Leaders Reveal Priorities For Legislative Session

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Legislators from across the state reconvened in Atlanta this week for the 2020 session of the Georgia General Assembly. Tensions remain higher than average among Georgia’s leaders as tight budgets force competition among everyone’s priorities.  They’ll have to work harder than normal to present a unified front for the majority’s brand entering election season, and the fewer days they spend butting heads, the more they will have remaining to work together to preserve their majority status.

Georgia’s leaders made the rounds with media last week to provide their own previews and set the public agenda for the weeks and months ahead.  Speaker David Ralston, in his sit down with members of the Capitol press corps, suggested that those who share my prediction for a short session may be participating in an exercise of wishful thinking.

Ralston warned that a lot of folks haven’t been around for a session that is focused on cutting a budget.  He reminded that taking funds away, and the programs and services they represent, are a bit harder than dividing up growing state revenues.  As such, he gently suggested that legislators and observers alike should be preparing to settle in for the long haul. 

He declined to set personal goals for the session, instead saying he was “dangerous” because he didn’t want anything that others would want to use as leverage against the House to cut deals.  It harkened back to a conversation I had when first entering the world of state politics with the late Representative John Yates of Griffin.  Yates cautioned when entering the capitol, “don’t ever let anyone there know what you want, because as soon as you want something, they own you.”

He expects work to continue on recommendations from the House Rural Development Council, as well as from Chairman Mandi Ballinger on juvenile justice reforms.  Tax credit programs for Georgia film and for rural hospitals may be reviewed in light of recent house audits, though the Speaker said ending the film tax incentives entirely was not on the table.

The Governor has been conducting interviews across the state leading up to the session, and a press release from his office with select quotes from those interviews would seem to point to his priorities for legislators.  They remain on message from the Governor’s signature campaign issues.

Expect additional resources and focus on gang activity as well as tougher penalties for violent crimes.  Another pass at reforming Georgia’s adoption laws to “help lower cost (and) ease bureaucracy” of the adoption process will be a follow up to last year’s pro-life “heartbeat bill”. 

Governor Kemp is still looking for an additional $2,000 per year pay raise to Georgia educators to completely fulfill his campaign pledge of $5,000 pay raises.  A focus on expanding medical programs to train doctors in rural areas appears to be the signature issue for Georgia’s higher education programs.

Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan has scheduled a similar press event similar to Speaker Ralston’s after the deadline for this column.  An interview with Tim Bryant of WGAU radio in Athens suggests the LG will continue to focus on cementing Georgia’s role as the “technology capital of the East Coast”, which will include fostering a pro-technology business climate as well as continuing to solve the riddle of delivering high speed broadband to rural Georgia.

A closing note on previews comes from one of the legislator’s more senior members, Senate Budget Chairman Jack Hill of Reidsville.  While many of us in the media will focus on the divisions and battles that are going to occur, Senator Hill, in an op-ed for the Effingham Herald, suggests 10 reasons to be optimistic for Georgia.

Senator Hill strikes a tone that Georgia is still sitting in a strong economic position, is growing both in population and with economic activity, has excellent infrastructure to support continued growth, and is a great place to work and live.  It’s a message that needs to be heard by both legislators and voters frequently over the next 40 days. 

Yes, Georgia’s legislators are going to have battles over how to solve issues of the budget and public policy.  It’s best to keep in mind that, especially compared to other states, these decisions are being made for a healthy, growing, and prosperous Georgia.

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