On January 13, lawmakers from across Georgia will converge under the Gold Dome downtown for the annual session of the General Assembly. Working under a 40-day deadline, 180 representatives and 56 senators will debate bills on issues like education, transportation, and healthcare. They’ll also fulfill their only constitutional obligation: approving a budget.
How’s that budget looking? Not good, which is surprising, considering Georgia’s record 3.9 percent unemployment rate should mean more people paying sales and income taxes, the two main sources of funding for schools, healthcare, and basic services. Thanks to Georgia’s antiquated sales tax collection laws—some online retailers don’t remit sales tax, for example—and a state tax cut that took effect in 2018 and 2019, Georgia is falling short of revenue projections by $200 million, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a left-leaning fiscal think tank. Another proposed income tax cut, GBPI argues, could cost the state $550 million a year—and amount to just $5 in savings per month for a household earning $50,000 a year.
What are the major issues? In November, Governor Brian Kemp proposed extending Medicaid to an estimated 50,000 able-bodied Georgians living on the lowest incomes (under $12,000 a year). The plan would require recipients to either be working, volunteering, or going to school for a certain number of hours a month—plus, they’d have to pay monthly premiums. If approved by federal officials, the program would cost the state roughly $67 million in its first year. Democrats say Kemp’s proposal is insufficient and costs too much to cover too few people, and that Medicaid should be expanded to the other 350,000 uninsured Georgians living under the poverty line. In addition, lawmakers are expected to again debate asking voters to amend the Georgia Constitution to allow casino gambling, the revenues from which would shore up the underfunded HOPE Scholarship. Finally, expect talk about maternal mortality (especially after last year’s heated debate over abortion) and maybe gun control, a perennial favorite.
What’s the backdrop? It’s an election year! This means that all 236 legislative seats are up for grabs. Some Republicans in once-red north metro suburbs are concerned about changing demographics and the potential blowback they might face from Gold Dome decisions, says Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political-science professor. In 2018, the party lost 14 House seats and two Senate seats in metro Atlanta to Democrats. This time around, Donald Trump will be on the ballot—that’s troubling for Republicans running in purple districts. Finally, because lawmakers are prohibited from raising campaign funds during the session, they’ll want to keep the session short so they can focus on what’s best for them: getting another two years in office.
This article appears in our January 2020 issue.