Georgia lawmakers in recent years haven’t always dazzled during their 40-day Gold Dome gathering. Yet, in their defense, the recession didn’t allow much wiggle room for innovative government. And despite those fiscal restraints, last year’s session produced good first-step reforms on ethics, juvenile justice reform and tougher BUI and boating safety laws.
Just don’t expect quite as much substance, and a good deal more style, out of this year’s session. Because it is, you see, an election year. That means, first, a quick session. By law, state elected officials cannot raise funds while the Assembly is in order. So the 40-day session is going to zip by as quickly with a minimum of delays so they can all rush home to start campaigning. Come St. Patrick’s Day, look for the Capitol to be a ghost town.
In addition, lawmakers who focused on real problems last year will be more eager to introduce bills aimed at pleasing specific campaign supporters and voter groups. Some of those ideas can be wacky, nonsense issues that don’t affect all Georgians. That’s what we get from a legislative body where everyone is up for re-election every other year.
That said, there are several key topics that should be addressed:
• Education: With state coffers filling with more robust tax revenue, Gov. Nathan Deal and legislators are eager to restore school funding. If there was one area that suffered the most during the recession, it was education: Class sizes were increased, teachers and staff furloughed and construction projects abandoned as the economy cratered.
Now all agree it’s time to pour more back into our children’s education, both for their sake and the state’s growing workforce needs.
One step in this effort came last year when increased lottery funds were put back into the HOPE Scholarship program, specifically grants for technical college students. Follow-up legislation needs to keep HOPE standards reasonable and funds within reach for more students.
• Health care: Deal and state officials have not embraced the federal Affordable Care Act, declining to enact state-run insurance exchanges. It appears to have been a wise move, as “Obamacare” continues to crumble under its own bureaucratic weight.
But health challenges remain; the state’s Medicaid program for indigent care remains on shaky ground. The governor rejected the ACA’s expansion of the program, saying the money wasn’t there.
Last year, the state implemented a hospital “bed tax” to plug a Medicaid budget gap. Lawmakers need to devise new funding plans to keep more Georgians from falling between the cracks. Having them fill emergency rooms for minor ailments isn’t cost-effective, as we all wind up paying that cost down the road.
• Water: The state last year offered millions in state water project funding for the proposed and controversial Glades Reservoir. The 850-acre site in North Hall could provide 30-40 million gallons of water per day and give the county more control over its water source than it now has with the federal Army Corps of Engineers-controlled Lake Lanier.
Counties with such projects will be looking for more state support along with ways to fast-track the lengthy environmental permitting process.
• Justice: The move to divert more nonviolent juvenile defenders to community courts was a key step in getting more low-risk offenders out of prisons. A second step would be to revise mandatory minimum sentencing that sends many violators behind bars for longer. Judges should be given more sentencing discretion to avoid filling state prisons with small-time drug offenders or petty thieves. Locking them up often turns them into more hardened criminals, and at a high cost to taxpayers.
• Taxes: Some want to end the state income tax to make Georgia more competitive with states such as Florida, which has no income tax, in attracting businesses. Yet with that tax providing nearly half of the state’s revenue, it would be best not to rush into such a move until it’s certain that move would lead to more revenue in the long run. Study, consider, but move slowly.
By all accounts, the state’s financial picture has improved from recent years, but lawmakers looking to win re-election can’t get giddy over finally having some money to allocate. The economy is still a long way from being fully recovered, and we haven’t dug ourselves out of the hole into which state revenues fell. Spending needs to be based on principles of good government, not short-term political gains.
• Transportation: After voters rejected a regional transportation sales tax in 2012, legislators again will have to find creative ways to fund needed road projects that remain on the back burner.
Some have suggested raising the state’s gasoline tax, which ranks lower than most states, to fund transit needs. But higher fuel taxes could lead to increased costs of delivering goods and for transportation services such as couriers and taxies. That could create a double-whammy hit to our wallets: Higher fees at the pump on the way to the grocery store, where prices for food also are higher because of higher delivery costs.
And any move to raise fuel or other taxes for roads needs to be spelled out carefully to ensure that money isn’t commandeered for other needs.
• Ethics: Lawmakers finally agreed at the end of last year’s session to a limit on gifts from lobbyists. There still are too many loopholes in the rules, but any restraint on unlimited trips, football tickets and other perks was welcomed.
In addition to tightening those limits, the Assembly should restore funding and independence to the state’s ethics governing board.
Yes, all that is a lot to cram into 40 quick days. Lawmakers likely won’t get to all of it, so it’s important they prioritize carefully to meet the state’s crucial needs before they sprint for their campaigns back home.
Then come election time when their names show up on ballots, voters will get the chance to grade their performances and decide whether they get to return for another round in 2015 or stay home for good.