This week’s Courier Herald column:
With the dawn of the new year brings us another 40-day session of the Georgia General Assembly. Some of the process will follow a familiar routine. But there’s always a wrinkle or three to keep things fresh.
This will be the second time in recent history that qualifying for legislators will occur during session, with primaries for state and local offices to be held in May. In order for those who will stand for re-election to return to their districts and campaign (as well as be able to raise money – something prohibited when the legislature is in session), few are expecting the session to extend past the end of March.
As a bonus, Georgia will host a presidential preference primary about the time the legislature hits high gear. Presidential politics – and highly charged partisan rhetoric – will dominate the political news cycle this year. That doesn’t mean that this will be a “do nothing” legislative session. It just means that you may have to work harder to find out how legislation of substance is moving.
Education will take up a good bit of the legislative energy over the next three months. The Governor’s Commission on Education Reform has released eighty some-odd pages of recommendations to improve the return on investment state taxpayers make on K-12 students. The suggestions regarding funding reform have garnered the most headlines and perhaps signal one of the larger fights of the session.
Teachers’ groups have thrown down the gauntlet over a proposal for merit based pay. The actual recommendation by the reform commission is that the state get out of the business of setting teacher pay altogether. Local school boards would set teacher pay scales, which would include merit pay as some factor. The amount or percentage of their salary as well as how merit would be judged are not included in the recommendation and presumably would be completely up to the district.
The current funding model is currently based on educational programs offered by a school district and the tenure of the disrict’s teachers. The recommendation is to move to one based on the needs of the student population being taught. It’s not surprising that when moving from a bureaucrat-centered model to a student-centered model, some within the bureaucracy would fight any change. The key to successful passage is getting rank and file teachers to embrace what is in the bill – and understand what is not.
Higher education also will be in focus as a constitutional amendment to allow full-scale gaming will be debated. On the table is a significant additional contribution to the HOPE scholarship fund. At issue remains some resistance to casinos in general, as well as some legislators’ wish for more control over the Board of Regents. If Regents are willing to bring reforms to the table the path to passage becomes easier.
Transportation was a primary focus of the 2015 session. Some will want to tinker with last year’s HB 170 that provided almost $1 Billion in new funds for GDOT. Expect this to end only as rhetoric rather than changes to the funding formula this year.
What is expected is more of a “vision statement” from the legislature on how to focus existing revenues toward a statewide freight network. The volume of truck traffic moving through the state of Georgia – and how to divert it away from Atlanta – will be a major focus.
Atlanta’s traffic congestion and mobility will be addressed through additional attempts at local taxation/referendums. T-SPLOSTs have been made more flexible so that individual counties may do their own or join with one or more others. Fulton County is deciding on multiple proposals for roads and/or rail.
Neighboring counties should pay attention. If Fulton – with the largest tax base in the state – decides to go it alone, then the ability to improve East-West mobility in the dense and growing northern Atlanta suburbs is set back a decade or more. Fulton, after all, is a county that runs decidedly North-South, and it would be expected that most of it’s transportation solutions developed under “local control” would as well.
Medicaid remains a budget sore spot. Like all other healthcare costs, Medicaid costs increase each year. But much like Georgia’s transportation expenditures before HB 170, Georgia spends less as a percentage of our budget on Medicaid than do any of our neighboring states. This gap is compounded by the fact that the federal government then matches two dollars for every dollar Georgia pays for indigent care.
Georgia’s Medicaid funding structure is affecting the entire backbone of Georgia’s healthcare system. The presidential election will likely allow for an “extended debate” on the issue without a permanent resolution this year.
Along the way we’ll have many headlines about cultivating medical marijuana in Georgia (which faces an uphill battle over threat of veto), religious freedom (would pass with clear non-discrimination language, likely dead otherwise), and an effort to try and turn Georgia’s “English only” law into a constitutional amendment.
Above all else, it is an election year. This means not every bill that is debated is designed to pass. Some are designed to generate headlines as an alternative to fix actual issues or address actual problems. That, for some, is all in the routine.