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Tom Crawford: State legislators have a full plate beyond budget

If you ask a state legislator, particularly one who’s been around for a few terms, what their priorities are for the upcoming session, they’ll solemnly say something along the lines of, “Pass a balanced state budget.”

That’s the same thing as saying that one of your priorities for the next day is to breathe oxygen or drink water — that pretty much is always going to occur, unless you happen to drop dead unexpectedly.

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Legislators can always be counted on to pass a balanced budget. That’s one of the few things that does get done in a typical session. So let’s move on to other topics.

The General Assembly session that convened this week could end up being dominated by personality conflicts between one chamber and the other, and even within one chamber, because of the people who are running for something else.

The state Senate is headed by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who is running for governor. The upper chamber includes Sen. Michael Williams, R-Cumming, who is also running for governor, and Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, who is running for secretary of state.

There is also Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, whose wife is the sister of Brian Kemp’s wife. Kemp, the current secretary of state, is yet another candidate for governor. This could create some tensions between Cowsert and Cagle.

Williams will no doubt spend much of the session taking verbal potshots at his Republican primary opponent, Cagle. Williams has already been doing this for months on social media, where he’s been denouncing Cagle as a “career politician” and the “swamp” that President Donald Trump is trying to drain. 

McKoon has been trying for years to get a “religious liberty” bill enacted into law. Cagle has already signed a pledge that he will sign such a bill if he’s elected governor.

On the other side of the rotunda, however, is House Speaker David Ralston. He doesn’t like the idea of spending time on the religious liberty issue, especially with the state trying to persuade Amazon to locate a corporate headquarters here.

“I haven’t signed any pledges,” Ralston said when asked about the issue by reporters. “I haven’t seen very much out of the experience of other states that have tackled this issue that makes me want to model us after places like North Carolina, Indiana and others.”

Ralston, on the other hand, wants the Senate to pass a bill that the House of Representatives approved last year overhauling the state’s adoption laws. That measure stalled out in the Senate when a few Republicans tried to amend it to allow private adoption agencies to refuse to deal with same-sex couples.

Both Ralston and Gov. Nathan Deal are urging the passage of a “clean” adoption bill that doesn’t get dragged down by religious liberty issues. Ralston has the advantage of being able to hold up House votes on any Senate bills until that adoption bill is approved.

“I think the bill’s ready to be passed and I would encourage them (the Senate leadership) to do that,” Ralston said with a smile. “I think it would set a good tone for the session if they can get that done quickly.”

If legislators are able to move past these personal squabbles, there are some issues where they might actually get something done.

One of them is the expansion of mass transit services, both in metro Atlanta and other locales around the state. For years, lawmakers from outside the metro area would sneer at MARTA and the idea of mass transit, but that attitude is changing dramatically.

“If you’re going to be competitive for economic development in the future, if you want Amazon or companies like Amazon, you have to have transit,” said Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

There is support among legislative leaders for finding a way to motivate companies to make internet broadband services more widely available in rural Georgia, where access is a vexing issue.

They don’t appear eager to commit any state funding toward this task, however, which could mean that it’s a problem that continues to be a problem.

There’s no question that legislators will pass a state budget this session. Whether they accomplish anything else is an open question.

Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report; email him here.

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