ATLANTA - Georgia lawmakers return to the state Capitol on Jan. 14 with a full slate of priorities as they consider replacing the state’s aging touchscreen voting machines and mull changing the management structure of Atlanta’s airport. But one major question remains: what legislation will be on incoming Republican Gov.-elect Brian Kemp’s agenda?
Here is a look at some of the issues and trends to watch as Georgia’s 2019 legislative session begins:
On the same day that lawmakers are sworn in at the Capitol, Kemp will be sworn in as Georgia’s 83rd governor. And while he laid out broad proposals during his campaign, he’s yet to reveal exactly what legislation he will pursue in his first year in office.
During the contentious Republican primary, Kemp tacked to the right, pledging to sign the toughest abortion restrictions in the country, a so-called “religious freedom” law that critics say sanctions discrimination against gays and lesbians and vowing to expand gun rights.
But after clinching the Republican primary, Kemp sounded a more moderate tone in stump speeches and television ads, pledging to work across the aisle to increase teacher pay and expand access to health care.
Asked at a pre-inauguration event in Augusta last week about his 2019 legislative agenda, Kemp replied, “I’m going to be talking about a lot of things I’m going to do legislatively when we get ready to talk about them.”
Georgia’s aging electronic touchscreen voting machines, in use since 2002, have garnered widespread criticism amid concern from cybersecurity experts and others that the machines are vulnerable to hacking and produce results that can’t be effectively audited.
While almost every stakeholder, including incoming Secretary of State-elect Brad Raffensperger, acknowledges the need for a replacement, exactly what form the replacement will come in has become a matter of debate.
Cybersecurity experts and voting integrity activists favor hand-marked paper ballots tabulated by an optical scanner. They say such a system is the most secure, cheapest, and allows voters to verify their choices before casting a ballot.
But last week a study committee tapped by Kemp, who was Georgia’s secretary of state until resigning in November to take the governor’s office, voted 13-3 in favor of recommending costlier touchscreen ballot-marking machines that print a paper record.
The commission vote was largely split along partisan lines, with the three down votes coming from the commission’s two Democratic members and its lone cybersecurity expert.
The legislature will next have to rewrite election law to specify requirements for the new machines. Democrats have vowed to continue pushing for hand-marked paper ballots.
A Georgia Senate committee in December recommended that state lawmakers consider creating an authority to oversee Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport.
While the committee did not propose specific legislation, it adopted a recommendation to establish a new authority “to oversee and hold accountable the business enterprise and operations” of the airport.
Republican state Sen. Burt Jones, who chaired the committee, said the current management structure, with power consolidated with the City of Atlanta, isn’t working. Jones pointed to past corruption scandals, including one involving alleged impropriety in the awarding of airport contracts.
But others in the Capitol may be more reluctant to mess with the success the airport has seen — becoming one of the world’s busiest under the city’s management.
In a Thursday news conference, Republican House Speaker David Ralston expressed hesitation about a state “takeover.”
The Georgia legislature appears poised to consider bills allowing for the sale and cultivation of medical marijuana.
A joint House and Senate committee tasked with studying access to the drug last month recommended lawmakers consider providing grow, manufacturing and dispensing licenses within the state.
Current state law allows individuals with 16 specific conditions to possess low potency marijuana oil. But marijuana remains illegal to grow, process, buy, sell and transport.
That has created a legal loophole where about 6,000 Georgia patients are registered to legally possess the drug but can’t legally obtain it.
But some critics in the state, which has some of the toughest marijuana laws in the country, fear that expansion of medical marijuana could lead to recreational sales
WOMEN IN THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY
This legislative session will include a record number of women lawmakers under the gold dome.
According to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan group that advocates for and tracks state legislatures, women will hold 72 of 236 seats in the Georgia General Assembly. That equates to just over 30 percent of the legislature.
In 2017, women held 58 of 236 seats, around 25 percent of the legislature.
Of the 72 women in the legislature this year, 17 are Republicans while 55 are Democrats.
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