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8 issues to watch as legislature kicks off 2016 session
Georgia-General-Assem Casa
Belle Doss lays out seating charts Friday on the desks of state representatives in preparation for the opening of the Georgia General Assembly at the state Capitol in Atlanta. Religious freedom, education and gambling bills top the 2016 agenda of the state's legislative session. - photo by David Goldman

EDUCATION

While funding for K-12 education has increased 21 percent since 2011, the payoff in student performance has not been equal to that investment, according to the state education reform commission launched this year.

The commission recommends permanently adding $258 million to the current K-12 state budget beginning in the 2018 fiscal year budget.

The commission has also recommended adding $209 million toward a modern, student-based new funding formula for classrooms.

Deal has thrown his support behind providing merit pay for teachers who perform best.

For some educators, the approach is welcome even if the particulars remain debatable.

“I support any legislative initiatives that support, reward and celebrate the craft of effective teaching,” said Hall County School District Superintendent Will Schofield, who served on the commission. “We have to continue to find tangible ways to encourage our current teachers and expand the pool of college-age individuals interested in entering the profession.”

GOP lawmakers are leery of tying pay to student test scores.

Read full story.

TAX REFORM

State Republicans have rallied around calls to lower personal income taxes and offset that lost revenue with increases in the sales tax.

Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, issued a press release this month responding to criticism of the More Take Home Pay Act, which he introduced this year. It stalled in the legislative session before receiving a vote.

The bill would reduce income tax rate from 6 percent to 4 percent over three years and corporate income taxes from 6 percent to 5 percent. It is widely seen as the blueprint for shaking up the state’s tax structure in 2016.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute has released its own plan for tax reform to counter Carson’s proposals. That plan calls for targeting tax cuts to benefit low- and middle-income families.

One option is the earned income tax credit, which is modeled on a similar federal credit, that 26 states and the District of Columbia offer.

The GBPI reports that about 1.1 million Georgia households, or 28 percent of all state income tax filers, received the federal EITC in 2013.

While proponents argue sales taxes are a more equitable way for government to generate revenue because everyone pays the same percentage, opponents say it unfairly shifts the tax burden to lower income residents who may spend a larger percentage of their income on necessities.

MEDICAL MARIJUANA

A state commission is backing Gov. Nathan Deal’s refusal to support the cultivation and distribution of marijuana in Georgia for medicinal use.

Despite the setback, activists said they remain motivated.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, has released a television advertisement calling for support of in-state cultivation and distribution for qualifying patients.

But State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville and a member of the Commission on Medical Cannabis, has said he has no appetite for growing marijuana in Georgia.

Miller said he isn’t convinced the state can effectively regulate cultivation in a way that doesn’t contribute to recreational marijuana use.

He also cited concerns from law enforcement officials that federal prohibitions on marijuana would put the state on shaky legal ground if it explored in-state access.

Lawmakers last spring approved the use of cannabis oil to treat eight medical conditions, but the prospect of manufacturing and selling the drug in-state was left for the commission to review.

The drug is known to have anti-anxiety effects, among other beneficial properties, and strains used to treat seizure disorders, for example, lack the levels of the psychoactive ingredient THC that gets marijuana smokers high.

RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

Republican state lawmakers jumped into a national debate of the merits of religious freedom legislation last year before backing off the proposal.

But political watchdogs expect the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act to rise again in 2016.

Is it a license to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, or is it about protecting the interests of religious beliefs?

If passed, the law would forbid government from infringing on a person’s religious beliefs unless the government can prove a compelling interest and would cover individuals and closely held corporations.

The issue hit home last year when the American Collegiate Rowing Association, which holds an annual national championship regatta at the Lake Lanier Olympic Venue in Gainesville every May, came out against the bill.

Critics believe such a law could be used as legal cover for business owners to deny services to LGBT people.

Representatives from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce have expressed displeasure with the bill and its possible consequences for business.

Hotel and tourism trade groups also said the bill would create a negative perception for people booking conventions and large meetings in states where such laws exist.

About 20 states have similar laws on the books.

Supporters say they are modeled on a federal law of the same name signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1993.

TRANSPORTATION

Transit could be a big issue — changes to the transportation tax approved last year, not so much.

Or at least that’s what House Transportation Committee Chairman Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, expects in the upcoming session.

"I don’t know if we’ll see legislation getting through on transit, but we’re going to elevate that conversation so we can redefine what transit seems like to people," he said.

"I think it’s no secret that transit has been kind of a dirty word for a lot of folks in the metro (Atlanta) area who live in more Republican-leaning districts," Coomer said.

"We’ve got to get away from that. We’ve got to have a 21st century idea of transit. Our constituencies are demanding it, so we’re going to talk about it a lot."

There may be some spillover talk about last year’s passage of a new transportation tax structure that’s expected to generate $757 million more in fiscal 2015-16 transportation funding and $820 million in fiscal 2016-17.

But Coomer said he believes lawmakers want to wait until the law, which took effect July 1, has cycled a full year before any major tweaks are made.

"We’re going to make changes that are reasonable, that are data-driven, fact-based and logical. And we (must) have the data in place to do that."

VICTIMS' RIGHTS

A national advocacy group, Marsy’s Law for All, is seeking to put victims’ rights into the state constitution this year.

More than 30 states have victims’ rights in their state constitutions and the group plans to campaign to get the amendment on the Georgia ballot this year.

Georgia already has a victims’ rights in statute, but the constitutional amendment would elevate the rights of victims to the same level of their perpetrators’ rights, according to advocates.

Among the proposed additions are requirements that victims and their families have the right to receive notification of proceedings and major developments in the criminal case; have the right to receive timely notification of changes to the offender’s custodial status; have the right to be present at court proceedings and provide input to the prosecutor before a plea agreement is finalized; have the right to be heard at plea or sentencing proceedings or any process that may result in the offender’s release; and have the right to restitution.

GAMBLING

Some lawmakers have considered allowing casinos to open in Georgia as a way to generate an estimated $250 million in additional annual revenue to support the Hope Scholarship.

Voters would have to approve a constitutional amendment for the casinos to open in the state.

Gov. Nathan Deal has said he opposes the idea.

FIREWORKS

Hall County and Gainesville quickly moved to prohibit shooting off fireworks in local parks after the state legislature made them legal in Georgia last year.

But the days and times fireworks are allowed to be used have upset officials in communities across Georgia.

Before the new law, only fireworks like sparklers, snappers and other items that do not launch or explode could be sold in the state.

The state law currently restricts lighting fireworks between midnight and 10 a.m., except on certain holidays when the curfew is 2 a.m.

Some residents of Hall County have expressed anger about fireworks cracking at late hours.

For example, Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, said he’s gotten several emails from constituents complaining about the state now allowing the sale of fireworks and hearing explosions in the middle of the night.

A bill already filed for debate would limit fireworks explosions to between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. on just five holidays.

Times staff writers Joshua Silavent and Jeff Gill contributed to this report

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