Bet On A Short Legislative Session

This week’s Courier Herald column:

The Georgia General Assembly will convene next week for the 2020 regular session in Atlanta.  The legislature may meet for up to 40 days, but they get to decide which days count toward their limit. 

It’s usually safe to assume they’ll finish their business before Easter week and The Masters, which falls on April 12th this year.  As this is an election year, you may want to bet the “under” for length of this session. 

Betting in various forms, be it for casino gaming, horse racing, or sports betting, may get a vote this year.  Each will at least generate their share of headlines among the myriad of issues that will receive consideration from legislators.  Rather than try to go issue by issue however, this preview will focus on some broad strokes that will affect the time, tone, and tenor, and topics of legislation between Monday January 13th and whenever the legislature gavels out, sine die.

Substantively, it’s all about the budget.  Passing a budget is the only constitutional requirement of the Assembly.  Anything else is just gravy or kibitzing depending on your views of governing.

Legislators in the majority have their work cut out for them in matching their bumper sticker campaign slogans with the requirement of a balanced budget.  On the table are increasing spending for education and Medicaid – the two largest items in the state’s budget. 

Lawmakers are also eyeing another cut in the state income tax. The income tax is the largest source of revenue for the state and accounts for roughly half of Georgia’s general tax dollars received. 

Adding in a degree of difficulty is that revenues for the fiscal year that began in July are roughly flat to date as compared to last year and a bit under projections.  The result is that lawmakers may have to amend the budget for this year downward with new cuts before even considering new spending or tax cuts for next year.

When people talk about government setting a budget, they often suggest the analogy of a family sitting around the kitchen table, setting priorities and making the money on hand stretch to pay the bills.  The state actually works close to this model given that the numbers have to balance, and any gimmicks would draw the attention of bond rating agencies who would likely downgrade the state’s AAA credit rating.

Much like the parents at the kitchen table when the expenses are rising faster than their income, Georgia’s elected officials are likely to start out the session a little cranky.  They know that someone at the table isn’t going to get what they want, and it’s their unpleasant job to figure out who that will be.

In the family analogy, this is where those in the household without the burdens of responsibility would make themselves scarce, as no one wants to draw the attention and ire of a cranky parent.  Politics works in the exact opposite manner from the household example at this step.

Back benchers in the Republican party who are free of the burdens of governing or math will likely grandstand on platitudes and purity tests.  This will please hyper-partisans that call themselves the “base” and keyboard warriors in the comment section, but will please members of the minority party more.

Democrats will adopt the mantra from Lieutenant Watson in Operation Petticoat, “In confusion, there is profit.”  One of the benefits of being shut out of legislative majorities and all statewide offices is that they are free to put as many spokes in the wheels of government as time allows. 

If this sounds like the work environment will be a bit unpleasant, remember that this is also an election year.  With two U.S. Senate seats at stake and at least two competitive races for U.S. House, national groups will be bombarding the state with hyper-partisan campaign messages.  Legislators, however, can’t raise money for re-election while they are in session.  Their opponents, however, can.

Thus, it is difficult to set odds on betting for any specific piece of legislation to pass. Set your expectations and wagers instead toward legislators concluding their business in Atlanta sooner rather than later.

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