Top issues for Georgia’s General Assembly in 2017


A primer on some of the top issues expected to come up during the legislative session that begins Monday:

Religious liberty

The issue: Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a “religious liberty” bill this past spring, putting to rest absolutely nothing. Advocates on both sides expect it to return in 2017, despite a reluctance among statehouse leaders to expend capital on such a lightning rod issue. Key proponents have said they expect various versions of legislation in both chambers seeking to protect faith-based groups, particularly those opposed to same-sex marriage. Critics, including some of the state’s major business leaders, deride such legislation as discriminatory toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, and they say it could damage the state’s reputation of tolerance and inclusion. Likely legislation includes a push to protect private adoption agencies (some of which receive state grants) that only want to place children with opposite-sex adoptive parents.

Key players:Senate Pro Tem David Shafer, R-Duluth; state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus; the Georgia Baptist Mission Board; the Georgia Chamber of Commerce; and the Metro Atlanta Chamber.

Prospects: Uncertain.

Education

The issue: Voters resoundingly rejected Deal’s signature education initiative last year, voting down his proposal to allow the state to take over local public schools that it deemed as failing. So now what? One potential new measure could give the state more leeway to let students transfer from struggling schools. Another could revamp the decades-old state funding formula for schools that almost everybody — from teachers to school board members to state lawmakers — say is outdated and untenable. There’s also a question of retribution: Before the vote in November, Deal’s staff asked Georgia school districts to tell them how much their teachers paid in dues toward state teacher organizations — which, as it happened, opposed the ballot measure. Those groups are now warily watching for any type of proposal aimed at eliminating or restricting professional associations’ dues from being collected or to mandate districts assess administrative fees to collect them.

Key players:Senate Education and Youth Committee Chairman Lindsey Tippins, R-MariettaHouse Education Chairman Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth; the Georgia Association of Educators; and the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

Prospects: Likely.

Budget

The issue: Deal headed into the new year expected to announce a record state budget of about $24.6 billion, but little else is certain. Georgia leaders await direction from President-elect Donald Trump and GOP congressional leaders over plans for major changes to programs that will likely affect how much federal money flows into the state. Deal also has a penchant for conservative budgeting: State agencies have already been told not to ask for “extras,” generally setting low-ball estimates for tax revenue that let the governor sock away big surpluses when the economy outperforms his projections.

Key players: Deal; Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville; and House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn.

Prospects: Bingo! Passing the state budget is actually the only thing lawmakers are mandated to do every year, according to the Georgia Constitution.

Medical marijuana

The issue: While Georgia lawmakers in 2015 allowed a very limited form of medical marijuana, proponents believe the law should be expanded to include more treatable illnesses and — in a “home run” scenario — an in-state program to grow and cultivate cannabis in Georgia for medicinal purposes. However, both Deal and law enforcement advocates have opposed any type of expansion without a corresponding move by federal officials to ease restrictions and reclassify the drug. Trump, in the meantime, has nominated someone for attorney general — U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. — who has been a fierce critic of the drug.

Key players:state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon; and Senate Health and Human Services Chairwoman Renee Unterman, R-Buford.

Prospects: Not likely.

Immigration

The issue:Likely efforts include blocking the state from accepting federal refugee resettlement funding and adding a new fee for out-of-state wire transfers that many immigrants and refugees use to send money to their families abroad. Other measures would cut state funding to private universities that don’t comply with immigration laws and ban immigrants without legal status from paying in-state tuition — a hot topic after a Fulton County judge recently ruled that the state should grant in-state tuition to immigrants who have received a special reprieve from deportation through the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The state Board of Regents is appealing the judge’s ruling.

Key players: McKoon; state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springsstate Rep. Jeff Jones, R-Brunswick; and state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta.

Prospects: Likely.

Alcohol

The issue: Last year, for the second year in a row, a “better brunch bill” that would have let Georgia restaurants sell alcoholic drinks before 12:30 p.m. on Sundays failed to pass. Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, blocked it, saying it would upset what he called a “fragile compromise” between legislative leaders and the faith community over allowing Sunday alcohol sales. Now it’s back, and it is expected to be introduced by Unterman, who calls it both an economic and fairness issue, since government-owned buildings — such as the Georgia World Congress Center — are already allowed to serve before 12:30 p.m. on a Sunday because the current restriction only applies to privately owned restaurants. Separately, many are watching to see whether Georgia’s beer wholesalers and craft brewers — who have been at loggerheads for years — can reach a compromise that overcomes the state’s ban on allowing breweries to sell beer directly to consumers.

Key players: Unterman; Cowsert; state Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville; and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

Prospects: Uncertain.

Casinos

The issue: Gaming advocates have tried for years to legalize casinos and bets on horse racing in Georgia, and they’ve come up with yet another plan they hope is a winner. Their proposal, to be carried by state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, would allow up to five casinos and one horse track, including a minimum $1 billion investment in a new facility within 25 miles of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The plan tinkers a bit with previous efforts, although it makes one notable change to lure Democratic support: a new needs-based component to the Hope scholarship that would be funded with some of the proceeds. Significant hurdles remain, however, including objections from Deal and faith-based groups.

Key players: Beach; House Economic Development and Tourism Chairman Ron Stephens, R-Savannah; and state Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna.

Prospects: Unclear.

Health care

The issue: GOP congressional leaders are poised to dismantle the Affordable Care Act but have so far released few details over how to do it, leaving state lawmakers in a guessing game over just how the changes could affect Georgia. Trump proposed during his campaign to issue block grants for Medicaid, although it’s not yet clear what that could mean for individual states. Other issues also loom, including renewal of a fee on hospitals that helps the state’s ailing Medicaid program but has been criticized by opponents as a “bed tax.” There’s also been fierce fighting over state-issued “certificates of need” that restrict where and how hospitals and clinics can compete throughout the state.

Key players: Deal; Cagle; England; Hill; Unterman; and House Health and Human Services Chairwoman Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta.

Prospects: Likely, but unclear in what form.

Guns

The issue: Gun rights advocates have long pushed to allow guns on Georgia’s public college campuses, and they won passage for such an effort last year after several high-profile cases of robberies, including some inside Georgia State University’s library. Deal vetoed the measure, however, saying proponents had not justified changing colleges’ status as “sanctuaries of learning” and the state’s long history of barring firearms on campuses. The University System of Georgia has also long opposed allowing students to carry guns on campus. But advocates have vowed to come back this year with another campus gun bill, likely setting off a battle that could again put Georgia in a national spotlight.

Key players:House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridgestate Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper; and state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta.

Prospects: Likely.


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