One of the most important seasons of the year is upon us.
On Monday, the Georgia Legislature kicks off its session, and our political leaders will begin the lawmaking that has a big effect on the lives of Georgians.
In today’s print edition and at MyAJC.com, you’ll find out what’s really going on under the Gold Dome this year.
Our capitol staff has been working and planning for months to make sure we take you beyond the daily bluster and provide the “real” stories.
The information we provide can empower you, too. You’ll see how you can contact your representatives, and make your voice heard in other ways.
We’ve also done our annual poll of Georgians, which reveals what you want your representatives to work on this year.
We use the poll to help differentiate between the hot-button political issues that some politicians like to spend their time on and what voters think is most important. The results also help us understand how voters really feel versus how politicians might characterize the views of citizens.
You can find extensive coverage of that poll online or in print. Here are a few highlights:
- Forty-four percent of Georgians oppose another attempt to pass a religious liberty bill, while 40 percent say they would support it. More about this later, but the religious liberty debate is likely to be a major preoccupation for the Legislature this year.
- Fifty-four percent oppose the idea of a campus gun bill, and 43 percent support it.
- Fifty-six percent favor allowing casino gambling in the state, while 38 percent oppose the idea.
- The single most important issue facing Georgia today, according to those polled? The economy and jobs (29 percent), followed by the quality of schools and education (10 percent) and crime and public safety (8 percent).
Even though it doesn’t top the list with most voters, no issue inspires more partisan fervor than the religious liberty debate, and you can expect that to happen again this year.
As our reporter Aaron Gould Sheinin wrote last week, all involved believe several bills could emerge during the session despite Gov. Nathan Deal's veto last year.
One of the leading advocates is Sen. Josh McKoon. The Columbus Republican expects both the House and Senate to introduce bills.
Gould Sheinin wrote: “Examples of the bill’s necessity are plentiful, McKoon says, and points to instances where Christian college students have been ordered to end public displays of faith and examples of counties trying to block Muslims from building mosques. The bill’s opponents, however, note that each of those examples were later settled without legislation.”
It’s a polarizing issue, and Georgia business leaders have been clear in their opposition to the idea. They cite North Carolina. Similar legislation and brutal political battles have been blamed for loss of jobs, depressed tourism and the loss of several pro and college sports championship games.
The business community would rather see Georgia tackle issues that enhance the state’s ability to attract jobs and growth, and they fear another religious liberty battle will provide national headlines that hurt those efforts.
It’s just the nature of the legislature, it seems, to preoccupy itself with hot-button issues that make for good politics, but struggle to make progress on matters of long-term interest to the economic health of the state.
For example, Georgia is still engaged in an all-out war over water with Florida and Alabama. Questions and risks abound in the decades-long dispute that puts the state's water supply at risk. A drought last year brought the issue back into the conversation. But still, no one seems to anticipate any serious progress on the matter this session.
Instead, we could see another run at the campus carry bill, which would allow guns on Georgia’s public college campuses. The governor vetoed the bill last year, and the university system opposes the idea.
And while education is a top item for citizens, voters rejected Gov. Deal’s attempt to pass a measure that would allow the state to take over public schools it deemed as failing.
That defeat hasn’t deterred Gov. Deal in his determination to move forward on his education agenda.
As he told our Greg Bluestein last week:
“Sometimes it takes more than one bite of the apple to get it right. Sometimes there are literally more ways than one to skin the cat, and we’re still trying to skin the cat of chronically failing schools.”
Another hot-button issue expected to emerge this year: immigration.
The AJC's Jeremy Redmon reported last week that at least four bills are in the works.
Redmon wrote: “Battling over immigration is a perennial exercise in the Republican-controlled Legislature in Georgia, a deep red state that is growing more diverse with immigrants and refugees from around the globe.”
The bills would keep Georgia from accepting federal refugee resettlement funding; impose a fee for out-of-state wire transfers that many immigrants use to send money home to their families; cut state funding to private universities that don't comply with immigration laws; and prohibit students without appropriate immigration status from receiving lower in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.
As you can imagine, with all the moving parts at the Gold Dome, it’s not easy to keep track of everything, and to provide the kind of reporting your subscription helps pay for.
Susan Potter is the editor who leads our efforts at the capitol, and she’s focused on providing information on things worth knowing about.
“We’ve all been transfixed lately by what’s happening in Washington, but the choices made by state lawmakers here have a more direct impact on our lives,” Potter said. “What they do — and don’t do — during their 40 work days will affect the quality of schools, the availability of health care, the roads we drive on and much, much, more. You need to know what they are up to — after all, it’s your government. And it’s our job, our responsibility, to keep you informed and hold them to account.”
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