Top issues for the Georgia General Assembly in 2018


Budget/Taxes 

The issue: Gov. Nathan Deal’s final state budget should top a record $26 billion, but there are plenty of questions, including the impact of federal tax changes approved by Congress and whether legislative leaders do more than talk about reducing Georgia’s income tax rate, something that has been debated for several years. With slower tax revenue and a giant payment needed to help stabilize the finances of the teacher pension system, the budget Deal proposes will likely be slim on frills.

Key players: Deal; Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-ReidsvilleHouse Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-AuburnHouse Ways and Means Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla; and Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome

Prospects: Passing the state budget is actually the only thing lawmakers are mandated to do every year, according to the Georgia Constitution. The prospects for an income tax cut are much more iffy.

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Transportation

The issue: After decades as the poor stepchild of transportation, mass transit could get plenty of love at the Gold Dome in 2018. Key lawmakers are discussing an expansion of state funding for public transportation — likely in the form of a dedicated funding source for capital projects. They also want to consolidate the alphabet soup of agencies that provide transit services in metro Atlanta. A House commission has spent months studying those issues and has yet to make recommendations. Meanwhile, the state’s two largest counties — Fulton and Gwinnett — plan transit referendums in November. To do that, they’ll need legislation allowing them to collect transportation sales taxes for at least 20 years, and likely longer. Another House committee has been studying ways to combat distracted driving. Fatalities from motor vehicle accidents are on the rise in Georgia and across the nation. The commission has discussed legislation that would require drivers to use hands-free cellphone technology. Previous efforts to enact such a law have gone nowhere.

Key players: House Transportation Chairman Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville; Senate Transportation Chairman Brandon Beach, R-Alpharettastate Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta; MARTA

Prospects: Uncertain

Rural Georgia

The issue: Residents and businesses have been moving from rural Georgia for decades, leaving behind communities with fewer job prospects and economic opportunities. Lawmakers, especially House Speaker David Ralston and other rural representatives, see the ongoing losses in rural areas as a state crisis. Besides declining businesses, there are also fewer hospitals, less internet access and worse educational outcomes. Legislators are recommending ways to help rural areas for consideration by the Georgia General Assembly. Bills will likely be introduced to give income tax breaks to people who move to rural  areas, subsidize  internet construction  to rural areas, encourage telemedicine and create a Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation that would assist communities in recruiting businesses.

Key players:Ralston, R-Blue Ridge; Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle; Powell; England; internet companies; and hospitals

Prospects: Likely, but many details remain unclear

Confederate monuments

The issue: A white supremacist rally near a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that turned fatal in Charlottesville, Va., in August has renewed the interest of some to remove similar monuments across the country. A pair of Georgia lawmakers, state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, and state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, filed similar bills in their respective chambers that would give local governments the authority to make decisions about the display of Confederate monuments and markers. That doesn’t mean lawmakers will get behind the proposal. Ralston has said he believes allowing local governments to manage the memorials would be “divisive.”

Key players: ParentOliver and Ralston.

Prospects: Unlikely

Medical marijuana

The issue: Georgia has allowed cannabis oil to be used to treat seizures and several other medical conditions since 2015, but it’s still illegal to buy or grow the drug. That could change under a proposal by state Rep. Allen Peake, who has championed  the expansion of medical marijuana in Georgia. Twenty-nine other states already allow medical marijuana cultivation, but Georgia patients have to obtain the drug illicitly before they can consume it legally. Peake is proposing legislation that would allow one or two medical marijuana growers and manufacturers to operate in Georgia under strict state supervision, with permission to only make those forms of cannabis oil currently allowed by law. But Deal, the Trump administration and law enforcement officials have resisted medical marijuana expansion unless the federal government eases restrictions on the drug.

