Trump’s impact on Georgia Legislature minimal so far

President Donald Trump and Congress have so far had a limited impact on Georgia’s 2017 legislative session. (Photo by Steve Pope/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump and Congress have so far had a limited impact on Georgia’s 2017 legislative session. (Photo by Steve Pope/Getty Images)

The seismic political shifts predicted when Donald Trump became president have yet to have much impact on Georgia’s annual General Assembly session that is heading into its final weeks.

While Trump and Washington goings-on have dominated the national news, Georgia legislators have been in their own political world, deliberating on many of the same issues they’ve debated since Barack Obama was starting his second term as president.

Bills granting special-interest tax breaks are especially plentiful; tweaks to laws on issues ranging from medical marijuana to education are moving through the House and Senate; health care providers have engaged in yet another turf battle involving armies of lobbyists; a new expansion of gun rights is again looking likely to pass; and approval of a record state budget is on track to pass before the General Assembly is slated to go home March 30.

It’s pretty much what happened last year, and the year before, and the year before that.

Headline-grabbing casino and “religious liberty” bills have made appearances on the third floor of the Capitol, but little of major importance that truly could be considered Trumpian has seen the light of day.

"There is a Bible verse that says there is nothing new under the sun. Well, there ain't nothing different this year," said state Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, who has been in the House since 1991.

Dozens of people showed up to show their support for the president.

Before the session, there were concerns that fast action in Washington could influence the path of the session. But Gov. Nathan Deal and legislative leaders are still waiting to see what impact Trump and the solidly Republican U.S. Congress will have on Georgia, with billions of dollars in federal funding and freighter loads of regulations on everything from environmental policy to massive health care programs at stake.

Talk of a special session later this year to deal with what might trickle down from Washington has largely faded with the acceptance that even in the Trump era, major change in D.C. can come at a glacial pace. That could still change, but lawmakers say they’re not waiting around to see what happens.

"We are clicking right along," said longtime state Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah. "It reminds me of a mule with blinders on. We can't get distracted by things we have no control over."

Lawmakers acknowledge this may be the last non-Trump-influenced session at the statehouse for a while. But this year has been largely business as usual for the 236 members of the General Assembly, who are heading into the session’s second season, when at the last minute millions of dollars are added to the budget, backroom deals get made, dozens of bills win final approval, and others are placed in a kind of political limbo until lawmakers return next January.

Trump effect

Republican lawmakers — the overwhelming majority of the General Assembly — went into the session in January buoyed politically by the GOP’s election success in November but watchful toward Washington.

Trump and congressional Republican are promising big changes in how the federal government operates, and much of what happens in Washington eventually is felt at state capitols.

Deal, a former longtime member of the U.S. House, counseled legislators before the session that Congress acts slowly. Still, some raised the possibility of a special session over the summer to deal with any budgetary belt-tightening or regulatory changes Congress might impose.

Federal funding is a huge deal for Georgia. The state is home to more than 71,000 federal civilian jobs and several military installations. In state government, programs from cybersecurity research to k-12 education, social services to transportation, rely on billions of dollars in federal funding.

The state is planning on more than $7 billion alone this year for public health programs for the poor and disabled, and nursing home care. Many Department of Community Health programs receive $2 in federal funding for every $1 the state puts in.

The president and congressional Republicans have promised to eliminate Obamacare and cut domestic spending in many areas. That could have a big impact on state government. So could — if implemented — a move toward sending states lump sums of money in "block grants" and allowing them to have more flexibility in delivering services, a move some Georgia lawmakers have long wanted.

But as the governor said, Congress generally bides its time, and it’s unclear what if any big budget changes will occur before the federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Even if there are major changes by the end of the year, the governor can direct money to be moved in the state budget, and when the 2018 General Assembly meets next January, it can adjust the state spending plan.

"It will take a year or two for those things to trickle down to states," said Georgia House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn. "Next session could be considerably different."

Down to the final 12 days 

While Friday was officially the day legislation must pass at least one chamber of the General Assembly, the reality is almost no bill is dead until the final gavel falls at the end of this month. Religious liberty legislation has shown little life given opposition from Deal and many legislative leaders. Bills to allow casinos have been declared deceased, come back to life and be pronounced dead again. Legislation to allow more guns on college campuses is a good bet to win final passage at some point.

