Lawmakers confront host of issues

When Georgia’s state legislators gather Monday, they’ll confront a wide variety of troubles linked by one deep problem: money, or the lack of it. They’ll be asked to pony up for everything from roads to schools to health care for poor children. Here are some big issues legislators are expected to face with during their 2009 session.


State lawmakers face a budget shortfall of more than $2 billion this fiscal year, and possibly worse problems next year. So any tax cuts likely will be minimal because the state probably can’t afford to be giving away money.

Lawmakers likely will pass legislation putting a cap on increases in property assessments. Holding down assessment increases could hold down property tax increases, although some local government officials are likely to object because that would limit their revenue.

There will also probably be dozens of tax breaks proposed for businesses. Most of them won’t pass, but at least a few of them could get through by the end of the session.

On the flip side, proposals will be pushed to increase cigarette taxes and some lawmakers likely will call for putting the sales taxes back on groceries. However, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the Senate’s president who is running for governor in 2010, has vowed to oppose any tax increase.

—James Salzer


Metro businesses, statewide economic development advocates and others once again are asking the Legislature for more transportation money.

Last year, one plan would have allowed multi-county districts to adopt penny sales taxes to fund transportation projects in their communities. That measure passed the state House following an impassioned speech by Speaker Glenn Richardson. It then failed in the Senate by three votes.

A similar plan is being debated this year, and already seems caught up in politics between the two chambers. In addition, proponents aren’t thrilled about asking for money in the middle of a recession, although they released a poll Thursday saying the public wants a vote on transportation money.

DOT also is asking the Legislature to allow members of the state Transportation Board to collect more money for board-related work. Members don’t draw salaries, but they receive $105 per diems for transportation-related work up to 60 days a year. They plan to ask to lift the 60-day limit.

— Ariel Hart

Housing crisis

With the housing crisis creating record numbers of foreclosures and evictions, lawmakers and activists alike are investigating what can be done through the Legislature to help.

The chair of the Senate Banking Committee, William Hamrick, said he’s spent the past several months meeting with folks around the state who want something done to help homeowners, landlords, tenants and financial institutions.

Some suggestions being floated would slow Georgia’s quick foreclosure process and provide additional protections to tenants who might otherwise be evicted.

Several organizations also are seeking protections for renters who are evicted when a landlord faces foreclosure even though the tenant has paid the rent.

Hamrick, a Carrollton Republican, said there’s a lot of debate and many suggestions being floated, but he’s not sure what will emerge during the session.

“We are trying to look for opportunities where we can help,” Hamrick said.

— D.L. Bennett

Criminal justice

Just days after Fulton County courthouse killer Brian Nichols escaped the death penalty, lawmakers moved to allow death to be imposed when juries cannot reach unanimous verdicts.

State Reps. Tim Bearden (R-Villa Rica) and David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) are co-sponsoring a bill that would allow a judge to impose the death penalty, provided a jury’s last vote was at least 10-2 for death.

Under Georgia law, a judge must give a sentence of life in prison or life without parole when a jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict. Nichols’ jury deadlocked in a 9-3 vote for death.

Separately, Sen. Preston Smith (R-Rome) wants district attorneys to be able to seek life-without-parole sentences in aggravated murder cases. Now, DAs can seek life without parole for murder only when they seek the death penalty or when a defendant had a prior violent felony conviction.

Supporters of Smith’s proposal say it will spare DAs from having to pursue costly death-penalty trials in less-heinous cases and help eliminate the arbitrary application of Georgia’s death penalty.

— Bill Rankin


After two years of contentious debate on firearms issues, the 2009 session could be quieter.

While Sen. Mitch Seabaugh (R-Sharpsburg) has had a study committee examining revisions to the state’s concealed carry laws, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said last week that he has “no appetite” for such legislation in 2009.

But Seabaugh plans to press ahead. He could propose legislation allowing concealed weapons in churches, university campuses and other public places.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Douglas (R-Social Circle) has pre-filed legislation eliminating the requirement that concealed weapons be carried in holsters. Sen. Ronald Ramsey (D-Lithonia) has pre-filed legislation that would require all handgun ammunition sold in Georgia to be coded for identification.

No firearms bills have been pre-filed in the House, but expect some similar efforts to expand the concealed carry laws in that chamber, too.

— Aaron Gould Sheinin

Health care

Filling a $208 million Medicaid shortfall and funding a statewide trauma network will top the General Assembly’s health care agenda.

Perdue’s office recently has floated the idea of assessing a fee on acute-care hospitals based on their revenues. Coupled with a levy on health insurers, the resulting money could eliminate the deficit for government programs Medicaid and PeachCare while also supplying needed funds for trauma care, which could help Grady Memorial Hospital and other trauma facilities.

Health insurers and hospitals, though, are expected to oppose the levies and support other sources of new revenue.

Georgia legislators also will tackle the reorganization of the state Department of Human Resources, and are expected to question the state’s plan to privatize its psychiatric hospitals. Possible revisions to Georgia’s 2005 tort reform law also may be introduced.

— Andy Miller


Expect another voucher bill to be debated by the Legislature this year. The state provides vouchers to students with disabilities; Senate Pro Tem President Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) is proposing another bill to allow more students to become eligible for taxpayer-funded scholarships to attend private schools. Details are still being worked out.

Also, an education study group assembled by Gov. Sonny Perdue is recommending a systematic approach to allow more high school juniors and seniors can take college-level lessons if they’re academically ready, said Dean Alford, who co-chaired the group. This could be done through dual-enrollment programs with local colleges and expanding the number of college-level Advanced Placement classes schools offer, he said.

Other education-related topics include expanding virtual programs, which let students learn on-line, and proposals to allow districts to recruit teachers in critical areas like math and science by paying them more than other new teachers.

— Laura Diamond