Georgia lawmakers are expected to focus on rural issues, such as broadband and health care, as a boost to the state’s overall economy.
But residents also could look for other tax and economy-related bills and issues to emerge in the session starting Monday, Jan. 14.
One of the key items legislators may look at is tax exemptions.
“My philosophy is a broader tax is a better tax,” said Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, and president pro tempore of the Georgia Senate.
“If everybody pays in, we all pay less. Anytime we give an exemption, everybody else outside that exemption pays more.
“We’ll have to take a hard look at exemptions and a broad tax base — that’s all there is to it.”
Also, the state will be watching Internet sales tax.
“We’re capturing a miniscule portion of that now, and it’s hard to tell (what the impact will be by) the increase in taxing of Internet sales,” Miller said.
The Supreme Court ruled in May that online retailers with no “physical presence” are no longer exempt from paying sales taxes.
The ruling helps pave the way for a state law passed in 2018 that requires online retailers who ship to Georgia customers to pay sales tax if they make at least 200 sales per year or at least $250,000 per year in retail sales.
The law takes effect Jan. 1.
Also, lawmakers will watch how potential U.S. tariffs affect Georgia.
“Georgia’s No. 1 industry is agriculture,” Miller said. “It trumps everything ... and there’s a lot of folks in agriculture who are holding their product because they’re trying to figure out what’s going on with the tariffs.”
Rural transit may be a hot topic in Georgia’s legislative session starting Monday, Jan. 14, as part of an overarching effort to bridge the economic gap between sprawling Atlanta and the rest of the state.
Lawmakers will look at “creating a more efficient transit in rural areas around the state,” said Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, who heads the transportation committee.
“We’ve got a lot of different state and federally funded agencies providing certain transit services — some of them are in the mental health area, some are in the welfare and child care areas,” he said.
“We want to look at how we combine those efforts ... and how we can provide the best service for the most people,” said Gooch, adding “there’s a transit service in about every county in Georgia.”
Also, Gooch said he expects the legislature will take a closer look at how to better move freight through Georgia.
“That’ll be primarily focused on roads, rail and aviation,” he said.
Noting the recent announcement that an inland port would be built off Ga. 365 in northeast Hall, Gooch said “we need to look at how do we take full utilization of all of our rail in Georgia.”
“We want to look at how do we maximize those resources to get some of the trucks off our roadways.”
The Northeast Georgia Inland Port, which will be in Gateway Industrial Centre, will serve as a regional terminal for cargo heading from the Port of Savannah to area companies. It could open in 2021.
Georgia state Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville, said recently he would support a state replica of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act seen at the federal level.
“I am very comfortable with the federal (act), and I would like to see that plan completely adopted verbatim from the federal down to the state level. That would be my hope ... Many states have that, it works very well, it does what it was intended to, and it’s not too broad. It does exactly what it needs to do, so that’s what I’m hoping for,” he said.
The federal act, which was created in the 1990s, said the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” except where there is a “compelling governmental interest” and it is the least restrictive way to accomplish that interest.
Some states, such as South Dakota in its 2017 legislative assembly, have enacted laws that provide protections for “faith-based or religious” child-placement agencies.
State Sen. Michael Williams, R-Cumming, sponsored Senate Bill 361 last year called the Coach Small Religious Protection Act.
The bill’s namesake is a reference to East Coweta High School football coach John Small, who received complaints from the Freedom from Religion Foundation regarding pregame prayer.
“Students, faculty and staff — they don’t give up, they don’t lose their First Amendment rights the moment they walk on campus. I think it’s important, especially under the circumstances we find ourselves,” said Williams in January 2018. “Outside organizations coming in and suing school boards for something as simple as a coach participating at the request of students in student-led prayer is absurd. And if it takes passing a law to protect that, then that’s what needs to be done.”
The bill was read but did not move further in the assembly.
Outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal also vetoed House Bill 757 in March 2016, which would have prohibited forcing someone to carry out certain actions if those actions violated their faith.
“While most people would agree that government should not force such actions, there has not been a single instance of such taking place in Georgia,” Deal said.
A Georgia state representative prefiled a bill in November that would get rid of the licensing requirements for carrying a firearm.
Rep. Mat Gurtler, R-Tiger, filed House Bill 2, which is also known as the Georgia Constitutional Carry Act of 2019. The bill would remove the weapons carry license and add language regarding a “lawful weapons carrier,” who is any person “not prohibited by law from possessing a weapon or long gun” or any person licensed in another state.
“The mere potential to deprive someone of life, liberty or property should never be considered a crime in a free and just society,” according to Section 2 of the bill. “Evil resides in the heart of the individual, not in material object. Since objects or instrumentalities in and of themselves are not dangerous or evil, in a free and just society, the civil government should not ban or restrict their possession or use.”
Instances of the phrase “license holder” are replaced with the phrase “lawful weapons carrier.”
In May 2016, outgoing Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the campus carry bill, which would have allowed anyone over the age of 21 to carry a concealed handgun on campus with the proper permit.
At the annual Eggs and Issues event on Dec. 13, legislators agreed on one thing — health care is a complicated issue.
“The landscape of health care is changing. As much as we want to see it the way it was 20 years ago, it’s not going to be that way today or in the future,” State Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said.