Most of the really big bills — including the budget for fiscal 2018, which begins July 1 — have yet to gain final approval. Many of them will, as always, receive a last vote on the 39th or 40th legislative days — the end of the line for the 2017 session.

Legislative leaders support the purposeful procrastination, long a tradition at the General Assembly. They say it gives lawmakers more time to "perfect" legislation. It also gives opponents less time to fight what the leadership delivers in the form of legislation, and it gives rank-and-file lawmakers little time to read what they're voting on. The deals get done behind closed doors and are then handed out to members to vote up or down. Usually they vote up.

Deal had a limited agenda this year, but lawmakers in the final few weeks will still vote on his "Plan B" for his failed proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed the state to take over "chronically failing" schools. The "Plan B" bill, which has passed the House, establishes a new mechanism for state intervention in schools labeled "unacceptable" based on whatever measure the state chooses to use.

Colleges and college funding may be a hot issue in the final weeks. University System of Georgia officials are once again fighting legislation to let people with permits carry guns on college campuses, a somewhat easy sell in the generally gun rights-friendly General Assembly.

The House has already approved a bill to cut off state funding to Georgia colleges that declare themselves "sanctuary campuses" to defy Trump's immigration policy. So far none have.

And the Senate has unanimously backed legislation to force the Georgia Lottery to pay a higher percentage of ticket sales money to the state's popular HOPE scholarship and pre-k programs, something lottery officials say could suppress purchases by lowering the amount going into prizes.

Debates over immigration and anti-terrorism bills — one of which has already passed the Senate — could produce further debate in the final days, but those issues were both hot topics at the General Assembly long before Trump was elected president.

Perhaps the dominant theme of the session — and not for the first time — has been changes in state tax laws.

The House has passed legislation to ensure that e-retailers either collect sales taxes on purchases or submit certain sales records to the Department of Revenue so the agency can collect the money from Georgians who buy online. It has also passed a bill to lower the maximum income tax rate from 6 percent to 5.4 percent and create an earned income tax credit for low-income Georgians.

Both could have significant impacts — one bringing in about $475 million or so a year in taxes and the other setting the stage for further income tax cuts — if approved by the Senate.

A host of other tax breaks — for luxury yacht owners needing a boat refitting, for economic development in rural areas, for the music and video gaming industries — are working their way through the General Assembly.

Any or all of them may wind up passing, but Georgians likely won’t know until the end of the session, when the House and Senate leadership tend to push tax breaks through in a last-minute flurry, sometimes as the clock strikes midnight on the final day.

All that style and substance is familiar to longtime statehouse veterans such as Tom Lewis, who was chief of staff to Gov. Joe Frank Harris and lobbies for Georgia State University.

“The issues they are debating are still pretty much the issues they have been debating the last several years,” Lewis said. “Every year it’s going to be education. It’s going to be (tax) revenue. It’s going to be transportation. It’s going to be health care.”

The hullabaloo in Washington has had little influence on what state lawmakers are doing in Atlanta, he added.

“I think it’s been calmer this session,” Lewis said. “I haven’t seen as much tension as I have seen in the past.”

Federal spending in Georgia

The state receives billions of dollars from the federal government each year to pay for programs ranging from public health care to food stamps, university research to road building. Below are some of the agencies slated to get big federal money during the upcoming fiscal year and therefore could be most affected by changes in Washington

Department of Community Health (Medicaid)

$7.6 billion

Department of Education

$1.9 billion

Department of Transportation

$1.6 billion

University System of Georgia

$1.4 billion

Department of Human Services (Food stamps, other programs)

$1 billion

Department of Public Health

$397 million

Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning

$375 million

Department of Community Affairs (housing and community programs)

$184 million

Department of Labor

$117 million

Department of Natural Resources

$72 million

Georgia Bureau of Investigation

$68.5 million

Source: Governor’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018, University System of Georgia

Legislative session coverage

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has the largest team covering the Georgia Legislature. To see more of its legislative coverage, go to To track particular bills and resolutions, check out the Georgia Legislative Navigator at You can also follow the proceedings on Twitter at or on Facebook at

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