Georgia lawmakers will begin their annual session Monday, Jan. 10, amid a dramatic rise in COVID-19 case numbers and in the midst of heated primary races.
Normally, a session lasts from the second week in January through late March or early April. However, the resurging pandemic may force breaks or a shortening of the session.
After speaking with Hall County lawmakers, The Times has highlighted a list of topics to watch during this year’s session, including income tax, education and mental health.
Economy and budget
A budget surplus sounds like a good problem to have for state lawmakers, but Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, advises caution.
By restoring funding lost during the COVID-19 pandemic and fulfilling funding promises, such as teacher raises and reducing the state income tax to 5.5%, “you add all this up and all of a sudden, the money starts evaporating quickly,” he said.
Also, restoring funding to departments and agencies doesn’t account “for the hires we need to make,” Hawkins said.
Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gillsville, said more funding for public workers, such as police officers and firefighters, need to be considered.
“They work 24/7 and protect us,” he said. “l want to see better things for them.”
For Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, the main focuses on spending should be teachers, education, public safety and “the general health and well-being of communities.” He cites among those areas the need to fully fund education.
“Those are areas where we can spend money to move Georgia forward,” he said.
Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, said he believes “there’s going to be more eyes on the budget than ever, and it’s a time for us not to be foolish or greedy.
“It’s a time for us to invest in some of the things that may have been overlooked through the years or through other budget cuts.”
The state’s economy, in general, is “in as good a financial shape, probably from a jobs and economic standpoint, that it’s ever been,” Dubnik said. “Everything is hitting on all cylinders.”
At the end of the day, Dunahoo said, “if we have excess money, maybe we need to send a refund back to people who actually paid the taxes.”
Miller had a similar sentiment.
“Georgia needs to spend money on issues that will (reflect) quality of life and prosperity for Georgia, or give it back to the taxpayers,” he said.
State income tax
Dunahoo’s longtime push away from a state income tax to a statewide consumption tax system may finally be gaining traction.
The Gillsville Republican is seeing support from fellow legislators, including Miller, who has proposed legislation that would repeal the state income tax.
“That’s something I’ve been trying to do for basically the whole time I’ve been (in the General Assembly),” Dunahoo said.
He said he’s looking forward to seeing the proposals coming out of the legislature.
The state’s personal income tax rate is 5.75% after the General Assembly decreased it from 6% in 2018. Republicans had planned to decrease it another 0.4% in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic caused lawmakers to be more conservative about changing the tax code.
Miller, who is running for lieutenant governor in the 2022 election, has said his proposal would help make Georgia competitive with neighboring states who don’t tax wages, such as Florida and Tennessee.
Another proponent is Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville, who is running for the U.S. House’s 10th District seat.
“With harsh economic times and labor shortages, it is critical that we provide relief to Georgians by abolishing the state income tax and implementing a fair tax, where you are only taxed on what you buy,” he said.
And Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, said, “I’m for anything that lessens the tax burden on hard-working Georgians.”
Hawkins has expressed concerns about eliminating income tax, saying the amount makes up about $16 billion of the state’s $27 billion budget.
"It's not a bad idea (the consumption tax),” he said. “But on the other side, being chair of the budget (committee), I'm looking at a budget that's … 50% of our budget revenue is income tax. We're going to have to make it up. What do other states do? Other states put a tax on your property."
Though Democrats are advocating to fully expand Medicaid in Georgia, local Republicans prefer to continue or expand current waiver programs and make other minor tweaks.
Dubnik, R-Gainesville, said the mechanism to expand Medicaid “doesn’t make any sense.”
“I don't know that we can look at an expansion of a program like that when that's a federal program,” Dubnik said. “Those dollars can be pushed and taken away at any given moment.”
Giving more control to the government for health care coverage may lead to more inefficiency, he said.
Hawkins, who has worked as a dentist in Gainesville for more than 40 years, said he supported Medicaid expansion only if it came with a work requirement. However, the Biden Administration recently blocked Georgia’s work requirement proposal in late December.
“Biden didn’t want to have anything to do with that,” said Dunahoo, who also supports the waiver system.
Hawkins plans to introduce legislation that would make insurance and prescription costs more transparent.
“We’ve been working on this for years,” Hawkins said. “If you understand why the cost of your medicines are high … your choices become more apparent to you also.”
