “pretty much impossible” the bill would go far. State Sen. Michael Rhett, D-Marietta, wants people involved in divorce proceedings to be prohibited from receiving a gun license without a judge’s OK. Georgia Carry, the state’s most passionate gun rights group, has already signaled it won’t stand for the measure.

When the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage bans such as Georgia’s unconstitutional, the issue should have been settled once and for all. But some state lawmakers won’t accept reality.

For two years, lawmakers have introduced so-called “religious freedom” legislation that could, at its core, allow people to discriminate against LGBT couples. One of the proposal’s champions, state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, has spent countless characters defending his bill on Twitter. He is prepared to try and move his bill out of a House Committee. He claims the law would protect people of all religions, explicitly prohibits discrimination, and is not targeted at LGBT people.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, wants to mimic a federal proposal that would outright protect public employees who oppose the idea of same-sex couples marrying. A public employee who found a champion in Kim Davis, the Kentucky court clerk who refused to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple late last year, would have an out.

Kirk, a former Southern Baptist preacher, has been mum on the specific details (as CL went to press, he had not yet filed the legislation). But that sounds like just the type of proposal to rally LGBT advocates and corporations that played a key role in halting “religious freedom” bills in past years.

The Gill Foundation, a Colorado-based advocacy group founded by an openly gay software billionaire, has its sights set on finding allies to fight such bills. The Metro Chamber and Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau warned such bills would prompt boycotts and potentially endanger Georgia’s vital convention and tourism industries. Delta, Coca-Cola, MailChimp, and other companies that consider diversity important to their corporate cultures would be expected once again to speak up.


A key part of the Affordable Care Act incentivized states to expand Medicaid, the federal program that makes health insurance available to people living on the lowest of incomes and who fall outside eligibility requirements for the low-cost coverage. States controlled by GOP governors, including Georgia, balked. Deal argued the move was too costly, despite the fact that the state could receive approximately $30 billion over 10 years in reimbursement payments.

The chickens have come home to roost. From 300,000 to 400,000 Georgians are languishing in a coverage gap where they don’t qualify for the ACA and Medicaid. Five rural hospitals have closed. States with GOP governors, such as Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana, have reversed course, bringing the total number of participating states to 30. After years of health advocates and budget watchdogs urging action, influential business groups are now paying attention. And lawmakers are listening.

The reasoning is simple. When major employers such as hospitals literally turn off the lights, that’s bad news for local economies. Plus, nothing sends a message to corporations looking to relocate than a sign on an emergency room urging the ill and wounded to seek help elsewhere.

“Companies that are looking to relocate won’t go to an area where employees can’t get access to health care or are 60 miles away from the nearest hospital,” says Brian Robinson, Deal’s former spokesman who’s now consulting with the Georgia Chamber on finding a expansion model that fits Georgia.

For the past four months, the business group has been studying how other states expanded Medicaid and what models worked. But why should Georgians expect Deal to see the light? After all, the chamber’s point person on the effort is Deal’s longtime health policy adviser.

The short answer is that “replace and repeal,” the GOP’s effort to rid the country of the ACA in exchange for a mysterious alternative, was rejected by voters in 2012 when they re-elected President Obama. Republicans can continue beating up the national health insurance program for campaign cash and red meat theatrics, but it’s not going anywhere.

This is the political reality in which Deal now operates. The state can stick its fingers in its ears and cover its eyes as hospitals continue to close and poor people get sore throats treated in emergency rooms, driving up the cost of health care. Or it can find a solution that fits Georgia. And while it won’t be this year — Robinson says the group’s timeline calls for continuing its study and releasing potential solutions this summer — you can expect plenty of chatter about what Georgia’s potential foray into the Medicaid expansion world will look like.

“We welcome the viewpoints of the left, right, middle, everyone,” Robinson says. “All we ask is the solutions be realistic and we can get them done here.”


Last session, lawmakers passed a law allowing people with prescriptions to use cannabis oil to treat specific conditions such as glaucoma, cancer, and seizures. Amid all the handshaking, weeping, and celebrating, lawmakers forgot a key part of that process: that it’s still illegal to grow and produce the cannabis oil in Georgia.

Yes, under the current law, those eligible for prescriptions must travel out of state and then bring the oil back home. And yes, it’s still a crime to possess medical marijuana in states where it’s banned, so good luck on the trip back from Colorado.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, the state lawmaker who authored the legislation and has been championing cannabis oil for the past two sessions, says he has a fix. On Jan. 6, Peake dropped a bill that would allow up to six growers the opportunity to grow medical marijuana under tight restrictions. Inspired by Minnesota’s medical marijuana growing law, the bill requires farmers track each plant or face penalties. If that’s not able to overcome the biggest opponents of the grow-in-Georgia crowd — namely law enforcement — then what’s their solution?

Craft brewers want to tweak a law that was supposed to allow them to sell directly to consumers but was stymied by beer distributors. Brunch advocates will cross their fingers that the state allows local governments to permit restaurant alcohol sales a wee bit earlier on Sundays. And Airbnb hosts will cross their fingers that the state avoids clamping down on the unregulated lodging options, or “short-term rentals.” The hotel lobby, however, will pray those hosts get saddled with the same $5 a night fee to pay for transportation funding that took the industry by surprise last year. Throw in discussions about annexation, criminal justice reform, refugee resettlement, and, if we’re unlucky, abortion, and one can see it just might be an exciting legislative session after all.