Usually dominated by Georgia’s lawmaking season, Atlanta will have some serious distractions on the second Monday in January as lawmakers convene the General Assembly’s 2018 session.
State government is closing early on Monday in the face of the College Football Playoff national championship and the arrival of President Donald Trump, who is coming to watch the game — leaving only a few hours between Gov. Nathan Deal’s final state of the state speech at 11 a.m. in the Capitol and the 3 p.m. close of business.
Kickoff isn’t until 8 p.m., but there is a chance of ice on Atlanta roads early Monday. Deal directed state agencies to allow employees to telecommute when possible, and those employees who have to be at work Monday have been asked to use public transit.
But while local and national attention will be burning a hole through the roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, lawmakers have a kickoff of their own. In the legislative session, state leaders will lay out their plan to spend more than $24 billion from July 1 to June 30, 2019.
A final Deal
Deal will present his final report and final vision for the state to lawmakers on Monday, after which he’ll release his budget proposals to the legislature.
“My suspicion is that Gov. Deal will have a strong, strong close to his gubernatorial service,” said Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville. “He has been a strong proponent of criminal justice reform, juvenile justice reform, health care issues, economic development and improvement in infrastructure.”
An ally of the governor and fellow Hall Countian, Miller closed the deal on a new position in the state Senate: president pro tem. It’s the second-highest position in the upper chamber and gives Miller control when Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle is absent or unable to fulfill his duties. It also gives the Gainesville senator a larger role in crafting the state budget.
Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gillsville, also said he expects Deal to focus on longstanding issues.
“I think he’s going to try to end his legacy with criminal justice reform. This will be the last year of critiquing his path of where he wants to go and where he wants to leave that legacy,” Dunahoo said on Friday. “I think with education, he wants to leave the numbers better ... than when he came in.”
Dunahoo also said he expects the state’s projected budget of $24.7 billion to grow before the budget is approved by the legislature, saying he didn’t “have a crystal ball” but could “almost take that one to the bank.”
Tax revenue has been coming in above estimates for most of 2017. In December, income tax revenue was up $150 million over December 2016 figures, and sales tax revenue was up almost 9 percent over December 2016, Deal’s office announced on Friday.
Bills from Hall
On local legislation, Miller said he plans to work on a pair of bills related to health care and child welfare, but didn’t offer specifics on Friday, saying they hadn’t been prefiled.
Dunahoo is pushing his fair tax legislation for the third year in a row. He wants to transition the state income tax, which collected about $11 billion from taxpayers in 2017, and the $5.7 billion sales tax to a consumption tax-only system. Under his system, Georgians would pay a 6.7 percent broad based tax similar to a sales tax on goods and services.
“The tax system is broken in Georgia,” Dunahoo said.
He also intends to introduce bills creating a license plate to raise money for beekeepers and levying stiffer penalties on people who host underage drinkers at house parties.
“If you throw a party and you have young people or under 21 that you’re providing alcohol to, there will be consequences,” he said.
Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, is keeping it simple this year and reintroducing HB 275, which requires people to wear a life jacket when wake surfing and bans body surfing behind a boat with an outboard engine.
Wake surfing involves using a wakeboard to surf without a tow in front of a large wake instead of being pulled behind a boat. Because surfers aren’t being towed, they’re technically not required to wear a life jacket in Georgia.
Body surfing involves being towed on a short line, or by grabbing the boat itself, and puts the surfer close to the propeller blades of an outboard engine.
“I did catch some grief for that. People said, ‘You’re bringing forth a bill that is just government intrusion. You’re overstepping my personal bounds,’” Dubnik said Friday. “My rebuttal is very simple: I don’t want my sheriff’s office dive team to have to go to the bottom of the lake and pull you off the bottom and put themselves and their team in danger because you felt the need to not have a life jacket on.”
In statewide legislation, both Dunahoo and Dubnik said an adoption reform bill is a certainty this session. Lawmakers last year attempted to streamline adoption regulations, which haven’t been reformed in 27 years, but the bill was derailed after a late amendment in the Senate that allowed private nonprofits accepting taxpayer-funded grants to refuse to place children with certain families.
Both Deal and House Speaker David Ralston are calling for a “clean” version of the bill this session.
“It takes way, way, way too long to adopt a child in Georgia. Period,” Dubnik said.
Expect other controversial topics to come up. Lawmakers have prefiled bills to allow local governments to remove Confederate monuments (current illegal under state law) and to require firearms training before a concealed carry license is issued. Other bills make bump stocks illegal and require all members of the Georgia General Assembly to take sexual harassment training.
Also expect many of these issues to die.
“Those bills all have to go to committee before they go anywhere else,” Miller said. “There are a lot of issues and bills that have been prefiled, and some of those bills might be politically motivated or divisive, but those bills have to go through committee before they get to the floor.”