OPINION: It will be 40 long days for the Georgia General Assembly

Speaker of the House Rep. Jon Burns, R-Newington, speaks at the House of Representatives in the Capitol in Atlanta on Tuesday, January 9, 2024. (Arvin Temkar/arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Speaker of the House Rep. Jon Burns, R-Newington, speaks at the House of Representatives in the Capitol in Atlanta on Tuesday, January 9, 2024. (Arvin Temkar/arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

There’s something downright biblical about the length of Georgia’s annual Legislative session — 40 days and 40 nights. Breaks are shoehorned in for lawmakers to go home on weekends to check in on kids, farms and family businesses. But for the most part, the members in the chambers of the House and Senate Monday morning knew they were in it for the long haul.

“It seems like just yesterday that we were here!” GOP House Speaker Jon Burns joked as he gaveled the House into session. It practically was yesterday, since members had seen each other about a month ago for the special court-ordered restricting session that ended up costing a pair of Democrats their jobs.

Burns has so far proven to be a collegial, low-drama leader during his year-plus on the job. And he welcomed a former Democratic member to the House floor to be the chamber’s pastor of the day.

But as leaders laid out their plans for the session ahead, it was clear that the election year politics outside of the Capitol would have a major impact on what happens inside.

House Majority Leader Chuck Efstration told a gaggle of reporters that Republicans have three primary priorities — public safety and policing, literacy and education, and accelerating Gov. Brian Kemp’s tax cuts. And he said the House will push the state Senate to pass a bipartisan revision to the state hate crimes bill to add anti semitic acts as hate crimes.

“The House led on the issue of antisemitism last year,” he said.

Democrats, meanwhile, laid out a totally different set of objectives — maternal mortality, Medicaid expansion, gun safety, abortion, and raising questions about the Republican state budget.

“The subtext of what we deal with is that our communities benefit when Democrats are in charge,” said House Democratic Leader James Beverly said.

But since Democrats are not in charge, they’ve got to find places to compromise with Republicans, or at least include GOP thinking, since Republicans control both chambers, every committee, and every constitutional office. Georgia may be a “battleground state,” but it doesn’t feel that way at the Capitol to most Democrats.

Could one area of common ground finally be Medicaid expansion? A mid-year hearing on health policy included a suggestion from Republicans that Georgia could think about an expansion of the federal health insurance program like the one former Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson approved in Arkansas. It could be part of a grand bargain to greenlight rural hospital reforms pushed by Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, the thinking went.

But Medicaid reform wasn’t on Efstration’s radar at all on Day One.

“Health care continues to be a priority and interest in the House. But that’s not an issue that I’ve been working on, or that I’ve heard rumors about,” he said. The Majority Leader said he hasn’t been approached about the issue at all, which is unusual for a big, expensive issue if it’s going to have any momentum.

Could there be a meeting of the minds on gun safety? A sliver of bipartisan agreement on a gun lock tax credit emerged before the session began, but Efstration said changing gun laws is not a part of the GOP’s public safety platform.

The one surprising area of semi-common cause Monday was the idea of moving the state’s voting system from Dominion machines back to hand-marked paper ballots.

With far-right activists chanting in the hallways for lawmakers to adopt paper ballots, Beverly, the Democratic leader, said his caucus would be open to the idea.

“We pushed paper ballots years ago. I’ve been here 12 years now and, I hate to say this, but 12 years a slave is enough. The reality is that we’ve been pushing this stuff for forever. So I’m glad they’re coming back around now.”

For as carefully as Republican and Democratic leaders have laid the groundwork for their own agendas, outside events during the session always seem to deliver unexpected issues to deal with or problems to solve.

The 2020 session was cut short and then dominated by COVID. The next agenda was mostly swallowed up by the ongoing presidential recount, which also sparked GOP lawmakers to quickly overhaul Georgia’s voting laws. The heat of the 2022 election year brought an unforeseen focus on transgender sports.

Last year, a last-minute motion on school vouchers landed in the House on Day 40, only to be defeated by rural Republicans who said it would endanger funding for their own communities’ schools.

The first surprise for lawmakers this year came the evening of the first day, when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke a bombshell story that a defendant in the Trump election interference case is seeking to disqualify DA Fani Willis for allegedly having an improper relationship with one of the top — and highest paid — prosecutors in the case.

Nathan Wade, the sharp-dressed lawyer who successfully argued Willis’s case to an indictment from Fulton County special grand jurors, has been paid more than $600,000 for his work. He’s also been taking Willis on Norwegian cruises and getaways to Napa Valley, according to the court filing.

No evidence was provided to back up those details and Willis’ team said she would respond in due time through court proceedings, as is typical. But Republicans in the Capitol, who are currently writing the rules for a new GOP-appointed DA oversight commission, skipped the technicalities.

True or not, the allegations about Willis prove the need for state oversight of local DA’s, they said. Count on that to be among the first items of business for lawmakers in the 40 days ahead.

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