Top issues to watch at the 2016 Georgia General Assembly

Staff writers Greg Bluestein, Janel Davis, Arielle Kass, Mark Niesse, Bill Rankin and James Salzer contributed to this article.

Education: Gov. Nathan Deal is building his second term around fundamental changes to how the state operates and pays for its public education system. But it's unclear how far he's willing to go this year. He's called for "merit pay" for teachers and an overhaul of the complex school funding formula. Both have already sparked stiff opposition. Deal narrowly won the two-thirds majorities needed last year for legislative approval of a constitutional amendment to create a special state-run school district for repeatedly failing schools. Opponents of the proposed Opportunity School District may try to scuttle the constitutional amendment during this legislative session, but their chances are remote. The amendment is set to appear on the ballot in November.

Budget and taxes: Deal is expected to propose a $23 billion-plus budget that pours a lot of money into education, health care and construction projects. As always, the budget will provide the clearest sign of the governor's priorities. With elections coming up this year, lawmakers may talk about major tax changes, such as a reduction in state income taxes. But it's more likely they will pass the same kind of special-interest tax breaks they typically approve at the end of each session.

It’s unclear whether anything in the budget or any of the tax bills will help the Atlanta Braves pay for the team’s new stadium in Cobb County. The state borrowed more than $40 million the past two years for a parking deck that will be used by fans at the new Atlanta Falcons stadium.

Criminal justice: Legislation will be introduced once again this year to further Deal's ambitious criminal justice overhaul, now in its fifth year. In recent years, his criminal justice legislation has been enacted in a series of landslide votes. This year's version will try to fix problems with the First Offender Act, making sure that defendants who successfully complete their sentences have their convictions sealed from public view. It would let drug offenders keep their driver's licenses and receive food stamps. And it would allow a limited number of inmates serving decades-long prison terms to become eligible for parole. Members of Deal's criminal justice reform council, who are drafting recommendations that will be sent to the Legislature, said they hope this year's legislation gives offenders re-entering society a better chance to find a job and a roof over their heads so they will be less likely to offend again.

Religious liberty: Senate Bill 129, the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was at the center of one of the fiercest debates at the Capitol in 2015 and is expected back before lawmakers again this year. Its chief sponsor, Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, and other supporters say it is a new line of defense to protect people of any religion from interference. Opponents say it is a discriminatory end run on the First Amendment that could allow business owners to cite religious beliefs to deny gay people service. House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, is sponsoring the Pastor Protection Act, which some see as a sell-able — if largely symbolic — alternative. Ralston's bill would declare that a pastor could not be required to perform a same-sex marriage or any ceremony that violates his or her religious beliefs. Two business groups have released studies showing passage of McKoon's bill could have a negative impact on Georgia's economy of $1 billion to $2 billion, a claim McKoon denies.

DeKalb County governance: This unique and powerful CEO form of government could be changed. Some DeKalb lawmakers want a county manager form of government, although others want a more deliberate review of the county government structure.

Medical marijuana: Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, plans to introduce legislation to allow in-state, regulated growing of marijuana for medical purposes. Lawmakers in 2015 approved a bill by Peake that legalized the possession of a certain type of cannabis oil by patients suffering from specific diseases, including cancer, Parkinson's disease and epilepsy.

But with no state-based source for the medication, families have had to risk arrest by traveling to other states to buy the oil. Hundreds of Georgians have nonetheless signed up for the program.

Deal has said he has great concerns about any program to grow marijuana in Georgia.

Casinos, ca-ching? More than 20 years after Georgians voted in the lottery, will the Legislature decide they're ready for casinos? Gamblers from Georgia are already going to Alabama, Louisiana and North Carolina. Casino interests have hired teams of lobbyists and developed plans for eye-popping resorts and promises of a new wave of cash for the HOPE scholarship. But can conservatives in the Legislature support gambling or welcome out-of-town casino companies to the Peach State? And will there be quiet opposition also from Florida and Louisiana casinos, in particular, that don't want Georgia gamblers staying home?

Cityhood fever continues: Proposals could come before the Legislature for at least four new cities: Greenhaven, South Fulton, Stonecrest and St. Simons Island. Lawmakers gave the go-ahead to cityhood referendums for Tucker and LaVista Hills last year, but voters only approved Tucker.

Booze bills: A bill to allow local governments to permit restaurants to serve alcohol earlier than 12:30 p.m. on Sundays has passed the House and is in a Senate committee. House Bill 535, by Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, is better known as the "Brunch Bill." Craft brewers, too, could seek a further easing of restrictions on their ability to sell directly to consumers.

Gun proposals: Democratic lawmakers have made long-shot proposals to require anyone who wants a concealed weapons permit to take state-sponsored safety training and to bar anyone getting a divorce from buying a gun without the permission of a judge. Those bills are House Bill 709 and Senate Bill 250, respectively. Gun rights advocates, meanwhile, will most likely focus support on House Bill 544, sponsored by Rep. Heath Clark, R-Warner Robins, which would allow guns anywhere on the campuses of the state's public colleges and universities.

MARTA: The Atlanta-based transit system is likely to ask lawmakers for permission to pursue an additional half-penny sales tax in DeKalb and Fulton counties to help fund rail expansion in parts of DeKalb and into North Fulton. The proposal is part of a planned $8 billion expansion.

Higher education: Lawmakers are likely to review how officials at Georgia colleges and universities handle sexual assaults reported on their campuses. Investigations by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that despite more than 150 allegations of rape and sodomy since 2010, none resulted in a criminal prosecution. The University System of Georgia, hoping to handle the issue itself, implemented a set of systemwide rules last year that include centralized training for students and staff, and a system coordinator to oversee the training and handling of sexual assault complaints. A legislative study committee is examining the issue.