GAINESVILLE - At least one state lawmaker from Gainesville feels the state legislative session that begins Monday could be precedent-setting.
Sen. Butch Miller says that's because of the streamlined process planned this year in light of the earlier-than-usual date for the state primary elections. Those are expected to be held May 20 to coincide with a court order that the primaries for federal offices, U.S. Representative and U.S. Senate, be held on that day to allow more time for overseas and military ballots.
State Rep. Carl Rogers, also from Gainesville and dean of the Hall County delegation, notes that in order to get as much of the routine work out of the way in a shorter period of time some changes have been made to the usual order of business.
"(The) second week of the session we normally take off for budget hearings (but this year) the budget hearings will be this coming week (and) some of them will be in the following week," Rogers said during an appearance on WDUN'S Afternoon News Wrap Friday. "This (and the streamlined session) will be a big change. None of us since I've been serving has had to deal with this."
Sen. Miller said "we will probably adjourn...somewhere in mid-March. That will do two things: it will show the general public that we can get in and get out on a timely basis and it will show the legislators, themselves, that we can get in and get out on a timely basis."
Miller said that each day the legislature is in session, it costs the taxpayer more money, adding, there is no reason for us to work three days and be off two and drag the session out. "I don't know many people who do not work at least five days a week and there's no reason we can't do it, too." That, he said, should set a precedent for future sessions.
ON THE AGENDA
The question of legalizing medical marijuana in Georgia has been raised in the past few days as the state Legislature prepares to convene. And, House Speaker David Raltson told an Atlanta television station recently that while he has some concerns he's open to debating the issue.
"I have some concerns about it quite frankly but I think, let's take the politics out of it, and look at the science and hear the medical professionals," Ralston told WSB-TV.
The question arose after some parents whose children suffer from seizures told the TV station their youngsters could benefit from medical marijuana. According to a recent Associated Press tally, about 20 states have already legalized medical marijuana and one of the couples said they are prepared to split up their family in order to have access to the drug. The mother and child would move to Colorado, where medical marijuana is legal, while the father remained in Georgia because of his job.
But, Sen. Miller says "I don't think it'll come up this session."
Miller, who also appeared on Friday's Afternoon News Wrap, added "Frankly, in my view, most of your medical marijuana bills have been, frankly, a sham, for pleasure, for recreational marijuana and I am opposed to that."
He said he feels if the matter does come up "it will be one that will be hotly debated and very thoroughly vetted..."
THE ECONOMY, EDUCATION AND TRANSPORTATION
If the predictions of some area lawmakers come true, Georgians can expect a the session to go focus on the economy, education and transportation.
On the question of transportation and the economy, Sen. Miller said they go hand-in-hand. "You cannot have economic development without good transportation programs - and without goods and services and people being able to flow efficiently throughout the region."
Rogers was asked about the governor's proposal to alter the lottery-funded HOPE scholarship to benefit more technical college students in the state. Specifically he was asked if the state's financial condition has improved to the point where that is economically feasible?
The veteran lawmaker responded that, while he doesn't have the exact figures, "lottery funding is up, so, there should be some additional dollars there."
At a pre-legislative forum in Gainesville last month, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said "The state is in very good condition. It's exciting to see revenues begin to come back, it's good to see growth occurring."
Rep. Emory Dunahoo, who is also a member of the Hall County delegation, concurred with Cagle's appraisal, saying "We've increased our 'Rainy Day Fund' from $27 million to $682 million. We have a balanced budget; our federal government can't say that. We are one of nine states to have a triple-A bond rating."
Miller echoed Cagle and Dunahoo, but added that he and his colleagues need to practice fiscal responsibility themselves as they began the upcoming session, beginning with their own participation in that session.
"We look for a very deliberative and direct session coming up. Every day that we're at the Capitol it costs the State of Georgia $60,000 a day in mileage and Per Diem alone. In ten days if we spend $600,000, if we haven't gotten anything done, it's kind of an indictment. So I expect that we will go to the Capitol with a very direct and deliberative approach."
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
Some lawmakers says the budget is expected to dominate much of the session, as lawmakers have the benefit of increased revenues that have brought an end to additional spending cuts. That said, some observers say don't expect the Republican leadership to go on a spending spree as they look to balance the budget, a constitutional requirement, and deflect any primary challengers campaigning on limited government.
Yet all signs suggest a significant amount of additional funds will be set aside for education, more than in recent years, as top officials say they are concerned about estimates that more than half of Georgia's school districts are not meeting the 180-day minimum school calendar set by state law.
