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Crawford: Look for a low-key legislative session

POSTED: January 9, 2013 12:30 a.m.

The circus returns to Atlanta next week when Georgia’s legislators convene the 2013 session of the General Assembly.

You can expect some fussing and fighting among the members of the Senate and House of Representatives, but it will seem very low-key when compared to the war being fought in Washington over debt ceilings and spending issues.

There is a good reason for that. There’s a real two-party system at work in Congress, so you’ve always got enough members in the minority party to keep things hopping for the majority party.

In Georgia, we’ve traditionally operated through a one-party system of politics. For a long time, it was controlled by the Democratic Party, but for the last decade the Republicans have been in charge and now hold nearly two-thirds of the seats in the legislature.

With that kind of control, it’s only natural that things could run more smoothly than they do up in Washington.

It should be a quieter session for sure in the Georgia Senate, which was divided by an ugly power struggle for the past two years between Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and a dissident faction headed by President Pro Tem Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, and Majority Leader Chip Rogers, R-Woodstock.

Williams stepped down from the pro tem post and Rogers left the Senate entirely to accept a state job. With a new leadership team running the Senate’s Republican caucus, Cagle should regain some of the power he lost the past two years and preside over a more united Senate.

There will be concerns expressed by the governor and the legislative leadership over the condition of the state budget, but that’s something they always do. In the end, the legislature will work out its budget problems.

You’ll hear a lot of talk about the need to clean up legislative ethics by putting a limit on the amount of money lobbyists can spend on for free meals and drinks for lawmakers. It is certainly possible that a bill may actually be passed to rein in the lobbyists, but it’s hard to believe that legislators are going to derail that particular gravy train.

Immigration has been an issue that has sparked a lot of debate over the past few years, but that one may recede in importance. There won’t be any major expansions of the immigration control law (House Bill 87) that was passed in 2011, as the debate over immigration reform shifts to the federal level.

If anything, legislators could pull back on the provision in HB 87 that requires business owners and professionals to submit documentation proving their citizenship when they renew their business or occupational licenses.

That part of HB 87 had some unintended consequences for people like Secretary of State Brian Kemp and Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, whose offices issue thousands of licenses each year. The immigration law has bogged down that process considerably.

"This took an automated process and made it manual," Kemp said. "This has resulted in five times longer wait times for renewals and greatly increased the workload of the Professional Licensing Board Division during already strained budget conditions."

Bills have already been introduced to roll back that part of HB 87 so that once you’ve documented your citizenship, you don’t have to keep proving you are a citizen every year at license renewal time.

If there are any loud arguments in this session, they likely will involve the extension of a Medicaid provider fee that the state’s hospitals have paid since 2010. If that fee — also known as a bed tax  is not renewed by the General Assembly, it will blow a $400 million hole in a Medicaid program that is already facing financial problems. That in turn could force small rural hospitals around the state to close.

Some of the more conservative lawmakers may try to pass a "personhood" amendment that confers full legal rights on fetuses at the instant of conception. This is a favorite tactic of activists who want to make abortions illegal.

House Speaker David Ralston has already been sending signals that he doesn’t want to deal with these kinds of social issues this session, which could put the lid on any discussion about it. That’s one more reason to think this will be a relatively quiet session for lawmakers.

Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report at gareport.com. His column appears Wednesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.


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