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Georgia lawmakers return to the Gold Dome with election-year politics on their minds

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by Jill Nolin and Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder
January 8, 2024

Will school voucher supporters try again after a searing defeat in 2023? How will lawmakers spend billions of dollars of budget surplus? Are Republicans really eying Medicaid expansion?

These are some of the burning political questions going into what is expected to be an action-packed 2024 legislation session, which kicks off Monday in downtown Atlanta.

The session comes on the heels of a bitter court-ordered redistricting do-over where lawmakers feuded over new political maps that the judge has since signed off on. And it’s an election-year session that will play out as voters head to the polls on March 12 to help decide which presidential candidates will be at the top of the ballot this fall.

Many new bills will no doubt spring fresh from the fertile minds of Georgia’s lawmakers and lobbyists, like more bills aimed at changing how the state runs elections. 

 Sunday night’s annual Wild Hog Supper brought lawmakers, lobbyists and others together on the eve of the 2024 legislative session. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

But this is the second of a two-year session, which means the many bills left hanging from last year are still alive for this year, and there are a lot of leftovers from last year, including some key leaders’ top priorities. 

Some of the holdovers, though, will serve as a reminder of how much things can change in a year. 

A measure that would put a definition for antisemitism in state code that could be used to prosecute hate crime easily cleared the House but stalled in the Senate last year, but now there is a new push for the bill after Hamas militants attacked Israeli-controlled areas near the blockaded Gaza Strip in October. 

Some of last year’s most intensely debated bills may also be revisited. 

For example, GOP lawmakers pushed through a plan to create an prosecutors oversight commission that would have the power to remove elected district attorneys from office. But that commission stalled after the state Supreme Court declined to approve rules and regulations as is. A bill designed to fix the law has already been filed. 

And lawmakers are teed up to revisit an issue that sprung up in the final days of the session last year: public access to fishing on Georgia’s rivers. A House study panel recommended more changes in response to concerns from riverfront property owners. 

As the session cranks up, we offer this look at some of the issues that seem poised to loom large until the gavel falls a final time early in the spring. 

Health care policy is on the menu

Georgia’s Republican leaders have steadfastly resisted full Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act for more than a decade, making Georgia one of 10 states that have not expanded the health insurance program for the poor. 

But there are new signs that some key GOP leaders may be willing to consider it, or at least an Arkansas-style version that skirts traditional expansion while still putting an insurance card in the pockets of more uninsured Georgians.

A special House panel met with Arkansas officials over the break to hear about that state’s Medicaid premium assistance program, which purchases private insurance on the marketplace instead of enrolling more people in the state-run program. 

That influential committee presented “options” in its final report that included lawmakers pursuing a Medicaid waiver “to further support the care of patients who are currently uninsured and the working poor, especially in rural communities.”

 Rep. Butch Parrish (left), who is leading a House study committee looking at hospital regulation, Rep. Sharon Cooper, who chairs the House Public Health Committee, and House Minority Leader James Beverly listen to a presentation in Augusta last year. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Any potential proposal could be paired with changes to hospital regulations. Last year, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones pushed hard for changes to the state’s certificate-of-need program, which limits the number of medical services available in an area.

A Senate-passed proposal to scale back those health care regulations collided last year with a House-prioritized bill designed to build on the previous year’s landmark behavioral health measure. Both of those bills remain alive for this session, though some advocates have said they expect the behavioral health legislation to splinter into more bite-size measures.

Notably, the House study committee that looked at Arkansas’ Medicaid program was initially formed as an answer to the Senate push for changes to the certificate-of-need program.

This new chatter is happening as the governor’s partial Medicaid expansion program is off to a sluggish start, sparking increased criticism and renewed calls for full expansion from Democrats. 

Initially delayed by the Biden administration, the program launched in July and had enrolled about 2,300 people as of mid-December. As many as 370,000 may be eligible, according to the state’s projections.

The program expanded eligibility to more low-income Georgians, so long as they complete 80 hours of work, school or other qualifying activity – which critics have long called a paperwork burden that would serve as a barrier. 

Budget process will kick off with $16 billion socked away

There are signs state revenues are slowing after a string of years where collections surged. But the state is also sitting on a massive pile of cash, with about $16 billion socked away in surplus and rainy-day funds. 

Gov. Brian Kemp will kick things off by unveiling his spending proposal. But he has already announced some of his plans, including a one-time $1,000 bonus for state workers, teachers and other school workers, funding for school security and a push to accelerate an already approved series of income tax rate cuts.

 Gov. Brian Kemp announces a plan to fast track a planned state income tax rate cut. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

In recent years, state leaders have also sent portions of the surplus back to taxpayers in the form of extra refunds.

This is also the first time in recent years that the governor has allowed state agency heads to request a spending increase. They could ask for 3% more in funding, so long as they also offer up ideas for cutting expenses by 1%.