The state’s Certificate of Need program, which the Georgia Department of Community Health uses to evaluate proposals for new or expanded health care facilities, is expected to be a topic of debate in the legislative session.
Hawkins, a dentist, said the program “still has a place because each community is different,” and one solution could not be used for the entire state.
The program is designed to protect community hospitals that have made an investment in specialized care or facilities, Hawkins said.
“If you have a private, for-profit hospital or clinic move in to the area and treat only insured patients or cash pay patients, then they can effectively charge less for that treatment because they’re not treating the non-payers,” Hawkins said.
State Sen. Butch Miller, speaking at Eggs and Issues, agreed that protecting community hospitals should be a priority, but legislators should also work to make sure indigent patients can get the care they need.
“I think we need to make sure that we’re protecting our hospitals that are treating indigent care patients,” Miller said. “All of Georgia deserves health care. All of Georgia deserves access. … It’s going to be a difficult question and a difficult balancing act.”
In an interview with The Times Wednesday, Miller said health care was an especially important issue for Hall County, which is in a unique position as the home of the Northeast Georgia Health System, the area’s largest employer.
“Most counties our size don’t have the kind of health care system that we have,” he said.
State Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, also said at Eggs and Issues that it could be tough for legislators to find a solution.
“There’s going to be a lot of discussion between us and people at the Capitol to see what is truly best. … This is something that is going to be tough for all of us,” Dunahoo said.
On the issue of Medicaid expansion, legislators said at Eggs and Issues that they wanted to find a budget-friendly solution.
“The costs balloon much more than the states anticipated. Right now, you have many states applying for waivers,” Hawkins said, noting that waivers could be an option.
Dunahoo said he would want to see the costs before making a decision because it is legislators’ responsibility to make sure the state’s budget is balanced.
State Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, also said the legislature needs to keep the financial burden in mind, especially in light of the state’s growing population.
“We can’t just look north to (Washington) D.C., and say fix this for us,” he said. “I know there’s a need, but our population is ever-expanding.”
There have been countless deadly shootings in public middle and high schools across the nation over the last two decades, with the frequency of these violent attacks seemingly growing with each passing year.
But after a shooting in Florida in February 2018, state lawmakers were galvanized to look at new ways to improve the safety on campuses.
In fact, both a Georgia House and Senate study committee were launched last fall to address the issue.
The two committees’ recommendations include the creation of a statewide threat management team to coordinate school safety resources and improve responses to emergency threats.
House leaders have also suggested the state develop a threat assessment model outlined in the U.S. Secret Service’s School Safety Guide.
Lawmakers are also looking for new ways to help fund security upgrades.
Hall County, for example, received $215,000 in state funding last year to convert the district’s bus radios to digital and expand communications coverage to 99 percent of the county.
And Gainesville City Schools received $81,000.
But it is unclear just how far lawmakers will push for these recommended expenditures.
Fewer issues at the state level have proved as contentious and yet heart-wrenching in recent years as access to medicinal marijuana to treat a host of diagnosed physical and mental illnesses.
In late December, a legislative Joint Study Commission on Low THC Medical Oil Access, which convened a number of meetings in 2018 to explore how to open access in Georgia to the drug for thousands of registered patients, made its final recommendations.
In recent years, lawmakers expanded the number of medical conditions legally treated with oils derived from the marijuana flower, including seizures, cancer, Parkinson’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But access to the drug has been stymied by its lack of availability in Georgia.
The study commission has recommended that lawmakers pursue licensing a limited number of growers, manufacturers and dispensaries for medical cannabis oil in the 2019 session of the Georgia General Assembly to support the 646 physicians and 5,425 patients in Georgia’s low THC oil registry.
Teacher pay raises
During the gubernatorial campaign last fall, new Gov. Brian Kemp said he wanted to give public school teachers a $5,000 annual pay increase, proposing to spend about $600 million each year to help recruit and retain educators.
Georgia ranks 23rd in the nation in average teacher salary at approximately $54,000 annually, according to a study by the National Education Association.
In 2017, Gov. Nathan Deal signed a $25 billion budget that included raises for 200,000 teachers and state employees.
Sen. Miller said proposed raises of 2 percent for state employees could increase for teachers, specifically.
And though it’ll be expensive, Miller said, “I’m sure we can find a way to pay for it.”
Kemp ran a campaign last fall that promised to crackdown on undocumented immigrants and so-called “sanctuary cities” that refuse to work with federal immigration authorities.
In recent years, state lawmakers have taken or pushed for several bills that target the ability of non-citizens to access everything from in-state college tuition to driver’s licenses.
And with the federal government currently shut down in a fight over immigration, programs like E-verify (which confirms the citizenship status of proposed hires) are unavailable. And deportation proceedings, meanwhile, have been halted.
It’s a stark contrast to the crackdown on undocumented immigration that had been occuring.
A 2018 report, for example, shows nearly three times as many undocumented immigrants were detained in Hall County in the first 100 days of President Donald Trump’s administration compared to the same period in 2016.
Both Hall and Gwinnett participate in the 287(g) program, a partnership between local and federal agencies to identify undocumented immigrants for possible removal.
Ultimately, immigration is a federal issue, and it is unclear what Republican state lawmakers might pursue this year.
But if Kemp’s campaign advertisements were any indication, the conservative-leaning Georgia legislature is likely to support President Trump’s initiatives.