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Thursday July 7th, 2022 3:02AM

Buckhead, mental health on agenda for Georgia Legislature

By The Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — Gun rights, school instruction and tax cuts are expected to be big issues during the 2022 Georgia legislative session that starts Monday. Republicans — who are in the majority at the state Capitol — have signaled they intend to push legislation on those topics ahead of November's election for governor and other offices. But lawmakers have also shown interest in other issues — some of them partisan, others less so. Here's a rundown of some of the bills and budget proposals that are likely to get attention this year:

BUCKHEAD CITY

Bills introduced by Republicans would authorize a referendum to allow residents of Atlanta's tony Buckhead neighborhood to decide whether to secede and form their own city. Supporters of the effort say Atlanta officials have done a poor job of addressing a surge in crime in the neighborhood. Opponents say it's a racist attempt to create a wealthy, white enclave.

Georgia's powerful Republican House Speaker, David Ralston, said Thursday he has not come to a conclusion about the effort. He expressed concerns about its potential to set a bad precedent. “This is a big issue. I understand the feelings are intense on both sides,” he said. He added, “I want us to get it right.”

MENTAL HEALTH

State lawmakers are looking at ways to ensure private insurers provide the same level of coverage for mental health and substance abuse treatment as they do for other health problems. Ralston said mental health was a focus for him entering this year's legislative session. “Both public safety and mental health speak directly to the quality of life Georgians enjoy, and they have a profound impact on our families, our communities and our economy,” he said at a news conference on Thursday. He expects budget proposals that will increase spending for mental health treatment and bed space. The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities was among the state agencies that saw its budget slashed during the coronavirus pandemic over fears of a big drop in revenue. Ralston said a separate bill would include incentives for people to get trained as mental health workers.

ELECTIONS

Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller is proposing abolishing all ballot drop boxes a year after he supported writing them into state law under SB 202, a law Republicans pushed through in response to former President Donald Trump's baseless criticism of Georgia's 2020 election. The law sharply limited the number of drop boxes and made them available only indoors during business hours. Miller, a Gainesville Republican, argues that banning boxes would improve confidence in elections and that Georgia offers enough ballot access through early in-person voting, sending ballots back by mail and voting on Election Day. Other Republicans could push for further changes. Ralston said he is bringing a bill that would give the Georgia Bureau of Investigation authority to probe potential election law violations without a request from a local government or the secretary of state.

But many lawmakers would prefer not to revisit the issue that dominated the 2021 regular session. “I think we should be done talking about the 2020 election cycle,” Republican Lt. Gov Geoff Duncan said Wednesday.

MEDICAID

Democrats' top issue remains expanding the state-federal Medicaid health insurance program to more low-income adults. Gov. Brian Kemp had proposed a more limited expansion that required recipients to work or attend school to be eligible. President Joe Biden's administration has now blocked Kemp's plan. That means there's money in the current budget to pay for the plan that won't be used. Democrats argue Georgia, which is flush with cash, can afford a full expansion. It could also be delivered by federal proposals to create a workaround in nonexpansion states. But Republicans could look for other alternatives.

CRIME

Duncan wants to create a tax credit through which the state would subsidize donations to local police and sheriff's departments. Duncan says this would help departments raise salaries and hire more officers without raising taxes. Kemp and others are likely to make other crime-fighting proposals amid a surge in violence in many Georgia communities.

LAWSUIT LIMITS

Business groups would like to override an August Georgia Supreme Court ruling that found that in cases with only one defendant, blame could not be assigned to nonparties. The ruling means a deep-pocketed defendant who was only a minor cause of an injury could be forced to pay all of a big verdict even if others are more to blame. Also expected is a push for another yearlong extension of a law that protects businesses from being sued by a person who contracts COVID-19. The current law expires July 14.

GAMBLING

An effort to legalize sports betting stalled last year after Democrats took it hostage, trying to prevent election changes from passing. With the backing of Atlanta's major sports franchises, it could be revived this year. Supporters of casino gambling and wagering on horse racing would like to use the more politically palatable sports betting proposal as a way to push for legalization of their own games. Still unsettled is whether lawmakers will seek to amend the constitution to allow sports betting or argue that it can be legalized without a vote of the people by putting the Georgia Lottery Corp. in charge.

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