Some key issues in 2014 legislative session

Issue

Budget

Background

Lawmakers head into the session greeted by relatively good financial news for the first time since the Great Recession. Tax collections are up, the state has at least $900 million in reserves, the federal government shutdown is old news and it’s an election year for Gov. Nathan Deal, so at least a few budget goodies will be doled out. For the first time in years, agencies won’t face cutbacks, while teachers may get a cost-of-living raise. All eyes will be on Deal’s revenue projection for the upcoming year: If it’s optimistic, there will be more for budget-writers to spend.

Prospects

Will pass. The state constitution requires lawmakers to pass a balanced budget every year.

Key players

Deal, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville; House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn; House and Senate.

James Salzer

Issue

New cities

Background

On the heels of the creation of Brookhaven in 2012, at least four citizen groups sprung up wanting their own cities in DeKalb County. Advocates for the cities of Briarcliff, Lakeside, Tucker and Stonecrest each raised the needed $30,000 for feasibility studies, to show the municipalities would make financial sense. However, the studies for Briarcliff, Lakeside and Tucker show overlapping borders over the commercial Northlake area — and no clear solution as the Legislature readies for the session. Likewise, Stonecrest may be battling the existing small city of Lithonia for access to a key industrial area.

Prospects

Uncertain. Although cityhood backers insist they will win over lawmakers, the GOP-controlled General Assembly has little reason to decide boundaries for cities that local residents cannot agree on, especially in more heavily Republican areas such as Lakeside and Tucker. Democrats in the Legislature, who have historically opposed new cities, are behind some of the would-be cities but may instead take up DeKalb County government’s request for a halt on new cities to allow for countywide planning.

Key players

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston, who will help their chambers decide whether to vote on new cities; state Rep. Amy Carter, R-Valdosta, who heads the House panel that will conduct hearings on cityhood; interim DeKalb CEO Lee May, who is expected to ask for a two-year moratorium on new cities.

April Hunt

Issue

Guns

Background

The failure last year to loosen firearms restrictions in Georgia went right down to the wire: A proposed compromise from competing Senate and House gun bills hit lawmakers’ desks less than an hour before the legislative session came to a frantic end March 28. Now, proponents must bridge a rift that torpedoed last year’s bill over whether to allow students to carry concealed weapons on the more than 50 campuses of the state’s university and technical colleges — a prospect staunchly opposed by the state’s powerful Board of Regents and other higher education leaders. The proposal would also loosen restrictions in other areas, such as allowing guns in churches.

Prospects

Excellent. Gun-rights advocates are eager to use their majority in the General Assembly to burnish Georgia’s reputation as one of the friendliest states to gun owners. Oh, it’s also an election year.

Key players

Gov. Nathan Deal, who’s had a hand behind the scenes in helping craft a deal. In the Senate: Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, who sponsored the primary bill, Senate Bill 101. In the House: Rules Chairman John Meadows, R-Calhoun; Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell; and Rep. Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper.

Kristina Torres

Issue

Teacher raises

Background

Many public school teachers in Georgia haven’t had a pay raise in years. That could change now that state revenue projections aren’t looking as grim as they did in recent years. More money to spend increases the likelihood that teachers will get a raise, but which teachers could benefit could become an important question. The state could approve raises for state-funded teacher positions. Education officials fear such a move could leave out teachers whose salaries aren’t funded by the state. Their hope is that the state comes closer to providing districts with all of the money Georgia’s funding formula calls for them to receive. That would allow districts to give raises that would reach more teachers.

Prospects

Teachers seem likely to get a raise of some sort. The question is which teachers — and how much.

Key players

Gov. Nathan Deal, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, House Appropriations Chairman Terry England.

Wayne Washington

Issue

Braves tax credit

Background

The Atlanta Braves’ stunning decision to build a $672 million new stadium in Cobb County could have legislative implications. Expect supporters to push for tax breaks on construction materials and infrastructure investments and perhaps even tourist incentives to help smooth the process.

Prospects

Lawmakers and lobbyists consider a tax break push likely, but the question is when. Some lawmakers fear a vote this session could tar them in an election year, and it may be too early in the process for the franchise to cobble together a push.

Key players

State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, helped broker the Cobb deal and could emerge as the biggest legislative champion for the stadium push.

Greg Bluestein

Issue

Child deaths

Background

A series of articles in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the heavily publicized deaths of two metro Atlanta children in 2013 brought the most attention in years to Georgia’s child-protection system. State caseworkers failed to detect or failed to act on warning signs that foretold at least 25 deaths in 2012, the AJC reported. But an ever-expanding shroud of secrecy has complicated attempts to assess the performance of the state Division of Family and Children Services.

Prospects

Gov. Nathan Deal has said his budget proposal will include $27 million over three years to hire more than 500 additional child-protection workers and supervisors — an increase of 26 percent. Deal also wants to privatize some aspects of the state’s foster care system. Proposed legislation would open up DFCS files on children’s deaths and revamp the Child Fatality Review Panel.

Key players

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, the sponsor of the bill lessening confidentiality in DFCS, has worked effectively with Republicans on earlier child-protection bills. Sharon Hill, who became the DFCS director last summer, is a strong proponent for data-driven reform in the long-troubled agency.

Alan Judd

Issue

Fulton County tax collections

Background

Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has become Georgia’s top-paid elected officer by pocketing fees for collecting taxes, and he’s also become something of a Teflon man as repeated efforts to rein him in have failed. New efforts are likely this year in the wake of several Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigations into his income and practices.

Prospects

Excellent — for at least a partial pay cut. Ferdinand seized on a state law dating back to the Great Depression to start billing the county for the 50-cent fees, and state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, said the old law should be easy to repeal. His most recent attempt, House Bill 346, would make Fulton’s tax commissioner an appointed position again in 2017, serving at the will of the County Commission and weakening his standing to collect fees from cities. The bill will be back in play this year, having stalled in the Senate last year because some lawmakers felt uncomfortable about taking a choice away from voters. Also likely to be floated this session: banning the sale of property tax liens altogether, or barring quick lien sales to benefit debt buyers.

Key players

Ferdinand; Willard; state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, who last year expressed concern about making the tax commissioner appointed; the Georgia Association of Tax Officials, which lobbied against a prior effort to curb Ferdinand’s pay because it would have weakened the powers of tax commissioners statewide; Vesta Holdings, which lobbied against a prior attempt to stop the sale of liens.

Johnny Edwards

Issue

State elections

Background

A federal judge ordered Georgia to hold its primary elections for U.S. House and Senate on May 20, more than two months earlier than in the past. The order came over Justice Department concerns about overseas voters and military personnel having sufficient time to return absentee ballots. State officials now will consider moving primaries for state offices to the same day. Such a move, however, carries risks for incumbents. State law prevents them from raising money while the Legislature is in session. That leaves little time for campaigning and fundraising between the end of the session and May 20, in a year when several high-profile elections, including governor, are scheduled to take place.

Prospects

Very good. There’s little interest in having two separate dates for candidate qualifying, primaries and runoffs.

Key players

Gov. Nathan Deal, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge; David Shafer, R-Duluth, president pro tem of the Senate.

Aaron Gould Sheinin