Key players:Peake, R-MaconSenate Health and Human Services Chairwoman Renee Unterman, R-Buford; police groups; and medical marijuana users

Prospects: Unlikely

Adoption

The issue: As last year’s legislative session sputtered to a close, a bill that would have updated Georgia’s adoption laws was left hanging after the Senate added “religious liberty” language to the measure. A Senate committee changed the measure to allow adoption agencies to refuse to serve to anyone based on religious grounds. Critics of the move said it would give faith-based adoption agencies a license to deny children to same-sex couples, someone who had been previously divorced or couples of different religions. This year, Deal and legislative leaders are calling for quick action to approve a “clean” version of the adoption legislation, without religious liberty additions. The bill is designed to make the adoption process more efficient in Georgia, in part by reducing wait times.

Key players: Deal; Ralston; Cagle; state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta; and state Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick

Prospects: Likely

Health

The issue: Two study committees addressed barriers to access to health care for Georgians over the past year. The Senate committee recommended that where there is a dearth of medical providers, nurse practitioners should be allowed to perform more of the functions that doctors currently handle. It also supported the use of telemedicine and increase in behavioral health services to address the opioid epidemic. The House committee addressed opioid abuse and suggested expanded funding for mental health services. Unterman has said she plans to file legislation to address issues surrounding mental illness, insurance fraud and access to overdose-reversing medication. One of the bigger questions has been whether to expand Medicaid to cover people who were left in a coverage gap by the Affordable Care Act and Georgia government. The Legislature is not going to vote to do that, but the governor and the Trump administration may address coverage through a “waiver.”

Key players: Unterman; Cagle; House Health and Human Services Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta; hospital and health care lobbyists

Prospects: Unclear

Education

The issue: Legislators will likely debate a proposal to increase the cap on tax credit scholarships for private schools. Proponents of the scholarships tried to raise the limit on aggregate contributions above the current $58 million but couldn’t get agreement during the 2017 legislative session. Both the House and Senate passed versions of House Bill 217, but the Senate didn’t like last-minute changes by the House, stalling the bill as the clock ran out. The tax credit is controversial, with critics saying it reduces tax revenue available for public schools. But the Georgia Supreme Court ruling in June in favor of the tax credits could give momentum to the proponents.

Key players: Carson; state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs; England; Cagle

Prospects: Unclear

Religious liberty

The issue: Efforts to increase religious protections in Georgia have caused political fights at the Capitol in each of the past several years. Despite Deal’s veto of a religious liberty measure in 2016 and strong opposition from large Atlanta companies, candidates running for higher office will almost certainly make it an issue again this year. Opponents of religious liberty legislation say it would allow faith-based organizations to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Business leaders say religious liberty measures could jeopardize  Georgia’s business-friendly reputation, especially as the state is trying to lure Amazon to build its second headquarters here.

Key players: Deal; Cagle; state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus; the Georgia Baptist Mission Board; the Georgia Chamber of Commerce; and the Metro Atlanta Chamber

Prospects: Unlikely

Casinos

The issue: For years, gaming advocates have pushed for the legalization of casinos and horse racing in Georgia. Lawmakers in support of bringing casinos to Georgia thought last year that dedicating a portion of the revenue raised to create a needs-based component of the HOPE scholarship would lure enough Democratic support. That plan didn’t pan out. Supporters, including state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, said while they continue to hope lawmakers will eventually allow the voters of Georgia to decide whether they want up to six destination resort-style casinos in the state, they don’t expect any movement in an election year. On top of that, Deal, Cagle and Ralston all have said they don’t believe Georgia needs casinos right now.

Key players: Deal; House Economic Development and Tourism Chairman Stephens; Beach; and the casino industry

Prospects: Unlikely

Gun control

The issue: After a mass shooting in Las Vegas in October left 58 dead and injured more than 500, gun control advocates zeroed in on the bump stock mechanism that gave the shooter’s rifles rapid-fire shooting capability. Oliver filed a bill in November to ban the sale and possession of the gun accessory. The move comes the year after gun advocates scored a win when Deal signed legislation in May that allows the weapons to be carried in certain areas of public college campuses. The National Rifle Association in October said it supports additional regulation for bump stocks. Still, passing anything that appears to restrict access to firearms is nearly impossible in Georgia.

Key players: House Public Safety Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell; Ralston, Cagle, and Georgia Carry

Prospects: Unlikely

— Staff writers Ariel Hart, James Salzer, Ty Tagami and David Wickert contributed to this article.


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