In 2017, it was “campus carry” allowing guns on college campuses. In 2019, it was the “heartbeat bill” restricting abortion access. Last year, it was critical race theory and transgender athletes.
Every time the Georgia legislature meets, it seems like some culture war issue pops up that dominates the discourse. But they’re rarely telegraphed ahead of time. Instead, in the run-up to each session, officials prefer to talk about the nuts and bolts of government, and all the things they plan to do for—rather than to—the great people of Georgia.
What follows is something approximating the official 2023 agenda for the General Assembly, which gaveled in Monday but won’t really get started until Wednesday, when the bigwigs get back from watching Georgia play the College Football Playoff National Championship in Los Angeles. (One perk of public service is easy access to tickets.) There will be surprises along the way, though.
Kemp’s Agenda: Fresh off his successful re-election bid, Gov. Brian Kemp laid out the broad strokes of his second term agenda during a keynote speech at the Biennial Institute, a training session for new legislators held by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government.
In a nutshell, expect more of the same. Kemp crowed about the economy and his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and pledged to cut taxes and crack down on gangs—all things he ran on in 2022.
Kemp said he’s proud that 85% of the economic growth during his tenure has come outside of metro Atlanta. “We need to expand even further, bringing more jobs to all corners of our state, and keep that momentum going,” he said.
Kemp said he will push for more tax cuts and refunds this year, after the legislature voted to approve a gradual income tax reduction and $500 refunds in 2022. On education, he said he wants to provide career pathways and create a school system that will attract workers to the state.
And the work of undoing former Gov. Nathan Deal’s criminal justice reforms will continue. Kemp said he will propose harsher punishments for those who recruit members into gangs, saying that gangs are pursuing children as young as elementary school. “Even now, gang members are targeting our most cherished treasures—our children,” he said.
New Leadership: It took 15 ballots over a drama-filled three days to elect Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. But Georgians have known for months who will lead the state House.
When Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) died in November, not long after announcing that he would step down from the speaker’s role due to a health issue, the Republican majority chose Rep. Jon Burns, from the South Georgia town of Newington, as his replacement. Burns has pledged to follow in Ralston’s footsteps.
Ralston, who served as speaker for 13 years, was a moderating influence on the GOP caucus, often warning his far-right colleagues not to overreach. Under his leadership, red meat for the base like gun and abortion legislation usually wound up watered down. He also pushed through bipartisan legislation like last year’s mental health funding package, and worked with former Gov. Nathan Deal to reform the criminal justice system.
Ralston’s legacy repeatedly came up during the Biennial Institute sessions. Kemp urged lawmakers to honor his legacy by “maintaining his sense of dignity and decorum under the Gold Dome.”
Will that happen in the Senate, though? Traditionally, the upper chamber is the more buttoned-down counterpart to the often boisterous “People’s House,” as Ralston used to call it. But this year it will be led by newly elected Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who is under investigation for conspiring to replace Georgia’s slate of electors for Joe Biden with one for Donald Trump. Jones replaces Geoff Duncan, an ardent Trump critic who declined to run for re-election.
Taxes: The state legislature’s one job every year is to pass a budget. State coffers are overflowing, and they’ll have to decide what to do with all that money. While the state has needs in both K-12 and higher education, health care and other areas, much of that cash will likely be going back to taxpayers.
Georgia has an $11 billion budget surplus, which is $6 billion over the amount it can legally set aside for a rainy day. Last year, Kemp and legislators cut taxes by $1 billion and issued $1 billion in tax rebates. They’re likely to do so again this year, Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens) said at an Athens Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast last month. Some sort of statewide property tax relief, similar to the local homestead exemption referendum Gaines and other Athens representatives put on the ballot last year, is also coming.
“That’s the kind of thing we did last session, and we’re looking forward to doing more this year,” Gaines said.
Education: Past attempts to revise the state’s nearly 40-year-old funding formula for K-12 education went nowhere, but lawmakers will try again this session. A new formula could include additional money for high-poverty schools, which would benefit the Clarke County School District, as well as more for transportation, computers and school security. Some legislators might also push to spend more taxpayer dollars on vouchers for private schools, now that Ralston isn’t there to stand in the way.
Funding for higher education could be bolstered if lawmakers finally move forward on sports betting and casino gambling to augment the lottery that funds HOPE scholarships.
During a speech at the Biennial Institute, former Gov. Sonny Perdue, now the chancellor of the University System of Georgia, said he will focus on making sure Georgia colleges and universities are a good value and have the types of programs that employers want, such as nursing, data analytics, bioscience and agricultural technology.
“People worry about cost, they worry about accountability, and they want to know if we’re a good return on investment,” Perdue said.
He also delivered a warning to any woke professors out there: “We expect our gifted faculty to use their academic freedom to educate, not indoctrinate.”
Transportation: “We are the Department of Transportation,” DOT Commissioner Russell McMurray declared at the Biennial Institute. “It’s not all roads and bridges.”
Yet just 4% of GDOT’s $4 billion annual budget goes toward “intermodal” projects, which includes everything from airports to rail to public transit. Most funding goes toward road maintenance and new highway construction, like the massive project at the I-285/400 interchange and widening I-85 through Commerce. Projects like the long-awaited “Brain Train” between Athens and Atlanta remain a pipe dream, although a new fund for transit in rural areas and small cities could benefit Athens, and GDOT is considering passenger rail from Atlanta to Savannah. “We’re just getting underway,” McMurray said.
McMurray did say, however, that his department is putting more emphasis on safety. “Safety [funding] increased the most, as it should, because as we are seeing across the nation, we are seeing more fatalities on Georgia roadways.”
One example is the roundabouts that are popping up on state highways all over Georgia, like one at the intersection of highways 29 and 98 in Sen. Frank Ginn’s hometown of Danielsville. “Best thing that ever happened,” said Ginn, who represents part of Athens and chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.
While transit remains an afterthought, installing a network of electric vehicle chargers will be a major project in the coming years. Georgia received $135 million from the Federal Highway Administration to build out such a network, according to Jannine Miller, director of planning at GDOT, but that “will go nowhere near to solving the gap.”
One of the corridors GDOT is targeting for fast 20–30 minute chargers is 441 between Toccoa and Dublin, where five privately owned charging stations are planned to facilitate trips of more than 250 miles. That’s close to the 5K Innovation battery factory in Jackson County and the planned Rivian truck plant near Madison.
Criminal Justice: As mentioned, Kemp is planning further measures to crack down on gangs. In addition, Gaines called for legislation to rein in progressive district attorneys like Athens’ Deborah Gonzalez. He and Rep. Marcus Wiedower (R-Watkinsville) previously explored the idea of removing Oconee County from the Western Circuit, but were shot down.
“We have district attorneys and solicitors who are not doing their jobs and not going after serious crimes,” Gaines said.
However, the state’s top judge warned lawmakers at the Biennial Institute not to abandon the sentencing reforms, accountability courts for defendants with mental health and substance abuse issues, and mental health programs created over the past few years.
“We truly have a mental health, and more importantly, a health care crisis,” Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Boggs said. He served on criminal justice reform councils under Deal and Perdue.
The U.S. has 4% of the world’s population but 25% of its prison population, and one in 13 people are in jail, on parole or on probation, Boggs said. At the same time, 2 million Georgians have a mental illness, but there are only 20,000 beds at treatment facilities. Georgians with mental health issues are 20 times more likely to be arrested than hospitalized. They stay incarcerated longer at a higher cost, and are more likely to commit crimes again, according to Boggs.
“Your county jails have become your de facto mental health facilities in your communities,” he told legislators.
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