Many agency leaders took the governor up on the offer, and advocates have also been pressing the governor to consider specific needs, such as a $6-per-hour pay increase for low-wage workers who assist people with disabilities and who are in short supply. 

After Kemp releases his spending proposal, lawmakers will want to leave their mark too, but since the governor sets the spending limit, they will only be able to move money around in the budget. 

The governor will outline more of his priorities for this year in a speech to Georgia’s business community Wednesday and his annual state of the state address set for Thursday. 

School vouchers aren’t the only education policy up for discussion

The cost of educating Georgia’s public school students makes up the biggest portion of the state’s annual budget, and education policy always takes up much of the conversation during the session.

Lawmakers could consider changes to the Quality Basic Education formula, which determines how state dollars are distributed among Georgia students. The formula was created in 1985, and generations of lawmakers have called for an overhaul without much success.

Areas of the formula that seem ripe for revision include funding for students living in poverty – Georgia is one of six states that does not allocate extra state dollars for those children – and money for providing kids transportation to and from the schoolhouse.

 Voucher supporters Sen. Greg Dolezal and Sen. Ed Setzler watch as House lawmakers reject a school voucher proposal in 2023. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Stephen Owens, director of education at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said the amount of money schools are spending on buses has ballooned over the past few decades as the share of state funding for school transportation has been essentially stagnant.

“We’ve gained hundreds of thousands of students since then,” he said. “The cost of labor, buses, fuel have all gone up, but state funding remains at that same dollar amount since Bill Clinton was in office. In the 1990s, the state paid over half of all the costs to transport kids to and from the school. If the state still paid half the cost, that would be an additional $400 million every year to school districts. This is a slow-moving bus wreck.”

Last year, a bill aimed at sending $6,500 to families in low-performing schools to pull their children out of public school passed the Senate but failed in the House after a handful of Republicans rejected it, sending it back to the House Education Committee. Vouchers are likely to make a return this year, but it’s not clear whether those holdouts will stop holding out.

Speaking at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education’s media summit Friday, House Education Committee Chairman Chris Erwin said he hasn’t seen a push from House leadership to back the bill.

“There has not been any discussion from any leadership with me about that bill or what direction or what needs to happen with that bill. I’m assuming that when we get back in, there will be conversations about it. I believe as Sen. (Nan Orrock), you have stated, there’s a push from the Senate for the bill, but as far as meeting with the leadership or anyone giving any direction on what to do with that bill as it has come back to be reconsidered, no there hasn’t been.”

Some lawmakers are ready to dial up bills on technology

Artificial intelligence has quickly moved from the realm of science fiction to part of everyday life.

Georgia lawmakers from both parties have been meeting over the break to discuss how the state should react to the rapidly evolving technology.

 Lt. Gov. Burt Jones presiding over the Senate in 2023. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Several lawmakers have expressed concern over potential scams using AI. Specifically, they say they would like to try to mitigate the risk of fraudsters using deepfake technology to blackmail innocent Georgians.

The impact of AI on the economy is uncertain, and lawmakers say they hope to introduce legislation to provide guardrails to protect Georgians’ privacy and other rights while not stifling economic innovation.

On the positive side, lawmakers say they are hopeful the new technology will help save lives through applications like monitoring traffic and health care data.

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones has said one of his top priorities will be a bill aimed at addressing cyberbullying and harmful social media use among minors.

Jones’ legislation would require social media companies to verify the ages of users and block kids from features that may be addicting to children and require schools to update their rules on bullying to address cyberbullying.

Will this year bring another battle in the culture wars? 

Some transgender Georgian youths and their allies fear another year could bring another bill that they say could chip away at their rights.

In 2022, lawmakers passed a ban on transgender girls playing on girls’ sports teams. Last year saw a ban on hormone therapy for transgender minors. An election year could mean Republicans, who control majorities in both chambers, will seek to craft socially conservative legislation to please their base.

In a fundraising email, Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham said his pro-LGBTQ lobbying group is waiting for the next shoe to drop.

“In 2024 we expect another hard year in the fight to defeat politically motivated bills that target our community, with a particularly disgusting focus on trans and gender non-conforming young people,” he wrote. “Some of the bills are known to us at this point (like bills targeting trans bathroom access and drag shows) and some will be brand new.”

In an email to supporters last month, Cole Muzio, president of the influential conservative lobbying group Frontline Policy Action, promised “the biggest, boldest slate of policy initiatives that Georgia has ever seen,” including “Protecting girls’ locker rooms, bathrooms, and sports teams by keeping them FEMALE ONLY!” and “Defending kids from obscene sexualized performances.”

A bill aimed at restricting conversations about gender identity between children and adults is still alive after failing to pass last year, and lawmakers have also discussed further limiting access to gender-affirming care for children. The current law bans hormones but allows puberty blockers, which can provide a short-term pause for transgender children or children who undergo puberty too early but are not meant to be used for long.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.