Georgia General Assembly: What to watch for at the Gold Dome?

Posted on January 16, 2013

Georgia General Assembly: What to watch for at the Gold Dome?

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The Georgia General Assembly has convened at the “Gold Dome” for their 40 days of annual debate.  With Republican’s controlling the Governor’s Mansion and increasing their majorities in both the state house and state senate, this year’s General Assembly will be contentious at times, but also predictable.

Here are a few top line debates to watch for in 2013:

State Budget

Lawmakers kicked-off the legislative session once again facing depressing revenue projections and the inevitability of another year of across-the-board budget cuts. This is the third consecutive year that revenue projections are too low to maintain current spending levels.

Some revenue projections – the information used to craft the state budget – show revenue shortfalls in the neighborhood of $700 million.

While the federal government is arguing whether or not to raise the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling yet again, state lawmakers are constitutionally required to develop and pass a balanced budget annually.

With Governor Deal expected to introduce his balanced budget later this week, many state agencies are already making plans for deep, to-the-bone spending cuts.  State agencies, in many cases, are already operating on fumes – meaning new projects, initiatives, hiring, and pay increases for state employees will be frozen for at least one more year.

New Falcons Stadium

The Atlanta Falcons are seeking state and local funding to build a new retractable roof stadium that would cost in the neighborhood of $1 billion and would replace the recently renovated Georgia Dome.

The General Assembly is being asked to provide approximately $300 million in public funding, with the Falcons paying the remaining $700 million.  As a comparison, the Georgia Dome was completed in 1992 for a total of $214 million.

Any state funding will require approval from General Assembly – and several lawmakers are weary about making such a large financial contribution to build a new stadium while so many other state programs are being cut.

An Atlanta Falcon’s Super Bowl victory might be the only way to get this deal done.

Ethics Reform

Debate on ethics reform has been lingering for years, but has recently boiled over thanks to the results of the July 31 primary ballot referendum, where more than 80 percent of voters – or more than 1 million Georgians – said they would support a cap on gifts from lobbyists.

Currently, Georgia is one of three states in the country that does not place a limit how much lobbyists can spend on legislators, just as long as lobbyists disclose all expenditures to the state ethics department.

On Monday, the Senate took the first step by passing an ethics rule that places a $100 cap on lobbyists’ gifts to its members. Very important to note that this $100 cap is not a bill, and does not apply to house members – but is only a rule that senate members applied to themselves lasting for the  2013 – 2014 legislative cycle.

Not to be outdone, watch for the House to pass a much more comprehensive bill – not a rule – that will likely include an outright gift ban, while also broadening the definition of who qualifies and must register as a lobbyist.

One thing is for certain, this debate on ethics is just getting started.

Gun Laws

The recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut has generated enough of a political firestorm that last week, Vice President Joe Biden indicated that the administration is “determined to take action” to ensure that these types of tragedies never happen again.

And while the federal government will pursue tighter restrictions on background checks and possibly banning assault weapons from the public consumption, Georgia lawmakers will take a completely different approach.

In Georgia, with Republican control of both chambers, watch for a contentious debate to focus on allowing more guns in schools/churches/universities, either by allowing faculty to carry or by providing state funding for armed guards.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

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