ATHENS — Ballots were still being counted when it became apparent most Democrats had not seriously considered the possibility Donald Trump would win. Neither, it seems, had many Republicans.
That was my main takeaway from the General Assembly’s biennial retreat here this week. Typically, one can find the rough outlines of a legislative agenda at this post-election event, which is geared toward the newly elected lawmakers but also well attended by the veterans. For example, two years ago it was clear legislators would pursue some kind of transportation-funding bill, even if the details didn’t emerge until several weeks later.
But between Trump’s victory — with uncertain effects for everything from health care to infrastructure spending — and the unexpectedly lopsided defeat of the Opportunity School District, no one sounded confident about much of anything we’re likely to see when the 2017 session begins.
Next year had been shaping up as the first time the Medicaid expansion envisioned under Obamacare would get a serious hearing in Georgia. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce promised a “conservative” way to increase state funding for the program by hundreds of millions of dollars, in order to draw down the billions in promised federal dollars, although the specifics of their alchemy were kept under wraps.
That plan got Trumped, and not just because the feds are likely to stop harassing Georgia for declining to expand Medicaid with a Republican in the White House. Expansion may no longer be possible, depending on how Congress makes good on its promise to repeal Obamacare and replace it. Existing Medicaid funding could also be affected.
But the substance of such changes isn’t the only question mark: So is timing. No one is ready to predict how quickly Congress might move, or when a new bill might take effect. Some lawmakers in Athens were already wondering aloud whether they might have to put the session “on pause” for a while next spring to stall for time, or even reconvene in a special session in the summer, to account for the effect on state budgets.
Education was expected to be another dominant theme. Gov. Nathan Deal held off this year on a bill with recommendations from his reform commission, including updating the formula for distributing state money to public schools for the first time in three decades. The idea was to get past the OSD referendum before pushing in 2017 for more controversial changes such as how teachers are paid.
That plan didn’t anticipate teachers unions’ spending millions of dollars to defeat the ballot measure. Three in five Georgians voted against the OSD. Now it’s unclear what a Plan B for chronically failing schools might look like. Or how aggressive Deal and legislators might be in pushing other reforms. Or whether a move from Washington, such as fulfilling Trump’s pledge to put $20 billion into a school-choice program, might have a knock-on effect here.
There’s one last way in which Trump’s victory may affect the 2017 session, and that’s how it is shaking up state politics.
The race to replace U.S. Rep. Tom Price, whom Trump chose to lead Health and Human Services, seems likely to include a trio of state legislators. The timing of that election could have an effect on the session. Then there are the folks who are re-evaluating their options for the 2018 state elections in light of Trumpism, and who may be inclined to legislate accordingly starting next month.
For a state run by Republicans, that’s a lot of uncertainty caused by the election of a Republican.