Five things to watch in Georgia Legislature in 2016

The new year brings a new legislative session - and plenty of familiar debates. Here are five things we are watching during the 40-day session that begins on Monday.

1. 'Religious liberty' legislation: State Sen. Josh McKoon’s controversial proposal is seen by supporters as a way to protect people of any religion from government interference and by critics as a last gasp from opponents of gay marriage. Already, we are seeing another proxy battle pitting establishment forces – including iconic Georgia businesses – who cite the uproar over similar bills in Arkansas and Indiana against grassroots conservatives who have for months clamored for the proposal. A wild card in the debate is the fate of another proposal, known as the First Amendment Defense Act, which some critics see as even more onerous. (Read more about the fight here.)

2. Legalizing gambling:  Casino interests are ready to spend big money on Georgia, armed with teams of lobbyists, plans for eye-popping resorts and promises of a new wave of cash for the HOPE scholarship. Gov. Nathan Deal and other Republican leaders remain opposed to the idea, but even the staunchest critics have said they are open to a debate. The governor is skeptical of a 2016 push -  “don’t bet on it,” Deal said – but clear majorities of voters are supportive. With many conservatives opposed to the plan, supporters will inevitably need strong Democratic support. And House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams said she envisions a "HOPE 2" plan that would fund a needs-based aid program for higher education. "We have the responsibility to make sure money goes to the most important priority," she said.

3. An education overhaul. Governors and lawmakers have complained about Georgia’s school funding formula almost since it was enacted 30 years ago, but none have succeeded in significantly changing it. A sweeping change is on the table again this year, along with a host of other measures that could transform how students learn and what teachers teach. Among the most contentious ideas is a plan floated by Deal to tie teacher pay to how they perform in the classroom. But even dipping a toe in this debate is likely to invite a tidal wave of blow-back from both teachers groups and voters.

4. Transit. Georgia lawmakers narrowly approved a roughly $1 billion package of fees and taxes for infrastructure improvements in 2015. But that could be just the start.Deal and others that backed the tax are looking to consolidate their gains – and defend the Republicans who voted for it. The hotel industry and other lobbies want to chip away at the new charges. And MARTA wants permission to ask voters in Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties for a half-penny share of a sales tax to launch what could be an $8 billion expansion up Ga. 400 and along I-20. There could be some payback in order. Democrats see the MARTA expansion as an important part of the grand bargain they struck in supporting last year's tax hike. Abrams called it a "continuation of a conversation that ended abruptly with Sine Die."

5. Medical Marijuana. Georgia lawmakers last year pushed through landmark legislation that legalized a form of medical marijuana for people suffering from a narrow list of illnesses. State  Rep. Allen Peake is back this year with plans to allow an in-state, regulated cultivation of marijuana for medical purposes so families don't have to travel to other states to buy the oil. It will be no easy fight. Law enforcement officials have raised questions about violating federal law if lawmakers adopt the changes. And Peake stepped down from Deal's legislative team after the governor said he's not convinced of the need to expand the program. "The information I’ve received from the law enforcement component causes me to have more concerns than I did before," Deal said.

Read more about these issues and other debates in the spotlight this legislative session.

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.