Up In The Air

In the 2016 legislative session, it’s a matter of will they or won’t they.
Down to Business: House Speaker David Ralston |!!!|

Lawmakers returned in January to what could be an interesting session based on HB 170, the landmark transportation funding package that dominated last year’s session. Or not. The temptation to put up their feet must be great after the passage of that bill, which will raise $900 million for transportation maintenance, repairs and improvements each year.

The sparring between the House and Senate versions of last year’s transportation bill revealed fractures in the GOP but also showed that Republicans can in fact get things done. After years of fumbling in the end zone, it would appear, at last, that the heat is off – in transportation, at least.

Or is it? The bill created a Special Joint Committee on Georgia Revenue Structure to introduce any tax reform legislation, which would then go straight to the House floor for a yes/no vote.

Regarding the transportation bill itself, we can expect the tourism industry to come after the $5 hotel room tax increase that is expected to raise some 20 percent of the $900 million. Georgia cities are also unhappy with the portion of the bill that shifts sales taxes to excise taxes and prevents their use for non-transportation projects; cities will have to raise taxes for these types of initiatives on their own.

In other tax reform legislation, the House already has HB 445 ready to push forward this year. Introduced in the 2015 session, the More Take Home Pay Act would cut state income taxes while raising the state sales tax.

We can expect ongoing fights over guns, LGBT issues and immigration. Campus carry provisions, driver’s license restrictions and allowing alcohol sales earlier on Sunday (known as the Brunch Bill), which all failed last year, will likely be back, along with so-called “religious freedom” efforts. Despite staunch resistance from Democrats and the business community and the death of SB 129, last year’s Religious Freedom Bill, the 2016 federal election will ensure these topics come up again.

Many are talking about legalizing casinos in Georgia (HR 807 and HB 677) to pay for predicted HOPE scholarship shortfalls. With billions of dollars at stake, some don’t see much of a difference between legalized gambling and the Georgia lottery tickets that currently fund HOPE. But Gov. Nathan Deal is not a fan, and Georgia voters may be a little too ensconced in the Bible Belt to approve a referendum this November.

Cities are growing, incorporating and changing the face of Metro Atlanta; HB 711 has been pre-filed to prevent newly formed cities from escaping pension debts. The unfunded portion of DeKalb County’s pension debt came to more than $650 million last year. The ACCG is also pushing for a two-year process before a new city is created.

Speaking of DeKalb, that county along with Fulton will ask for a referendum to increase funding for MARTA by a half penny. The Metro Atlanta Chamber will also seek a permanent funding mechanism for transit projects. 

Efforts to continue state funding for hospitals and patients affected by Georgia’s refusal to expand Medicaid will likely continue. In 2016, $80 million has been earmarked for Medicaid and PeachCare, the state’s healthcare program for uninsured children.

Disputes will also likely continue over the request by Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Newnan for an exemption to Georgia’s Certificate of Need (CON) law. We can also expect some proposed legislation to help patients access the medical marijuana made legal last year.

One big issue that may emerge this year is education. With the governor’s Opportunity School District referendum on the November ballot, many will be asking what the state will do if we let them take over our failing schools.

Based on recommendations to overhaul the state’s 30-year-old education funding mechanism released in December, the answer would appear to be not much. Georgia is paying the price of some 14 years of defunding K-12 and shifting costs like transportation and insurance to local systems. Now the Education Reform Commission wants to make some of this defunding permanent with a new funding formula.

Georgia already ranks 39th in public education spending nationally. With mixed results from Tennessee’s Opportunity School District program, will the state attempt to shore up funding for a more effective impact? That might make a better case for it at the polls, but don’t bank on a HB 170-type solution this year.

The Georgia Conservancy and others hope to raise $30 million a year for strategic investments in land conservation through a variety of initiatives, including the dedication of three-fourths of the taxes paid on the sale of outdoor recreation equipment to the Georgia Legacy Trust Fund. It’s an initiative that if passed by the legislature would show up on ballots next November. The state currently spends about $10 million a year on land acquisition. 

Additional funding for the arts could also emerge this year; we are getting better but are still last in the country for arts funding – some 6 cents per resident vs. 63 cents in South Carolina, which has less than half our population.

Look for other criminal justice initiatives as Deal continues his push to make Georgia a model for criminal justice reform. He can also build on efforts to improve data sharing among organizations and agencies involved in child safety based on the Child Welfare Reform passed last year (SB 138).

It will be interesting to see what emerges from these and other ideas presented under the Gold Dome this year – and what doesn’t. So much of what they decide in those 40 short days can affect your life and your livelihood, and it’s important to let your legislators hear from you. On the following pages, you’ll find a list of all the state and federal government officials, along with their contact information. During this year’s session, stay informed and let your legislators know what matters to you.

Click here to view State Officers, State Representatives, State Senators and the  U.S. Congressional Delegation from Georgia.

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