ATLANTA - State lawmakers returned to the Capitol, and the 2014 legislative session is underway.
Much of the lawmakers' business on Monday was ceremonial, making preparations for the 40-day session. In the Senate, lawmakers welcomed back Republican Sen. Don Balfour, who was recently acquitted of state charges stemming from allegations he illegally claimed mileage and expense reimbursements from the state.
In remarks to his colleagues, Balfour said he was humbled by the ordeal and called the prosecution "a waste of state resources and money." He admonished his accusers, saying "there should be a line between political gamesmanship and trying to destroy someone's life."
Balfour previously agreed to pay a $5,000 fine by the Senate Ethics Committee and repeatedly described the filings as inadvertent mistakes. The House and Senate reconvene on Tuesday.
Budget, education among top legislative issues
State lawmakers have a short list of top priorities amid a busy election year.
Lawmakers will be motivated to move quickly and wrap up the session with enough time to return home and start campaigning. One of the first orders of business will be to move the state primary date to May 20 to align with the federal primary, which was moved up under court order to allow more time for overseas and military ballots.
The budget is expected to dominate much of the session, as lawmakers have the benefit of increased revenues that have brought an end to additional spending cuts. That said, don't expect the Republican leadership to go on a spending spree as they look to balance the budget, a constitutional requirement, and deflect any primary challengers campaigning on limited government.
Yet all signs suggest a significant amount of additional funds will be set aside for education, more than in recent years, as top officials say they are concerned about estimates that more than half of Georgia's school districts are not meeting the 180-day minimum school calendar set by state law.
"There will be a significant increase in K-12 funding," Deal said in a recent interview. "It will be done in such a way that it will relieve much of the pressure that local school districts have been under."
Deal said specifics would be released Wednesday during his State of the State address, but promised that much of the additional revenues not set aside to continuing to rebuild the state's reserves will be spent on education and meeting obligations under the federal Affordable Care Act. Georgia ended the 2013 fiscal year with a revenue increase of 5.9 percent, or $951.5 million, over the previous year. Meanwhile, the first six months of fiscal year 2014 have shown a similar increase of 5 percent, or $442 million, over the same period a year ago.
The education situation is among the most pressing issues facing lawmakers. A November report by the left-leaning Georgia Budget & Policy Institute found state funding for public schools fell more than 15 percent since 2002 as a result of chronic underfunding, noting the General Assembly had provided $1 billion less to schools for the 2013-14 school year than was calculated under a complicated funding formula known as QBE.
The group said it was the fifth consecutive year that $1 billion or more was cut, with 80 percent of school districts in a survey reporting they were furloughing teachers and 95 percent had increased class sizes since 2009.
Education is expected to be a major campaign issue as well, since state schools Superintendent John Barge is challenging Deal in the Republican primary. Although Barge has raised just a small fraction of what Deal has in campaign funds, he has been using visits across the state to criticize what he calls a refusal by Deal to restore education funding after years of cuts.
"If it is the state leadership's secret plan to slowly choke the life out of public education by reducing funding, the plan may very well be succeeding," Barge said recently in an open letter to lawmakers.
Another prominent critic will be Democratic state Sen. Jason Carter, who is also running for governor this year. Carter has been vocal in the Senate, challenging Republicans over changes in recent years to the HOPE scholarship program. Carter said in a recent interview that he plans a vigorous debate on education.
"We're going to talk about education, and we're going to talk about building for the future instead of being satisfied with what we have today," Carter said.
While more money will be heading toward education, state lawmakers are unlikely to overhaul the state's school funding formula, which has its share of critics. House Speaker David Ralston said recently he doesn't think lawmakers can fix the funding issue this session.
"What I hear from education people is that they would like for us, whatever formula we have, to fund it," Ralston said.
Lawmakers will be working on an amended fiscal year 2014 budget, which ends June 30 and includes $41 billion in combined state and federal funding, as well as crafting a new budget for fiscal year 2015, which starts July 1. Ralston said he hopes money will be available for pay raises for state employees.
A major lingering question from last session is whether lawmakers will back a bill expanding gun rights on college campuses. A compromise emerged late on the final day of the session between two competing bills but never received a vote.
Ralston said he plans to make the legislation a priority.
"This is about making sure we do everything possible to protect and expand rights of Georgians under the Second Amendment," Ralston said. "We are not going to back down on that. If a college student is otherwise by law entitled to carry a firearm, the best question is should they yield that constitutional right when they go on a college campus?"
Health care will also be a big topic. Estimates from the Georgia Department of Community Health show its financial obligations under the Affordable Care Act are expected to increase from $26.8 million in fiscal year 2014 to $101.6 million in fiscal year 2015.
Democrats plan to draw attention to the governor's decision not to expand Medicaid under the federal health care law, and protests are planned by the "Moral Monday" movement, which includes the state NAACP and other advocacy groups. A similar effort in North Carolina last year included weekly arrests of nonviolent protesters and helped to rally Democrats.
Meanwhile, a group of Republicans have already introduced legislation that would prohibit state employees, state agencies and public colleges and universities from enforcing and implementing the federal health care law. The bill is expected to get a close look and could draw support from top Republicans.
Lawmakers will also discuss efforts to shore up the state Division of Child and Family Services, after the deaths of two children with whom the agency had contact. Deal has said he wants to spend $27 million over three years to hire hundreds of caseworkers and supervisors. Both Deal and Ralston have signaled a willingness to at least start a discussion about privatizing some child welfare services, looking to Florida as an example.
However, lawmakers' aggressive schedule may mean some of those broader discussions, including one to reform the medical malpractice system, may end up waiting until next year. That bill would move medical malpractice lawsuits out of the courts and into an administrative system. Ralston said it would be a major change in policy and deserved a thorough vetting, but wasn't sure it would be resolved this year.
When asked about balancing the desire for a fast session with debate on serious issues, Ralston indicated less can be more.
"Frankly I don't know that there is a problem in being in a hurry to get out," Ralston said. "I don't think people want us to do a whole lot of things. I think they want us to do a few things, and do them right."
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