If you thought 2015 was dominated by politics, brace yourself for 2016.
But before the presidential big top comes to our state, the Georgia Capitol springs back to life this week when the General Assembly is gaveled into session. Though election year sessions often lead to more grandstanding than substance, there’s a lot of red meat on legislators’ plates.
To get it all done, lawmakers will need to focus more on problem-solving than building up sacred cows for their campaigns. And that may require more of that dirty “C” word — compromise — than is usually found under the Gold Dome. The last few sessions have been fairly productive and didn’t descend too far into petty politics, so let’s hope that trend continues.
This year’s slate centers on the usual pillars of state government spending: Education, health and transportation. For each need, there is more tax revenue available than in recent years as the state’s economy grows. How legislators and Gov. Nathan Deal choose to spend it is the crucial question.
• Transportation: Lawmakers again face the challenge of funding road and transit improvements in a state growing beyond its highway shoulders. Most congestion is in metro Atlanta and other urban areas where commuters and commercial drivers feel the dollars draining from their pockets as they sit stalled in traffic.
The problem comes in how best to divide funds between metro areas with brutal traffic problems and rural areas many lawmakers represent. Pork-barrel highways to nowhere in rural districts shouldn’t drain key dollars from the worst traffic areas. Whether those lawmakers want to admit it or not, what’s good for Atlanta and other cities is good for the state, and that big picture needs to stay in focus.
• Education: With more funding available for schools, the first priority is to recruit and retain the best teachers with long-overdue pay raises. More money was included for schools last year, left to the discretion of local districts.
Now the state must continue to boost incentives in light of a study that shows many educators leaving the profession, nearly half of new teachers moving on within five years. More pay is just one issue to help solve that, but one within the power of state government.
An education reform commission has proposed boosting school spending by $258 million beginning in the 2018 fiscal year as part of the state’s permanent budget changes. An educated workforce is vital to our state’s economic well-being, but it can’t be had on the cheap.
With this comes Deal’s push for a new Hall County campus for Lanier Technical College. Though some may view this as a bit of hometown pork from the governor, a new campus is key to the state’s goal of a better-trained labor force. Lanier Tech has outgrown its longtime home, and its mission to funnel bright young Georgians into skilled trades is worthy of the investment.
• Health: State leaders again face a decision on loosening restrictions on cannabis oil used to treat a number of maladies, including childhood seizures. Two years of debate led to legalizing possession of the oil last year, a step forward that allowed many Georgia families to return home after leaving the state for treatments. The law Deal signed spells out a limited number of conditions for which the cannabis treatment is to be allowed.
State Rep. Allen Peake, the Macon Republican who sponsored last year’s bill, wants to allow the manufacture of medical marijuana in Georgia, which last year’s law did not address. Deal and many in law enforcement are opposed, leaving families still dependent on acquiring the elixir from out of state via expensive travel or shipping methods.
Peake’s plan would allow a limited number of growers and closely track marijuana plants and products used for the oil. That level of security will be needed to win over law officers concerned the legalization of pot plants could line the pockets of drug dealers. The bill also would expand the number of ailments allowed for cannabis treatment.
This plan addresses a humanitarian cause, and we hope lawmakers will weigh the risk of marijuana manufacture for illegal use with the benefit many families and ailing Georgians could receive. Legislators took the first step last year, but shouldn’t leave those poor folks with half a loaf of cure.
• Social issues: Every year, some lawmakers dredge up notions that bog down the session and get in the way of real issues. One law in search of a problem is the one addressing religious liberty, back from last year. Sponsor Sen. Josh McKoon says it would give individuals more rights in practicing their faith when such worship clashes with government.
But many fear the bill is aimed at giving businesses and individuals free reign to discriminate against same-sex couples. For that reason, commercial interests are opposed, fearing a backlash from protests and boycotts seen in Indiana over a similar bill last year. A joint study by the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and state visitors bureau shows a negative impact of $1 billion to $2 billion on Georgia’s economy if such a law passed.
Until those concerns are addressed, the bill needs to go away. We agree with House Speaker David Ralston, who has pointed out the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects freedom of worship, and a state law to supplement that basic right is unnecessary.
It is another attempt to appeal to a narrow slice of the electorate for political gain, right out of the usual election-year playbook. If lawmakers can leave such sacred cows out to pasture this year and focus on the beef already on the table, it could be a productive session.
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