Earlier this year, we rolled out a list of some of the top Georgia issues we were tracking in Washington in 2018.
What got resolved? What’s still on the docket? Let’s review what was and wasn’t in 2018:
Georgia was hoping for a decisive win at the Supreme Court this year in the state’s decades-long water war with Florida and Alabama. That didn’t happen. After the justices heard Florida’s case against Georgia, they told a court-appointed expert judge to reevaluate Florida’s argument in a second round of hearings, not dismiss the case outright as that judge had previously recommended. In August, the court appointed a new expert judge, Paul Kelly of New Mexico, to take over the case. Kelly is currently evaluating the states’ legal arguments and will soon lay out a timeline for future proceedings.
The future of an old surveillance airplane based at Robins Air Force base was at the heart of an unusually public spat between two Georgia Republicans this summer. U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who grew up near Warner Robins, and Congressman Austin Scott, who represents the area surrounding the base, sharply split over what to do with the fleet of planes that have been used to spy on the Islamic State but are reaching the end of their serviceable lifetimes. Scott, R-Tifton, and his allies wanted the Pentagon to stick with its original plan: replacing Robins’ E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System planes, or JSTARS, with a brand new fleet. Perdue ultimately backed a newer approach being pushed by the Air Force to keep the current JSTARS flying until an entirely different defense system could be fielded at Robins after 2028. Perdue ultimately won that fight, but not without some nasty words being traded in the press.
Georgia’s majority-Republican U.S. House delegation was in rebuilding mode over the last year after losing most of its seniority in 2014 and 2016. It took another big hit when the GOP lost control of the House in November: eight of the state’s nine returning Republicans will soon move into the political minority for the first time in their Washington careers. But the midterms also afforded them some big opportunities to advance. Gainesville’s Doug Collins was promoted to the top GOP position on the House Judiciary Committee, which will make him one of President Donald Trump’s most prominent Capitol Hill defenders, and West Point’s Drew Ferguson will become the GOP’s No. 2 whip. Several of the state’s Democrats, meanwhile, are poised to become the chairmen of various House subcommittees, including Albany’s Sanford Bishop and Atlanta’s David Scott. They’re also slated to get their first female Democratic colleague in more than a decade with the arrival of Rep.-elect Lucy McBath.
The governor’s race often sucked up the political oxygen in Georgia, but all 14 of the state’s U.S. House members also contended with their own reelection battles in 2018. Most of the incumbents did not face serious opposition, but some colorful challengers emerged, including former Falcons player Joe Profit and a nudist retreat-owning Democrat who spent the final weeks of his campaign against U.S. Rep. Tom Graves in jail. The two closest races were in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, where Republican U.S. Reps. Karen Handel and Rob Woodall faced well-financed first-time candidates who had the backing of EMILY’s List, former President Barack Obama and groups linked to New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Handel, R-Roswell, was ultimately defeated by gun control advocate Lucy McBath, while Woodall narrowly secured a fifth term by 433 votes.
It was a banner year for backers of the Savannah harbor deepening project and their longtime quest to secure a meaningful financial commitment from Washington. After years of being shorted by the feds, Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers greenlit a combined $85 million for the nearly $1 billion project this summer, a high-water mark. The feds topped themselves ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, when the corps announced it had set aside a total of $101 million for the venture for the 2019 budget year. Boosters say roughly $100 million is needed from Washington every year to keep the project on track.
The nuclear project at Plant Vogtle is more or less where we left it in our last list. Behind schedule and over budget, construction work continues, as do the project’s legal woes. Staff and independent analysts for the state's utility regulators are concerned enough about further delays that they’re recommending another outside consultant to help protect consumer interests. Despite one member of the Public Service Commission nearly losing his reelection bid over the project, the Georgia delegation’s public support appears to remain firm. Local lawmakers were able to slip language into a February budget deal extending roughly $800 million worth of previously-promised federal tax credits for the project, money builders said they needed to keep the project on track.
Health care funding
This is perhaps the biggest piece of unresolved business for 2019. The same budget deal that handed Vogtle an economic lifeline also averted two years of funding cuts to local safety net hospitals such as Grady Memorial and set aside two years of money for community health centers like the Atlanta-based Mercy Care. But the fate of Obamacare is even more unclear after a federal judge recently struck down the entire 2010 law based on a suit Georgia signed onto. The lawsuit is still on appeal, but if it’s struck down the onus will once again be on Congress to come up with a replacement. That didn’t work out so well in 2017, and will be an even steeper climb under divided government.
2018 came with some modest wins and major pain for the state’s farmers. The February budget deal included a lifeline for Georgia cotton farmers, who had been squeezed by years of low commodity prices and the consequences of a trade battle with Brazil. But new tariffs stemming from Trump’s escalating trade fights with China, the European Union and others caused significant anxiety for farmers and put the heat on Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who was tasked with selling the president’s plan to rural America. The recently-enacted farm bill brought some much-needed policy certainty to local farmers but didn’t make some of the major changes to food stamp work requirements that Perdue and some Republican lawmakers had sought. Perdue was able to tighten some rules unilaterally, but it’s up to Congress to agree on any major changes. As we head into 2019, Georgia lawmakers are still scrambling to attach emergency Hurricane Michael cleanup money to a stopgap spending bill that would end the current government shutdown. They say the money is needed to help local farmers kneecapped by the October storm resolve their old debts ahead of the 2019 planting season.
Other burning questions
Now it’s time for the lightning round. Earlier this year we asked about Democrats’ impeachment debate, Georgia judicial nominees, the Martin Luther King Jr. historic site and U.S. Sen. David Perdue.
Georgia’s Democratic lawmakers – and congressional hopefuls – largely sidestepped the debate about whether to impeach Trump, even as proponent Tom Steyer made his case to voters in Atlanta this spring. Most said they wanted to see what was included in special counsel Bob Mueller’s final report.
Nearly all of Trump’s Georgia judicial nominees were confirmed by the Senate this year, with a few notable delays. Eleventh circuit court nominee Elizabeth Branch was cleared in February, as was Britt Grant in July after a bit of drama involving outgoing U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake. The Senate also confirmed several Georgia-based district court picks, including Michael Brown, Tripp Self, Stan Baker and Billy Ray. One Georgia judicial pick, DeKalb County Superior Court Judge J.P. Boulee, still awaits confirmation.
Georgia got its first national historic park in January after Trump signed U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ bill upgrading federal protections for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site near downtown Atlanta. The bill was non-controversial, but Trump’s signature was not viewed as guaranteed given his strained relationship with Lewis.
Even though the immigration plan Perdue co-authored fell short in the Senate, he continued to fortify his ties with Trump. He’s sought to broker shutdown-ending talks between the White House and Senate Democrats in recent days as he gears up for his reelection battle in 2020.