Fresh Tea Leaves Coming This Week From GA’s Capitol

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Several questions will be answered this week in the Georgia General Assembly that will have an impact on Georgia’s long term future. These will bleed into upcoming campaigns and, with most statewide offices up for election, will thus send an early signal of how Georgia will be governed as well as set a path for our near term relationships with the business community.

Wednesday is what is known as “crossover day” at the Georgia Capitol. Any bill that hasn’t passed either the House or Senate is considered dead for the session. This isn’t an absolute, as some bills are revived at the last minute by being tacked on to other bills that remain among the living.

Still, the bills that get an extra push this week will reveal where the current momentum and priorities are today. With that in mind, here are some open questions that may be answered for those watching vote totals as tea leaves this week:

1. Does School Choice still matter as a future issue for the Republican party, or is it a relic of past policy positions?

Despite school choice being a GOP platform position and having 75% support among Georgia primary voters, the Georgia Legislature hasn’t moved a significant piece of school choice legislation since the State Charter Schools Amendment was passed.  School Choice advocates have watched much of their momentum stall, while their schools remain severely underfunded relative to traditional schools – schools the state demands they outperform for pennies on the dollar.

HB 787 carried by Scott Hilton (R-Peachtree Corners) passed the House with an overwhelming 111-54 margin and now awaits action in the Senate.  Of the other bills, school choice advocates hope it will be joined by HB 482 carried by Wes Cantrell (R-Woodstock) that would establish Education Scholarships Accounts.  

If the House chooses to give the Senate both of these bills (or others), the focus then changes to the Senate, and specifically to the high profile senators running for statewide office. It will be difficult to run as an advocate of school choice in 2018 without a legislative record that backs up the claim.

2. What is the power of economic development prospects vs social conservatives?

SB 375 carried by William Ligon (R-Brunswick) seeks to reopen a question that was settled earlier this session when a stalled passed to update Georgia’s adoption code. Last year, Senator Ligon and allies refused to adopt an adoption code revision from Rep Bert Reeves (R-Marietta) because they needed more time to study the issue.

The new bill is drawing national press, with CNBC calling the LGBT issues within it “a new political problem” in landing Amazon’s HQ2. Is expanding adoption funding to faith based entities that refuse to let gay couples adopt children worth scuttling the largest economic development prize in a generation? The House may want to adopt a page out of the Senate’s playbook from last year and take some additional time to “study” the matter.

3. What is the power of an existing corporate headquarters versus gun owners?

Likewise, one of Georgia’s oldest Fortune 500 companies has waded into the war on the NRA this weekend, with Delta ending a contract for travel discounts to the NRA’s annual convention. A bill that passed the House last week cut Georgia’s future income tax rates, but also permanently eliminated taxes on jet fuel. Because the House has already passed the measure it’s no longer a “crossover day” question, but blowback from 2nd Amendment advocates leaves an open question as to whether the jet fuel exemption remains in the bill when it leaves the Senate.

4. Are the suburbs getting closer to urban Atlanta, or farther away?

Similar bills have passed the House and Senate Transportation Committees that would create the Atlanta Transit Link, creating a governance structure to have a seamless transit network within the 13 county Atlanta region. Republicans have long been blamed for being anti-transit and for a lack of state funding. Now that they’ve used significant political capital to bring the issue to the table, will Democrats be willing to make a deal, or retreat to the status quo within their existing footprint?

5. Can a “grand bargain” establish a precedent that “Atlanta” problems and “Other Georgia” problems be addressed together, separately?

In addition to the transit bills, there are bills proposed in the House and Senate to create a structure for the state to accelerate and expand the delivery of high speed reliable broadband to rural Georgia. It’s not something Atlantans have to worry about. Congestion isn’t something rural Georgians have to worry about. If both transit and broadband bills move into law, then a new paradigm of how to manage tradeoffs may be established as a template of how to solve future big ticket regional problems in the future.


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