A few things I learned in Athens this week during the Legislature's biennial conference:
1. Transportation will dominate the 2015 session, but not necessarily the way you might imagine. The study committee tasked with recommending a way forward for funding infrastructure has not yet issued its report, isn't expected to do so until the end of the month (the due date was Nov. 30), and most likely won't suggest "a" way forward. Rather, we will get a menu of options ... and no clear-cut answer as to who's the chief, er, chef . Great googly moogly.
The optimist in me says the changed tone and increased urgency about the need to put more money into roads and bridges ( and maybe rails ) points to a strong likelihood legislators will end up passing a strong, if not exactly overwhelming, package. The pessimist in me says we've seen this movie before, following the report of the 2010 Special Council on Tax Reform and Fairness for Georgians. That report, too, was issued a bit late and without a clearly defined, consensus policy. It had no obvious, passionate, recognized leader among legislators, who seemed to look at every turn for someone else to push through a reform package. The result was a late, halting effort that was immediately picked apart by critics on all sides -- and no legislation passed in 2011. Instead, a more modest and somewhat forgettable package was passed a year later in the name of the same ambitious "tax reform" effort. Lawmakers declared victory and went home. (If you think I underrate that 2012 tax package, know that tax reform is back in the mix as something legislators are discussing in the same way as 4-5 years ago.)
This isn't the way significant legislation gets passed. Significant legislation gets passed when the governor or legislative leaders are clearly out in front of the effort, as in the case of the governor and criminal justice reform (more on that in a bit); when one member is leading the charge with the clear and full backing of leadership, as with Rep. Matt Ramsey and the 2011 immigration bill; or when a legislator is so passionate about an issue as to put 100 percent of his efforts into it, as with Rep. Allen Peake and the medical cannabis bill expected to pass in 2015 after nearly getting through this spring.
But none of this means an ill-fated topic can't commandeer the headlines. The transportation-funding debate will color every other issue at the Gold Dome, as observers wonder whether support or opposition to those other issues are being marshaled in the name of an eventual infrastructure package. Republicans, despite their two-thirds majorities in each chamber, know they probably can't pass a significant bill with only GOP votes; Democrats are well aware of the leverage this gives them.
2. The different approach being taken to education reform makes its prospects rather brighter. As I mentioned earlier, the Legislature has passed serious criminal justice reforms each of the past three years -- this, even though exactly four years ago hardly anyone was talking about the subject. As I recall, the topic first arose in Gov. Nathan Deal's inaugural address in January 2011. Deal established a commission to study the issue and make recommendations -- in many ways, not unlike that 2010 tax-reform council. The major difference was that he was the visible and vocal champion of his commission's recommendations. Deal's three serial pieces of criminal-justice legislation have passed the House and Senate with a total of five "no" votes (on final passage). That's astounding.
During this year's campaign, Deal said he intended to use the same model for reforming education, from changing the three-decades-old and obsolete QBE funding formula to establishing a state-run Recovery School District for perennially failing systems, as has been done in Louisiana and Tennessee. I heard of other nascent efforts at education reform by legislators who may move forward if they get the green light from the governor.
There is a different question of timing than in Deal's first term: Next year will be an election year for legislators (though not for Deal and other statewide officers), and after that we'll be watching for lame-duck signs leading up to the 2018 election for Deal's successor. Still, Georgia's governor wields significant power when he is willing to use it, and the commission model seems to be Deal's chosen instrument.
3. Health care remains a potent issue. The first two topics have gotten much of the ink and air time, but health care -- the second-biggest budget category after education -- will continue to drive much of the reality at the Capitol. Even without expanding Medicaid, which still appears to be off the table for Georgia's GOP leaders, that program still stands to cost taxpayers an additional tens of millions of dollars in budget year after budget year. That soaks up much of the steady if modest rise in state revenues. So do other health-related budget items.
One long-time bugbear that may make another comeback this year is reform of Georgia's certificate of need (CON) regime, which manages the planning and approval of new or expanded medical facilities across the state. It's yet another way in which there is nothing like a free market, or even market-oriented approach, to health care in Georgia. One presentation to legislators Tuesday described Georgia's CON law as the fifth-most restrictive in the nation. The incumbents in the hospital industry will fight many changes, but there were some indications of openness to some changes from some industry representatives Tuesday. If that sounds like I'm hedging a great deal, well, I am.