ROSWELL, Ga. — The Gold Dome will be flush with issues when the 156th Georgia General Assembly gavels in for a 40-day session on Jan. 11.
Among the key matters legislators will address this session are whether to restore $2.2 billion in cuts to the fiscal year 2021 budget.
The $25.9 billion budget signed by Gov. Brian Kemp in August represented the steepest cuts the state has imposed since the height of the Great Recession. About $1 billion in funding was cut from schools and the Georgia Department of Education.
Later this year, the Legislature will take up redistricting — redrawing state and federal legislative districts — after the 2020 Census data is available. By controlling both chambers in the assembly, Republicans will have the upper hand in how districts are redrawn. Democrats had hoped to cut into the Republican majority in the House in November but fell short in statewide races.
Republicans hold a 12-seat lead in the Senate and a 26-seat lead in the House.
Sen. John Albers (R-Roswell) is focusing on a $2,000 pay increase for teachers, a senior citizen school tax exemption and keeping Georgia’s economy strong against the pandemic.
He says he is focusing on final passage of the Max Gruyer Act, meant to end fraternity hazing.
“Unfortunately, some hazing rituals at colleges and universities across the country have caused injuries or even deaths,” Albers said. “One such victim was Max Gruver, a Roswell native who passed away following a ritual who this bill is named after to honor his legacy.”
Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick (R-Marietta), whose District 32 encompasses part of Sandy Springs, said her attention is directed to controlling COVID-19, the economic fallout on small businesses and families and healthcare.
“I am working on two insurance reform bills and two healthcare bills left over from last year,” Kirkpatrick said. “One is a patient safety bill, and one is about patient brokering in the mental health and substance abuse industry.”
Rep. Mary Robichaux (D-Roswell) said healthcare access, education, economic recovery and stability are her top issues. Food and housing security will be of additional focus.
Plans are in the works to file legislation related to healthcare and the micro-brewery industry.
“One specific bill proposes to extend the payment structure for telemedicine services that have been proven a very effective and efficient delivery model through this pandemic, and I want to make sure that appropriate reimbursement continues and look for additional ways this innovative system can be utilized,” Robichaux said.
A second proposal would require a comprehensive review before healthcare changes can be made, to weigh long-term effects.
Democratic Rep.-elect Shea Roberts of Sandy Springs, who defeated incumbent Deborah Silcox (R-Sandy Springs) in the Nov. 3 general election, said she will focus on economic recovery, healthcare access and public education funding.
“(Since) state revenues reportedly are up, I hope (the) majority leadership will work with us to restore those budgets and prioritize our children's education and our citizens' health,” Roberts said.
She said she is concerned that the spread of misinformation and conspiracies will have a lasting impact on future state elections.
Rep. Angelika Kausche (D-Johns Creek) said she is worried about small business recovery in her district, unemployment, children returning safely back to school and healthcare access for 600,000 uninsured Georgians. The most pressing issue for the assembly is addressing budget concerns.
“The hot topic should be revenue and the budget,” Kausche said. “We cannot cut ourselves out of this crisis. We need to have a plan for sustainable state revenue in the future.”
Kausche said to prevent future budget cuts, legislators could increase taxes on tobacco and vaping products. She fears political hype over election fraud allegations will sidetrack the budget formulation.
Kausche, who is a German immigrant, said changes to voting law without reason is troubling.
“It really concerns me because I come from a country that has a terrible history of disenfranchising groups of people for all the wrong reasons,” she said.
Rep. Josh McLaurin (D-Sandy Springs) is directing attention on affordable housing, increasing job opportunities and restoring funding to the budget. The prison system is of particular concern.
“The prisons were some of the hardest hit facilities in this past round of budgeting, for a lot of people it’s out of sight out of mind,” McLaurin said. “Right now, Georgia’s prisons appear to be so understaffed that every day there are basic security concerns.”
Homicides, suicides and COVID-19 infections are on the rise in state prisons.
McLaurin is working on a bill addressing suburban deer bowhunting. His proposal would allow local governments more control over the practice within city limits.