Budget/taxes: Gov.-elect Brian Kemp’s first state budget could top a record $27 billion, but there are plenty of questions, including whether he’ll be able to keep his campaign promise to raise teacher pay $5,000 and whether Georgia’s economy will continue on its long winning streak. Kemp also promised to cut the state income tax rate and push a constitutional amendment to cap state spending. However, the General Assembly just cut the tax rate last year, and many lawmakers are dubious about an artificial spending cap.
Key players: Kemp; Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville; House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn; House Ways and Means Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla; and Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome.
Prospects: Passing the state budget is actually the only thing lawmakers are mandated to do every year, according to the Georgia Constitution.
Education: Kemp promised teachers a $5,000 pay raise. That commitment, by his campaign’s estimate, would cost about $600 million a year, but that wouldn’t cover the associated benefits that rise with pay. Whether Kemp will have the political capital to pursue other significant education policies — he pledged to overhaul the decades-old school funding formula, for instance — remains to be seen.
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Key players: The chairmen of the respective education committees for the House and the Senate, but both bodies are leaderless. Incoming Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and veteran House Speaker David Ralston, both Republicans, will play a key role in filling those vacuums.
Voting: Paper ballots could replace Georgia’s 16-year-old electronic voting machines. Without a paper ballot, election officials lack a physical record to verify results stored digitally on hard drives and memory cards. State lawmakers plan to consider switching to either paper ballots filled out by hand or paper ballots printed by a computer. Hand-marked paper ballots would cost roughly $30 million, and ballot-printing machines would cost well over $100 million.
Key players: Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger; Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem; Sen. Bruce Thompson, R-White; and Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta.
Prospects: Good. State legislators want to buy a new voting system this year after a federal judge said the state’s electronic voting machines pose a “concrete risk” because they could be vulnerable to hacking, tampering or malfunction.
Medical marijuana: Legislation will be introduced to allow medical marijuana cultivation, manufacturing and distribution to registered medical marijuana patients. Georgia’s medical marijuana law has been in place since 2015, but it remains illegal for patients to buy or transport the drug. A state-run system to grow and sell medical marijuana would give patients a legal way to obtain a medicine they say helps treat severe seizures and deadly cancer.
Key players: Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan; Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville; and Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell.
Prospects: Decent. A growing number of lawmakers in the Republican-led General Assembly support state controls for distribution of medical marijuana.
Gaming: For years, gaming advocates have pushed for the legalization of casinos and horse racing in Georgia. A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling also opened up the opportunity to allow sports betting in Georgia and across the country. Supporters of the various forms of gaming believe having the new administration gives them a chance to see exactly where Kemp stands on each issue.
Key players: Kemp; House Economic Development and Tourism Chairman Ron Stephens; Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta; and the casino industry
Prospects: Uncertain which, if any, form of gaming gets approved
Gun control: Gun rights supporters are excited about the opportunities of having Kemp in the Governor’s Mansion — someone who ran touting his support of the Second Amendment. Kemp said he supports approving the permitless carrying of handguns and one lawmaker already has filed such legislation. Gun control advocates feel emboldened by last year’s federal outlawing of bump stocks — a mechanism that gives weapons rapid-fire shooting capabilities. Still, many hope to close what they call a loophole in the reporting of people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution. Current law allows Georgia to purge the records after five years, allowing the purchase of firearms. A version of the bill cleared the House last year but stalled in the Senate.
Key players: Kemp; House Public Safety Chairman Alan Powell; Ralston, Duncan, and Georgia Carry
Religious liberty: Kemp said during his campaign that he would support a “religious liberty” bill as long as it was identical to a similar federal bill that became law in 1993. Opponents of such a proposal say it would amount to state-sanctioned discrimination by religious organizations against the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. They also worry that such a measure could motivate businesses to locate elsewhere. But supporters say it would not be discriminatory, and they believe religious organizations need greater legal protections to exercise their beliefs.
Key players: Kemp; Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone; Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick; the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce
Health care: After years of talk, this could be the year that the Legislature takes action on two major issues, Certificate of Need, or CON, and whether to seek a “waiver” drawing down federal health care funding for those who can’t afford it. Within the health care business world the CON fight is an all-consuming battle, with the potential to suck oxygen away from everything. CON is a regulation that limits what kind of new health care businesses can be built, in order to protect hospitals; businesses say it stifles choice. A waiver could expand Medicaid coverage in Georgia or just stabilize the current Affordable Care Act insurance market.
Key players: Kemp; House CON study committee leaders Richard Smith, R-Columbus and Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta; Senate study committee Chairman Ben Watson, R-Savannah; the chairmen of the Health and Human Services Committee of each chamber (In the House that’s Cooper; in the Senate a new lieutenant governor may propose new chairmen, but it is currently Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford); Cancer Treatment Centers of America; the Georgia Hospital Association
Prospects: Good for something to pass on CON, the question is how far it will go. Prospects for a waiver this session are uncertain.