2017 Legislative Preview

Guns, health care and some good old-fashioned edumacation

::::No value assignedForty days. That’s how long the Georgia General Assembly has by law to decide what laws should be passed, tweaked, or repealed to run the state. Will lawmakers overhaul Georgia’s education spending? Help MARTA keep expanding? Thumb its nose at the chaos happening in Washington, D.C., or mimic here at home? Here’s a rundown of some of the issues that are on lawmakers’ minds.

When it came to education, Gov. Nathan Deal had a clear plan for the 2017 legislative session: Overhaul Georgia’s school funding formula, the one that’s remained in place since 1985, old enough for the septuagenarian governor to compare it to a Commodore 64 during his “State of the State” address two years ago.But the best-laid plans of politicians often go awry: Voters rejected his Opportunity Schools District referendum intended to fix failing schools but would have seized control from leaders in marginalized communities. Now Deal wants to revisit how to turn around 153 schools that have had failing test schools for three consecutive years — a rising trend that now affects nearly 89,000 students.“If this pattern of escalation in the number of failing schools does not change, its devastating effects on our state will grow with each passing school year,” Deal said during this year’s “State of the State.”Deal’s “Plan B” is still on the drawing board. For starters, though, he wants to give teachers a 2 percent raise in the upcoming budget. But expect anything else beyond that to focus on elementary school students first. How will that happen exactly? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, following its poll that found voters mostly backed school choice, has reported school vouchers might be in the cards. But the plan’s supposed architect, State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, has kept quiet on the matter to date.“There’s no magic silver bullet,” says Georgia Budget and Policy Institute senior education policy analyst Claire Suggs. “Just complex and hard work. There needs to be a conversation about the needs of these children, and how to best meet these needs. Whatever emerges should reflect that.”Though Deal has increased K-12 funding by $2 billion over four years, Suggs says the money is just one step toward fully restoring the more than $9 billion in austerity cuts made since 2003. Those funding cuts, state auditors found, have in turn forced college tuition costs to increase by 77 percent over a decade. Expect lawmakers to watch that debate closely: Not just because of its impact on tuition, but because casino backers, who say their foray into Georgia could save the HOPE Scholarship, might use it as a way to gain traction under the Gold Dome.

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Last summer, policy experts were crafting a plan to increase health insurance coverage to Georgians living on low incomes. In other words, it was an effort to expand Medicaid without expanding Medicaid.Those plans are now on hold, and potentially dead, now that Donald Trump is moving into the White House. With a promise to repeal and (maybe) replace the Affordable Care Act, state officials are now waiting to see what policy comes out of Washington, D.C. Deal said just as much during his annual “State of the State” address, warning lawmakers “against taking giant leaps on health care policy.”State reps and senators will instead focus on ways to keep hospitals from going broke and shutting their doors. First on the to-do list is giving the state department of public health the authority to continue collecting a fee — opponents call it a “bed tax” — hospitals pay. The fee helps generate roughly $900 million a year to fund Medicaid and PeachCare, the state’s insurance program for children living in poverty.Also up for consideration is an effort by state Rep. Geoff Duncan, R-Cumming, to improve a tax credit aimed at coaxing people to donate to rural hospitals. Duncan, who’s said to be considering a gubernatorial run in 2018, wants to increase the credit from 70 percent to 90 percent to make it more attractive.In addition, lawmakers will also consider whether making access to Naloxone, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, more readily available. Deal did so in an executive order but he’s asking the General Assembly to codify the measure. And state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, is pushing to allow in-state cultivation of medical marijuana. State law is silent on how people can actually obtain the cannabis oil permitted in Georgia.
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On Jan. 10, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, broached an idea that just 10 years ago would have been blasphemy to a Georgia Republican: The state would consider funding transit, an important mode of transportation that up until now has mainly been bankrolled by Atlanta, Fulton, and DeKalb counties and the feds.Granted, “considering” allocating cash toward rail and buses is not the same as actually doing it. But the fact that a North Georgia Republican would mention the possibility shows just how far transit, and MARTA, has come under the Gold Dome. After decades of shunning buses and rail as a viable option and demonizing MARTA as a crime-ridden money sump, lawmakers have taken notice. The fact that corporations want to relocate, and developers build, near transit stops, has helped.Last year the Legislature gave Atlanta the OK to ask voters to approve a sales tax to pay for a $2.5 billion expansion of MARTA in the city limits (they overwhelmingly agreed). This year the General Assembly might be asked to do the same for a $5.5 billion boost in unincorporated DeKalb and Fulton.Whether that happens during the next 40 days, or next year, depends on a variety of factors. DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond, new to the job, might first wish to clean up the dysfunctional county before asking residents to hand over more in taxes. There’s also the question over whether South Fulton leaders and North Fulton elected officials, some of whom have gone as far as pushing legislation denouncing MARTA rail, can agree.“I hope this will be another year we can build on our success,” says MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe. “We’re very proud of the job MARTA CEO Keith Parker and his team have done and we think the recent election results make it crystal clear that when transit is on the ballot, transit wins. We believe the rest of Fulton and DeKalb deserve the same choice that Atlanta’s voters got.”In addition, lawmakers will once again weigh the pros and cons of creating a regional transit agency to wrangle metro Atlanta’s various transit systems, potentially allowing seamless transfers between buses and rail systems. Someone should tell them there’s already one up and running. Its name is MARTA.