"There will be a significant increase in K-12 funding," Gov. Nathan Deal said in a recent interview. "It will be done in such a way that it will relieve much of the pressure that local school districts have been under."
Deal said specifics would be released Wednesday during his State of the State address, but promised that much of the additional revenues not set aside to continuing to rebuild the state's reserves will be spent on education and meeting obligations under the federal Affordable Care Act. Georgia ended the 2013 fiscal year with a revenue increase of 5.9 percent, or $951.5 million, over the previous year. Meanwhile, the first six months of fiscal year 2014 have shown a similar increase of 5 percent, or $442 million, over the same period a year ago.
The education situation is among the most pressing issues facing lawmakers. A November report by the left-leaning Georgia Budget & Policy Institute found state funding for public schools fell more than 15 percent since 2002 as a result of chronic underfunding, noting the General Assembly had provided $1 billion less to schools for the 2013-14 school year than was calculated under a complicated funding formula known as QBE.
The group said it was the fifth consecutive year that $1 billion or more was cut, with 80 percent of school districts in a survey reporting they were furloughing teachers and 95 percent had increased class sizes since 2009.
Education is expected to be a major campaign issue as well, since state schools Superintendent John Barge is challenging Deal in the Republican primary. Although Barge has raised just a small fraction of what Deal has in campaign funds, he has been using visits across the state to criticize what he calls a refusal by Deal to restore education funding after years of cuts.
"If it is the state leadership's secret plan to slowly choke the life out of public education by reducing funding, the plan may very well be succeeding," Barge said recently in an open letter to lawmakers.
Another prominent critic will be Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, who is also running for governor this year. Carter has been vocal in the Senate, challenging Republicans over changes in recent years to the HOPE scholarship program. Carter said in a recent interview that he plans a vigorous debate on education.
"We're going to talk about education, and we're going to talk about building for the future instead of being satisfied with what we have today," Carter said.
While more money will be heading toward education, state lawmakers are unlikely to overhaul the state's school funding formula, which has its share of critics. House Speaker David Ralston said recently he doesn't think lawmakers can fix the funding issue this session.
"What I hear from education people is that they would like for us, whatever formula we have, to fund it," Ralston said.
Lawmakers will be working on an amended fiscal year 2014 budget, which ends June 30 and includes $41 billion in combined state and federal funding, as well as crafting a new budget for fiscal year 2015, which starts July 1. Ralston said he hopes money will be available for pay raises for state employees.
A major lingering question from last session is whether lawmakers will back a bill expanding gun rights on college campuses. A compromise emerged late on the final day of the session between two competing bills but never received a vote.
Ralston said he plans to make the legislation a priority.
"This is about making sure we do everything possible to protect and expand rights of Georgians under the Second Amendment," Ralston said. "We are not going to back down on that. If a college student is otherwise by law entitled to carry a firearm, the best question is should they yield that constitutional right when they go on a college campus?"
Health care will also be a big topic. Estimates from the Georgia Department of Community Health show its financial obligations under the Affordable Care Act are expected to increase from $26.8 million in fiscal year 2014 to $101.6 million in fiscal year 2015.
Democrats plan to draw attention to the governor's decision not to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law, and protests are planned by the "Moral Monday" movement, which includes the state NAACP and other advocacy groups. A similar effort in North Carolina last year included weekly arrests of nonviolent protesters and helped to rally Democrats.
Meanwhile, a group of Republicans have already introduced legislation that would prohibit state employees, state agencies and public colleges and universities from enforcing and implementing the federal health care law. The bill is expected to get a close look and could draw support from top Republicans.
Lawmakers will also discuss efforts to shore up the state Division of Child and Family Services, after the deaths of two children with whom the agency had contact. Deal has said he wants to spend $27 million over three years to hire hundreds of caseworkers and supervisors. Both Deal and Ralston have signaled a willingness to at least start a discussion about privatizing some child welfare services, looking to Florida as an example.
However, lawmakers' aggressive schedule may mean some of those broader discussions, including one to reform the medical malpractice system, may end up waiting until next year. That bill would move medical malpractice lawsuits out of the courts and into an administrative system. Ralston said it would be a major change in policy and deserved a thorough vetting, but wasn't sure it would be resolved this year.
When asked about balancing the desire for a fast session with debate on serious issues, Ralston indicated less can be more.
"Frankly I don't know that there is a problem in being in a hurry to get out," Ralston said. "I don't think people want us to do a whole lot of things. I think they want us to do a few things, and do them right."
(Other members of the AccessNorthGa.com news staff and the Associated Press contributed to this report.)