Transportation funding. Medical marijuana. Education reform.
It was a short list of big-ticket items passed by the Georgia legislature this year, but each left their mark in more ways than one.
And none has truly been put to rest.
For Hall County’s delegation, the 2015 session of the General Assembly was as busy as any in recent memory, and the good and the bad both shined.
“This was as productive a year for the legislature as there has been in many years in terms of a broad range of legislation passed,” said Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville. “It was a broad range of legislation that I believe will be good for Georgia for many years to come.”
Tough decisions and controversial debates also made the session arduous.
“It was long; it was hard,” said Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville. “Sometimes we have to make decisions that are very unpopular.”
And the inability to pass some bills, while
knowing others could use a little tweaking, proved trying as well.
“There’s some things I don’t think had to pass, and there are some things I’m sure we could have done different,” said Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville.
Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, echoed this sentiment.
“We’ll also see what happens with some of the legislation we passed” going into next year, he said.
Georgia lawmakers approved a transportation funding plan last week that will raise about $900 million through changes to the state’s gas tax and new fees on electric cars and hotel visits.
Lawmakers set an excise tax on the per gallon price of gasoline at 26 cents, with diesel fuel at 29 cents per gallon.
Dunahoo said he would have preferred the excise tax on regular gas be set at 24 cents, as the House had initially approved. The Senate had pushed for a 29-cent tax for regular gas.
While finding dedicated funding for statewide transportation projects has been on lawmakers’ agenda for years, previous proposals fell flat.
And the funding plan approved this year, some Republican lawmakers said, must be viewed as a tax increase.
With that in mind, Rogers said the funding formula may have to be adjusted going forward.
“I’m sure we’ll have to come back and fix it,” he said. “Is it perfect? No.”
The back-and-forth over medical marijuana finally found some compromise among state lawmakers.
A bill to allow for the use of cannabis oil to treat seizure disorders in children failed to pass last year, but with momentum and activism the bill came to fruition in 2015.
Miller was a member of a medical marijuana study committee, and as a top floor leader in the Senate, he drove hard to get a bill passed that allows the use of cannabis oil to treat eight medical conditions: cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, seizure disorders, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, mitochondrial disease, Parkinson’s and sickle cell disease.
Gov. Nathan Deal said he will sign the bill, and has already directed state agencies to prepare for its enactment.
Meanwhile, Deal continued to focus on restoring funding for education this year, and lawmakers approved putting a constitutional amendment to a vote of the public that, if approved, would allow the state to intervene in schools dubbed “chronically failing.”
Miller said he was happy to see this bill pass, though whether voters will sign off on it remains to be seen.
Two big-ticket items likely on the table in 2016 began gaining traction this year.
Republican lawmakers have endorsed a plan to incrementally lower the state’s income tax rate while offsetting lost revenues with increases in sales taxes.
Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, introduced the More Take Home Pay Act this year, which sought to lower the income tax to 4 percent from 6 percent over three years, while increasing state sales taxes 1 percent.
The bill also proposes to phase in a statewide grocery sales tax, plus additional taxes on cable and satellite communications, and on cigarettes.
While the bill did not receive a vote this year, it has set the stage for debate.
“This is a process that will take a year or so,” Deal told The Times during an interview in early March. “But it is an ongoing debate.”
Proponents of the sales tax model say it’s necessary to compete with neighboring states that have lower income tax rates than Georgia.
But studies show sales taxes can disproportionately impact low-income and working-class families, a prospect that Miller has said may require an approach that only incrementally lowers income taxes.
Dunahoo said he hopes the debate will be given earnest attention next year.
“We can make a better state with that philosophy,” he said. “Now it’s time to put Georgia’s tax structure on the proper path.”
Left on the table
Perhaps the most controversial of all legislation this year was the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and it’s likely to rear its head again in 2016.
Similar bills that passed in Indiana and Arkansas drew national media coverage, and the controversy surrounding Georgia’s bill ultimately led to its death this year.
“I was very disappointed in leadership for not putting that to a vote by the House,” Dunahoo said. “We’ll look at it again next year.”
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.
Critics say such measures are being considered as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares for a possible ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, and believe it could be used as legal cover for business owners to deny services to gays and transgender people.
The legislation had stalled in the committee last week after a Republican member of the panel successfully added anti-discrimination language. Supporters of the measure said that language essentially gutted the bill’s protection for people acting on religious beliefs, and immediately moved to table it.
Hawkins said the bill became divisive on both sides because communication about its intent and effect was muddied.
Finally, health care is always an issue that needs addressing, whether at the local, state or national level.
Hawkins said he was happy to see a bill pass that requires insurance companies to provide health coverage for children with autism.
Hawkins said there is more work to be done with regard to disability home care, and Medicaid will also need to be addressed next year.
“We just need to focus on helping people that need our help,” he said.