January 8, 2014

The Georgia Legislature's 2014 Session Preview

Of course, the music industry will be far from the only thing on legislators' radar when they convene next week. The upcoming session, which lasts 40 working days, is expected to be an exceptionally short one, ending in mid-March. State elected officials—including Gov. Nathan Deal and his likely Democratic opponent, state Sen. Jason Carter (D-Decatur)—are prohibited from raising money while the legislature is in session. With the primaries likely to be moved up to May 20 due to a court order, fundraising becomes even more important.

And because it's an election year, lawmakers will be loathe to pass any sweeping or controversial laws that might upset voters. There will, however, be lots of grandstanding as legislators with opposition seek to score political points.

"We don't have, from all indications, a very aggressive agenda this session," says Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens).

The Budget: Passing it is the one thing the General Assembly has to do before skipping town, and it's usually the hardest.

Gov. Deal will release his proposed budget for the 2015 fiscal year later this month. It's not expected to be as painful as recent years, when lawmakers slashed school days and other services to balance the budget during the recession. Tax collections are up $378 million, or 5.4 percent, over last year, Deal's office says. Georgia's unemployment rate was 7.7 percent in November, down a full percentage point from a year prior but still higher than the national rate.

The improving economy hasn't helped the worst-off. More than 19 percent of Georgians, including 27 percent of children, lived in poverty in 2012—160,000 more than in 2010, according to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. The think tank attributes the rise in poverty to lagging educational opportunities, as well as a rise in lower-paying jobs during the recovery.

University of Georgia President Jere Morehead has said he'll push for raises for faculty and staff, who haven't had one in five years. 


State Rep. Spencer Frye (D-Athens) wants the state to use extra tax revenue to give teachers a raise. Or buy him another phone.

"Public school teachers haven't had raises in forever," says state Rep. Spencer Frye (D-Athens). "University folks haven't had raises in forever. Hopefully, we'll see we need to invest in that instead of big corporate tax breaks because we have extra money."

Science Building: Under Chancellor Hank Huckaby, a new era of austerity is coming for Georgia colleges and universities. With stagnant lottery revenue and declining state support, Huckaby has warned that the higher education system will have to do more with less, and the days of big building projects are all but over.

But one of UGA's top priorities for the coming session is a bond issue for a new Science Learning Center on South Campus. The $44.7 million, 122,000 square-foot building is needed to expand and modernize 1960s chemistry and biology classroom and research space, administrators say.

UGA also is requesting $4.9 million to expand and renovate Baldwin Hall, home of the School of Public and International Affairs.

Guns: A bill that could allow people with concealed-carry permits to take their guns into churches and bars and on college campuses is still alive.

The original purpose of Senate Bill 201, sponsored by Sen. Frank Ginn (R-Danielsville) was to let out-of-state permit holders carry in Georgia. After it passed the Senate, though, House members inserted language from House Bill 512 allowing guns on campuses and letting churches choose whether parishioners can be packing. 

Supported by gun-rights groups and opposed by law enforcement and the university officials, a disagreement between Senate Republicans who wanted to require a safety class and House Republicans who didn't scuttled the bill on the last day of the 2013 session. If they clear up that issue, it could be resurrected this year.

"Hopefully, I can work through the hangups we had and get a good bill passed," Ginn says.

Health Care: A group of conservative back-benchers, led by Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine), pre-filed bills last month that would prohibit state employees from implementing the Affordable Care Act. It's based on the libertarian Tenth Amendment Center's plan to nullify Obamacare at the state level, and similar bills have been introduced in South Carolina and Missouri.

Georgia officials have already declined to set up a health care exchange, opting to let the feds do it instead, but the bill could threaten the jobs of insurance “navigators” employed by UGA with a federal grant and even prevent state officials from talking about the ACA at all.

Fulfilling another step in the Tenth Amendment Center's plan, Deal is still refusing to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid, which could cover 400,000 low-income uninsured Georgians. House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D-Atlanta) says Democrats will continue to push Deal to accept Medicaid money. A block grant like the deal Arkansas cut with the White House could be a compromise.

Rep. Spencer, incidentally, recently referred to hospitals that support Medicaid expansion as "like addicts on crack."

Transportation: Local officials in Athens-Clarke County and other cities want to hold referenda on sales tax hikes to fund transportation, similar to the failed T-SPLOST referendum in 2012 but on a county rather than regional level. In ACC, the money would go toward improving Athens Transit bus service and road projects. 

But after watching their brainchild go down in flames a year-and-a-half ago, Republicans aren't inclined to even give voters the option of taxing themselves. "No new taxes," Cowsert says.

Mmm… Beer: The Senate Regulated Industries Committee, which Ginn serves on, has been holding hearings on easing restrictions on brewpubs, breweries and distilleries, which aren't allowed to sell alcohol for off-premises consumption. Such a law could help local craft brewers like Terrapin and Creature Comforts.

"I think we'll see some legislation drafted," Ginn says. "I don't know whether it'll pass this session."