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Editorial: A forecast of lightning rod issues in the upcoming legislative session
State of the state 2022
Gov. Brian Kemp speaks during the State of the State on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in Atlanta. - photo by Associated Press

The College Football Playoff has been won, the president has made his much ballyhooed but essentially inconsequential visit to Atlanta, and the governor has presented his annual State of the State speech. Now it’s time for the General Assembly to begin the real work of the legislative session that officially started Monday.

Gov. Brian Kemp set the tone for the session with his speech Thursday, outlining the sort of spending proposals one would expect from an incumbent seeking reelection with full coffers at the state’s treasury.

Legislators also will be seeking reelection, so it’s not a stretch to expect a lot of support for Kemp’s plans to return to Georgians some $1.6 billion in state income tax rebates. Such a move is possible thanks to record setting tax collections over the past 18 months, much of which is the result of money pumped into Georgia by the federal government to bolster the pandemic economy.

Kemp also outlined a proposed budget that follows through on his promise of pay increases for teachers, as well as proposing pay raises for state employees, the addition of public safety officers, and investments to increase the number of people entering the health field, all of which are likely to play well in an election year and to find support as lawmakers debate the budget in the weeks to come.

Kemp characterized his agenda for the coming session as being focused on education, public safety and health care, all topics at the forefront of political discourse.

On the issue of public safety, the governor bemoaned the existence of “soft-on crime local governments and prosecutors” and proposed expanding the state’s role in certain areas of law enforcement to bring a harder edge to the war on crime. To that end, he proposed an anti-gang unit in the Attorney General’s office, the addition of more troopers to the state police force, the addition of criminal justice programs to technical schools and long overdue funding to increase staffing and make upgrades at the GBI crime lab in order to expedite the judicial process.

More than once the governor mentioned local governments being less than supportive of strong law-and-order efforts in the state, a reflection of his ongoing differences with the city of Atlanta over its efforts to curtail crime, and likely a shot across the bow of Democrats recently elected to district attorney posts in some of the state’s largest counties.

The governor’s annual State of the State speech outlines an agenda he hopes to see completed during the budget process and legislative session, but it is the lawmakers themselves who decide how much of that agenda becomes reality.

Some of the highest-profile items outlined by the governor are likely to receive at least some level of bipartisan support once all is said and done, but other items are more likely to clearly define the line in the sand between the state’s GOP and members of the Democrat Party.

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Kemp made it clear he plans to support conservative issues that will draw the ire of the state’s progressives, while at the same time establishing Kemp as a champion of causes far to the right on the political spectrum. He may not have the support of a certain former president, but he has established a political position that should appeal to that president’s supporters.

The governor’s education platform includes tackling the issue of transgender students participating in school sports, banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory in Georgia schools, and cracking down on student access to obscenity through classrooms and libraries. Those hot topics are popular with other conservative candidates across the nation this year and will add plenty of fuel to the fires of political controversy.

The governor also plans to go all in on the idea of constitutional carry, which would allow gun owners in the state to carry concealed weapons without any sort of permitting process, another popular chapter in the conservative political  playbook and a position against which members of the opposition party will protest loudly.

While the governor has his agenda, the state’s lawmakers have their own ideas of topics that need to be handled in this election year session.

Already there are efforts underway to harken back to the 2020 presidential election with even more tweaks to state election laws, even as the federal government in Washington debates enacting federal legislation that would take the election process in a different direction. One such effort is the passage of a constitutional amendment to prevent noncitizens from voting, which already is against the law in the state.

Expect too that there will be attention paid to the issue of Buckhead separating itself from the city of Atlanta, expansion of certain health care services, the need to do more about transportation problems and the growing chasm between rural Georgia and its more densely populated urban areas. And what would a session of the state’s General Assembly be without some sort of gambling legislation discussion, which seems to have been a mainstay for the past couple of decades.

Tax rebates, pay raises, transgender students, CRT, obscenity, constitutional carry, law and order, Buckhead, local governments vs. state government, vaccine mandates, abortion laws, health crisis, education crisis, transportation crisis, staffing crisis, state economy — name the lightning rod issue and it’s likely to come up in the weeks to come under the Gold Dome.

And then the election cycle begins.