Georgia's 56 state senators and 180 state representatives returned to the Gold Dome in Atlanta this week for the 2014 session of the General Assembly. Dr. Douglas Young, professor of political science at the University of North Georgia, takes a look at what the legislative body is expected to do during its 40-day session.
All 236 state legislators and most elected statewide officers, including the governor, are on the ballot this year. How might this affect the session?
Due to a recent federal court ruling, Georgia's primary elections must be moved up from the traditional mid-July date. Legislation to change this date to May 20 just passed the Senate by a vote of 38 to 15. While Georgia law forbids lawmakers to campaign or fundraise during the legislative session, that doesn't pertain to primary opponents. So legislators likely want to finish the session by mid-March at the latest. If they delay the session into April, as they have done occasionally in recent years, they will have only a matter of weeks to campaign and raise money before the primary. Many Georgia representatives and senators likely will only face opponents in the primary election. In fact, in 2012, Georgia had the least competitive state legislative races in the nation, with a little less than 22 percent of seats being contested by a Republican and a Democrat in the fall general election.
So I predict a much more efficient, shorter session to please powerful voting groups and return lawmakers to their districts as soon as possible to raise money and campaign for re-election on May 20.
What is the top issue the General Assembly is likely to tackle?
The budget is central to each legislative session, and how the government spends our tax dollars shows its public policy priorities. Georgia's General Assembly is required by our state constitution’s balanced budget amendment to ensure the state government doesn't spend more tax dollars than it takes in through tax revenues.
Since state tax revenues have increased about 5.4 percent from last year, the lawmakers will have more money to spend this year. That should make it easier to balance the budget and spend more money on legislators' favorite public programs, pleasing those political constituencies who are most likely to vote in the May primary elections.
What other issues could the legislature consider during the session?
A significant issue is how the state is to implement the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare. Here is where we may see the widest division between the two parties under the Gold Dome. Liberal Democratic state lawmakers want Georgia to get the maximum amount of federal tax dollars for government healthcare programs, especially Medicaid programs for low-income Georgians. Philosophically, conservative Republican lawmakers are deeply opposed to aiding what they see as a major step towards socialized or government-run healthcare. The fact that both state legislative chambers and the governor are Republican tilts the odds in favor of the GOP prevailing on this matter.
Gun control will likely be a major issue as well. Republican House Speaker David Ralston has declared that one of his legislative priorities this year is a bill expanding the public places Georgians with a conceal-carry gun permit are allowed to carry firearms. Last year, the legislature came close to passing a bill allowing those with permits to carry guns in bars, churches (that approve) and on college campuses. There will likely be another partisan divide on this issue but, due to Republican votes in both houses, I predict some expansion of the conceal-carry law will pass. Public sentiment across Georgia, which generally opposes gun control, and the National Rifle Association's powerful pull will weigh heavily here, too.
Perhaps the biggest area of bipartisan agreement in this session will be increased funding for public schools, including pay raises for teachers. There are at least four big reasons for this. First, educators make up one of the biggest, most powerful voting blocs in the state – as shown by their major role in defeating Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes' re-election bid in 2002. Second, with more state taxes collected, there's more money this year for the legislature to spend. Third, Gov. Nathan Deal, who is up for re-election and has two primary opponents, has already declared his intention to increase education funding, and his State of the State message to the General Assembly on Jan. 15 reiterated this commitment. Finally, most Georgia teachers have not gotten a raise in several years.