Lawmakers will return to Georgia’s Capitol on Monday to begin the 2020 session of the General Assembly. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Election year fuels potential for fireworks in Georgia Legislature

The legislative session that starts Monday opens at the dawn of a wild election year that adds even more unpredictability to an already combustible environment at the Statehouse.

Top leaders return to the Gold Dome with what seems like a watered-down agenda devoid of many of the contentious topics that have dominated past legislative sessions. Gov. Brian Kemp has suggested that battles over social legislation are in the rear-view mirror, for now at least.

And after the final gavel that will mark the climax of the last day of the legislative session in roughly three months, lawmakers could conceivably look back and remark how relatively tame it was, focusing mostly on debate over Kemp’s plan to shave Georgia’s budget.

But that’s not likely.

No, not with every legislative seat — 180 in the House, 56 in the Senate — up for grabs in November. No, not with Republicans wary of primary challenges from rivals who say they aren’t conservative enough, and Democrats looking over their shoulder at liberals who could make a similar case.

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No, not with dozens of suburban GOP incumbents in the crosshairs from Democrats eager to flip their seats — and maybe the chamber — in November. Not with a handful of ambitious legislators who are seeking higher office and are eager to use their platform to raise their profile.

And not with the example of last year’s debate over anti-abortion restrictions still on lawmakers’ minds. That started with a push for a weaker version of legislation but quickly morphed into a headline-grabbing fight that sparked protests, legal action and boycott threats.

“Every session there’s something that pops up we just didn’t think would be that big at the start of the year. Delta one year. Ethics reform another year. Sexual predators,” Kemp, who as governor will shape the session, said as he ran through an internal list of hot-button fights from years gone by.

“Who knows what other issues people are going to bring up? But I try not to weigh into that too much,” he said.

Pressure cooker

Every legislative session is shaped by behind-the-scenes maneuvering from ambitious politicians eager to make their names and position themselves for another election. But this one features a particularly volatile mix.

On the heels of a divisive debate over abortion restrictions last year, bitter fights over tax policies and social issues that party leaders were previously eager to ignore could return.

Kemp is under pressure to meet campaign pledges to expand gun rights and crack down on illegal immigration, and GOP leaders wary about Democratic gains might see 2020 as their last shot at enacting long-sought legislation.

“If you’re a Republican who narrowly survived, you’re looking over your shoulder,” said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist who specializes in Southern politics.

Meanwhile, lawmakers running for higher office have each decided to stay in the Legislature while they wage their campaigns, injecting even more politics in the session, which typically lasts from January to early April.

Hot-button debates will surely resurface. A Republican-led push to give the state more control over Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport will return, and House Speaker David Ralston’s lukewarm support for a constitutional amendment to legalize gambling gave hope to casino supporters. Kemp’s budget cut proposal will trigger a legislative tug of war throughout the session.

Other fights could return in more unorthodox ways, tacked on to innocuous-sounding legislation. The governor’s plan to overhaul foster care could morph into a fight over same-sex marriage. His push to crack down on gangs could wind up including new state sanctions on immigrants in the country illegally.

“In an election year, lawmakers have a choice: avoid a controversial issue to avoid a tough vote, or push forward on those proposals just to fire up the base,” said Brian Robinson, a veteran Republican strategist and former aide to Gov. Nathan Deal.

Adding to the political pressure cooker: The session is smack in the middle of the presidential primary contest, held in Georgia on March 24, and as Georgia’s twin U.S. Senate races take shape. As some of the biggest votes of the session take place, White House hopefuls could be swarming the state.

“There’s a higher level of tension because Gov. Kemp is exerting more authority,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Atlanta. “There’s a higher level of tension based on serious issues about the budget. And there’s a higher level of tension based on anxiety that many Georgians have over the election.”

‘The unforeseen’

There might not be anyone at the Capitol today who has witnessed the ebb and flow of political cycles in Georgia quite like state Rep. Calvin Smyre.

The dean of the Georgia House, the Columbus Democrat is entering his 46th session this week. Ever the optimist, he offers a few predictions: The session will be shorter, with lawmakers antsy to get back on the campaign trail. And that means some of the tougher battles could get the short shrift.

“The budget will take out all the oxygen. I know that an election year makes things more hectic, but I just don’t think there’s an appetite for the big fight,” he said, then quickly added: “Sessions are full of the unforeseen. There’s going to be testy issues, don’t get me wrong.”

He ticked through several issues that could trigger such a fight: He’s one of the main opponents of legislation that could put Hartsfield-Jackson under state control. And a newly released audit could fuel attempts to scale back Georgia’s vaunted film tax credit.

Other divisive debates could pop out of nowhere, as lawmakers from both parties face the temptation to energize their base with sweeping legislation that could go no further in the Legislature than the clerk’s office — but still capture national headlines merely by being introduced.

“You’re going to see partisan issues brought up,” said state Rep. Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican first elected 30 years ago. “The minority always tries to throw things out and make the majority look bad. Democrats are going to try to find issues to make issues out of. And vice versa.”

A ‘dance’

It’s why even before the session started, conservative Republicans proposed bills making it harder for some transgender athletes to compete and condemn the impeachment of President Donald Trump. And why Democrats proposed legislation seeking to legalize marijuana, repeal anti-abortion legislation and ban certain firearms.

And it’s probably why every sitting legislator seeking higher office is choosing to fill out his or her term rather than resign, even if it means less time on the campaign trail or working the phones to raise cash.

That includes all three state lawmakers running for the same Gwinnett County-based U.S. House seat — two Democrats and one Republican — who have decided to stay in office. Several other lawmakers are considering a campaign for the seat held by retiring U.S. Rep. Tom Graves. And one or two Democrats are weighing a challenge to U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

Much is riding on the session. Democrats aim to flip 16 House seats to gain control of the chamber for the first time in nearly two decades — guaranteeing them a say in what could be an epic debate next year over redrawing political maps, as well as a check on the GOP grip on the state Senate and governor’s office.

And Republicans hope to defend those seats by fortifying Atlanta’s suburbs, particularly the communities ringing the northern side of the city where Democrats made major gains in 2018. Both parties have unveiled multimillion-dollar efforts to target each other’s seats.

Many of those vulnerable Republicans have difficult decisions to make: Do they lean toward the center to woo independents or veer toward the party’s conservative flank to rev up the base and ward off primary challenges?

“You’ve got to dance with the one that brung you,” said Jerry Henry, the head of the Georgia Carry gun rights group. “The way I see it is they’ve got two choices. If they turn liberal to go after those votes, they’re going lose the voters that put them in office. It’s up to them to decide which voters they want to lose.”

They could be confronted with those choices fast. Among the difficult debates lawmakers will soon tackle is whether to cut the state’s top income tax rate by a quarter-percentage point to 5.5% — a move that could win them praise from conservatives for saving taxpayer dollars but also take hundreds of millions more out of the state’s coffers.

“No Republican leader wants their members to vote against a tax cut. But how loud will the voices be calling for it when they’re all worried about drawing a primary opponent?” said Robinson, the strategist. “When you’re facing a budget shortfall, the anxiety and the infighting go up.”

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