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Editorial: New faces, serious issues to tackle as Georgia’s legislative session opens

There was a time when the realization that the Georgia General Assembly was about to begin a new legislative session would automatically result in knowing smirks, fearful laughter and tasteless jokes.

“Lock up the women and children, the lawmakers are back in town,” was an old saw often heard as the time came for the gavel to fall for the first time.

But in recent years, the state’s legislative body has gone about its annual calling in more business-like fashion than once was the case. Maybe that’s because leadership in the executive and legislative branches has been more staid and stable; maybe because the need for good governance seemed more urgent … or maybe because there are cell phones with video cameras everywhere to catch the sort of shenanigans that once made the annual gathering sometimes seem more a juvenile playground than an exercise in representative government.

Whatever the case, Georgia’s lawmakers are gathered again in Atlanta to begin a new legislative session, this time with a new governor and lieutenant governor, as well as fresh faces in other state offices, legislative seats and administrative positions.

There’s enough important business to be done to keep everybody buttoned down for the full 40-day calendar.

As is always the case when a new governor takes office, this session will require some “settling in” time to let all the players get used to one another, to establish priorities, and to find the best way to get serious work done. This is the first time in many years that Georgia has had both a new governor and lieutenant governor at the same time, so the process may take a little longer than usual.

Kemp will present his first budget for consideration, which will show how he plans to turn the promises of the campaign trail into fiscal and legislative reality. Will teachers see the pay raises he promised? Will more money go to enforcement of immigration laws? Will taxes be reduced?

The state’s economy has been strong of late, and the coffers refilled since the damage done by the recession. How the governor proposes to spend the money available to him, and the restraint shown by not overspending, will set the stage for his tenure in office.

There are plenty of major issues that will garner attention in the weeks to come.

Schools and education will be much discussed. On top of the normal complexities involved in drafting the education portion of the state budget, there is the issue of pay raises for teachers that was an integral part of Kemp’s campaign platform; school safety concerns with which every system in the state is grappling; and the ongoing debate over whether the state should take over the job of deciding when school starts and stops rather than allowing local systems to do so.

Health care is also likely to be much in the legislative news. There has been much discussion as to whether this will be the year that the controversial Certificate of Need program — by which the state controls growth and competition among medical providers — will be overhauled. Can lawmakers find a way that for-profit private medical companies can flourish without having them cherry-pick paying customers from public nonprofits and leaving them in an indigent patient financial hole? What about Medicaid coverage, does the state expand availability, accepting the strings that come attached to doing so, or does it stand pat?

And then there is the issue of how Georgians will cast a vote in the years to come. It seems inevitable at this point that changes in the system of casting ballots are going to take place, but deciding what the right system will be and getting it implemented will be the focus of much discussion under the Gold Dome. That, and allocating the funds to pay for what will be an expensive overhaul of the voting process.

Need more meat for the political table over the next couple of months?

A few hot button items are sure to add heat and spice to the menu — another shot at a religious liberty bill seems a certainty, relaxed gun control laws may land in the hopper, medical marijuana gains more traction each year, casinos still want to open in Georgia, and don’t let the fact that Washington can’t fix immigration problems lead you to believe local lawmakers won’t try to do so.

On top of those issues that will garner an outsized amount of attention are the foundation pieces that have to be addressed every year, such as funding for transportation, social services, public safety and the environment.

Don’t forget all the legislative work to be done comes against a political backdrop that includes a perceived shifting of power between Republicans and Democrats in Georgia, a split within the GOP between those who support the president and those who don’t, and a #METOO movement that shines a bright spotlight on all sorts of misconduct, both real and imagined, by those in positions of power.

There’s plenty to be done once the opening gavel falls this week, and the decisions made will determine both the immediate and long-term future for the state. All-in-all we’ve been on a pretty good roll of late; hopefully we’ll feel the same when the speaker shouts Sine Die at session’s end.

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