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State Sen. Josh McKoon isn’t letting last year’s failed attempt to pass a “religious freedom” bill — or contentious battles over the issue in other states — stop him from trying again. The Columbus Republican tells Creative Loafing he’s resurrecting the measure that critics say would pave the way for discrimination. But McKoon says this year’s version will be an easier pill to swallow than its predecessors.McKoon — or possibly one of his colleagues, he says — will drop a bill this week that will mirror the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act enacted in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. That measure “ensures that interests in religious freedom are protected.”Not surprisingly, the American Civil Liberties Union Georgia chapter Executive Director Andrea Young says the organization will not endorse a state-level RFRA. She says Georgia needs a comprehensive civil rights act replete with protections for all people. “The issue of civil rights needs to be looked at in its entirety,” she says.McKoon says the measure is not anti-LGBTQ. He claims his RFRA pitch last year, Senate Bill 129, caught flak and failed because it was lumped into legislation alongside the “Pastor Protection Act,” a statute that would have allowed religious institutions to deny services in cases that infringed upon their beliefs, such as performing same-sex marriages.McKoon this year is using the story of Nabila Khan, a Muslim Georgia State University student who was asked by a teacher to remove her face-concealing religious veil. Khan declined, and the university backed her up, according to the Signal, the school’s student paper. McKoon says SB 129 could have helped her situation, especially if Khan wound up facing charges for violating Georgia’s anti-mask code.“What about the next person who’s confronted by an authority figure, who doesn’t challenge that person?” McKoon says. Under a state-enforced RFRA, “the government, to enforce that criminal statute, would have to show a compelling state interest and show that this is the least restrictive means,” he says.

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Now that the part-time lawmakers have parked their horses outside the Gold Dome, they are required to do one thing before they head back to Americus and Zebulon: pass the damn budget! Deal says that task shouldn’t be too tricky considering Georgia has projected a revenue growth of 3.6 percent. From his dais last week, Deal unveiled Georgia’s $25 billion spending plans for the upcoming fiscal year — one of the largest in the state’s history.Yeah, yeah, yeah. Budget, how boring. What’s that cash being spent on? State troopers are getting a 20 percent pay hike to boost morale and lower turnover. (Don’t worry, teachers and child welfare social workers, the guv’s got your back, too.) There’s also more than $1 billion in cash for loans to fund construction for a new Georgia Supreme Court building, Georgia World Congress Center upgrades, and a fancy technical college near the governor’s home up in Hall County.

Image SON OF A GUN: State Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, plans to bring back his legislation allowing permitted gun owners to tote their shootin’ irons on campus.Joeff Davis

It wouldn’t be a legislative session without bills expanding the number of places where people can carry guns. At least four pieces of firearm-related legislation are headed through this year, including the return of the controversial “Campus Carry” bill by state Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper.The bill, which Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed last year, would have allowed college students with carry permits at Georgia’s public universities to tote guns on campus.University System of Georgia officials, school leaders, gun-control advocacy groups, and concerned parents opposed the measure. This year it’s returning with the exact same language, the lawmaker tells CL.“I can carry my weapon if I take my 3-year-old to day care today,” Jasperse says. Why not a college campus?Democrats are likely to oppose the bill, and state Rep. Keisha Waites, D-Atlanta, is reviving her effort to require gun safety training for all firearm carry permit applicants. She likened a safety course mandate to a driver’s license test.“Think about the recent shooting we just had with the individual who was ex-military,” she says, referring to the Iraq war veteran who shot and killed five people in a Florida airport. “Can you imagine a scenario with a good guy with his weapon, but he can’t shoot it, he can’t load it, he knows nothing about it or how it puts the public at-large in danger?”But even Waites' benign proposal is too much for Second Amendment advocates. Both Jasperse and Jerry Henry, executive director of Second Amendment advocacy group Georgia Carry, say government-mandated training would be unnecessary and unconstitutional. U.S. citizens aren’t tested before becoming eligible to vote, they argue, and therefore shouldn’t be tested prior to exercising their rights.Another gun bill detested by Jasperse and Henry, filed in November by state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, aims to ban assault rifles as well as explosive ammo, high-capacity magazines, and silencers.“I want somebody to justify why a cop killer bullet should be sold,” Oliver says, citing the July attack on Dallas police officers, which was carried out by an Army vet wielding legally obtained weapons.
In past years, most of the favors Mayor Kasim Reed and the Atlanta City Council have asked state lawmakers to grant centered around getting the state’s OK to hike taxes on booze. Occasionally, you’d see a measure or two aimed at gun control that promptly went nowhere in the Republican-controlled Gold Dome.This year city officials want House reps and senators to tweak laws to help eradicate blight by allowing the city to move faster on getting rid of dilapidated properties it takes over (and tweaking the state’s eminent domain law to do so), keeping secret some records gathered by a citizen advisory group that hears complaints about police misconduct, and allowing earlier pour times at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Priorities!

Do not rule out nonsense during the legislative session. In addition to debating whether casinos should be allowed in Georgia, lawmakers will also hear measures to aggravate immigrants by tacking a fee on wire transfers to other countries and withhold state funding from colleges that push back against immigration policies. Considering past years have brought us measures advocating for the state to ignore federal laws and bills that prohibit the involuntary implantation of microchips in people, the sky’s the limit.

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