Election season casts shadow over 2014 legislative session

mlee@macon.comJanuary 11, 2014 

ATLANTA -- As Georgia lawmakers prepare for their annual 40-day session in Atlanta, they may aim to finish quickly, keep the to-do list modest and return to work on their election campaigns.

Or they may seek to do deeds worthy of stump speeches -- on teacher pay, gun laws, the power structure in Macon-Bibb County and even the U.S. Constitution.

And the state Legislature faces a situation that some of its newer members have never seen: state coffers filling up as the economy improves.

Now, “there are some challenges of prioritization,” said House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire.

Georgia has some infrastructure challenges with its roads, bridges and airports, O’Neal said, and it takes investment to lure companies.

“We’ve got very active economic development areas in both Bibb and Houston counties. They’re working with a lot of potential projects,” mostly in the aerospace industry, O’Neal said. “But it takes closing money, it takes an investment in Georgia, and that’s in infrastructure a lot of times.”

Expect some fine-tuning on the way the new Macon-Bibb government is run, and there could be a move to reduce the size of the Bibb County school board.

Some teacher pay recovery is likely to be a priority, either as a pay raise or as restoration of state furlough days. The starting point for negotiations for the fiscal year beginning in July will be Gov. Nathan Deal’s budget proposal, due out soon after the session begins Monday.

Macon Republican state Sen. Cecil Staton said he thinks a state employee pay rise is a good idea, and that includes educators and staffers from kindergartens through postsecondary schools.

“We have some state employees who, in some cases, haven’t had raises for five years,” said Staton -- and a workforce that has shrunk during the same time frame.

“I fully expect some sweeping education legislation,” said senior Bibb House Democrat Nikki Randall.

The state Legislature is in charge of the complex formula that Georgia uses to divvy up state money among school districts. Randall said it’s not fully funded, which she blamed for low teacher salaries and other money woes in K-12 schools.

But her Republican counterpart foresees the Legislature skipping complex issues this year such as adjusting the school funding formula or a debatable shift from income taxes toward more consumption taxes.

“We could be done by St. Patrick’s Day” in mid-March, said Allen Peake. But he also said if Deal is re-elected, as Peake fully expects, some major tax legislation could come up in 2015.

But 2014 is the first year lawmakers will feel the pressure to hurry up under a new rule that sets primaries in May, rather than July. All 236 state lawmakers are up for re-election this year, and lingering in Atlanta until April, instead of campaigning, is not an appealing prospect for most of them. The session entails 40 nonconsecutive workdays.

The smaller picture

After a long career in the House, state Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, is now in a larger Senate district that runs through all or part of seven mainly rural counties.

“You can’t bring jobs out here without health care,” Lucas said. For example, Hancock County needs a stabilization center for fast treatment after traumas, he said, and Twiggs County needs its own ambulance.

The lack of access to health care is widespread across rural Georgia. “We’re going to have some rural hospitals close because these guys don’t want to expand Medicaid,” said Lucas, referring to Deal’s decision that it’s too expensive for Georgia to expand the federal health care insurance to more people.

Lucas also plans to see what can be done to reboot the $90 million Renaissance on the River project in Macon. The company behind it pulled the plug last month, citing pollution that means it can’t get state environmental approval for its residential plans on the site.

For Macon-Bibb, Randall said lawmakers will look at the development authorities and see if they “still need to exist.”

At least five local development authorities include all or part of the county: the Central Georgia Joint Development Authority, the Development Authority of Bibb County, the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority, the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority and the Macon-Bibb County Community Enhancement Authority.

There will likely be some tweaks to the way the new Macon-Bibb government is run.

The Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia and the Middle Georgia Regional Commission are working on what Randall called “a cleanup document” for the governing authority.

And it’s up to the lawmakers to adjust a Macon-Bibb County voting map that split an apartment building in two and put some voters in the building into the wrong district.

Peake also said Bibb’s delegation may consider downsizing the eight-member county school board, a request he said he’s heard from constituents.

For now, “There’s always potential for a tie,” he explained.

Gun-toting legislation will probably come back up for debate, Staton said. Last year, Senate Bill 101 would have allowed concealed carry in courthouses, and some houses of worship and college campuses. Public colleges, with allies such as Staton, fought that last locale, which tripped up the bill.

Staton also said he will file a new resolution calling for a Convention of States, a process described in the U.S. Constitution’s Article V and a way to propose amendments to that document.

It’s a response to “what I think many people feel is the overreaching federal government relative to its lack of fiscal restraint and its unfunded mandates to the states,” he explained.

Moves for a convention are underway in dozens of other states. Last year in Senate Resolution 371, the Georgia Senate approved a call for a federal balanced budget amendment to be drafted via an Article V convention. The full House never voted on it.

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