Shedding more light on pricing could also influence drug companies and middlemen to change practices, he said.
COVID-19 cases have risen dramatically in recent weeks both locally and throughout the state, and policies to cope with the pandemic are expected to arise as well. Dunahoo said he worries halting elective surgeries because of rising case numbers could have detrimental effects and wants instead to see more competition among health care providers.
“I think you’re going to see an opportunity for standalone surgery centers that will come,” Dunahoo said. “I think that’s something that’s great for competition and great for our constituents.”
Higher suicide rates among youths in the past year and new thinking about policing following protests in the summer of 2020 have made mental health one of the key statewide issues entering this legislative session.
Speaker of the House David Ralston said during a press conference Thursday, Jan. 6, suicides in Georgia among those 18 and under rose to 67 through November 2021, up from 55 deaths in all of 2020. Expanding services across the state will be one of his top priorities.
“You're going to see some budget proposals to expand the capacity for treatment of individuals and to add some additional bed space,” Ralston said. “We will have a legislative piece that's going to be a very, very comprehensive bill.”
These statewide priorities were reflected when talking with local legislators as well.
Hawkins said one problem with providing people mental health resources is how far many must travel to find appropriate care.
“We got to get the insurers to cover more cost,” he said. “We got to expand services to children.”
Dubnik also stressed the importance of increasing mental health services and credited Gainesville City Schools for providing some support through The Hub, a community center at Gainesville High School, which opened in 2020, offering students behavioral and mental health support.
“I’ve toured it and seen how that works,” Dubnik said. “I’m just in awe of that.”
Mental health services may also help law enforcement officers to do their jobs better, Miller said. The two issues are “dovetailed; they’re inseparable,” he said.
But solutions and support for those struggling with mental health issues may have to come from those outside of the government, Miller said.
“Physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, faith-based organizations, churches, nonprofits — this is a great opportunity for those folks in those fields to lead,” he said.
State and local educators say they are pushing for traditional issues, such as fully funding schools and more transparency in voucher funding.
“We’re optimistic going into this legislative session that — both in the mid-term adjustment they give us but also the budgeting for next school year — that the austerity will be reduced, if not completely removed,” said Jeremy Williams, Gainesville City Schools superintendent.
In past tight budget years, austerity cuts from education have been used to help balance budgets.
Also, Williams supports bipartisan legislation proposed last session that would offer in-state tuition to those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status.
“They graduated from Gainesville High school, they've been here X number of years and what we're doing is we're basically losing a potential workforce,” he said.
Miller is also is a proponent of easing that restriction.
"If we want these young people to be productive members of our society and contribute, then we're going to have to educate them and not put them at a disadvantage,” he said.
Williams also agrees with supporting legislation increasing accountability for voucher and tuition tax credit programs.
“There may be a report that comes out collectively about the voucher system, but too many times, it’s not the individual school level to know if those funds are making a difference more so than they would in public education,” he said.
Will Schofield, Hall County Schools superintendent, said he supports legislation ending municipal annexations’ effect on county school districts that have city systems within their borders.
“We've got Buford nibbling up valuable property on our south and west and Gainesville annexing from inside,” he said.
Schofield also would like to see “maximum flexibility” in how to spend Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding.
“I just see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in school districts' infrastructure and to try to put some programs in place that perhaps we've never had the ability to do before,” he said.
A third priority for Schofield is legislative support for a meat processing plant at East Hall High School.
Officials have realized “we're gonna have to steal from something else to make this happen right now,” he said. “And so I don't know whether there'll be an opportunity through the (state) appropriations process for us to maybe be considered as a pilot (for the effort).”
Area legislators have said they’re concerned about critical race theory in the schools.
“We need to teach our students American history — the good and the bad,” Barr said. “Teaching our children to judge others on the color of their skin over the content of their character is dangerous to the moral fabric of our country.”
Barr calls CRT “leftist indoctrination of our youth that we cannot allow in Georgia’s classrooms.”
According to the encyclopedia Britannica, CRT states that race is a socially constructed category used to oppress and exploit people of color. The theory was officially organized in 1989, and the theory deemphasizes the role of personal bias in racism in light of larger institutional and systemic methods that contribute to inequities along racial lines.
Reporters Jeff Gill and Ben Anderson contributed.