The 2020 session of the Georgia General Assembly officially is well underway with four of 40 working days completed and the governor’s annual State of the State speech presented.
Long before the opening gavel fell on Monday, lawmakers knew the governor expected to see cuts in the state budget for the coming year to offset the fact that revenues were not as high as expected for the past year.
Gov. Brian Kemp has proposed a spending reduction of 4% for the next budget and 6% for the following year. He also has made clear the areas in which he does not want to make reductions, including many education, college and transportation line items. Much of the reduction is expected to come from the elimination of state jobs that are vacant.
That the need for spending cuts falls during an election-year session of the Assembly may be a disappointment to some of those who like to pave the way to re-election by opening the purse strings for projects of special interest to their constituents, but it may also force legislators into a serious, business-like session devoid of some of the politically charged distractions that often beset the assemblage and put some members in a bad public light.
At least we can hope that is the case.
The Times editorial board
- Norman Baggs, general manager
- Shannon Casas, editor in chief
- Cheryl Brown
- David George
- Mandy Harris
- Brent Hoffman
- J.C. Smith
- Tom Vivelo
Kemp set the stage for a workmanlike approach to conducting the state’s business in his State of the State address Thursday, largely avoiding hot topic issues such as abortion, religious liberty and gun control while promoting an agenda likely to be favored by most Georgians that includes teacher pay raises, increased investment in public safety with an emphasis on criminal gangs, and funds to finance school and college construction projects.
What the governor didn’t do was fan the flames of conservative vs. liberal political warfare, sticking instead to ideas and proposals likely to garner at least some degree of bipartisan support. Which isn’t to say such lightning rod issues aren’t going to arise organically from the legislators themselves. One bill already in the hopper dealing with transgender athletes and public sports facilities comes to mind.
Kemp’s commitment to the second phase of a promised teacher pay raise fulfils a promise to up salaries $5,000 over two years. Money was budgeted last year for a $3,000 raise; and the governor has proposed another $2,000 increase for the coming year.
A major issue for legislators is going to be whether to again reduce the state income tax. Lawmakers cut the income tax rate last year and had hoped to do so again in this session, but with state revenues not meeting projections and the reality of spending reductions looming, taking steps to reduce the flow of income tax money may be hard to do, no matter how much lawmakers would love to tout just such an accomplishment as part of their re-election campaigns.
To help funnel more money into the state’s revenue stream lawmakers acted quickly last week in approving sales tax legislation that would affect internet marketplaces allowing third-party vendors on their platforms, such as Amazon and eBay, as well as ridesharing programs such as Uber.
Traditional brick-and-mortar stores in the state that are required to charge sales taxes have long sought the mandate of an internet levy as a means of leveling the business playing field and keeping them more competitive, and the move is expected to generate hundreds of millions in additional state revenues.
Of course, those hundreds of millions of dollars have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is going to be consumers in the state who use those internet services. Lawmakers have tried to downplay the change by saying it does not impose “new” taxes on anyone, since consumers already are supposed to be paying taxes on such purchases. But the fact is many are not, and now they will be.
Having approved one additional tax revenue stream, it will be interesting to see if lawmakers then move ahead with the income tax reduction that would subsequently reduce the amount of money available to fund state government.
Election-year sessions of the General Assembly are always interesting as they unfold, and this year may be more so than others.
As areas of the state once thought to be solidly conservative, such as parts of suburban metro Atlanta, shift to the left, members of the House and Senate may be less likely to line up behind extremely conservative measures they may have eagerly supported in previous years. And there is always jockeying for position as members announce they will not be running for another term, either out of a desire to seek some other office, or to step aside from the political arena.
Will lawmakers double-down on the income tax cut, as they suggested last year? Will they test the mettle of a governor entering his second full year in office by not satisfying his budget requests? Will there be a philosophical sea change in the political positions of suburban legislators hoping to win re-election? Will the unpredictable chaos of national politics create tremors in the foundation of state government?
At this point nobody knows, but there are 36 working days of the session left for the drama to unfold.