When it comes to the 2017 state legislative session, “carryover” is the operative word.
From the water wars and tax reform to medical cannabis and guns on campus, what’s old is new again.
Hall County business leaders got a preview of the upcoming session of the Georgia General Assembly at the annual Eggs & Issues breakfast hosted Thursday morning at the Gainesville Civic Center by the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.
“Coming into the 2017 legislative session, Georgia’s economy and budget are in a much better position with more than $2 billion in reserves,” said Tim Evans, vice president of economic development at the local chamber. “The upcoming General Assembly will have a focus on workforce and career development, including funding for the new Lanier Technical College campus.”
But it’s not just local industry and business that could benefit at the hands of a resurgent conservative movement.
With a Republican-controlled Congress and White House, businesses should feel energized by the prospect that regulations are likely to be loosened and the Affordable Care Act is likely on its way to the morgue, according to U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville.
“It’s amazing how this community comes together ... it’s great to be a part of growing together,” Collins told the audience numbering in the hundreds.
State Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, the dean of the delegation from Hall County now that Carl Rogers has retired from the state House, said repealing the ACA would have a significant impact on Georgia’s own budget.
Medicaid is a big item without having expanded it under the ACA, he said, with about 1.1 million children, and 1.8 million individuals overall, covered by it in the state.
Moreover, efforts to support growth in graduate medical training residencies, such as a new program being developed at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, rely on federal health care reimbursements.
Hawkins said the top health care committee in the General Assembly would begin meeting before the legislative session formally kicks off Jan. 9.
For Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, R-Gainesville, making higher education more affordable and spurring economic development — not just through retention and recruitment of existing businesses, but through innovation, too) are critical to meet the demands of a growing population that now exceeds 10 million.
“We are not short of challenges,” Cagle said, but with those come more opportunities to “create more economic engines to fuel the chance for everyone to experience the American Dream.”
Access to clean drinking water is a battle waged in the past, present and future.
Collins said Georgia has a leg up on Florida and Alabama in its legal fight over water, and state lawmakers said they support developing additional reservoirs to counter water shortages in a drought like the Northeast Georgia region is currently experiencing.
Lawmakers said they supported state-funded reservoirs and additional increases to the Lake Lanier pool volume.
Gov. Nathan Deal left his mark on a busy and controversial legislative session last spring.
For example, he vetoed bills that would have expanded the right for permit holders to carry concealed weapons on college campuses, as well as a bill that sought to expand “religious freedom” but which opponents, including prominent business leaders, said would increase discrimination against gays and lesbians.
But those vetoes don’t mean these bills are dead and buried forever.
Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, said highlighting certain restrictions, such as prohibitions on carrying in a dormitory and age limits, could get the “guns everywhere” bill passed this time around.
“I’m a firm believer in it,” he added.
For state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, the “devil is in the details.”
Guns, he said, can be a bad combination on a college campus rife with “hormones” and alcohol.
“Unintended consequences can be powerful,” Miller said.
The fight over access to medical cannabis to treat eight approved medical conditions is likely to return as well.
Lawmakers quashed a bill last spring to expand the conditions the drug could be used to treat, and a majority of Republicans have, thus far, been hesitant to allow the manufacturing and distribution of medical cannabis in the state.
Miller said that it’s sometimes a good thing for bills to die the first time around so that they can be tweaked and gotten right the next time. He expects that could be the case with medical cannabis this year.
Dunahoo said he continues to support allowing the manufacture and distribution of the drug in the state so that those with the legal right to access it can be assisted.
“Until we walk in their shoes, we need to make sure it is easier to walk,” he said.
Hawkins cautioned, however, that any use of cannabis, even for conditions approved in Georgia, remains illegal under federal law, and it is unclear how a new administration in the White House will approach the issue.
Whether to legalize gambling in the state is another thorny question that will likely get renewed attention this year, lawmakers agreed.
Hawkins said he expects to see legislation drafted.
But at the end of the day, it’s an issue likely to be decided by voters in a statewide ballot referendum, Miller said.
“When it’s a difficult question, politicians want to let you vote,” he added.