The General Assembly begins its 2013 session Monday, and experts predict the 40 legislative days will be shaped by hot issues such as the state’s budget, the Affordable Care Act and firearms rights and restrictions.
“Whenever you have a real shortage of money and the decisions have to be made, who gets cut? Everybody’s fighting for their constituency, their particular area — when there’s a limited amount of money, there’s a lot of competition for it,” Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, said.
A release from Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, previewed the session in a guest editorial on the Georgia House of Republicans communications site. He said slower-than-projected growth is to blame for budget woes. Though fiscal year 2012 ended in the black, the 2013 budget was based on a revenue growth of about 5.2 percent. Tax has grown only by 3.7 percent, however, and Gov. Nathan deal has called for a 3 percent reduction plan from all agencies for FY2014, which begins July 1, the release said.
“Everybody’s having to give up something,” Williams said.
Key to the Hinesville area, however, is a $4.75 million funding request from the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia for construction of an Armstrong Atlantic State University campus in Hinesville.
Williams and Sen. Earl “Buddy” Carter, R-Pooler, both vow to preserve the project as best they can.
“The delegation — myself and Sen. (Tommie) Williams (R-Lyons)and Rep. Al Williams— all of us will be working diligently to keep it in the budget,” Carter said.
Williams cautioned that it’s a matter of fighting for the line-item through several rounds and ensuring it’s not vetoed. If the funding is approved and added to the governor’s budget, Armstrong officials say there could be a ground-breaking this summer.
As for revenue, Williams said that Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Garden City, previously proposed a $1 sales tax on cigarettes, and he would support the measure if it is reintroduced. He called it a “logical way” to raise revenue.
Another running discussion is about allowing pari-mutuel betting. The Newnan Times-Herald reports that recently the Senate Study Committee on Horse Racing met and discussed legalizing horse racing, a process that requires two-thirds majority in both chambers to allow an amendment to be placed on a ballot.
“I think the people should decide; I’m not a big proponent of gambling, but I am a proponent of people having the right to choose,” Williams said. “The taxes on the plan would generate hundreds of millions of dollars on this economy, and we need to earmark it for education.”
Another revenue-related topic that could draw sides is transportation, Williams said. The failure of TSPLOST last summer in nine of 12 regions leaves little money for transportation and infrastructure projects that many consider to be vital to the state’s growth.
“There’s been some talk about repealing the 30-percent penalty that the regions that did not pass it will incur; I don’t think you’re going to see that,” Carter said.
“I think as time goes on and as the governments understand that penalty, they’ll understand that it’s not as much of a penalty as they thought it was,” he said.
A recent consolidation of two funding programs into one known as the Local Maintenance & Improvement Grant is easier to navigate and fairer.
Legislation by local delegates
Carter plans to reintroduce several bills from last year that would give counties the option to hold nonpartisan elections for sheriff, county commissioners, clerk of superior court, tax commissioner, district attorney and coroner. The bill did not have enough support last year.
“I just don’t see what the difference is going to make if a clerk of the superior court is a Democrat or a Republican,” Carter said. “Are you telling me somebody is more dead if (coroners) are a Republican than if they are a Democrat?”
The Pooler senator also will propose that nurses be required to have continuing education, as nursing is the only allied health field to not hold such requirements, he said.
Williams plans to introduce a bill that would provide short-term state income-tax exemptions for emergency employees such as utility workers and first responders who are called away from their homes on overnight stays during emergencies.
Under the plan, the exemption would apply for nights employees are away, even if they remain within the state.
Stephens has several legislative proposals. One would lower the threshold on jobs tax credit to allow small business to participate in jobs creation.
Another would give victims’ families a voice in the parole process where murder is involved.
The state also has an eye on ethics reform, as both parties had non-binding November ballot questions about restricting gifts from lobbyists.
House Speaker David Ralston said more people should be required to register as Statehouse lobbyists and disclose their spending, Georgia Public Broadcasting reported. Ralston said Thursday that Republican leaders will introduce legislation next week seeking to tighten rules on who must register as a lobbyist.
Stephens said he plans to support House changes to lobbyist reform.
Carter predicted the Senate will create rules to govern themselves and also said he favors transparency.
National topics unfold in states
Affordable Care Act implementation leaves legislators with critical decisions to make, Carter said. Chief is whether to expand Medicaid coverage to millions of low-income Americans currently without health insurance.
The controversial battle over gun control and gun rights also likely will come to the fold, given national discussions following massacres last year in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn.
Bartow County Rep. Paul Battles, R-Cartersville, proposes to allow local districts to decide whether principals should be armed since not every district has the money to hire resource officers, The Associated Press reported.
Williams said he would solicit input from local educators, administrators and board members before determining a stance on the bill, but he spoke about gun issues.
“I’m a great proponent of the Second Amendment, I believe that everybody has the right to bear arms under the Constitution, but I’m still looking at what kind of arms. I think we reached a point where we have to take a new look at the weapons that are available,” he said.
Carter also said he supports the Second Amendment, but thinks it’s a worthy discussion topic.
Sen. Tommie Williams did not return the Courier’s requests for comment by press time.