Jared Williams, right, throws a large pile of paper in the air next to his father, state Sen. Michael Williams, R-Cumming, as the Georgia General Assembly’s 2018 session came to a close early Friday. PHOTO / JASON GETZ

End of session begins final sprint in Georgia governor’s race

The end of the legislative session last week sprung candidates for Georgia governor into a final sprint for the primaries.

And what passed over the past three weeks — as well as what was left behind — could define the final stretch of the race.

Over the next seven weeks, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle is sure to trumpet tax cuts and the surprise plan to boost the state’s funding for k-12 schools in his bid for governor. And the four other leading GOP candidates will assail the Republican front-runner for not securing a “religious liberty” measure or other items on the conservative wish list.

The two Democratic contenders will depict the 40-day legislative session as another lost opportunity to expand the state’s Medicaid program, help the state’s largest private employer and boost the HOPE scholarship. They’ll also sharpen the attacks against each other by highlighting their policy rifts in some of Georgia’s biggest debates.

The 2018 Georgia legislative session is now in the books as the clock hit midnight or slightly passed it on the 40th day. The day — known as Sine Die — usually features grueling debates, dealmaking and occasionally some shenanigans.

And voters are about to hear plenty more about the contests. This new phase of the race to the May 22 primary will also unleash millions of dollars in a wave of TV and radio advertising. And it will free several candidates who were bound up at the Capitol to fully commit to the campaign trail — and resume raising cash for their campaigns.

They could be buoyed by votes last week aimed at helping GOP incumbents. Gov. Nathan Deal has already signed into law an income tax break that Republicans tout as historic. And two major developments in the session’s final days were aimed, at least in part, at undercutting Democrats.

The governor pumped more than $166 million in extra funds into the state’s education system, fully funding the program for the first time since at least 2002. Democrats have blistered Deal and his allies for years for continuing “austerity cuts” to the education funding formula, and the move forced even his fiercest rivals to give credit to the governor.

And lawmakers struck a late compromise over a plan that could lead to a significant expansion of transit, long a priority for Democrats as well as many suburban Republicans who see access to MARTA as key to attracting new jobs.

The election-year maneuvering led to a rare sense of bonhomie among Georgia’s top Republican leaders, who have often clashed over contentious legislation. Earlier this year, Cagle maneuvered Deal into abandoning an incentive for Delta Air Lines that the governor cast as essential. Last week, Deal moved to put the spat behind him.

As lawmakers prepared to hit the campaign trail, Deal declared the past three months “one of the more successful sessions in modern times” and left them with some parting advice.

“If you can’t get re-elected on the things we did this year,” he told legislators, “you probably don’t need to be here in the first place.”

Health care, guns and taxes

Democrats will take a message of their own with them into the final stretch of the race: This session was a small step in the right direction.

Former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and ex-state Rep. Stacey Evans both praised the GOP-controlled Legislature for different reasons.

Abrams singled out an update to Georgia’s decades-old adoption rules and an overhaul of the cash bail system. Evans was thankful a measure that would have let adoption agencies refuse to place children with gay couples was scuttled in the House.

But both also used the session to revive calls for an expansion of Medicaid and other priorities. Abrams will step up calls to “stop the diversion of public school dollars to private interests.” Evans will intensify her vow to “fix the damage done by the devastating 2011 HOPE cuts” that deeply reduced awards for the scholarship.

And both rallied behind Delta after Cagle made good on his promise to “kill” a tax break for the airline when it ended a marketing relationship with the National Rifle Association. Each said the dispute shows Republicans are willing to risk the state’s relationship with a hometown corporate giant to satisfy a gun rights group.

But the tax plan — which shaves the top income tax rate from 6 percent to 5.5 percent — is a trickier issue. It was designed to wipe out a massive potential increase in income tax revenue — an unintended consequence of the $1.5 trillion federal tax cut.

Abrams wants to reverse the tax plan and fund an expansion of Medicaid with some of the estimated $500 million in extra revenue that will be cut over the next five years. Her campaign said it favors targeted investments in health care and “a responsible tax structure” to grow the economy.

“That’s not what the Trump or Georgia Republican tax plans actually do,” said her campaign spokeswoman.

Evans wants to keep the breaks intact and find money for an expansion through cutting unnecessary programs in the budget.

Conservative crackdowns

Republicans face an intensifying fight to appeal to their party’s base.

Over the past few months, GOP candidates angled to outflank each other with aggressive stances on illegal immigration and vows to promote socially conservative legislation. And their opening moves after the session suggest that’s likely to escalate.

State Sen. Michael Williams spent the final days of the session unsuccessfully trying to tack his stalled policy proposals to unrelated legislation. Hours after lawmakers returned home, Williams lashed out at Cagle and other Senate leaders for not embracing measures calling for term limits and police pay hikes.

“You would think that with a Republican-controlled state Senate, most of these bills would have sailed through,” he said. The “sad truth,” he added, is Senate leaders wouldn’t allow it.

Secretary of State Brian Kemp has increasingly emphasized his stance on illegal immigration, including a recent pledge to create a state database to track unauthorized immigrants who have committed crimes. That proposal quickly became fodder for a round of TV ads.

Even though he played no role in what the House or Senate did, Kemp claimed credit for some of the initiatives that lawmakers adopted, saying he’s “encouraged that many under the Gold Dome are paying attention and following my lead.”

Other candidates used their perch outside of the Gold Dome to try to gain traction on different fronts.

A vow to eliminate the state income tax and cut Georgia’s budget is the linchpin to former state Sen. Hunter Hill’s platform. And he also has taken to the campaign trail with a plan to rewrite the decades-old k-12 funding formula — a campaign promise that eluded Deal.

And first-time candidate Clay Tippins, a business executive, has emerged as one of Cagle’s loudest critics. In repeated visits to the statehouse, Tippins has blamed Cagle for resistance to expanding the medical marijuana program and said the lieutenant governor threatened to block legislation proposed by his supporters. Cagle denied those claims.

He’s also hinted that he will push to make public sexual harassment claims against lawmakers, even scheduling a press conference on the issue before postponing the event.

The attacks are likely a taste of what’s to come for Cagle, who has a commanding lead in public and private polling and a campaign haul of nearly $7 million. At this stage, his Republican opponents hope that trying to paint him as a weak-kneed political insider might be their best chance to block him from an outright primary victory in May.

Expect Cagle to respond by turning his campaign trail appearances into his version of a highlight reel of the session.

“From our point of view, we’re in a very good position. From a legislative standpoint, this was a great success. Good conservative policies continue to win,” Cagle said. “And economically, Georgia is poised for even greater success going forward.”

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