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5 issues to watch in Georgia's 2021 legislative session
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Georgia lawmakers launch into the 2020 General Assembly on Monday, Jan. 11. Normally, a session lasts from the second week in January through late March or early April. However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may force breaks or a shortening of the session, dependent on community spread of the virus.

After speaking with Hall County lawmakers, The Times has highlighted a list of topics that may come up during this year’s session, with election reform taking center stage. 


Here are the issues worth watching:


Election reform

Possibly the hottest issue is likely to be election reform, with the Hall County delegation expected to roll out its own legislation at some point in the session, lawmakers said.

Hall lawmakers supported challenges to electors in Georgia, after President Donald Trump claimed widespread fraud in the November election, often saying victory in the state had been stolen. There has been no evidence to support those claims.

Election reform, specifically placing further restrictions on absentee voting, is expected from the GOP-led state legislature.

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Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, and President Pro Tempore in the state Senate, said at a Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast on Dec. 10 that bills in the next legislative session would likely focus on absentee ballots and the performance of individual county elections offices.

The Georgia Senate Republican Caucus said in a statement earlier this week that, among other things, it would pursue nixing at-will absentee voting, a requirement for photo identification for absentee voting and the outlawing of ballot drop boxes.

“We think that working as a delegation, it’ll be a strong piece of legislation,” state Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville, said.

As far as the bill’s focus, “everything is on the table,” he said. 

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Jay Lawson of the Hall County Elections Office opens a absentee ballot drop box Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, as Hall County Marshall Dwight Mobley observes at the Spout Springs Library. The ballots are removed regularly from the boxes. - photo by Scott Rogers

Offhand, Barr said he believes that, as Georgians, “if we lose confidence in the security of our election system, I think we have lost our way of government.”

Otherwise, “I know we’re going to be looking at election rules and regulations heavily,” said state Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gillsville. “We’re going to make sure the whole process is vetted and that rules are clearly understood by all participants.”

Bo Hatchett, the newly elected Republican state senator for District 50, added, “I think our eyes were opened in November to a lot of issues there, and I think that should be one of the top priorities.”

Budget

Another tough budget could be in store again for Georgia lawmakers, but not on the scale of last year’s budget, which was drastically cut after the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Planning the budget, the only constitutionally mandated responsibility of government, has been a challenge in recent sessions, as COVID-19 has forced state lawmakers to be overly cautious.

Lawmakers cut $2.2 billion in spending last summer, which included some $950 million K-12 school funding, as they prepared for the pandemic to wreak havoc on revenue collections. 

That didn’t happen on the scale expected, and more modest, or potentially no cuts, could be needed.

“I think it’s going to be tight but not as tight (as in 2020) because we did the right things last year,” Dunahoo said.

Barr said he’s also getting upbeat reports on the budget and “we may not have any cuts at all.”

At one point last year, lawmakers were looking at 14% across-the-board cuts, but Gov. Brian Kemp allowed the state to spend from Georgia's rainy day fund to reduce cuts.

As far as teacher raises, which were on track last year to happen until the pandemic forced cuts, “if it were me, and we have a little surplus, I might look at … doing $500, which is better than zero,” Dunahoo said.

Miller said there is potential for deferment of business expenses, such as taxes and fees often associated with small businesses, as a way to keep Georgia businesses working.

"Although many businesses and individuals have suffered economic damage from the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia has fared better than most,” he said. “We have been able to keep businesses open, essential businesses particularly, and keep Georgians working. We have to protect lives and livelihoods."



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Vaccines against COVID-19 are administered to personnel at Northeast Georgia Medical Center on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. - photo by Nick Watson
Health care

State Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, said he expects a focus on supporting access to health care in rural communities during this year’s legislative session. 

“We still have areas that don’t have primary care, OB-GYN and dentists,” Dubnik said. “A lot of that is what I’d consider basic and preventative, but also necessary. Studies show that if you’re 40, 50, 60 miles or minutes away from that care, you simply don’t seek that care out.”

Dunahoo also said lawmakers may focus on rural hospitals, which have suffered financially in recent years.

“We need to help keep them alive as long as we can,” he said.

Barr said he has been asked by constituents if the state might make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory.

“I think that (decision) is between you and your doctor, plain and simple,” he said.

Also potentially on the docket could be a follow-up to House Bill 888, legislation concerning “surprise billing.” The bill was introduced by Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, in February 2020. Under the bill, which took effect Jan. 1, a patient seeking services at an in-network facility would be charged the in-network fee, even if the provider was not in the medical network.

The insurance companies and health care providers try to settle the difference, and either side can seek arbitration through the Georgia Insurance Commissioner’s Office.

Hawkins said he is working on a follow-up that would "allow employers to choose a plan that allows arbitration for their employees.”

Hawkins said he would also address the issue of “network adequacy.” The legislator said he has heard from health care officials that a provider might be considered in-network at one health care campus but out-of-network at another facility within the same health system.

Rural broadband

Dubnik said legislatures have already laid the groundwork for broadband to move throughout rural Georgia, a topic he believes will be a point of discussion among lawmakers. 

“I always say that communities grow and thrive when they have quality K-12, quality health care and high speed internet,” he said. “I think you could make the argument that the internet, the broadband, drives the other two.”

Dunahoo also is concerned about broadband access, saying “we keep moving forward and not backward.”

A bill aimed at setting up the infrastructure for broadband expansion into rural communities passed the General Assembly last summer. The bill, sponsored by a Savannah lawmaker, was meant to allow the Public Service Commission to determine rates in agreements between broadband providers and electric companies. Supporters of the legislation said it would help to lower the cost of broadband expansion.

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Elementary content specialist for Hall County Schools Laney Park, Middle School Math Content Specialist Katie Miller and High School Math Content Specialist Cindy Grier use Zoom to talk to each other in April 2020. Photo Courtesy Laney Park
In-person instruction and college funding

During the pandemic, those involved with K-12 and high education have been forced to adapt by offering at-home learning models. 

Dubnik, who serves on the Higher Education Committee, said he believes “wholeheartedly” that K-12 and college students learn better face-to-face in a classroom environment. 

“I think all these things together beg the question: Should we be looking at education differently?” Dubnik said. “I’m not saying stop teaching reading, writing and arithmetic. I’m saying I think we have to be prepared to say, ‘What did we just learn?’ … I think there’s prospective legislation that could and should come out of the lessons that we’ve learned.”

Regarding Georgia’s colleges and universities, Dubnik said both affordability of higher education and on-campus instruction will dominate conversations this year. 

“I have heard from more constituents — who have college-age children — who want and believe that they can and should be on campus,” he said. 


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