Athens lawmakers converge on Capitol

Athens state Senators Bill Cowsert and Frank Ginn and state Representatives Spencer Frye, Houston Gaines, and Marcus Weidower are joining their legislative colleagues at the Capitol in Atlanta for today’s start of a new legislative session. The AJC reporters who cover the Legislature size up the big issues confronting the lawmakers beneath the Gold Dome.

Budget

State lawmakers will spend much of the 2020 session reviewing and deciding on Gov. Brian Kemp’s plans to cut 4% in spending this year and 6% in fiscal 2021, and on figuring out whether they want to cut the state’s income tax rate for the second time in three years.

Cutting the income tax rate again — from 5.75% to 5.5% — would likely mean further spending cuts for state agencies. In addition, lawmakers will debate several other tax proposals, such as ones to tax vaping products and force companies that facilitate online sales to remit taxes.

Key players: Kemp; Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-ReidsvilleHouse Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-AuburnHouse Ways and Means Chairman Brett Harrell, R-Snellville; and Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome.

Prospects: Passing the state budget is the only thing lawmakers are mandated to do every year, according to the Georgia Constitution. The tax bills — which typically involve lots of lobbyists — are iffy, but some tax breaks generally pass and lawmakers may be looking for ways to raise revenue.

— James Salzer

Social issues

Election years open up the possibility for incumbent lawmakers worried about primary opponents to file polarizing legislation on topics including abortion and guns that fire up their base of voters.

It’s hard to know what the dominating issue will be this year after the 2019 clash over anti-abortion legislation.

Bills have been filed addressing transgender children, gun control, stiffer penalties for crimes committed based on hate and a ban on so-called “conversion therapy.”

And while anti-abortion activists say they don’t expect to pursue legislation putting further regulations on the procedure while the law approved last year makes its way through the courts, anything can happen. At this time last year, those same activists said they didn’t see the law, which would outlaw abortion once a doctor can detect fetal cardiac activity, on the horizon.

Key players: Kemp; Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan; House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge;House Majority Leader Jon Burns, R-Newington;Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton;House Minority Leader Bob Trammell, D-Luthersville; and Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Stone Mountain.

Prospects: There really is no way of knowing what issue will come to the forefront of debate — or whether that debate will end in passage of legislation.

— Maya T. Prabhu

Traffic safety

Two years ago the General Assembly cracked down on distracted driving, prohibiting motorists from handling their cellphones while driving. This year, they may tackle another traffic safety issue: seat belts.

The state currently requires people in the front seats of passenger vehicles to buckle up. And it requires anyone 17 and under in the back seats to be restrained. But adults in the back seats are free to ignore the safety restraints.

Traffic safety advocates say requiring everyone to buckle up would save lives. A Senate study committee recently recommended such a law.

Key player: Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, the chairman of the committee that recommended a new law.

Prospects: Seat belt laws have a history of dying in the General Assembly. But many were skeptical about whether the distracted driving law would pass two years ago.

— David Wickert

Senior care oversight

Gov. Brian Kemp has called for changes to the state’s oversight of assisted living communities and personal care homes in response to an investigative series by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The AJC series exposed hundreds of cases of neglect and abuse of vulnerable seniors at large private-pay facilities across the state. The series also found that other states, including many in the South, have more strict regulations and more aggressive oversight of this rapidly growing industry. The state employs only a tiny platoon of inspectors to respond to complaints and conduct routine checks. Georgia requires only one caregiver for every 25 residents at night; its requirements for memory care units are relatively weak; and facility directors aren’t required to have the kind of training and licensing that other states demand.

Key players: Kemp, Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, Ralston, House Health and Human Services Chairwoman Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta,House Human Relations and Aging Chairman Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah.

Prospects: The governor’s support could help pass changes in oversight. Requirements that would significantly increase costs for the industry may face opposition. Support is strong from advocates and the industry to increase the number of state inspectors.

— Carrie Teegardin

Health care

Lawmakers last year gave the governor the ability to seek a waiver from the federal government to help get more Georgians health care, but it’s unsure whether the proposal will be funded during the 2020 session.

Under the governor’s proposals, $100 million or so of state funding would have to start flowing starting in January 2021. But the Legislature is also facing the question of big budget cuts. Moreover, the federal government hasn’t approved the waivers yet. So people involved in the process said they will likely postpone decisions about waiver funding.

While Medicaid funding is safe from budget cuts — for now — there are other potential cuts that could affect the program for poor and disabled Georgians.

A House study committee on maternal mortality recommended extending Medicaid coverage for poor mothers to a full year after birth, but that is also up in the air given the budget situation.

Key players: Hill; England; Senate Health and Human Services Chairman Ben Watson, R-Savannah; Cooper.

Prospects: Action on the waiver funding is unlikely until 2021

— Ariel Hart

Education

In recent years, failing schools, teacher pay and school security loomed large, but so far this year no education issue has risen to the top of the legislative agenda.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s campaign pledge to raise teacher pay by $5,000 was a dominant issue in the last legislative session. He made a $3,000 down payment on that promise, but he hasn’t committed to fulfilling the remainder this year, as falling revenue has triggered budget cuts.

That doesn’t mean education will be a tame topic. Lawmakers may renew the debate around private school voucherlike Education Scholarship Accounts, which proved controversial last year. Kemp and state school Superintendent Richard Woods have said they want to roll back standardized testing. And there will likely be a push to curb vaping, a growing problem for schools.

Key players: Kemp; Duncan; Ralston, Senate Education and Youth Committee Chairman P.K. Martin, R-Lawrenceville;House Education Committee Chairman Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper; Cooper.

Prospects: Backing from the governor and legislative leaders could push Education Scholarship Accounts across the finish line after a narrow defeat last year, though teacher and school board advocacy groups remain staunchly opposed. A rollback of test requirements could be easier to achieve given test fatigue, particularly among teachers. Curbs on vaping have proved controversial, but the industry is facing a backlash nationally.

— Ty Tagami

Gambling

Supporters of expanding access to gambling are heading into the 2020 legislative session with high hopes after a series of hearings were held in the fall and winter investigating the best ways to bring the industry to the state.

Proponents believe a call from Gov. Brian Kemp to tamp down spending has created an opening to expand gambling, which supporters say would bring hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, bolster the HOPE scholarship and create thousands of jobs in the state.

Lawmakers must determine which if any form of gambling they want to allow in the state.

Any change to the gambling industry will likely require voters to approve a constitutional amendment, which means two-thirds of the lawmakers in each chamber have to vote in favor of any proposal before it’s placed on the ballot.

Key players: Harrell; House Regulated Industries Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell;House Economic Development and Tourism Chairman Ron Stephens, R-Savannah; and Senate Transportation Chairman Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta.

Prospects: Supporters of the gambling industry believe this is the year legislation could make it on to the ballot, but getting it out of the General Assembly remains a heavy lift.

— Maya T. Prabhu

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